You don’t have to be familiar with Stoke Beach’s history to sense its immutable dourness; a palpable gloom that makes the well-manicured caravan site seem so peculiarly out of place.
The uncanny atmosphere becomes noticeable when you first step onto the beach. Perhaps it’s the sense of claustrophobia and entrapment created by the thin stretch of grey sand lined by crumbling high-rising cliffs only feet away on one side, and the rows of jagged rocks, darkened by mussels and barnacles, stretching out into the sea on the other side
Whatever the cause is, I found the strange and inescapable atmosphere of Stoke Beach intensified after the revealing talk I had with Bill, an elderly resident who lives in a caravan that overlooks the beach.
I first met Bill when I was exploring the dilapidating church that’s situated next to the caravan site. I told him about my search for aquageists and he invited me back to his caravan where, over a cup of peppermint tea, he told me about a tragic incident that happened in 1986, and its ghoulish consequence.
It was the beginning of the holiday season. The caravan site and the slither of beach was becoming increasingly crowded. Bill’s friend (who has since passed away) was in the sea testing his new snorkel and mask set, swimming along the channels created by the fingers of jagged rock that point out to the horizon. He was only 5 meters from the shore when he noticed that directly underneath him was a diver, lying motionless on the seabed, facing up at him, his eyes wide open and still; his left hand disappearing into an enclave at the foot of the rock.
The police were called and the beach was cordoned off. The bloated body of the diver was recovered – after having its hand severed - and taken up the metal staircase to an ambulance.
Bill remembers the implacable stench that pervaded the caravan site that afternoon. He said: 'It was like a school of beached whales had gone rotten. The smell was so powerful even seagulls retreated... Not many people went in the water that summer.’
It turned out the diver had been under the water for six months. His identification was never discovered: he wasn’t a resident of the caravan site; nobody remembered seeing anyone that resembled his description; and no abandoned vehicles were found at the scene. However, the night before he was to be laid to rest at Stoke Beach Church, his body was stolen from a local mortuary and never seen again.
Mystery still surrounds his identity and the reason why his hand was wedged in the enclave, 7ft under the water. What was he reaching for? The only person who could have the answers is the person (or persons) who stole the body the night before the burial.
People who swim out to the spot where the diver was found, compelled by either a natural sense of morbid curiosity, or to investigate the enclave, said that when they ducked under the water and opened their eyes, saw the lifeless body of the diver, lying stretched out on the seabed, his hand still trapped and his eyes wide open.
So next time you’re in the south west of Devon and have a chance to explore the coastal area between Wembury and Mothecombe, why not take a little detour down a certain single track road to Stoke Beach? Walk down the 49 steps to the beach and, weather pending, swim 5 meters from the shore to the spot where the diver was found, then bravely plunge your head under the surface of the water with your eyes open, you might just witness your first aquageist. But remember to resist the impulse to explore the enclave, or it could cost you your life.