XXX – Seaton to Exmouth

Hasteful MammalTHE actual Bank Holiday Monday began with me lying awake in the small hours wondering if the drunken youths in Weymouth would ever, just for one minute, stop shouting at each other. The cheap and cheerful hotel was rather more central than the previous week’s B&B and in consequence was subject to external noise. All. Bloody. Night.

Returning to Seaton

The Earliest Omnibus

Eventually I just decided that since sleep was never going to happen, then I might as well get up again. This is how I came to check out sometime around half past four, ready to catch the twenty past five bus back to Seaton.

—Ish

When it showed up, that is.

Seaton

Provisions

I arrived in Seaton at about half past seven, having had more sleep on the bus than I had in my hotel room. As it wound its way through Seaton’s streets I spotted a newsagent’s that was open and so got off one stop early to make sure I had a chance to buy water. This was a good plan: Monday would turn out to be warm and I would drink more water than I thought possible.

Wandering through Town

It was as I wandered back down to Seaton sea front that I realised I was now in Devon; I had passed over the county boundary somewhere just after Lyme Regis on Sunday’s walk. Since I like Devon a lot, this filled me with joy and sunshine and I gazed with benign and smiling puzzlement on Seaton’s ornamental roundabout display.

A street in Seaton near the seafront. Flowerbeds on a roundabout contain brightly-coloured bicycles as some sort of civic art installation.
Honestly, I have absolutely no idea what the deal with the coloured bicycles is. It’s bright and cheerful though.
Seaton History

Seaton sits on the mouth of the River Axe with mostly red cliffs on one side of the river and white on the other. It has been inhabited since at least four thousand years before the Romans turned it into a major port. After the Romans had gone, the Saxons chartered a town called Fleet, which means creek or inlet.

Important enough to be mentioned in a Papal Bull by Pope Eugenius in 1146, it remained so for the next couple of centuries and supplied ships and sailors for Edward I to use against Scotland and France. This came to an end in the fourteenth century when storms brought a landslip that blocked up the estuary, with the build up of shingle doing the rest.

Seaton and Beer Railway

The harbour limped on until 1868, when the Seaton and Beer Railway Company made it irrelevant. But this too was denied the town when, having been absorbed into GWR and then BR, the railway was closed by the Beeching Axe in 1967.

A section of it remains however, bought soon after and turned into a tramway which runs north to nearby Colyton.

The Seafront

I decided not to go looking for the tramline and instead ambled slowly down the seafront, thinking to myself that I now had plenty of time. I also considered the two ways forward: along the cliff top or along the beach? But the latter was only possible at low tide and a quick look at the sea and confirmed that it was pretty much high tide, so that was out unless I wanted to swim it.

Seaton Hole

I thus took the gently climbing path that took me up onto the cliff top along the old road to Seaton Hole. There I found a café not yet open, which was a shame as I fancied some breakfast, and a clear view of where the path was about to take me:

A white cliff with an overgrown undercliff
‘Oh good,’ I thought, as I looked at White Cliff, ‘more up.’ Later I would conclude that everything in Devon is either ‘upward’ or ‘upward coming back’.

The Coast Path

Beer

The path climbed steeply onto White Cliff but then levelled out before carrying me round to Beer and a flight of steps down to the village.

Cliff top view of the beach at Beer
This is Beer. Do not try to drink it.

Beer’s name has nothing to do with alcoholic drinks – if it did, this being the West Country, it would surely be called ‘Cider’ – but derives from the Anglo-Saxon bearu meaning ‘grove’, Beer having been surrounded by forest.

It’s a small village and has, through the ages, depended on fishing, quarrying, lace-making and tourism.

The Breakfast of Champions

I ambled down into Beer and found that I needed to buy more water already. So I located a shop that was meant to be open, found it had a ‘back in five minutes’ sign on the door and waited. Sure enough, within five minutes, the shopkeeper appeared and sold me my water along with good wishes for the day. And some chocolate – the breakfast of champions! Or not.

Beer Head

The path climbed steeply out of Beer along a road with no pavement but there was no traffic about at eight in the morning. It soon diverted off through fields full of cows and I got to see erosion at work in a couple of places where an older fence hung out over gaps in the cliff’s edge. Upon rounding Beer Head, the whole coast right along to Danger Point was laid out and I stopped to admire it, surrounded all the while by cows.

View from Beer Head towards Sidmouth, Both white and red cliffs are visible.
You can clearly see the different colours of cliffs in this part of east Devon. Directly ahead, you can just about make out Sidmouth.
Under Hooken

Having rounded Beer Head, the path now descended into an undercliff composed of landslip material, becoming another leafy adventure for a while. Every now and then I could see through the greenery that on one side of me was a cliff and a drop, on the other a cliff towering over me.

