Sidmouth, elegant Regency town on a coast of red cliffs
Mile after mile of cliffs tower above the waves to the east of Exmouth, making this a rewarding part of the Devon coast for walkers. Care must be taken, however, because the cliffs are mainly composed of soft, crumbling sandstone. At their feet, sandy beaches alternate with steep shingle banks where strong undertows create dangers in rough seas. Towards Beer, the dark red ramparts give way to chalk cliffs of a startling whiteness. »
The waters of the River Exe meet the open sea at Exmouth, a town whose popularity as a holiday resort goes back to the 18th century. A terrace of elegant Georgian houses called the Beacon is a survivor from the town’s early days. The long, sandy shore still attracts many visitors, and files of neat, white-painted beach huts crowd its eastern end. Red flags and signs warn that it is dangerous to bathe at the western end of the beach, where powerful currents swirl in and out. of the estuary. Swimmers should also avoid the marked area which extends for 300 yds to the east of the lifeboat house.
Ferry passengers from Starcross, on the far bank of the Exe, land near a small dock which is still used by a few coasters. It is a link with Exmouth’s heyday as a port in the 16th century, when the town became one of Devon’s most important maritime centres and was used as a base by Sir Walter Raleigh, the Elizabethan explorer.
At the eastern end of Queen’s Drive, where the beach becomes rocky, 126 acres of National Trust land extend to Sandy Bay. As well as a wide range of seaside attractions, there are boat trips, fishing trips and river cruises, an outdoor swimming pool, a sports centre and a model railway. A carnival is held in July.
The huge Devon Cliffs holiday camp spreads inland behind this sandy beach, which is walled in by high cliffs of crumbling, dark red sandstone. Day visitors are welcome, and there is a large car park above the beach. The headland which towers above the eastern end of the bay is a rifle-range used by the Royal Marines, and red flags fly when it is in use.
Beyond the rifle-range are Otter Cove and Littleham Cove, known locally as Budleigh Bay. Steep paths lead down from the holiday camp to the beaches, where there are banks of dull pink shingle above low-tide sand, many pools and a small, tide-scoured cave. Shire horses are on show at the Country Life Museum, by the holiday camp entrance.
Sir John Millais’ painting The Boyhood of Raleigh was created at Budleigh Salterton. The sea-wall which featured in the picture and the house where Millais lived still stand in a resort which has retained an air of Victorian gentility. Small boats are winched up a beach of smooth, pinkish shingle which shelves steeply and sweeps westwards below high, crumbling cliffs known as The Floors.
There are pleasant walks beside the River Otter, where ships loaded wool and salt before the waterway became choked with silt in the 15th century. At East Budleigh, one of the pews in All Saints’ Church bears the coat of arms of the Raleigh family. Sir Walter was born in 1552 at nearby Hayes Barton, the family’s thatched farmhouse home. The house is not open to visitors. Bicton Park, up the valley from East Budleigh, has a narrow-gauge railway, a countryside museum and other attractions.
The tranquil little village was referred to as a ‘pretty fisher town’ in Tudor times, but its atmosphere is now completely rural. Near the river stands a mill, mentioned in the Domesday book, where water-power is still used to produce wholemeal flour.
A short walk through a caravan site leads to Ladram Bay’s beach, where pale grey shingle contrasts with the deep, rich red of the cliffs. Secluded coves can be reached at low water, but explorers who wander too far risk being trapped by the incoming tide. The sea has carved the cliffs into spectacular shapes, and isolated several huge blocks of sandstone from the mainland.
Motor boats, rowing boats, floats and canoes can be hired.
Soaring cliffs, their pink-to-red faces patch-worked with greenery, rise on either side of a resort rich in Georgian and Regency architecture. Gothic and bow windows, elegant porches, elaborate wrought-iron balconies and stately columns decorate the house-fronts along the Esplanade between the foot of Peak Hill and the mouth of the River Sid.
The Duke and Duchess of Kent moved to the town in 1819 with their daughter, the future Queen Victoria, to escape their creditors. Their home is now the Royal Glen Hotel. In 1867 the queen presented a window commemorating her rather to the church of St Nicholas and St Giles.
Sidmouth’s days as a port ended when silt and shingle made the Sid unsuitable for navigation, but small fishing boats still use the beach near the river mouth and are hauled ashore with winches. The shingle beach, which shelves steeply, gives way to some sand as the tide falls. Attractions for the holidaymaker include a museum, boat trips, a sports centre and a sailing club.
A 15 minute walk from the hamlet of Weston, where there is a small parking area, leads through trees and over fields to this secluded beach. A stream races down the grassy ravine of Weston Combe before filtering into the sea through a long beach of smooth shingle. The shore is overlooked by high cliffs where bramble thickets alternate with expanses of naked rock.
This part of the coast is pitted with caves, many of which were once used by smugglers to hide brandy, tobacco and other contraband. Slade House Farm, between Weston and the A3052, is a donkey sanctuary which the public can visit. It provides a link with the days when donkeys carried farm produce from clifftop fields to local markets.
A terrace of former coastguard cottages and a thatched cafe overlook Branscombe’s beach of small pebbles, owned by the National Trust, at the mouth of a wide, picturesque valley. The clifftop walk to Beer Head – the most southerly chalk headland in England – runs along Hooken Cliffs, the scene of a huge landslide in 1790. Ten acres of land slipped about 250 ft during a March night.
Branscombe itself is an attractive village, with a thatched smithy dating from Norman times. Its church, dedicated to St Winifred, dates from the 12th century and has a three-decker pulpit – one of only two in Devon -and the remains of a 15th-century mural depicting a devil spearing adulterers. The road leading from the village square to the beach passes Great Seaside Farm, which dates back to the 14th century.
Jack Rattenbury, one of Devon’s most celebrated smugglers, was a native of this charming village where contraband was landed until well into the 19th century. Rattenbury defied the excisemen for nearly 50 years, later publishing his Memoirs of a Smuggler in 1837 after ‘retiring’ to become a law-abiding fisherman.
Beer’s main street, alongside a trickling stream, slopes down to a shingle beach sheltered by high cliffs of crumbling chalk which sweep southwards to Beer Head. It is still a fishing village, despite lacking harbour, and small boats land crabs and lobsters. Lace-making used to be another Beer industry; in 1839 Beer supplied lace trimmings worth £1,000 for Queen Victoria’s wedding dress.
Attractions include a model railway exhibition and miniature railway. Rowing boats and motor boats can be hired, and a regatta is held in August.
Seaton’s beach of shingle and pebbles is bordered by a long sea-wall built in 1980 after an exceptionally violent storm caused serious flooding. The town, mostly Victorian and Edwardian in character, lies at the mouth of the River Axe, where there are dangerous currents. It is flanked to the west by pale chalk cliffs, sheltering a beach of sand and shingle at Seaton Hole, and to the east by darker sandstone heights. There is a small harbour at the mouth of the river, below the point where it is crossed by a concrete bridge, built in 1877 and one of the first of its type in Britain.
An electric tramway runs inland from Seaton to Colyford and Colyton. It is said to be the only one in the world where tramcars with open upper decks are still used on a regular commercial basis. Other attractions of Seaton include a boating pool and a sailing club. Volunteer lifeguards patrol the beach on most weekends in summer.