The memory factory
No matter how far and wide we venture as Silver Travellers, there are some places – often much closer to home – that provide memories to last a lifetime. And for our family, one of those special places is Tuckenhay Mill near Totnes, a unique collection of self-catering properties nestled in the rolling hills of Devon’s South Hams. A pioneer of country cottage self-catering, this extraordinary collection of buildings celebrates 40 years in the business in 2018.
Turn off the main road at Totnes, wind down between deep hedges, and Tuckenhay Mill only comes into view as you start to rise up from the banks of Bow Creek. For 200 years, the now tranquil hamlet of Tuckenhay bustled with activity from the lime kilns, cider press and rope works, and ships were loaded here at the quayside, bound for the English Channel.
The ships are long gone but a few hundred yards uphill from the quay, the clock tower of Tuckenhay Mill still rises above the slate roofs of the former industrial buildings. Around 100 people worked here in its heyday, producing high quality, hand-made paper for bank notes, artists and royal proclamations, including that of Elizabeth II.
Tuckenhay’s Golden Age ground to a halt after the Mill produced its last sheet of paper in 1962. Unwanted and unloved, the buildings fell into disrepair with broken windows, missing tiles and crumbling masonry, until they were spotted by chartered surveyor Peter Wheeler and his wife Kay. Down from London in the summer of 1976, Peter was looking for a small farm but instead fell in love with this decaying but listed industrial complex. The Mill came with planning permission for domestic housing, but Peter saw holiday cottages as a way to save the character of the building and make the Mill viable again.
In 1978, he opened to self-catering guests with just a handful of cottages, rented out through English Country Cottages, now part of www.cottages.com. Self-catering was a relatively new concept and a brochure from the time warns guests that although duvets are provided, they need to bring linen and pay for electricity by 50p-meter!
By the time our family stayed there in the ‘80s, meters had long gone and linen was provided. We chose it because of the indoor pool and sports hall, perfect for tired parents with two small children on an Easter break. Many of the buildings were still awaiting restoration, but today, every corner has a purpose again and guests have a choice of 21 unique properties of all shapes and sizes. There are two indoor pools now, one with swim jets and steam room, plus an outdoor pool, tennis court, and sports hall where archive photos vividly illustrate the Wheelers’ restoration journey.
Over the years, we’ve stayed in many different cottages, bringing friends for our children when they were young and now returning with our adult family as well as our own friends. Many guests who first came to Tuckenhay Mill with their parents now book up with their own children, and the variety of accommodation sleeping any number for 2 to 11 makes Tuckenhay Mill ideal for three-generation families or groups of friends who may want to holiday together without actually living within the same four walls. This spring we made a welcome return to Turbine Cottage which sleeps 8 in three bedrooms and has the added bonus of its own snooker table and table tennis table.
Accommodation is comfortable and atmospheric, without being fussy, so you won’t find bath robes, complimentary slippers, or toiletries. But you will find a well-stocked breakfast hamper and a warm welcome from Debbie and Vivienne who look after the properties on a daily basis. And you might well see Peter and Kay Wheeler who still live nearby and remain very closely involved in running the Mill after almost 40 years.
Many guests find it hard to stray beyond the Mill boundaries, but there is a wealth of things to do in the surrounding area. A circular walk from your cottage door leads beside Bow Creek – now mostly used for small boats – and back through the pretty village of Cornworthy, whilst sea-loving hounds and their owners will love Blackpool Sands near Dartmouth and the surfers’ beach at Bantham.
For provisions or gentle retail therapy, head to historic Totnes with its ancient castle, pretty quayside and slightly ‘alternative’ air. Or take the short drive to Dartmouth to browse the galleries, take a river cruise or just watch the comings and goings of nautical folk. A car ferry links Dartmouth with Kingswear for those who want to visit Agatha Christie’s old home at Greenway or take a ride on the steam railway to Paignton. Kingsbridge, Salcombe and Bantham Beach are all within easy reach and there are also children’s farms and adventure parks in the area for those travelling with grandchildren, plus a good selection of country pubs, two within walking distance of the Mill.
Tuckenhay Mill continues to evolve, so cottages are regularly refreshed and updated – a new bathroom here, a kitchen there. And recent additions include a dog-friendly flower walk and strategic benches in the riverside woodland. But for the many of us who return regularly to this enchanting property, it’s precisely because things don’t change very much that we love it. And we never drive far on the way home before we find ourselves talking about what we’re going to do ‘next time’ we visit, because somehow we know there always is a next time!