THE length of my walks in North Devon are, to some considerable extent, dictated by which towns still have any kind of useful public transport links. For the most part the railways were closed down in the 1960s and the buses are not exactly plentiful. I was struggling a little with finding an appropriate break point between Barnstaple and Ilfracombe, settling uncomfortably on Croyde, which gave me two walks of about thirteen miles each, but for the first of those, which is very easy going, that felt a bit too lacking in challenge.
And then I got to thinking ‘twenty-six miles is a marathon. People run that. Surely I can walk it?’ And apparently I can.
Back to Barnstaple
Early in Exeter
I caught the usual overnight coach from London but this time hopped off it in Exeter, which is one of my favourite small cities (and the ancient capital of Dumnonia). I then had a good traipse across the breadth of Exeter as Exeter St David’s station is pretty much nowhere actually helpful. Unfortunately, even though I dawdled to kill time, I still found myself at St David’s a full hour before the first train to Barnstaple and so proceeded to read every single tourist leaflet in the entrance hall. Twice.
After a while I ceased to be almost the only person in the station as the station staff started arriving for work. And also some train drivers, which was helpful. Eventually I found myself one of just two passengers on that first train as it picked its way across north Devon in the cold light of dawn. And by God was it cold.
No Branching at Barnstaple
Where once the railway ran to Barnstaple and then branched off in various directions, it now runs reduced to single track much of the way and then stops. In a simple, effective and altogether backwards step the single track sections use the token system that railways used before signalling was developed — there is a physical token for a section of track and the train may only traverse that section if the driver has been given that token (thus meaning there can’t be another train on it to collide with).
This cutting edge 1830s system worked like a charm and the train arrived in Barnstaple dead on seven in the morning without having ploughed into another train and killed us all. Not that it could have anyway, seeing as how it was the first train on the line that morning. Still, I like to count my blessings even if I have to make them up.
Ultimate Food of Walking
Another blessing that came as a nice surprise was that the station café was already open and so able to furnish me with the Ultimate Food of Walking (a bacon bap) and a nice hot cappuccino that I mostly spilt, although at least that warmed my fingers up. Did I mention how cold it was? It was icy, icy cold.
Barnstaple Long Bridge
I crossed over Barnstaple Long Bridge, which looks much like Bideford Long Bridge only with equal-sized arches.
The exact age of Barnstaple’s bridge is uncertain, but most of the existing bridge was already in place by 1300 (13 of the 16 arches, which if nothing else shows an interesting affinity for the number thirteen). The three nearest Barnstaple town centre are a bunch of Johnny-come-latelies, having been replaced in 1589.
All the arches, whether thirteenth or sixteenth century, got a bit extra added in 1796 when it was felt necessary to widen the bridge to cater for the traffic.
Barnstaple Town Station
The 1862 Barnstaple Clock Tower, a memorial to Prince Albert, was telling me it was quarter past seven as I turned left and followed the signs for the South West Coast Path and the Tarka Trail. These soon led me to Barnstaple Town Station, once the junction between the Ilfracombe Branch Line (now closed and mostly the path for the next five miles) and the narrow gauge Lynton & Barnstaple Railway (also now closed, but not thanks to Dr Beeching — it was closed in 1935 having not been the success that was hoped).
Since the lines that it served are closed down and ripped up, Barnstaple Town Station was obviously also closed although its building, slightly modified, still remains. It is Pathfield School Sixth Form.
Barnstaple New Bridge
The path carried me out of the town centre and across the River Yeo by means of a swing bridge. This was one of a good many rivers Yeo and, being tidal over its last mile, appeared to be mostly made of mud. The Taw likewise appeared to be largely mud, with ducks padding about on it — presumably moving about for fear that feet might freeze to it. It really was cold.
Cold and Hot
Over the next forty-five minutes however the sun decided to show what it could really do. The temperature went from ‘I can’t feel my fingers even though I’m wearing gloves’ to ‘I’ve taken off almost everything I can without sending people blind and still I’m too warm’ and sunscreen became an important consideration. The ducks continued to pad about on the mud — presumably moving now so as not to cook themselves.
