Devon seaside resort deserted in winter could become ‘next St Ives’

Across Devon and Cornwall it’s a familiar story: towns and villages that are buzzing with life during the summer, but little more than ‘ghost towns’ during the winter, as second home owners retreat to their cities and Airbnbs are left vacant. Salcombe, St Ives, Falmouth, Padstow, Newquay, Bude; the list gets longer every year. And now the award-winning, much-loved seaside resort of Woolacombe could be next.

Becky Dickinson

The very nature of Woolacombe means that it has always been busier during summer. For decades, tourists have flocked to the jewel on North Devon’s coast to lap up the sun, surf and golden sand, while sustaining the local economy. In winter, locals have enjoyed the chance to rest and regroup before the madness resumes all over again the following year.

But in recent years, the tide has shifted. In summer, Woolacombe is as busy as ever, but in winter, it’s becoming increasingly abandoned. Locals say second home owners are to blame, sweeping up properties as soon as they become available and pushing up prices – often into the millions. The result is that locals are being driven away due to the lack of long-term affordable housing in the place in which they grew up.

Nicola Roberts has lived in Woolacombe for 40 years and works in Londis. She says: “When I first moved here there were a lot more locals. Second homes weren’t really a thing. But the village in the winter now, there’s very few lights on, most of the properties are empty because a lot have just been bought up as second homes.”

Nicola adds: “There’s less of a community, yet this village is full of empty properties. People can’t afford to live here, they can’t afford to rent here, there are very few properties to rent because it’s all AirBnB.”

And she fears it could spell the end of village life. “I think it’s coming to the point of saturation where it will spoil the village,” she says. “Eventually, if we’re not careful, Woolacombe will end up like Padstow or St Ives. It’s a slow progression but that is what is happening.”

Compared to a decade ago, the village has already changed beyond recognition. Gone are the butchers, bakers and newsagents, replaced by chain clothing stores and expensive art galleries – that locals can’t afford to shop in. And according to property website Zoopla, the average sold price for a property in Woolacombe in the last 12 months was £545,537 – that’s well over the national average house price of £294,559.

Like so many other locals, Nicola can’t afford to buy a property in Woolacombe. She lives in rented accommodation – and to add irony to insult, the house right next door was used as second home. “They would send their teenage daughters down, they’d be having a fabulous time, screaming and laughing and joking which you do at that age,” says Nicola, “but they don’t know who their neighbours are – they’re not bothered that they’ve been working all day.”

While Nicola can only dream of owning her own home, there are others who buy them like ice-creams. Someone she knows works in an estate agents. “She said a chap phoned up and bought two properties to the value of £2million. He didn’t even view them,” recounts Nicola.

The population of Woolacombe now stands at just 840 people. And fewer locals means fewer workers. “There aren’t people living here to staff the businesses,” says Nicola. “Staffing this summer has been an absolute nightmare. People can’t travel in to work very easily, they can’t park, on a busy day they can’t get in to the village.”

Nicola would like to see rules introduced to ensure people are only allowed to buy a property if they intend to live in it. “I’ve got nothing against holiday makers because that’s why we’re here,” she says, “but the second homes are a problem. The whole financial structure is causing a problem in the village for lots of people.”

Nicola’s concerns are echoed around the village. Richard Walden was ‘lucky’ enough to move to Woolacombe 18 years ago before prices rocketed. He says: “it’s tough for local people. There are people who have lived here all their lives, they can’t afford to buy property in the village, they’ve got to go to Ilfracombe or Barnstaple. It’s already having a detrimental effect on community.”

And he says the situation is creating a division in the village. “You’ve got people coming in buying up second homes for hundreds of thousands, they’re just out pricing everybody else. The village is becoming ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’ “

In the Beachcomber cafe, John – the cafe’s most loyal and treasured customer – is enjoying his daily coffee. He loves coming to the cafe, with its ‘lovely staff’ and says he’d ‘be lost without it.’ But after more than 50 years in the village, John is no stranger to change. “The population has altered a lot since I’ve been here,” he says. “I don’t really agree with second homes when there’s so many people without a home at all. Seeing a lot of empty homes isn’t much fun and it’s a waste of a house if they only come occasionally.”

Maggie Parker is another one who has witnessed the insatiable demand for second homes. Now 61, she is Woolacombe born and bred. Her grandparents used to run a hotel on the front and she went to school in the village. “When I grew up it was lovely, there was a butchers, all the shops, everyone knew everyone,” she says. “Now there’s no community, nothing.”

The culprits, in her eyes, are the second home owners. “It doesn’t bring money into the village because they get their deliveries from Tesco or wherever,” she says. Maggie’s daughter, Stacey Phillips, agrees.

Stacey runs Captain Jacks, the last standing traditional pub in Woolacombe, as well the Chichester Arms in Morthoe. However, despite running two businesses, Stacey still can’t afford to buy a property in the village. She currently rents the rooms above the pub with her husband and three children. And of all the friends she grew up with, only one still lives in the village.

“It’s upsetting that you’re shoved out of the place you grew up because you just can’t afford to live here,” she says. “In a way you can’t blame people because it’s a fantastic part of the country to live in. But living here is one thing, owning multiple properties that are then left empty is another.” And she believes the rent on many holiday rentals is “obscene.”

Stacey is passionate about the need for affordable housing and has put her name down on the parish council. “It’s getting to the point where something needs to be done because there isn’t a community,” she stresses. On top of the housing crisis, Stacey also faces trying to keep two pubs afloat in the face of a dwindling local population and the escalating cost of living.

“We’ve never wanted to be a business that just opens from April through to October and then shuts up, it’s always been for the community,” she says. However, “it’s getting to the point where what’s the point in opening 12 months of the year?” she asks. “You’ve got people to pay, you’ve got massive energy costs, with just a few people coming through the doors.”

Add to that competition from chain pubs and you’ve got the perfect storm. “One of my biggest bug bears is overhearing ‘I can get this for less in Wetherspoons,’ “says Stacey, who endeavours to use local produce and suppliers wherever possible. “But they (chain pubs) buy huge volumes of everything so they can get a better price. When you’re an independent you don’t get those prices.”

For now, Captain Jacks remains open for the scattering of locals who come to sit by the fire with a pint of ale or a plate of chips. But for all its beauty, there is a dark side to Woolacombe. With summer a fast fading memory and winter a grim reality, it’s hard to escape the sense of doom and resentment that haunts the village like the marauding cry of seagulls. And unless second home owners rent or sell empty houses back to local people at an affordable price, there may be some difficult decisions ahead.