On the trail of crime drama The Coroner in South Devon
Harpoon guns, carnivorous crabs and suicidal fish – there’s more to Dartmouth than meets the eye as Ali Wood discovered on a family weekend away
Never has there been so much life in a place whose on-screen persona is all about death. We’re in Dartmouth and it’s peak tourist season in the town that doubles as Lighthaven in The Coroner.
The hit daytime show stars Claire Goose as single mum Jane Kennedy who returns to her hometown to investigate murders alongside childhood sweetheart Detective Sergeant Davey Higgins.
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Producer Sandra MacIver says series two has even more "wow factor" than before: more action, more stunts, but still the usual mix of intrigue, humour and chemistry between Kennedy and Higgins.
Dartmouth – the Coroner’s office
“We wanted to feature Dartmouth as a major location as it’s so beautiful and the view across to Kingsweir is breathtaking,” says Sandra. “The way the light twinkles across the River Dart always makes it feel like summertime, even in February. The slogan we use for The Coroner is 'summer holidays all day long every day'.”
With miles of sandy beaches, historic villages and fishing harbours, the district known as South Hams, which stretches from Dartmoor to Salcombe, is also the perfect destination for a family beach holiday... give or take the odd dead fish.
We’re sitting on the cobbled quayside of Bayards Cove, outside the Old Customs House, which doubles as the Jane Kennedy’s office. My five-year-old’s just caught a crab but unfortunately, having demolished the bait we bought in the secondhand bookshop (everywhere sells bait in Dartmouth), the crab’s now gobbling up the little fish in the bucket.
Horrified, my son screams "stop him" but it’s too late; the fish is dead, and there are witnesses gathering. Flustered, my husband tries to conceal the evidence by tipping the crab back into the water but drops the bucket, too, and now my son is inconsolable. Fish. Identity unknown. Coroner’s verdict: manslaughter.
For us, this is as dramatic as it gets in Dartmouth, an attractive, upmarket fishing village with Tudor buildings and patisseries where stonewash nautical clothing is de-rigueur.
“Dartmouth provided us with a town feel to our fictional Lighthaven,” says Sandra. “We’re made very welcome by the locals. They help us out a lot and we in turn we try and keep ourselves discreet and not get in the way of the busy town.”
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Looking around, it’s a wonder the film crew managed to get any shots done with all the customers spilling out from the pub next door. In fact, for the scenes portraying Kennedy’s local, the Black Dog Inn, the production team resorted to hiring a derelict pub, the Crooked Spaniards Inn in Cargreen, as the nearby pubs were far too busy.
Resident Stuart Woolvin, who lives a couple of doors down from the Old Customs House, points out the bench where Higgins and Kennedy eat fish and chips. Next to it is a cannon that my two-year-old is clambering over, and down the street is the remains of a 16th century fort.
Stuart enjoyed watching the filming, he tells me; they put a note through his door to warn him. In fact, he’s used to film crews on his doorstep, as this very spot was also used for the Onedin Line, a 1970s BBC shipping drama set in Liverpool.
“Film production is great for Dartmouth, as we rely on tourism,” he says. “But the best advert for Dartmouth is the food festival in October, and the regatta in August. They’re fabulous.”
Celebrities are a common sight here, I’m told by Dartmouth newsagent Gordon Barnes. He digs out a notebook in which he’s listed all the famous people who have visited his corner shop. Alongside the cast of the Coroner, he’s also served Christian Slater and Neil Morrissey, who owns a home down the road. “The nicest of them all, though, is Dame Judi Dench,” he says with a smile. “She often comes in here to buy toys for her grandchildren.”
Death on Blackpool Sands
Away from the hustle and bustle of Dartmouth are many quieter locations, which appear in season two of the Coroner. We’re staying three miles away in a mobile home at Leonards Cove, which has spectacular sea views, and is a 15-minute walk from Blackpool Sands, one of Devon’s finest beaches, and a firm favourite among The Coroner cast and crew.
“That’s not our reason for choosing locations, but it certainly makes for a great day’s filming when we break for lunch and eat on the beach,” says Sandra. “This season, the audience can look forward to a murder overlooking Blackpool Sands – this time character is killed with a harpoon gun!”
We visit Blackpool Sands ourselves, and though we don’t encounter any harpoon-wielding assailants, we do discover some suspicious activity on the beach: the fish are literally jumping out of the sea. The shore is lined with frantic children picking up the flapping silver shards and throwing them back into the receding tide.
My sons join in, but they’re too slow, their little fish float limply on the surface. The youngest returns to his bucket and spade, but yet again, my eldest’s day is clouded by dead fish. Verdict: suicide, misadventure, or were they driven ashore by an unknown perpetrator?
After hauling the bodyboards, buggy and other paraphernalia back across the shingle beach everyone is exhausted. Whilst the kids recover with an ice-cream from Venus Cafe (a fantastic chalet-style bistro on the beach), I hike back to the campsite to get the car, and with the kids asleep in the back, we drive west towards Slapton Sands. This is a lonelier stretch of beach, which played a vital role in training the troops for the D-Day Landings, and also appears in season two of The Coroner.
The following day we head for Salcombe. During early development of The Coroner, the team considered using this upmarket yachting town to depict Lighthaven, but it proved too challenging to get around on a regular basis (though look out for some shots from Bolt Head airfield by the estuary this season).
When we arrive in Salcombe, we can see why. It's Regatta Week and the streets are closed to traffic. The doors of every shop, from sailmakers to ice-cream parlours, are thrown open, with stalls on the street and hoards of dawdling holidaymakers stopping to hook-a-duck and pose with giant Minions. Teenagers in the latest surf fashion are dive-bombing off the quayside whilst the seagulls dive-bomb their unattended chips.
It’s fun but hectic with a double-buggy, so we walk through the town, past the yacht club featured in season one (The Salcombe Skerrie) and work up a sweat hiking half an hour up and down steep roads to Salcombe’s beautiful beaches. Unlike steeply shelving Blackpool Sands, these are much shallower and safer for the boys so we potter for an afternoon before catching the ferry back, and recuperating in the sunny beer garden of the Victoria Inn. With a fenced-in play area and chickens, it’s ideal for the kids to run around whilst we tuck into fresh crab and chips.
On the way back home to Dorset, we stop for a walk and coffee in the grounds of Dartington Estate. This features regularly throughout the series, and is where The Coroner’s production office is based.
Afterwards we drive via Dartmoor National Park, a remote and rugged antidote to the holiday crowds of the coast. Here, Bellever Forest, Bonehill Rocks and Hound Tor make a cameo in two episodes shot this season – 'Life' and 'The Beast of Lighthaven'.
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“We were eager to reflect the moors as their contrasting landscape is so spectacular,” says Sandra MacIver.
In three days we’ve seen just a snapshot of the beaches and locations featured in The Coroner, but it seems the production team certainly know how to pick a good backdrop. With a dozen other locations on the checklist – from Royal William Yard in Plymouth to Kent’s Cavern in Torquay, we will definitely be returning to seek out more West Country delights in the Coroner (though we might give Shepton Mallet prison a miss).
A holiday home for four at Leonards Cove can be booked from £204.50 for a week at this time of year. leonardscove.co.uk
For more information on South Devon, go to: visitsouthdevon.co.uk