Holiday havens between the Teign and Exe estuaries
The ancient city of Exeter makes an excellent base for exploring a coast whose character has as many facets as a diamond. High cliffs of soft rock, the colour of mellow brick, march northwards from Maidencombe and contrast with the reedy, bird-haunted estuaries where boats ride at anchor. Shaldon, Teignmouth and Dawlish are busy little resorts, while Topsham and Lympstone are picturesque villages tucked away off the main road.
A short but steep walk from the car park off the A379 leads to this small, sheltered cove. Creeper-clad sandstone cliffs frame a sandy, rock-flanked beach below a small shop. The road to Shaldon passes a clifftop car park with views over Babbacombe Bay. Rowing boats and floats may be hired.
A network of narrow streets is overlooked from the east by The Ness, a wooded headland at the mouth of the River Teign. The headland is pierced by a well-lit tunnel, about 100 yds long, which leads walkers to Ness Cove where there are sands and seaweed-draped rocks at the foot of a high cliff. A well-preserved lime-kiln, in which limestone from Oddicombe was burned, stands at the landward end of the tunnel, which has several flights of steps. Lime from the kiln was used as builders’ mortar and as a fertiliser. Immediately above the tunnel’s entrance is the Shaldon Wildlife Collection, whose exhibits range from owls and parrots to monkeys and Indian pythons.
The beach facing Teignmouth is a mixture of fine shingle and coarse sand, but bathing is dangerous at the mouth of the river because of fast currents.
At this peaceful spot a stream flows under a small bridge and into the River Teign. The muddy creek, where abandoned boats are patrolled by gulls, is patched with reeds, and trees overhang the water at low tide.
Hidden a way at the end of a narrow lane, the inn at Coombe Cellars was once a haunt of smugglers and had spacious cellars where contraband was concealed. The inn now shares its lonely riverside location with a yacht club.
The town’s roots go back to Saxon times, but it was not until the first half of the 19th century that the town really developed as a port and holiday resort. Its sheltered harbour faces up-river and has a quay built in the 1830s. From this quay Dartmoor granite was shipped out to build London Bridge, which was later sold to the United States and now straddles a man-made waterway in Lake Havasu City, Arizona.
The quay is still visited by small, sea-going ships which have to negotiate swift currents in the estuary’s narrow mouth. On the seaward side of Teignmouth, tall Victorian buildings overlook a pier and a beach of dark red sand. Bathers should avoid the southern end of the beach where it shelves quickly and is swept by the estuary’s currents. To the north, the Parson and Clerk headland is a landmark, while the railway tunnel between Teignmouth and Dawlish is one of several which made the building of this section of the Great Western Railway a considerable feat of engineering.
A plaque in Northumberland Place marks the house where John Keats lived in 1818 while finishing his epic poem Endymion. As well as a full range of seaside attractions, including an outdoor swimming pool, there are fishing trips and sea and river cruises.
Black swans, East Indian game ducks, South African shelducks, Chinese swan geese and other birds inhabit The Lawn, a delightful little park through which the Dawlish Water flows seawards over a series of small weirs. Right in the heart of Dawlish, it is the town’s most memorable feature and looks particularly attractive when illuminated at night.
A bridge under the railway track leads to a long beach where a strip of fine shingle leads to sands whose dark red hue is typical of this part of Devon. At the southern end of the beach, high cliffs shelter a cove where small boats are pulled ashore. Dawlish was popular with the novelist Charles Dickens, who set part of Nicholas Nickleby in the town.
Dawlish has the usual attractions of a seaside resort, including an indoor swimming pool. There are fishing trips, and rowing and motor boats for hire.
Chalets, shops, a go-kart track and an amusement arcade make the landward end of Dawlish Warren a lively place during the holiday season – but walkers who stroll out along the dunes, which extend for 1 mile, can enjoy a much more peaceful atmosphere. Fast-flowing currents make bathing dangerous at the point, but there are extensive views up the River Exe. The view to the south is dominated by Langstone Rock, a huge block of sandstone with a natural, wave-carved arch.
