The beginning of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963) finds James Bond on the beach at Royale-les-Eaux reminiscing about his childhood holidays at the seaside – the hot powder sand, the grit of wet sand between the toes, the collection of seashells and ‘wrack’, the small crabs scuttling out of the way of fingers groping in rockpools, the endless swimming and sunshine, the bucket and spade, the Cadbury milk chocolate Flake and fizzy lemonade.
Biographer Andrew Lycett reveals that Ian Fleming was describing Salcombe in Devon, where he had spent three summers in a row as a young child, holidaying with his brothers, his mother, Eve, and Primrose and Dido Harley, the daughters of a friend of Eve’s.
A holiday in south Devon last year gave me the opportunity to visit this literary location for myself. Salcombe is a picturesque fishing town on the mouth of the Kingsbridge estuary on the south-west coast. The town is characterised by narrow, hilly streets of brightly painted Victorian houses and tourist shops that look out to the boats moored in the harbour. Art galleries and high-street fashion boutiques compete with fish and chip restaurants, ice-cream parlours, and shops selling the accoutrements of a fun day at the beach.
Salcombe has several beaches, which are situated on the east and west sides of the estuary. I happened to visit North Sands, which is to the south of the town on the west side of the harbour. This is a popular beach, and I expect Ian Fleming and his family sought something more secluded. There was something familiar, though, about the steep, zigzag road down to the beach. It reminded me of the equally steep road that zigzags to the beach at St Margaret’s Bay near Dover, where in later life Ian Fleming had a home. I wondered whether the similarity struck Fleming as well. Possibly the reminder of his childhood holidays added to the attraction of St Margaret’s Bay.
Whether or not the young Ian ever frequented North Sands, the beach (no doubt along with others) matches the description in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, with its soft sand, seaweed-fringed rockpools, and fine swimming. And yes, I did have a chocolate Flake and fizzy lemonade.