A rugged white cliff seen from below
The cliff feels even taller if you’ve just descended from it via steps.
Branscombe Mouth

The path continued with a number of little ups and downs until it emerged at Branscombe Mouth, basically a restaurant, shop and beach at the southern end of the village of Branscombe.

Branscombe is an old lacemaking village that gave its name to the Branscombe Point style thereof. The name ‘Branscombe’ is Celtic in origin, meaning essentially Bran’s Cwm. This didn’t fill me entirely with joy as a cwm is a steep sided valley and yes, when I looked, the way out was up another steep climb.

That could wait however. First I sat on the beach and enjoyed a bacon bap and a cup of tea, courtesy of the aforementioned shop. I consulted my map and looked down the coast at the cliff line, noting how High Peak (157 m) and Peak Hill (156 m) stood out in the distance.

Branscombe West Cliff

Bacon sandwich demolished, it was time to ascend the inevitable steep-hill-covered-in-cows-followed-by-steps that seems to lead on from all of these places. Atop the hill was a stretch of woodland and a fairly wide track, so it was all leafy lanes and mad, scampering squirrels for a while.

Berry Cliff

Soon enough the wood ended and I found myself on a grassy cliff top with fields to the right of me and a cliff edge to the left. Here I strode along, happy as a happy thing, until I encountered a woman just sat on a bench, drinking in the view.

‘It’s amazing, isn’t?’ she said. ‘Could you ask for a better view?’

I stopped and took a good, long look. It was indeed pretty marvellous. We chatted for a bit about the cliffs and the hills and the joy of roaming about on them before she dropped a bit of a bombshell.

A Friendly Warning

‘If you’re heading on to Sidmouth,’ she said, ‘you’ve got two steep descents and ascents to deal with first.’

Now, I knew this, sort of. After all, it was there on my map. But there was something about the way she said it that suggested I might not be prepared for the reality on the ground. If ‘ground’ is a word that you can apply to anything at that steep an angle.

Weston Cliff

Anyway, I pressed on, enjoying the gentle ups and downs as the path rose to the top of Weston Cliff, 162 m above mean sea level. In truth, I wondered what the fuss was. And then I stood at the edge of Weston Combe and I knew what she meant.

A tiny, tiny stream has eaten its way through the rock there, creating a steep-sided valley. How steep? Well it drops from 162 m to none in less than a fifth of a mile. That basically means a drop entirely in steps, and a similar climb on the other side. Or to put it another way: Oh, dear God.

Weston Mouth

Apparently part of the beach at Weston Mouth is a nudist beach, although only clothed people were present. There was one small child and his parents splashing in the stream as I collapsed into a heap at the bottom of the steps, muttering ‘my knees, my knees!’

I was starting to get a bit annoyed with myself — I ought to be getting at least a bit fitter than I was — when a couple of fighting-fit twenty-something rambler types emerged gasping and exhausted at the base of the other flight of steps and looked around for the path onwards.

‘Oh, dear God,’ they said, on seeing it was all steps. Well, quite.

Dunscombe Cliff

When I finally made it up to the top, my legs turning to jelly and my lungs trying to burst, I was more triumphant than anything, staggering merrily onwards across Dunscombe Cliff towards Salcombe Mouth, the second big dip mentioned by the Amazing View Lady. This looked to be much gentler than Weston and so it proved, with steps only forming part of the descent and the subsequent ascent up Salcombe Hill. Even so, it was by no means flat.

Salcombe Hill as seen from Dunscombe Cliff; the valley of Salcombe Mouth sits in between
That’s Salcombe Hill directly ahead with Sidmouth beyond it. The climb is ok until you get to the bit at the top with the dark vegetation. Then it’s a billion steps all over again.
Salcombe Hill

I sort of collapsed at the top of Salcombe Hill, not so much because it was a hard climb in itself, which it wasn’t really, but more because my legs felt they had done quite enough steps. So, I sat and rested and drank all my water before heading down the other side of the hill to enter Sidmouth via its backstreets.

Sidmouth

Sidmouth is a pretty little town, 40% of whose inhabitants are retirees. Like most similar towns along the coast, it can claim a royal connection (as an infant the future Queen Victoria stayed there wither parents) and it once had a railway but Dr Beeching scrapped it.

One thing Sidmouth has that the other nearby coastal towns do not is Sidmouth Folk Week, an annual folk festival held in early August. Folk not really being my sort of thing, I was in no way upset to find that I’d missed it.

I purchased more water and a bottle of fizzy Ribena, which is amazing and of which I want more, and sat on the sea front enjoying the weather and pointedly not looking at Peak Hill and High Peak.

Sidmouth seafront, featuring a promenade and sandy beach
There are no cliffs, I tell you. None at all.
Peak Hill

The path out of Sidmouth ran steepishly up beside the road, climbing partway up towards the top of Peak Hill. Before it got there the current turned away inland and for a little while the footpath followed the old road, which was abandoned for some reason during the 1990s.

