‘Please don’t come’: concern in Devon as daytrippers head to coast

With quotes from Alison Hernandez (as might be expected) and from Chris Woodruff, the manager of East Devon AONB (someone who seldom finds the time to comment on planning applications on his patch) – Owl

Steven Morris www.theguardian.com

The Greenhalgh family had begun travelling from the Midlands just after first light and three hours later were to be found 150 miles from home on The Esplanade in Woolacombe, north Devon, gazing out at the sweep of the sandy beach and a sun-speckled Atlantic Ocean.

“It’s the first time we’ve seen the sea for a year,” said the dad, Simon. “It’s like: ‘Wow.’ We’ll have the day here, walk the dog and go home this evening. We’ve got everything we need in the van. We won’t disturb anyone.”

Another visitor, Richard, who had spent the night sleeping in his van with his canine companion, Gus, said he had been harangued by one local who had told him in no uncertain terms to go home. “I didn’t take any notice,” he said. “Look at this view – you’d pay £500 a night for that if you were in a hotel. I’ll be moving on tomorrow.”

Good Friday is typically the first day of the holiday season proper in Woolacombe, a spot popular with families, walkers and surfers. Over the bank holiday weekend the M5 is usually jammed with people heading to Devon and Cornwall from Bristol, south-east England and the Midlands.

This Easter, police, health officials, local authority and tourism chiefs in south-west England are urging people to steer clear.

Devon and Cornwall police asked people to not just stick to the law but to the spirit of the rules and said extra officers would be out to try to clamp down on egregious breaches of the regulations.

Alison Hernandez, the police and crime commissioner for Devon and Cornwall, said: “We’re asking people not to drive for hours to get here. We really want everyone to be responsible.”

The “stay at home” rule in England was lifted on 29 March but the UK government stipulates that people should “minimise” the number of journeys they make and not remain away overnight on holiday. Self-contained accommodation such as holiday lets and campsites are not allowed to open until at least 12 April – and then with restrictions.

Alistair Handyside, the chair of the South West Tourism Alliance, expressed frustration at how many visitors were arriving in places such as Woolacombe on Friday.

“The roads are busier than we’d have hoped for,” he said. “The holiday and hospitality sector is not open yet. This is a really unnatural thing for us to say but the message at the moment is: ‘Please don’t come, we’re still in lockdown.’ After all the good work done to contain Covid-19, it’s worth waiting a few more weeks before travelling.”

The Greenhalgh family, who travelled from the West Midlands for a day trip to Woolacombe

 ‘We won’t disturb anyone’: the Greenhalgh family travelled from the West Midlands for a day trip to Woolacombe. Photograph: Jim Wileman/The Guardian

Many car parks and toilets are still closed and food and drink is only available from essential shops and takeaways.

Rescue organisations are also concerned. Alec Collyer, the chair of Dartmoor Rescue Group, said: “We will always do our utmost to help people who get into trouble on the moors, but there is no getting away from the fact that Covid-19 puts rescuers at additional risk. People shouldn’t be putting unnecessary additional strain on the emergency services just as the country is fighting its way out of the pandemic.”

Chris Woodruff, the manager of East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, said: “It’s vital we reopen the countryside in a careful way which respects the environment and complies with all the rules to keep us safe from Covid-19. It’s more important than ever that visitors wait until they can book somewhere to stay rather than just turn up.”

But not all could resist. Some people clearly stayed overnight in vans on The Esplanade and one person pitched a tent. By noon on Friday there were no parking spaces on the road and visitors had begun to light stoves and barbecues. While by no means packed, the beach was busier than it has been for months.

Rich and his dog, Gus

 Rich and his dog, Gus. ‘I’ll be moving on tomorrow,’ he said. Photograph: Jim Wileman/The Guardian

Mark Baxter, who was sprucing up the Summertime beach shop, said some local people were nervous at the prospect of visitors returning. “But we need a good, long season this year,” he said. “If we don’t, some businesses here will go under.”

Bill Buckley, of Fudgies Bakehouse, said Good Friday was usually one of the busiest days of the year. “It feels a little odd this year so far but we’ll be glad when the visitors return. The place needs them.”

Justine Adderley, a weaver who lives in the village, said it was wonderful to see the place beginning to come back to life after lockdown. “We look forward to people coming with a mixture of dread and excitement,” she said. “But I wouldn’t judge anyone for coming here. You never know what people have been through.”