Carving through the lush Devonian lanes from Totnes to Salcombe, via Halwell, Kingsbridge and Marlborough, there doesn’t immediately seem much the South Hams has in common with the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica, or the Nuoro Province in Sardinia, and definitely not Japan’s Okinawa Prefecture. 

Admittedly, they are all fairly idyllic, photogenic places – that much is evident after even the lightest flirt with Google Images. They’re also all either richly verdant, hemmed by white sandy beaches, or both. But given thousands of miles separates them all, and in some cases an even greater cultural chasm, that’s where the similarities end.

Or so you might have thought. As it happens, this quiet corner of the south-west of England has an invisible superpower connecting it with that disparate group, and it’s all in the people: the South Hams is one of the few areas of the country that could, at a push, claim to be a UK “blue zone”.

You may well have seen Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones, Netflix’s documentary series in which the US writer and explorer Dan Buettner visits six communities around the world where people tend to live extraordinarily long lives. In addition to Nicoya, Nuoro and Okinawa are Ikaria in Greece, Loma Linda in California and the latest addition, Singapore.

The term “blue zone” was coined in a 2004 academic paper by the Belgian demographer Michel Poulain and the Italian doctor Giovanni Mario Pes. Buettner, through a book and now his Netflix hit, later popularised it.

The three of them have now trademarked the term and made it a brand certification with strict, albeit vague, criteria. One suspects that whether their lives be long or short, they won’t die penniless.

To qualify as a blue zone, the official website states, an area “should show a statistically significant higher longevity compared to national levels and display various features related to their lifestyle, nutrition, genetics and both human and physical environmental conditions that might be considered as determinants for living longer and better.”

Nowhere in the UK has so far been deemed worthy by Pes, Buettner and Poulain of their official accreditation, but it’s possible to see where in the country you’d have the best chance of living a particularly long life.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), in the most recent period, 2020-2022, the highest male life expectancy is Hart in north-east Hampshire, where men could reasonably expect to live to 83.7 years. Women are also in fine fettle in Hart, reaching 86.1 years, but they’re pipped by the ladies of Kensington and Chelsea, who perch at the top of the tree with a life expectancy of 86.3.

There can be a significant disparity between the sexes when it comes to life expectancy. Males in Kensington and Chelsea, for instance, can expect to live almost six years less than females. But some areas have a remarkably high number regardless of sex.

Hart is one, and another is the South Hams, a local government district nestled between Torquay to the east, Plymouth to the west and the Dartmoor National Park to the north. There, men can expect to live to 82.2, and women almost 86. That’s more than four years greater than for both sexes in even the areas bordering either side.

““Ugh, jeez. Well, how long have I got to live for? I’m feeling old enough already,” says Sally Hannaford, the manager of The Pasty Shack in Salcombe, the beautiful tourist trap in the middle of the South Hams coast. Hannaford is 54 so the answer is… a while. She sighs melodramatically, then laughs. “Well I’m not surprised, it’s very nice around here – see?”

Following the line of her hand down the lane, the eye is drawn to the azure water of the Kingsbridge Estuary, where sailing boats eddy in the harbour, the RNLI lifeboat sits ready for duty, and an elderly couple with a spaniel enjoy sandwiches on a bench. They’re probably visiting, but their quality of life looks very high indeed.

Like generations of her family, Hannaford was born and bred in the South Hams. She manages the pasty shop, helps with the rugby club, has raised children here and many of her relatives have lived well into their 90s. “I don’t think that’s a coincidence. No one’s about to die of stress here, that’s for sure.

“It can be a wealthy area but there’s also lots of fresh air, access to nature, a community, and small lanes so nobody’s hurrying. Not like somewhere like London, anyway.”

Up the road in Kingsbridge, a thriving market town of around 5,600 people, Mel and Clive Rollinson illustrate precisely why people might feel ageless here. They moved from Haslemere, Surrey (life expectancy, for those keeping score: a not-too-shabby 81.9 for males, and 85.3 for females) in January 2020 ostensibly to retire, but now find themselves busier and happier than ever. 

“We’d been coming down here for a while and just fell in love with it. We wanted to live quite near the sea, but mainly we wanted to live in a town so we could walk everywhere. We didn’t want to drive to get a pint of milk,” says Mel, 63.

And they don’t: Kingsbridge is the sort of model town with at least one of everything, plus excellent restaurants and local produce, and no dodgy end to speak of. “We’ve got it all, right on our doorstep,” Clive, 69, adds.

Coverage of true blue zones, as featured on Netflix, always gives plenty of airtime to that largely ineffable quality: “community”. You know it when you find it, and the Rollinsons have. Mel is a town councillor in Kingsbridge, while Clive is a director of the community-owned tennis club.

They also both work part-time, Mel for an interiors business and Clive – who spent his career in operations, mainly for global food and drinks companies – is up early and back late in his role as a sommelier and bar supervisor at the local Soar Mill Cove Hotel.

“There are so many community groups around, Till the Coast is Clear, Kingsbridge in Bloom, games clubs… Flavia from Strictly Come Dancing lives nearby, she does dance classes. There’s a lot of people doing lots of good things around here, and that’s how you make friends. A lot of the people doing those things are beyond retirement age, too. And that’s important,” Mel says.

Clive knew he’d be bored in retirement. “I didn’t want to stop dead,” he says. “There’s only so much golf you can play… And I enjoy working again, I meet interesting people, and learn things. Retirement’s bad for your health.” Mel turns to me. “Also, I come in from work and he goes out, so it’s ideal, we hardly see each other,” she quips. 

They don’t miss Haslemere “at all” these days. “Kingsbridge isn’t perfect by any means,” Mel says. “We need more affordable housing, we need to retain skilled people, and like everywhere in the country we need better access to hospitals, but it’s a working town, it’s not just second homes.”

Perfection isn’t a required criteria in a blue zone, but it’s true that for all its life-giving qualities, the South Hams cannot be immune to the occasional calamities of the nation’s water companies.

The district next door, Torbay, is the epicentre of the recent parasite outbreak. Some 25 miles away from Kingsbridge, on the edge of Torbay but within the South Hams, is where two of the five areas that South West Water issued with a boil water notice are found.

Salcombe also isn’t “just” second homes, of course, but it mostly is: the population swells by over 1000 per cent in the summer, when the visiting hordes arrive, crabbing lines and labradoodles in hand. Yet even this keeps its permanent residents young, they claim.

“It’s an odd place, all or nothing, with the seasonal change. You get the quiet winters and the nice summers. But there’s a nice buzz about the place, and the water keeps you mobile, keeps you active,” says Maxine Hern, 65, who works in the fishmongers opposite The Pasty Shack.

Together with The Salcombe Yawl, an excellent sandwich shop next door, they have their own little community within a little community.

“I spend half the year in Australia, half the year here, so I get a full year of sunshine and swimming, and that’s not bad for you. My mum’s 97, still swimming too,” Hern adds. She has absolutely no plans to stop working, but she’s looking forward to getting her pension.

“Only got to wait until November,” she mutters. From inside The Pasty Shop, where she’s taking payment for the last large traditional of the day before knocking off, Hannaford groans in mock envy.

“I’ve got so long to go…” she laments. It’s not a sentiment you often hear in Nicoya or Okinawa, but it’s true: she lives in a blue zone. There’s a way to go yet.

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2024-05-20T18:21:02Z dg43tfdfdgfd