A section of overgrown old road, half slipped into the sea
That bushy little plant is in what was once the middle of the road. It’s as though the poor old road, dejected at its disuse, decided to throw itself off the cliff and end it all.

The slow climb to the top of Peak Hill continued, involving only a handful of steps, and soon I was 156 m above mean sea level where, if I faced inland, a wide vista of rolling hills was spread out before me.

A vista of rolling green fields
This is Devon.
High Peak

The terrain dipped only slightly before rising again through a leafy wood, which covered High Peak.

A broad earth path running through woodland
High Peak stands 157 m high but you can’t see the view for the trees.

The far side of the wood ended with a whole bunch of steps that showed that this was the civilised direction in which to cross High Peak. A couple of exhausted Germans, who had just climbed the step side, underlined my point by swearing between ragged gasps.

Ladram Bay

For me, the path was now back to open fields and greenery, as it weaved its way along the coastline towards a sprawling holiday park on the edge of Ladram Bay, whose stacks of Otter Sandstone are rather impressive. Their sandstone stratum was laid down some 220 million years ago and is one of the richest sources of Triassic reptile remains in the world.

Sandstone stacks in Ladram Bay
Try our crunchy Otter sandstone – a fossilised lizard in every bite.
Brandy Head
The derelict ruins of a WW2 observation post. An elderly couple sit outside it, consulting their map.
A bit further on I found a derelict hut in which an elderly couple had paused their perambulation to read the information sign. It revealed the hut to be Brandy Head Observation Post, a WW2 structure connected with what had been the nearby Gunnery Research Range.
Budleigh Salterton

My route then took me within a stone’s throw of Budleigh Salterton – seriously, there were stones and I only had to throw them the width of the River Otter – but then had to turn inland and head upstream on account of there being no crossing.

The river mouth forms a reed bed and grazing marsh thanks to a bank that built up partially blocking it and there was no shortage of avian life as I made my way to the nearest bridge and then back down the far bank to the coast.

Budleigh Salterton is a small town that sits at the mouth of the Otter, which is an odd phrase to type. There, the nineteenth century painter Sir John Everett Millais painted The Boyhood of Raleigh. Sir Walter Raleigh did actually grow up in the area, having been born in East Budleigh two miles away.

All the Calories

I found a suitable café in Budleigh Salterton and downed an orange juice, also making sure to stock up on water. At the same time I succumbed to the lure of an ice cream and, this being properly West Country, I opted for some clotted cream on top. I did not anticipate what I received.

Normally, when an ice cream is sold with clotted cream on, they just stick a tiny little blob on top and charge through the nose for so doing. I don’t know if the café I called in is just very generous, or the amazingly tall girl who sold me ice cream took pity on me or what, but she packed on an equal volume of clotted cream to ice cream. I didn’t know it was possible to eat that many calories at once.

Straight Point

The slow climb out of Budleigh Salterton, rising to 129 m along a narrow, pebbly path, tried to burn some of them off again but it was on a hiding to nothing.

Somewhere near the top I encountered a talkative man whose dog had decided that it wanted to head east towards town, while he was trying to go west. He waxed lyrical for a bit about the weather, walking, modern life and dogs with no sense of direction and I left him to it, trying to persuade the dog that it was going the wrong way.

In this picture: Water skiers, motorboats and Straight Point, a peninsula serving as a firing range for the Royal Marines. Not in this picture: man behind me imploring his dog ‘no, no, this way.

After Budleigh, it was all gently rolling hills and no great heights, interspersed with the occasional camp site, such as that at Littleham Cove.

High Land of Orcombe

On the splendidly named High Land of Orcombe I talked with a man out running, who worked in London and lived in Exmouth, which sounds a pretty big commute. He gave me instructions on where in Exmouth I could find the station, before running off downhill and leaving me to look at the Geoneedle, an obelisk composed of various types of stone from the Jurassic Coast and marking its official end point.

A tall, pyramidal obelisk of various types of stone. In front of it stands an information board from which the actual information has long since vanished.
‘Upon the High Land of Orcombe a stone needle points into the sky.’ It sounds like the start of a third rate fantasy novel.
Exmouth

From the Geoneedle the path led down into Exmouth where I followed its long, curving concrete promenade around the coast into the Exe estuary. I found the station just where I had been told it was and made the train I had aimed for with eleven minutes to spare.

An ornate Victorian Jubilee Clock
There was a handy Victorian Jubilee clock on the way, to help me check the time. Every seaside town should have one. And most of them do.

Worth Every Penny

One train ride to Exeter later I transferred to a London train and dozed in the relative comfort of First Class, for which I had shelled out a fortune just to have the space. The rest of the train, packed with bank holiday tourists heading home after the long weekend, was so full as to be less like a tin of sardines than like fish paste.


Distance Summary

Hasteful MammalThis time: 20½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 466½ miles

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