The South West Coast Path is one of the top walks to be found anywhere in the world with 630 miles of stunning scenery running from Minehead in Somerset, along the coasts of Devon and Cornwall, to Poole Harbour in Dorset. Since it rises and falls with every river mouth, it is also one of the more challenging trails. The total height climbed has been calculated to be just short of 115,000 ft, almost four times the height of Mount Everest. Although I have not completed the whole 630 miles, during my trips I have walked many sections of the path to gain access to locations I wanted to photograph. The first part of this article will cover the trail to the North Cornwall boundary and I will follow up in due course with the remaining sections through Cornwall, South Devon and Dorset.
I’ll start off at Minehead and almost immediately you are in the Exmoor National Park with its coastal boundary stretching for 34 miles through Porlock and Lynmouth to Combe Martin. It’s England’s highest coastline and the path provides spectacular walking. An area I found particularly interesting was Porlock Marsh and one of the few flat areas on the whole route. Severe storms at the end of 1996 breached the shingle barrier between Porlock Bay and the floodplain behind it, changing the nature of the marshes and creating a whole new ecosystem. On the saltmarsh itself, there is a plantation of stunted trees, long dead, raising their bare branches heavenwards like some primitive tribe turned to wood in retribution for some awful wrongdoing.
Crossing into North Devon I reach Lynmouth on the northern edge of Exmoor. The village straddles the confluence of the West Lyn and East Lyn rivers, in a gorge 700 feet below Lynton, to which it is connected by the Lynton and Lynmouth Cliff Railway. Lynmouth was described by Thomas Gainsborough, who honeymooned there with his bride Margaret Burr, as “the most delightful place for a landscape painter this country can boast”. Below is the view across Lynmouth Bay to the rocky headland of Foreland Point the most northerly point along the Devon and Exmoor coast. The highest cliff is almost 300 feet above the high tide, although the highest point of the entire headland is near Countisbury a mile away at 991 feet.
A short walk from Lynmouth is The Valley of Rocks which runs parallel to the coast. A geological rarity in that it is a dry valley running parallel to the coast rather than to the sea. The valley is believed to owe its existence to the dissection by coastal cliff recession of a former extension of the valley of the East Lyn River which now meets the sea at Lynmouth. The image below shows the view along the coast to Castle Rock undoubtedly the crown jewel of the valley. It is the focal point and demands attention.
Passing out of the Exmoor National Park and beyond Ilfracombe is Lee Bay which lies at the foot of a wooded coombe. Borough Wood is a remnant of the ancient broadleaved woodland which once covered vast areas of the land. The history of Lee Bay and its association with the sea is told in part through the cottages perched on the seafront, and the channel etched into the natural beached rocks. Though not a particularly hospitable looking haven for seafarers, it was certainly more friendly than the towering rocks on either side, and small coves like Lee were reasonably accessible for small vessels – making it ideal for smuggling as well as the arrival of coal and lime for nearby limekilns.
Rounding Bull Point the coast turns south continuing along the North Devon Heritage Coast and beyond Morte Point is Woolacombe. Woolacombe lies at the mouth of a valley (or ‘combe’) in the parish of Mortehoe. The beach is 3 miles long, sandy, gently sloping and faces the Atlantic Ocean near the western limit of the Bristol Channel. The beach has won several awards, including the title of “Britain’s Best Beach” in the “Coast Magazine Awards 2012”.
The North Devon Heritage Coast ends at Crow Point the furthest edge of Braunton Burrows – all of which is part of the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Area of Conservation. Crow Point is a curved spit of sand which lies at the entrance to the Taw-Torridge Estuary. The open views from here are simply stunning, as is the sense of space. The area is the site of an ancient ferry crossing to Appledore and played a role in the World War II military activities that took place across the Burrows.
Having circumnavigated the estuary and beyond Westward Ho! the curve of Bideford Bay (also known as Barnstaple Bay) turns west again along the Hartland Heritage Coast before turning south once more at Hartland Point. Hartland Point is a 325-foot high rocky outcrop of land on the north-western tip of the Devon coast. The point marks the western limit, on the English side, of the Bristol Channel with the Atlantic Ocean continuing to the west. This location was known to the Romans as the “promontory of Hercules”. The Hartland Point Lighthouse was built in 1874 under the direction of Sir James Douglass. If you look very closely in the picture below to the left of the highest point of rock you can just see the island of Lundy.
If you wish to see a more detailed review and images of the section of the coast up to now please take a look at my article Rocky Ramparts and Beautiful Beaches.
Beyond Hartland Point, to the North Cornwall boundary, we enter North Devon’s Hanging Valleys of which St Catherines Tor is just one. St. Catherine’s Tor is at the side of a sea dissected valley which is a rare geological feature in England and this waterfall on Wargery Water is one of a total of 33 along this coast that has been created by the resultant hanging valleys.
The stones on Blackpool Mill Beach are well-worn by the actions of the sea on this westward facing coast and on the far side, the rock strata curves dramatically up Berry Cliff, and beyond this is Blegberry Beach. The river that runs past Hartland Abbey reaches the sea at Blackpool Beach, running along the strike between steeply dipping rocks.
The Hartland Heritage Coast finishes at this quiet, pebbly beach which is the most northern on the north coast of Cornwall and it seems a suitable location to conclude this first part. This stream at Blackpool Mill called Marsland Water drains across the beach and marks the county boundary between Devon to the north and Cornwall to the south. The only access is on foot so it’s not uncommon to have this beach entirely to yourself.
I am not sure how many of the 630 miles this article covers but it certainly feels quite a few and has made me realise just how many of those miles I have walked during these photo trips.
Follow the Concluding part through Cornwall, South Devon and Dorset.