Ashford Lime Kiln
The path curved round and came near to a road, entering into a bit of a cutting as it did so. It passed what appeared to be a smallholding full of ducks, geese and chickens and then, rather oddly, came to a bridge. I say oddly because the bridge crossed the path but then didn’t cross the river. It was, apparently a bridge to nowhere. A closer look revealed that it was actually a bridge to this:
A little further on from the lime kiln, I passed a bird hide and then, some distance away on my right, a castellated building looking down on the estuary. Situated by the road, not the railway, this was the Tarka Inn but had originally been Heanton Court, the centre of the old manor (which dates back to Domesday).
Heanton Court was once the home of the Bassetts, one of Devon’s oldest families, but had become the property of Sir William Williams by the 1860s.
Sir William opposed the construction of the railway. In fact he opposed it so vigorously and successfully that he delayed its construction for a whole decade. While the railway wasn’t popular with Sir William and various other local landowners, it was quite popular with the masses and the railway promoters had no problem in whipping up some equally vociferous discontent. This erupted into rioting in Barnstaple in 1863 and 800 supporters of the new railway attacked the houses of two of its opponents.
Not long after passing the Tarka Inn, the path and the riverbank parted company as RMB Chivenor interceded between them. The path ran directly along the outside perimeter fence of the Royal Marine Base and I could see a number of military vehicles and several marines running about. I didn’t take any pictures though, as standing outside an active military base taking photos seemed like a good way to get into unwanted trouble.
RMB Chivenor was originally a civil airfield opened in 1934 as North Devon Airport. In 1940 it was taken over by the RAF and Wellingtons, Blenheims and Beaufighters were based there, flying mostly on maritime patrols and anti-U-boat missions.
In 1994, the RAF left Chivenor and the airfield was handed over to the Royal Marines although an RAF Search and Rescue flight still operates with two Sea Kings. I was lucky enough to see one of the Sea Kings take off as I passed.
Westland Sea King
The Westland Sea King is an iconic aircraft. Ostensibly a license-built version of the American Sikorsky Sea King, it is basically just the same airframe filled with quite different kit. It boasts Rolls Royce Gnome engines and British-made electronics and has been flying since 1969. It was a cutting edge helicopter when I was a little boy (I had books with exciting pictures of them, well exciting to a five-year old anyway) and to see them still flying (albeit refitted and upgraded) is oddly reassuring.
At one point a boardwalk led off the path to the right, which I chose not to investigate. Had I done so, I would have found the Velator Wetlands, a small patch of open water and marsh which is being protected and conserved but not in such a way as to interfere with the natural succession from water to marsh, then grassland and woodland.
The Tarka Trail touched the southern edge of Braunton (OE brōm and tūn – ‘settlement where broom grows’), which was recorded in the Domesday Book as Brantona. I didn’t enter the village during my walk although I did pass through it by bus the following day.
St Brannock’s Church
The tower of its parish church (St Brannock’s) dates back to 1310 and the church is named for the sixth century Welsh saint Brynach, a priest in the household of King Brychan of Brycheiniog. Brynach married one of Brychan’s daughters.
Brynach may or may not have intended to travel to Dumnonia as a missionary — in the sixth century the British kingdoms were not always friendly and Welsh raids on the Devon coast were not unknown. It’s just possible that Brynach accompanied a raid and somehow got left behind.
In 680 the Saxons arrived in North Devon, mostly conquering it by axe and sword. In Braunton however they managed to co-exist with the Celts, apparently settling in without bloodshed.
While the bulk of Braunton lay to my right the trail headed off to the left and so I followed it, crossing over a small stream (the River Caen) and headed down into Braunton Marshes.
Braunton was surrounded by salt marsh until 1811, when an Act of Parliament authorised its draining and enclosure. 949 acres were reclaimed, creating an area of lush, low pasture protected by high banks. The path ran along the top of such a bank, directly next to a road. It was however very slow going to traverse. Not, I hasten to add, because the ground was difficult but rather because every sheep in Braunton Marshes was sitting on it.
I could see why. It was lambing season and the ewes wanted the best possible vantage point to spy out threats to their offspring. And the dykes that enabled the draining of Braunton Marshes were the highest thing they could sit on.
