The Seekers: The South West Coast Path during Wartime.

Two pages in the seekers album showing the couple hugging in overcoats and their first B&B stay. Handwritten text reads 'We the seekers after bed and breakfast'.

The Seekers Journal (detail) © MBND.

‘...The coast road to Lee is a delight. Is there a war on we wonder?’

On the day a couple painted these words into an keepsake album documenting their walking holiday along the South West Cost Path, Operation Dynamo – better known as the evacuation of Dunkirk – began.

Nine days before ‘His Lordship’ – fashionably attired in wide-bottomed ‘Oxford bag’ trousers, his pipe clenched between his teeth at a jaunty angle – and his pretty, fresh-faced companion hit ‘the iron road to the west’ on May 19, 1940, Hitler’s army had invaded France and the Low Countries. Winston Churchill had been hastily appointed Prime Minister and while France had not quite fallen, the threat of a Nazi invasion was real.

Discovered in an Essex charity shop and displayed for all to see in the North Devon in the 20th Century gallery, the small black leather-clad album provides a deeply intriguing snapshot of a North Devon gearing up for the likelihood of invasion through the eyes of two young hikers.

Page shows handwritten notes, illustrations of young couple enjoying a hot bath and a rations card used in Ilfracombe.

The Seekers Journal (detail) © MBND.

Opening with a delicately painted map of their route adorned with gleaming white-sailed ships, their accounts of each rain-sodden day of their hike from Blue Anchor Bay to Clovelly are delightfully illustrated with cartoons, picture postcards and mementoes. Among the most fascinating are the business cards of some of the B&Bs at which they stayed (no need to book in 1940) including those of the ‘toothless’ Mrs. D. Gooding in Lynmouth, and Mrs. I. Challacombe opposite Combe Martin’s Post Office: ‘can she cook – or can she’?

Packed with humour (now and then at the expense of the ‘yokels’), the album is littered with amusing details such as illustrations of the blue chamber pot ‘found under the bed at Rockford’ and Ilfracombe inhabitant ‘One-Leg the gull’.

Quenched with cider regularly topped up with the contents of their evidently prized ‘swig bottle’, the happy couple crossed the Devon border ‘set foot on the yo-ho trail’ and plunged ‘into the heart of this glorious scenery’. Having passed through Lynton and Lynmouth, and the Valley of the Rocks – ‘a path as delightful and exhilarating as any we met’ – they find a copy of the Daily Express carrying the ominous headline ‘Allied Army Cut in Half’.

‘The wind blows colder’…..

Page shows handwritten notes, a postcard and entry tickets to Clovelly.

The Seekers Journal (detail) © MBND.

'...at last Clovelly...tumbling down between the white flower covered cottages to the stone quay and harbour'.

As the Battle of France raged, the pair pressed on to Ilfracombe: ‘All smoke and gasworks…..Her ladyship sits down in disgust’. That evening, as they watched recently released 21 Days Together at the town’s new cinema King George VI addressed the nation, declaring that: ‘the decisive struggle is now upon us….. Let no one be mistaken; it is not mere territorial conquest that our enemies are seeking. It is the overthrow, complete and final, of this Empire and of everything for which it stands, and after that the conquest of the world’.

Marooned by bad weather in Ilfracombe, they encountered ‘hosts of people going to church’ on their Sunday morning walk, the pair reported that: ‘the 9 o’clock news is grim. The channel ports have fallen. Invasion is (imminent). Coast towns are being evacuated’. Suddenly the intimate and tenaciously jolly album seems infused with the conscious air of one last joyous jaunt along the pretty pathways of a far flung corner of England before they are forced to face the looming horrors ahead.

As Britain held its breath while evacuating over 300,000 troops from the beaches of Dunkirk, ‘His Lordship’ and ‘Her Ladyship’ concerned themselves with the hills, the weather and their ‘despairing search for digs’.

They take in Lee’s ‘smugglers cottages’, skirt Bull Point Lighthouse and hike through  Mortehoe, Woolacombe,  Braunton and Barnstaple before bussing to Bideford and ‘at last Clovelly’ where they ‘follow the high street as it goes tumbling down between the white flower covered cottages to the stone quay and harbour’. Their 4D entry ticket is preserved in the album.

Page shows three balck and white photographs of young couple playing in the surf of Woolcombe beach.

The Seekers Journal (detail) © MBND.

In North Devon, however, evidence of the escalating situation was difficult to avoid.  Walking along the estuary to Barnstaple, they observe that ‘sign posts on the way are disappearing’.  The nation’s signposts – removed in order to confuse enemy airmen and German parachutists – would remain absent until the end of the war.

As their two week escape drew to a close, the couple scamper over the dunes to Saunton Sands, where: ‘with 3 miles of glorious sand to ourselves…we leap over the clouds with the sheer joy of living’. Above their colourful illustration of the golden sands over which they leapt ‘like a coupla dangerous cases just escaped from a looney bin’. The moment gloriously captured in a number of delightful photographs still records a small aeroplane dropping a bomb, adding: ‘We witnessed a preview of the bombing that is to come’.

Page shows handwritten notes, illustrations and postcards of couple's experience at Lee Bay.

The Seekers Journal (detail) © MBND.

‘crowded with weary...battle scarred troops from Dunkirk'.

On June 1, they began travelling home via Taunton, which they found ‘crowded with weary, travel stained, battle scarred troops from Dunkirk’. Their final day’s entry, powerful in its simplicity, illustrates Great Western Railway carriages crammed with evacuated troops.

‘His lordship waves to the GWR from Dunkirk. Her ladyship blows a kiss. Our train is crowded with war workers “going to it”…. Mocking our return, the sun shines as never before’.

Page shows handwritten notes and illustrations documenting the couple's interaction with returning soldiers from Dunkirk.

The Seekers Journal (detail) © MBND.

The Seekers journal is displayed in the museum’s North Devon in the 20th Century gallery.

Written by Sophie Jay

Editor Adam Murray

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