Also known by young locals over the years as Seagull Island, Crab Island, Heartbreak Rock or even Rat Island, the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t seaweed encrusted rock off Torre Abbey Sands does have an official name.
This is Harbreck Rock, a reef of Permian breccia which can be seen at low tide. It’s around 280 million-years-old and was deposited in a desert environment similar to the Middle East today. It lends its name to Harbreck Heights, the apartment block on Warren Road which overlooks the Sands.
Early maps note its existence but usually don’t name it. When they occasionally do it has also been called Harbrick Rock. By the early twentieth century, however, it is identified by the Ordnance Survey as Harbreck.
Even today the Rock can be a danger to unwary sailors. And in 1930 the historian Ellis confirms that the Rock was a menace. He records that in the mid-1850s the emigrant ship Margaret twice, “narrowly escaped shipwreck on the Harbreck Rocks.”
There may be a connection to Liverpool. An affluent Victorian resident of Torre also owned Harbreck House in Fazakerley. Gores Directory for 1853 records that the cotton and colonial produce broker Jaques Myers lived in Liverpool’s now-lost Harbreck House. In 1881 Helen, Jacques Myer’s widow, lived at “‘The Firs’ in Tormoham” with the help of 10 servants, which “coincidentally overlooks Harbreck Rock in Torbay”. Was that really a coincidence: did Jaques name his house after visiting the Bay; did he name the Rock; or is there another possibility?
And there’s much more hidden out there in our Bay. After extreme storms, the sand can be washed away to expose the forest bed beneath; a “stiff, dark grey clay containing logs, roots and branches”. These are the remains of the marshy woodland which grew around 5,000-10,000 years ago.
And amongst that ancient forest roamed small groups of humans hunting extinct animals. We know this as, for centuries folk wandering the Bay’s beaches have been discovering unusual bones and stone tools; while, more recently, trawlers have been dragging up the remains of strange beasts in their nets.
Even way back in 1865 we were finding things. An article by archaeologist and Kent’s Cavern excavator William Pengelly on ‘The submerged forests of Torbay’ tells us, “A few years ago Mr CE Parker purchased an elephant’s tooth off some Brixham fishermen who had just taken it up in their trawl whilst fishing in Torbay”. This was found to have come from an extinct mammoth, further proving that the earth was very… very… old and challenging the timeline of the Bible.
Some of these relics can be seen in Torquay Museum – there are ancient axes, alongside the bones of wild boar, wolves and massive extinct wild cattle called aurochs, all found in Kings Garden. And, after severe storms, it’s even possible to view at Torre Abbey Sands, Goodrington and Broadsands, the exposed remains of a long-submerged forest, comprised of logs, roots and branches.
These are the remains of our antediluvian past, of the Mesolithic -or Middle Stone Age when the sea level was 30 to 40 meters lower than it is now. At that time the British Isles and the European mainland formed a continuous landmass, crossed by great rivers.
But the sea level was gradually rising, at some times by 2 centimetres per year, as water locked away in glaciers and ice sheets was melting. The hunter-gatherers were slowly being flooded out. They were witnesses to the engulfing and death of the forests. Here was a paradise lost as the waters rose.
Some say that this traumatic loss of Eden has fixed itself in the human memory. Many cultures across the world have legends of great floods. Our Celtic contribution to this mythology is the legendary paradise of Lyonesse, supposedly sunken beneath the waves off the South West coast…
‘Torquay: A Social History’ by local author Kevin Dixon is available for £10 from Artizan Gallery, Lucius Street, Torquay, or: