Teignmouth’s harbour store had never been so popular as during the filming of Donald Crowhurst biopic, The Mercy.
The outbuilding, which doubled as a dressing room for Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz, is a jumble of coiled ropes, reflective clothing and algae-covered channel buoys – an image that’s hard to reconcile with the Hollywood A-listers emerging from a Mercedes with blacked-out windows.
“It’s true,” says harbour assistant Fred Pierce. “They walked straight out of the car and into the harbour shed. Didn’t even say hello.”
He points to the spot where Colin Firth left behind a plastic juice bottle. “My neighbour, Pam, three doors down, she’s mad on Mr Darcy. I gave her the bottle and she kept it on her mantelpiece for a fortnight before selling it on eBay.”
Each time Fred turned up for work there’d be a bunch of women outside cheering as Colin Firth, dressed in vintage oilskins, climbed down a rusty ladder to the pontoon. From there he’d be towed out to his onscreen yacht, the Teignmouth Electron, which was moored by the pier.
Firth was playing amateur yachtsman Donald Crowhurst, who gambled everything to take part in the first non-stop round-the-world yacht race, the Sunday Times Golden Globe. Unbeknown to his wife Claire, played by Rachel Weisz, Crowhurst falsified his position reports and fooled the world into thinking he was going to win. It was only when Teignmouth council put up the bunting for his return that his boat was found abandoned in the middle of Atlantic.
“It was a very sad story,” says harbourmaster Commander David Vaughan. “Quite a lot of effort went into Crowhurst’s return. Everyone was excited. It was a big thing at the time.”
Crowhurst spent several weeks in Teignmouth preparing for his departure. He held press conferences in local hotels, and had repairs done to the Electron at Giles boatyard, which is now a block of flats. He left on the very last day competition rules allowed, in a boat that wasn’t ready. Local yachtsman Peter Blythe saw him go.
“I was running along the beach with the lads and that. He suddenly said he had to go. They said ‘go!’ He wasn’t even ready. That’s what finished him.”
Almost 50 years later, Teignmouth is in the limelight again. The props, the places, even the extras that appear in The Mercy hail from the West Country, but the star of the show is the harbour itself, which is as charming today as when Crowhurst departed in 1969.
The town’s narrow streets are bunched together on a peninsula, which is flanked by grand Regency apartments on the seaward side and fisherman’s cottages on the estuary. Unlike its swankier neighbours, Teignmouth remains a traditional fishing harbour where prime real estate is occupied by independents, such as Phyllis’s Seaside Barbers and the Laura Hart gallery, where the artist’s proud mum is happy to have a chat. The town is a quirky, colourful place, with ceramic tiles around guesthouse doorways, butterflies on the side of buildings and carved fish on the traffic-calming bollards.
A mural of Donald Crowhurst smiles out from the side of the New Quay Inn, and on another building is a depiction of alternative rockers Muse, who grew up here and played their Seaside Rendezvous gigs by the pier in 2009. Whilst the pier has seen better days, the rest of the seafront is immaculate, with a huge children’s play area, Beachcomber cafe and the new Pavilions Art Centre, which locals hope will treat them to an advance showing of The Mercy.
“Everyone’s looking forward to seeing the film,” says the harbourmaster. “It was filmed within the harbour and all along the seafront. We had to clear all the modern boats out of the way and get classic boats moved in. They dressed things up, and spent a lot of time making the seafront look good.”
In the window of the local bookshop, a huge poster advertises the book The Last Strange Voyage of Donald Crowhurst. The shop’s owner, Rhona Wyatt, was an extra in the film.
“I played a member of the yacht club. It was a great experience. The hair was great. I had it brushed back into a beehive. They said not to wash it, and it was right out here,” she says, her arm outstretched.
Even if it’s blowing a gale in Teignmouth, with white horses breaking over the promenade, and flecks of foam clinging to taut Union Jack flags, you can still find shelter at the River beach. The ferry to Shaldon (reputed to be the oldest passenger ferry in Britain) runs daily, come rain or shine, and cuts out the lengthy journey over the road bridge. Its owner, Greg Allen, is still trying to figure out how to cash in on the Mercy.
“We want to plug the fact that the ferry was running in the days of Donald Crowhurst,” he says. “It was actually here, but when I offered the film producers the big ferry they didn’t want it.”
The ferry lands on the sand in the sleepy village of Shaldon, which overlooks the Teign estuary. With a botanical garden, a quaint zoo, and a choice of beaches, there are options whichever way the wind’s blowing. Head up the hill and you’ll come across an eerie, dimly lit smugglers tunnel, which cuts through the cliff and emerges in a beautiful stony beach.
After a bracing walk along the beach, Cafe ODE is the place to warm up with soup of the day or a pulled pork brioche. Waitress Karen explains that all the food is locally sourced: fruit from Riverfood, bread from Totnes and coffee from Helston in Cornwall. Even the meat comes from a local hunter.
“We get deer from Holdon forest, and Tim, the owner butchers it. I’m a vegetarian so I stay well away from the kitchen when I know fresh deer is being delivered!” she says.
Another dish she won’t be in a hurry to try is Tim’s latest invention, the Crowhurst pie.
“It’s based on the Stargazy pie, and made with fish, sand eels and mussels from the Teign River. We’re going to put it on the menu to coincide with the release of The Mercy.”
For a small South Devon estuary, the Teign has a surprising amount of locally produced food and drink, which you can enjoy on the Taste of the Teign self-guided trail. As well as revealing the location of the mussel and oyster beds, the trail takes in the Red Rock Brewery, known for its craft ales, the Luscombe Farm Shop, where you can buy vegetables picked from the fields above the estuary, and Old Walls vineyard, which is the steepest in England. Here, you can buy wine and enjoy a cream tea at the foot of the slopes, whilst enjoying views of the valley.
Where to stay
The newly refurbished Cockhaven Arms is located in the quiet village of Bishopsteignton, at the foot of Haldon Moor and overlooking the Teign Estuary. Stylish en-suite rooms start at £90 with breakfast. Food is available all day in the bar and restaurant, much of it locally sourced.
For more information on South Devon, go to: visitsouthdevon.co.uk