Deep estuaries among the South Hams farmlands
The low, rolling hills of southern Devon are criss-crossed by a maze of narrow lanes which twist and turn down to a coast whose mood changes almost by the mile. Majestic cliffs whose grassy summits stand more than 400 ft above the sea between Bolt Head and Bolt Tail contrast with the softer beauty of tidal estuaries which run far inland between fields and woodlands. Offshore currents make it essential for bathers to heed warning notices.
This bay is a marine conservation area with a rich variety of plants, birds and creatures which inhabit the tidal strip with its fine shingle, patches of sand and innumerable rock pools. Two waymarked walks, 1 mile and 3 miles in length, start and finish from the National Trust car park by the old watermill near Wembury church. Views across the mouth of Plymouth Sound are dominated by the Great Mew Stone, a steep-sided islet which forms part of the HMS Cambridge gunnery school on Wembury Point. Red flags fly when the range is in use and the coastal footpath is closed to walkers.
Wooded slopes rising steeply from the River Yealm’s sheltered waters give Newton Ferrers a setting of great beauty and character. A narrow street with several eye-catching old buildings runs down to the estuary where many small boats are beached and moored.
The creek which forms the southern boundary of Newton Ferrers dries out at low tide. It is overlooked by Noss Mayo, another attractive village flanked by National Trust woodland. From the mouth of the Yealm estuary there is a fine walk eastwards over the cliffs to Erme Mouth. There are fishing trips and motor boats for hire. A regatta is held in August.
A 10 minute walk from the car park in this isolated hamlet leads to sandy beaches at the mouth of the River Erme. The river is backed by low, shrub-covered cliffs and runs inland between wooded banks to the A379. It can be crossed on foot within 1 hour of low tide. Bathing is safe only on the incoming tide.
A PLANT WITH NO LEAVES The unusual plant called butcher’s-broom has no true leaves; instead it has leaf-like structures called cladodes which are really flattened stems that bear flowers and berries. Branches are said to have been used by butchers for sweeping their meat-cutting blocks. Butcher’s-broom is a woodland plant, but in Devon it also grows on rocky cliffs. It is related to asparagus, and the young shoots are edible.
A lane that is narrow even by local standards wriggles down to this sandy beach near the mouth of the River Erme. Low cliffs clad with dwarf oaks rise above the shore, overlooking sheltered waters where small craft ride at anchor. A disused kiln on the far bank recalls the days when small coasters landed lime which was burned to make fertiliser. There is very limited parking at the end of the lane.
This bustling little holiday hamlet stands on low cliffs overlooking a sandy beach which curls round to the mouth of the River Avon. Burgh Island, which is linked to the mainland at low tide, has a 14th-century inn, said to have been a base for smugglers, and a ruined hut where watchers once scanned Bigbury Bay for shoals of pilchards.
At low tide, walkers can follow a fascinating ‘tidal lane’ for 4 miles along the western bank of the Avon from Bigbury to Aveton Gifford. Edged with tall black-and-white poles, the lane crosses creeks where swans cruise past small boats.
Thatched and whitewashed cottages are picturesque links with the days when small coasters sailed to Bantham to unload fish, lime, coal and other cargoes which were then ferried up the River Avon to Aveton Gifford. The tiny port flourished in the shelter of a sandy promontory, clad with bracken and marram grass, where cars now park. A short walk leads to a sandy beach with pool-dappled rocks at its southern end. A line of pink buoys marks the area where strong currents make bathing unsafe.
The thatched cottages of this expanding village overlook a fine bay, and above it is a clifftop golf course edged by sandy coves. The nearby South Milton Sands are dominated by Thurlestone Rock, an isolated pinnacle holed or ‘thirled’ by the waves, which can be reached at low tide. A clifftop path leads to Hope Cove, and there are fine views of Thurlestone Rock and, on a clear day, Eddystone, Rame Head and Bigbury.
