Located within the South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty on the steep western bank of the Kingsbridge Estuary, the town owes its success to its extensive waterfront and naturally sheltered harbour. Initially a shipbuilding and sailing port and still home to a traditional shellfish fishing industry, the town is now primarily dependent upon tourism and yachting and sailing activities.
The first holiday home, the Moult, was built in Salcombe in 1764. Today close to half of all properties are either second homes or holiday lets, a significant factor in the town’s population soaring from less than 2,000 in the winter months to closer to 25,000 at the height of summer.
Indeed, property prices are such that Salcombe is now the second most expensive seaside town in Britain after Sandbanks in Dorset, and owning a home is an impossibility for all but a very small number of those born locally.
Now primarily a recreational leisure port, the harbour remains home to a small but active shell fishing fleet of around 20 boats, the largest of which is less than 20 metres in length. Around 1,600 power vessels and residential yachts are moored here, while a further 6,000 vessels come to visit each year.
Each August the Salcombe Yacht Club Regatta can attract as many as 400 dinghies, while The Salcombe Town Regatta is the busiest week in the calendar year.
Throughout the summer the narrow streets and a lack of parking towards the centre of town makes vehicular access effectively impossible, with a park and ride operating from the outskirts of Salcombe during the season.
A ferry links Salcombe and South Sands, with a Sea Tractor ferrying passengers between the boat and the South Sands beach. A ferry also connects Salcombe to Kingsbridge.
The first recorded mention of Salcombe occurred in 1244, while in 1403 Salcombe was raided by a force from France which had previously sacked and burnt Plymouth.
In 1566 there were ten seine nets, deployed either from the shore or from boats. In 1570 the town could boast 56 mariners, while two years later another survey shows five ships under 60 tons and, in the 1580s Salcombe fishermen would journey to Padstow each year for the new herring fishery.
A Royalist stronghold during the English Civil War, the town only fell in May 1646. For the next 100 years little is known, but it is thought the inhabitants survived mainly by fishing and smuggling.
During the nineteenth century Salcombe vessels sailed to Iberia, the Mediterranean and the Caribbean as well as to the Azores and Newfoundland, returning with oranges and lemons from the Azores and pineapples from the Bahamas and West Indies. Other cargoes included sugar, rum, coconuts and shaddocks, along with wood such as ebony and mahogany used for furnishing ships.
By 1871 the population of the central part of Salcombe totalled 776, with 34 shipwrights and 13 ships carpenters. There were also five sawyers, three block makers, two ships’ riggers, three sail makers, a tin plate worker and four blacksmiths.
The Salcombe Schooner, a fast boat that could be sailed with few hands, was the primary product of the five shipyards in the town. It was also built at Date's Shipwright's Yard in Kingsbridge. Between 1796 and 1887 at least 200 vessels were launched .
However the fruit trade was to decline during the 1870s due to outbreaks of orange and pineapple disease and the advent of steamships and, by 1914, there were no more than four locally owned trading ships in the estuary.
In their place, with the foundation of the yacht club in 1874, exclusively for gentlemen, came the pleasure sailors. Salcombe Sailing Club was subsequently founded in 1922 for the town’s artisans. The two eventually merged in 1964, with the town developing as a holiday resort in the interregnum between the two world wars.
The Salcombe Maritime Museum was founded in 1975 and has information on the fruit schooners and other items of interest, displaying models, paintings, photographs and artefacts telling the story of Salcombe’s links with ships and the sea from ancient times to the Second World War.
The first Jack Will store opened in 1999 at 22 Fore Street. The fashion brand now operates throughout the United Kingdom as well as in parts of the United States.