I stubbornly kept to the path at first, slowly walking towards the sheep, giving them time to (equally slowly) move out of my way but soon decided that the sheep could have the path and I’d walk on the road at a pace faster than that of a snail.
The Caen soon met the Taw, feeding into the Taw Torridge Estuary and I got a final look out into this at a place called Broad Sands:
After Broad Sands, the path turned north, skirting the edge of Braunton Burrows. This is the largest sand dune system in England and is notable for including the complete successional range of dune plant communities, with over 400 species of vascular plants.
Between 1848 and 1918, it hosted a lifeboat station but this was closed when it proved impossible to find sufficient men and horses to launch the boat in the wake of WW1. The next war brought hordes of Americans to Braunton Burrows — the beach is very similar to that of Omaha Beach and the US accordingly trained there for D-Day.
These days, part of the Burrows still sees military use for several days a year, leased by the MOD from the Christie Devon Estates Trust, which owns the burrows and marshes.
The Christie family have owned this land for over three hundred years although their stewardship has not always been without criticism. In 1996 part of the site was (uniquely) de-declared a National Nature Reserve, the status being stripped due to a disagreement between the Christies and English Nature over how best to control invasive coarse grasses.
EN favoured grazing soay sheep (a primitive breed) as a natural method, considering the accelerated erosion caused by their hooves to be an acceptable cost. The Christies found the erosion too much and favoured mowing, considering it less damaging. EN held mowing to be too invasive and eventually took their football home with them.
Braunton Burrows remains part of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
The path, as it skimmed the expanse of dunes, became a rough stony road, known locally as American Road on account of having been built by the US Army during the war.
As I headed up American Road, two girls jogged towards me, one sporting a healthy, energetic glow (she smiled and nodded in passing), the other looking as if her friend were trying to kill her. They slowed to a walking pace as we passed each other and then the lead girl brightly asked ‘ready to go again?’ and hared off. I’m not at all sure the second girl was indeed ready but to her credit she gamely sped up, running after her friend (or trainer), possibly with murder in mind.
American Road gave way to a lovely, green leafy path, which in turn led me up to a proper main road, namely the B3231. A number of houses were dotted along the road, forming the rather oddly strung out village of Saunton, the most noteworthy aspect of which is its beach.
Abutting Braunton Burrows, Saunton Sands is a large expanse of sand, popular with tourists except perhaps for the few days each year that it’s closed so that the RAF can practice landing Hercules planes on it.
The beach was used as one of the locations for the marvellous 1946 film A Matter of Life and Death (renamed, for no good reason, as Stairway to Heaven in the US).
So, those are its plus points. Saunton loses several points however for having a golf course (established 1897) and having a beach café/shop with the surliest, rudest individual I’ve had the misfortune to buy a cold drink from in years.
Fortunately, rather than have to continue on the B3231, the path crossed it and climbed above it (both skirting round the bottom of a gorse-covered hill). I thus rounded a stubby headland on a lovely little path, surrounded by the coconut fragrance of countless yellow gorse flowers and with butterflies (fritillaries and peacocks) flitting about my head, with the road just below me and the sea below that. It was all very pleasant. And thusly contented, I arrived at Croyde Bay.
Croyde is a small village with a good beach that has become very popular with surfers. The village opened its first surf shop in 1984 but subsequently gained others. Since 1999, Croyde has hosted an annual surfing and music festival called GoldCoast Oceanfest. It also claims to have Devon’s busiest pub.
Just north of the village is Croyde Bay Holiday Village, which has been owned by UNISON (the UK’s largest trade union, representing public sector workers) for over 70 years.
Croyde was the halfway point on my day’s walk and I may have spent a little time sat on the beach, just enjoying my surroundings. I also unpacked my walking poles from by bag as from here on in there would be points where I would want them. But not just yet: the way onwards from Croyde was a local road that then became more of a track.
The path split off from the track as it approached the wonderfully-named Baggy Point, but it was still pretty easy going. Although a woman with a pushchair tried to complicate things by hogging the whole path.