The wooded cliffs of Bolt Tail tower above this sandy, rock-flanked cove, which has a small harbour at its northern end. Inner Hope, one of the cove’s two hamlets, has retained the character of an old fishing community, with a narrow main street and quaint old buildings.
More than 400 ft above sea level, this expanse of turf, gorse and bracken is part of a strip of National Trust land which runs all the way from Bolt Tail to Bolt Head and on towards Salcombe. It is a perfect spot for a picnic, and commands superb views along the coast to the mouth of the English Channel. Signposted clifftop walks lead westwards to Hope Cove and eastwards to Soar Mill Cove.
Bolt Tail, a headland that was fortified during the Iron Age, has witnessed many shipwrecks. In 1588, during the rout of the Spanish Armada, the San Pedro el Major went down near by with the loss of 40 lives. In 1760, 700 men died when the warship Ramillies was driven on to the rocks in a storm.
SOAR MILL COVE
A 10 minute walk down a steep-sided valley from the car park in Soar leads to a delightful cove with stream-crossed sands, rock pools and low cliffs with many sun traps. The Ham Stone, a few hundred yards offshore, claimed the Finnish barque Hcrzogen Cecilie in 1936. She was one of the last sailing ships to be wrecked on Britain’s coast.
This popular beach at the end of a wooded valley on the outskirts of Salcombe is overlooked by a National Trust headland where palm trees, magnolias and other subtropical plants flourish in the 6 acre garden of Sharpitor. The house itself contains the Overbeck Museum, where exhibits illustrate Salcombe’s history.
The lane from South Sands to Salcombe passes North Sands, another popular beach framed by wooded cliffs.
Long established as a favourite haven for yachtsmen, Salcombe has one of the West Country’s finest natural harbours and is the gateway to nearly 2,000 acres of tidal creeks. Small boats can explore the tranquil waterways as far inland as Kingsbridge.
Salcombe’s old-world streets are packed with visitors in the summer months, when the estuary becomes a forest of slender masts and billowing sails set against a backcloth of tree-clad slopes. A regatta first held in 1857 is the highlight of the little town’s calendar and embraces such activities as a fishing competition, a contest for sandcastle builders and a ‘water’ treasure hunt.
All this is a far cry from June 4,1944, when thousands of Americans – commemorated by a plaque in Normandy Way-set sail from Salcombe to take part in the D-Day landings. Salcombe has a museum, an art gallery and an indoor swimming pool. Sailing boats, rowing boats and motor boats can be hired, and there are diving trips, fishing trips and boat trips.
The ‘capital’ of the South Hams district of Devon, Kingsbridge is an interesting old town whose roots go back to a 13th-century charter. It is seen at its best when high tide covers the creek’s mudbanks and small boats ride at anchor by the quays. Coasters moored at these quays when Kingsbridge was a thriving inland port. There is a museum, and surfboards and canoes can be hired.
Tucked away down a tangled skein of narrow lanes, South Pool is a quaint cluster of colour-washed cottages, some nestling beneath thatched roofs, at the head of a narrow creek. A lane can be followed through Goodshelter and past East Port-lemouth to Mill Bay where trees shelter a sandy beach with fine views across the estuary to Salcombe.
A sunken lane zigzags down from East Prawle to a car park, from which Prawle Point is reached after a 10 minute walk. Immediately east of the headland is an excellent example of a raised beach, where small fields overlook the rocky shore.
Prawle is derived from the Old English word for a lookout, and Prawle Point remains a rewarding viewpoint for ship-spotters.
Brambles flank the very narrow lane which follows a stream down to Lannacombe’s rock-flanked, shingle-backed sands. There are no places to park in the lane, but it ends in a bumpy track leading to a space with room for about a dozen cars.
The lighthouse at the end of this bracken-clad, rock-spined headland watches over rocks where five ships were wrecked during a single night in 1891. The lighthouse is a 15 minute walk from a lofty clifftop car park, with a superb view over the sweep of Start Bay.