Most of Dawlish Warren is a 500 acre nature reserve, where 180 species of birds are recorded every year. They include waders such as black-tailed godwits, green-shanks, curlews and sandpipers. In winter the flocks are enlarged by migrants from the far north, including Brent geese, and from a hide overlooking the main roost as many as 20,000 birds may be visible at once, when the rising waters push the resting birds up towards the high-tide mark.
Old, bow-fronted cottages share the village’s narrow main street with a tall sandstone building of great interest to industrial archaeologists. It is one of the pump houses built in the 1840s to serve the ‘atmospheric’ section of Isambard Kingdom Brunei’s Great Western Railway between Exeter and Newton Abbot. Pumps evacuated air from a tube between the rails, creating a vacuum which ‘pulled’ a piston attached to the train The system proved swift and remarkably quiet, but was abandoned in 1848. One of the main problems was that rats devoured the grease-soaked leather flaps intended to keep the tube air-tight. The building is now a museum devoted to the story of the system -Brunei’s one great failure. It overlooks a boat basin and the point from which a ferry for foot passengers sails to Exmouth.
Boat trips, fishing trips, and diving trips and lessons are available, and there is a water-ski school.
Set in a deer park beside the River Exe, the home of the Earl and Countess of Devon dates from the end of the 14th century. Parts of the original building have survived, but the castle was extensively altered after being damaged during the Civil War. Its interior has some fine 18th-century plasterwork and a Marble Hall decorated with a 17th-century tapestry woven in Brussels. Portraits and coats of arms trace the history of the family.
Exeter was founded by the Romans as Isca Dumnoniorum, and lengths of Roman wall still stand after nearly 2,000 years. They surround the heart of a fascinating city where new buildings, many of them built to replace those destroyed during air raids in 1942, stand shoulder to shoulder with others dating back to medieval times. Old-world gems include Mol’s Coffee House, built in 1596, and the Ship Inn, in Martin’s Lane, which is said to have been Sir Francis Drake’s favourite tavern.
Exeter Cathedral dates from the 12th century when work was started by Bishop William, the nephew of William the Conqueror. It is a beautiful building with a wealth of carved woodwork and stone, and a remarkable clock believed to have been made at the end of the 15th century. The nave’s rib-vaulted roof, 300 ft long, is decorated with carved and colourful bosses, one of which depicts the murder of Thomas Becket. Despite its age, St Peter’s is not Exeter’s first cathedral. Its predecessor, a church built by King Canute in 1019, became a cathedral 31 years later when Edward the Confessor enthroned the city’s first bishop. Down by the river, the 17th-century Custom House shares The Quay with the
Exeter Maritime Museum, the world’s largest collection of working boats. Opened in 1968, it has breathed new life into the port area which was the hub of the city’s commercial life for hundreds of years. Vessels from all over the world are on display, including Arabian dhows, coracles from Wales, an elaborate ceremonial canoe from the Ellice Islands and a Chinese sampan. One of the most notable exhibits is Bertha, a dredger designed by Brunei in 1844 and used at Bridgwater until 1964; she is the oldest working steam ship in the world.
The museum is at the head of a canal opened in 1566 and the oldest pound-lock waterway in the country. Its construction was forced upon the city when the Countess of Devon, determined to attract trade to her port of Topsham, built a weir down the river from Exeter, blocking access to the city. Her action resulted in a legal battle which dragged on for 300 years.
Built on a peninsula between the tidal rivers Exe and Clyst, Topsham is an enchanting village often bypassed by visitors to the Exeter area. It used to be a bustling port whose fortunes were at their height in the 17th century. Many of the buildings date from that period and have Dutch gables, bow windows and walls hung with wisteria. Sea-birds share the river with swans and yachts. There is a museum, and an open-air swimming pool.
Narrow streets, colour-washed cottages and cobbled walks leading to the pebbled shore make Lympstone one of the River Exe’s delights. It is also a vantage point for observing the estuary’s abundant bird life.