Long beaches for surfers, and a snug harbour at Ilfracombe
Three of Devon’s finest surfing beaches at Saunton Sands, Croyde Bay and Woolacombe Sand also attract sunbathers and sandcastle-builders. At Morte Point the long beaches give way to cliffs and a series of rocky coves washed by the Bristol Channel. The broad estuary of the River Taw runs inland to the ancient town of Barnstaple, its tidal waters swirling past embankments and muddy creeks more typical of East Anglia than of Devon.
North Devon’s bustling ‘capital’ is one of the oldest boroughs in England, probably dating back to Saxon times and appearing as one of four Devon boroughs mentioned in Domesday book in 1086. Sheltered moorings on the tidal River Taw encouraged the town’s development as a port which reached its peak in the 17th century when there were strong trading links with the colonies in North America.
Shipping went into decline with the coming of the railways, but a few vessels loaded with sand and gravel still visit the quay at high water. There are many interesting old buildings. The parish church, partly 14th century, has a timber-framed leaded broach spire and a fine collection of 17th-century wall monuments. The almshouses in Church Lane were founded in the 17th century. Queen Anne’s Walk, built in 1609, was the meeting place of merchants and ship-owners. Like Bideford, Barnstaple has a bridge which dates from the Middle Ages.
The town is at its liveliest on Fridays, when shoppers flock to the Pannier Market for cream, butter and other local produce. The four-day fair in September has been the highlight of Barhstaple’s calendar for many years. The town also has a museum, and a craft market and workshop.
South of the large village, a narrow toll road skirts the northern edge of Braunton Marsh, where the atmosphere recalls East Anglia’s fenlands. Fields as flat as bowling greens are drained by reedy ditches, grassy embankments keep the sea at bay, and small boats moor in muddy, tide-scoured creeks. North of the toll road lies Braunton Great Field, one of the few surviving relics in England of the open field system, by which, in the Middle Ages, land was communally farmed in long narrow strips. The field is today fine beef-fattening land.
The toll road leads to Braunton Burrows, where emerald-green pastures give way to a wilderness of sand-dunes, 100 ft high in places. The area is a national nature reserve noted for such rare plants as sand toadflax and sea stock. Marsh orchids grow in damp hollows or ‘slacks’ amid the marram-clad sandhills.
Warning flags fly when parts of the ‘desert’ are being used by the armed forces, and low-flying aircraft from the nearby RAF base at Chivenor are frequent visitors. A bumpy track runs northwards from White House to join Sandy Lane, a minor road leading into Braunton. The track is known as the American Road, because this area was used by American forces training for the Normandy landings in 1944.
The village of Braunton is notable for its church of St Brannock, the Celtic saint who founded a chapel on the site. The church has a Norman tower, 16th-century bench-ends and a Jacobean pulpit, reading-desk and gallery. The Braunton and District Museum in Church Street has exhibits concerning the farming and seafaring history of the area, and its crafts and domestic life over the centuries. The museum is open at Easter, and Tuesdays to Saturdays in summer.
Backed by Braunton Burrows, this huge expanse of sand is reached from the B3231 near Saunton and runs southwards for more than 3 miles to Crow Point, off which the waters of the Taw and Torridge meet the Atlantic. Westerly winds create ideal conditions for surfing, but strong currents swirling round Bideford Bar make the southern end of the beach unsafe for swimmers. They should also avoid the rocks below Saunton Down. There are volunteer lifeguard patrols on Sundays in summer.
The village’s thatched, colour-washed cottages are sheltered by dunes which stand between it and Croyde Bay’s sandy beach. Crossed by streams and framed by grassy headlands, the bay is popular with surfers, but bathing is unsafe at low tide. Signs also warn swimmers to keep away from the rocks.
Croyde has a fascinating gem-rock and shell museum, whose exhibits include giant clams from the South Pacific. Visitors can see semi-precious stones being cut, polished and fashioned into jewellery. At the village of Georgeham, Vh miles north-east, St George’s Church stands at the centre of a cluster of thatched and slate-roofed cottages.
A coastal footpath takes walkers to Baggy Point, where National Trust land offers splendid views, with Lundy, 15 miles offshore, visible on a clear day. Baggy Hole, a large cave burrowed into the headland, can be reached by boat at low tide.
This attractive corner of Morte Bay has a sandy, sheltered beach with safe bathing, very good surfing, except where water swirls round the rocks. The beach is reached by a narrow lane from Putsborough, and there is a short walk to the shore.
The gorse-clad whaleback of Woolacombe Down climbs steeply above the sandy, surf-pounded beach that sweeps southwards for 2 miles from Woolacombe. A car park runs along the hill’s lower slopes, and paths run down through dunes to the shore. On the other side of Woolacombe – where there are almost as many hotels as private houses -the sands give way to rocks where explorers can find many sheltered sun-traps.
Barricane Beach is a rock-framed cove noted for sea-shells swept ashore by the incoming tide. The sands attract many visitors during the holiday season, but paths running over Morte Point and Woolacombe Down are ‘escape routes’ for walkers. Surfboards can be hired.