Baggy Point separates Croyde Bay from the next bay over, the equally-wonderfully named Morte Bay. The Bay of Death! Dun! Dun! Dun! Although as it’s so named for shipwrecks, I suppose it’s not at all that wonderful if you happen to be on a boat.
Anyway, Baggy Point is owned by the National Trust and is composed of sandstone rocks that allegedly contain fossils of bivalve molluscs. There is also evidence of human occupation from the Mesolithic Era.
I navigated my way around the Path-Hogging Pushchair-Pusher who brazened it out by merely saying ‘hi’ while her embarrassed-looking partner thanked me for stepping out of the way. I wondered where they had come from but soon realised that they must have walked out along the same path and turned back again because the way onwards from the point was a steep climb upwards and I don’t believe for a moment that they manhandled the pushchair down it.
Armed with my walking poles, I ascended to the top.
Atop Baggy Point I encountered a woman coming the other way, also armed with walking poles and we were sickeningly self-congratulatory on this score.
As required by English Law we then discussed the glorious sunshine and she pointed out that we had clear views of not only Lundy but South Wales.
The woman had been out for a walk, merrily identifying North Devon birds while simultaneously chatting to her niece in Argentina, which she found to be a surreal juxtaposition. Having given voice to our awe at modern communications technology — it seems silly now but I remember reading as a teenager an expert opinion that mobile phones could never be smaller than a brick because it was physically impossible to make the batteries any smaller — we then went our separate ways.
Mine took me past this:
I was fairly striding along, feeling good about my progress and that, as we know from experience, causes joggers to spontaneously materialise. Sure enough, an attractive young woman suddenly jogged past me, tearing off ahead at a pace that made me look like I was going backwards. Ten minutes later she passed me on her way back, just to make sure I’d properly got the message.
For much of the way along Morte Bay (and the two mile beach known as Woolacombe Sand) I had two choices. There was the official coast path and another footpath, the latter of which was also a bridleway and national cycle path 27. I stuck to the latter since both paths ran right next to each other and the bridleway & cycle path was guaranteed easy going.
I soon reached Woolacombe and my twentieth mile of the day and I took a well-earned opportunity to grab a drink and a sandwich and rest for a while. Naturally, it was at this exact point that the sky clouded over and the temperature started to drop.
Woolacombe rejoices in panoramic views of Lundy Island and I’d hoped to finally get a decent picture of it but no, with the cloud came reduced visibility and Lundy remained a grey blur on the horizon.
Chichesters & Parkins
If the Christies’ three-hundred year old ownership of Braunton Burrows sounded impressive, that’s nothing compared to the Chichester family, who owned much of Woolacombe from 1133 to 1949, an impressive 816 years.
With the death of the last of the family, much of their extensive estate was willed to the National Trust but parts of it — including the beach — were sold beforehand to a family friend, Mr Stanley Parkin. His son, Ray, is the current chairman of Parkin Estates Ltd, the company being the current legal landowner.
Most large estates are owned by such companies these days, as it vastly reduces the risk of having to sell off the land to pay death duties.
The subject of death brings us back to Morte Bay and Morte Point, a rocky headland at the north of the bay. Its name isn’t some strange corruption but really is ‘death point’ on account of its danger to shipping; this stretch of coast is notorious, although its worst period is probably the winter of 1852, when no less than five ships were wrecked.
One shipwreck, a ship carrying a cargo of live pigs, gave a small cove to the south of Morte Point its current name of Grunta Beach. Most of the pigs survived the wrecking and one is supposed to have lived wild on a diet of seaweed for a year.
In an effort to cut down the loss of life, the RNLI built a lifeboat station on Morte Point in 1871 but it proved difficult to launch directly into strong westerly winds and so the station was closed in May 1900.
Although the going wasn’t too hard I was thankful for my walking poles as the path led me, up and down, along the edge of Rockham Bay. At various points I passed signs pointing inland to Mortehoe, a village I passed within a quarter of a mile of but which I never actually saw. Like many villages it is ancient and dates back at least as far as the Domesday Book.
Bull Point Lighthouse
Two miles on from Morte Point was Bull Point, where Trinity House constructed a lighthouse in 1879 to try to cut on down on the number of shipwrecks. It was built as a result of petitioning by a group of local ‘clergy, ship-owners, merchants and landowners’.