Set on a steep hill above Woolacombe, the village has a 13th-century church said to have been founded by a priest named William de Tracey, and is a good base for walkers. Paths go westwards over National Trust land to Morte Point, a headland that claimed many victims in the age of sailing ships. Five vessels were wrecked on the treacherous Morte Stone reef during the winter of 1852. The headland is also reputed to have been a haunt of wreckers in the 18th century.
North of the village, a walk of just over 1 mile leads to Bull Point, where the automatically operated lighthouse is an important landmark for ships in the Bristol Channel.
PLACES TO SEE INLAND
Chapel Wood (RSPB), 3 miles N of Braunton. Woodland valley. Permits from warden.
Cobbaton Combat Vehicles Museum. Chit-tlehampton, off B3227. Second World War vehicles and equipment, and rural bygones. Daily, Easter to mid-Oct.
Marwood Hill, 3 miles N of Barnstaple. Gardens with lake, rare shrubs and exotic trees. Daily.
South Moiton. Museum of local history and bygones, most days; Quince Honey Farm, daily.
LIFE ON LUNDY ISLAND
Lundy means ‘puffin island’ in Norse; today the puffin is less common, but more than 400 other species of birds have been recorded there. Grey seals, sika deer, wild goats and Soay sheep also inhabit the island. For years Lundy was the haunt of Vikings, Normans, pirates and outlaws; now the island belongs to the National Trust and is administered by the Landmark Trust.
All around the island there are 400 ft cliffs with superb views of England, Wales and the Atlantic. There are two lighthouses, both erected in 1897, and above Lametry Bay stands Marisco Castle, probably built in 1243 by Henry III. The island’s own boat Oldenburg sails from Bideford with visitors staying on Lundy. The paddle-steamer Waverley makes occasional trips from Ilfracombe in summer.
May is the likeliest time to see Lundy’s puffins, when they breed on the clifftops.
A deep, wooded valley leads down to this sheltered cove, with its tiny village and large hotel. Clumps of fuchsias and hydrangeas contribute dashes of rich colour. Seaweed-draped rocks are all that is left of the beach at high water, but low tide reveals some sand.
Elegant 19th-century buildings are a reminder that North Devon’s largest holiday resort developed during the Victorian era, when the new-fangled railway brought tourists flocking to the town. Ilfracombe had, however, already been a busy little harbour for many generations, providing one of the few refuges on a coast whose formidable cliffs and surf-pounded beaches offered few safe havens.
Now bright with private craft and flanked on three sides by attractive old colourwashed buildings, the harbour is occasionally visited by ships which take trippers across the Bristol Channel to resorts in South Wales. The harbour nestles at the foot of Lantern Hill, a crag where the Chapel of St Nicholas has burned a guiding light for sailors ever since it was built about 650 years ago. There is a slipway, but heavy swells and the Bristol Channel’s exceptional tides – the rise and fall is the second greatest in the world-make this stretch of coast unsuitable for trailer-borne boats.
Cliffs break the seafront up into a series of small beaches, from White Pebble Bay in the west to Broadstrand in the east, where there are rock pools and expanses of low-tide shale-sand. Capstone Hill rises steeply above the promenade and is ideal for short strolls. The Torrs Walk climbs to 451 ft on the town’s western outskirts and is a popular viewpoint from which walkers can continue along the cliffs to Lee Bay.
Chambercombe Manor, 1 mile from the seafront, dates from just after the Norman Conquest. Its attractions include Tudor and Jacobean furniture, Civil War armour and a private chapel built in the 15th century. Bicclescombe Park contains an 18th-century watermill, a children’s boating lake and a pets’ corner.
There are fishing trips and seaside amusements, a sub-aqua club and yacht club, and a museum and art gallery.
Reached by road or by footpath from
Ilfracombe, the cliff-clasped bay has a beach of shingle and shingle-scattered sand flanked by rocks. The shore.is washed by a stream which flows past a small, tide-filled paddling pool. In the village of Hele, a watermill dating back to 1525, with a wheel 18 ft in diameter, has been restored and produces wholemeal flour for sale to visitors. There are seaside amusements.
The castellated Watermouth Castle, built in 1825, overlooks a long, narrow inlet, bright with boats, where streams flow seawards over a beach of sand and fine shingle. The castle has a great hall and smugglers’ dungeons, and the rooms house various exhibitions.
The small holiday camp provides access to snug little sand-patched coves. During the Second World War, Water Mouth was used to test Pluto, the ‘pipeline under the ocean’ that supplied the Allies with fuel after the D-Day invasion of Normandy, There is a yacht club. its awe-inspiring best when pounded by gale-lashed Atlantic waves. The pressure they exert on the crumpled cliffs has been estimated to be as much as 4 tons per square foot. The highest point of the headland has a coastguard lookout station and commands views of Lundy and the broad, tide-ripped mouth of the Bristol Channel. Far below, reached by a footpath, is a lighthouse now operated by remote control and closed to visitors.
Shipload Bay, 1 mile east, is backed by cliffs and has a pebble beach with a little low-tide sand. The cliffs are part of a 120 acre tract of National Trust land which includes East Titchberry, an ancient farm that is not open to visitors. The shore is reached by a long, steep, path.