The usual sequence of modifications and improvements followed except that in 1972 the headland subsided, making the structure too dangerous to use. An old light tower from elsewhere was installed for two years while Trinity House built a new structure slightly inland. This was completed in 1974 at a cost of £71,000 and is currently in use. It is 11m tall and fully automatic.
Having reached Bull Point, I had now walked twenty-three miles, which was for me a new record. But I still had more to do.
Two steep valleys dropped me to sea level and then climbed again but the going was fairly easy, with steps and a well-defined path. For a third valley, the path joined a road, descending quite steeply (about 1 in 4, I’d say). Towards the bottom of it I passed two boys of junior school age, mock-fighting each other with sticks nearly as tall as they were.
‘It’s all right,’ one of them called out to me, in case I was worried, ‘he’s not really my arch enemy, we’re friends.’
They paused swinging their sticks across the width of the road and let me pass. As I walked away I heard the anguished cry of one lad as he declared ‘I’ve broke my stick in half!’
At the bottom of the hill was the village of Lee, nestling in what is locally known as the Fuchsia Valley. It’s pretty small and relies on a combined pub, shop and post office called The Grampus. At one end is the former Lee Bay Hotel, which closed in 2009 and has yet to be redeveloped.
The road out of Lee, like the road in, was narrow and posted with 20 mph signs (usually the limit in a settlement is 30). It started off at about 1 in 5 and maintained this for most of the way up except for a bit in the middle which I would really surprised if it wasn’t 1 in 3 or worse.
Goodbye, Old Friend
Fortunately, I had my walking poles, not that I had expected them to be of help on a public road. Unfortunately, somewhere on the way up I dropped my black sweater — a much-loved garment I’d owned for a good fifteen years — and by the time I realised it was gone I was too far on to go back and retrieve it.
Onwards towards Ilfracombe
Eventually the road ended at a gate, continuing beyond it as a farm track in a cliff-top field full of sheep. The ewes watched me warily and the lambs scampered out of the way as I picked my way along it, while off to the right a field full of cattle mooed loudly and repetitively (it was spring and they wanted action).
The track continued to climb all the while and it was soon at 173 m, although the steep slope of the field (I was not leaving the path to go round sheep now) hid the sheer drop at the bottom of it. Looking ahead, I could see the path curved around some other cliffs and I thought, though I couldn’t be sure at the distance, that I could see a lamb lying still on a ledge partway down.
Sheep-shy Dog Dude
The track started to descend and headed off directly to Ilfracombe, while the coast path peeled off to the left. On the latter I met a man coming the other way with his dog and advised him that there was a field full of sheep and lambs. He assured me that he was local and that his dog was both used to sheep and under control, adding also that she’d once approached a sheep and got headbutted, which had drastically reduced her interest in them.
He then decried irresponsible dog owners near sheep, commenting that he’d seen someone’s dog chase a lamb of the cliff a week earlier (pointing to near where I thought seen the fallen lamb).
The path now led through an area called Torrs Park, making its way over the 137 m high hill beside Ilfracombe and zig-zagging down the seaward slope until it reached the town.
Ilfracombe is an ancient settlement, dating back to the Iron Age, when the Dumnonii built a fort on the hill now called Hillsborough (but formerly called Hele’s Barrow). By 1086 and the Domesday Book, the town was called Alfreincoma, ‘the valley of Alfred’s children’.
It grew as a safe port for a dangerous stretch of the Bristol Channel and had some importance by Mediaeval times: In 1208, it provided King John with ships and men to invade Ireland and supplied ships and men again in 1247 (for Henry III) and 1346 (Edward III’s siege of Calais).
I wandered through Ilfracombe searching for my hotel, a task made slightly easier when I looked up its address and realised I’d garbled its name in my memory. Ilfracombe is a fairly striking town with a number of distinguishing landmarks.
Needless to say, I slept well. Surprisingly, although I was tired and generally achy, my feet didn’t hurt at all.
The following morning I ambled about Ilfracombe before catching a bus back to Barnstaple. From there, one train whisked me to Exeter and a second one carried me home.
This time: 26½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 878½ miles