29th January, 2021
A walk on the wild side
North Devon’s coastline has inspired writers and artists for centuries. Paul Bloomfield guides us along its spectacular South West Coast Path.
Before Poldark, there was Lorna Doone. Key ingredients of RD Blackmore’s stirring romance will be familiar to fans of the recent small-screen blockbuster: a volatile historical period, a noble but conflicted hero, a winsome maid, a perfidious ne’er-do-well, a forbidden passion. And like that Cornwall-set series, the real star of Lorna Doone is not its handsome protagonist but the spectacular backdrop against which the drama plays out – the hills and combes of Exmoor in North Devon.
The landscapes that inspired Blackmore, not to mention Coleridge, Wordsworth and Shelley, remain just as alluring today. They are by turns wild, bucolic, thrillingly rugged, postcard pretty and, yes, romantic. And that wonderful variety is all in a compact package easily explored on foot.
The jewel in the walking crown is the South West Coast Path: 100 miles of Britain’s longest National Trail snake around the North Devon shore, and though resorts are likely to be busy during 2021, this path will take you far from any madding crowds.
Saunton is the area’s geographical centre. Look south from the clifftop terrace of the elegant Art Deco Saunton Sands Hotel and your gaze is met by a gold bar stretching three miles to the Taw-Torridge Estuary: the hotel’s namesake beach, popular with families and surfers riding its reliable swells and breaks.
The real treasure, however, stretches behind the beach – Braunton Burrows, a 1,800- acre expanse of sand ridges and canyons that is one of England’s largest dune systems and centrepiece of the North Devon UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. This important habitat hosts 470 flower species, dozens of butterflies, reptiles, nesting birds and rare curiosities such as the amber sandbowl snail.
You’ll encounter more sand and surfers north of Saunton: first at Croyde, its perennially popular pub The Thatch thronged with grommets (surfers) fresh from riding the waves breaking in the little cove. Beyond Baggy Point stretches the seemingly endless beach of Woolacombe, a bucket-and-spade favourite that also attracts walkers and horse-riders. Families paddle from strands at Combe Martin, lovely Lee Bay and Ilfracombe, too, the latter a former fishing port lately reinvigorated as an artistic and gastronomic hub. These soft-sand crescents are, though, merely gentle interludes in a dramatic shore symphony. North Devon claims the most stunning section of the coast path, which undulates above lonely coves guarded by quartz-veined rock spits on which many an ill-fated ship was wrecked, and along high cliffs guarding charming fishing villages. One such is Clovelly, a chocolate-box ribbon of fishermen’s cottages striping a wooded cliff south of Saunton.
The harbour village of Lynmouth on the Exmoor coast is linked to its uphill twin-town Lynton by an ingenious, water-powered cliff railway, popular with tourists since the 19th century, when Shelley honeymooned with his first wife Harriet in the adjoining cottage of The Rising Sun inn, today a hiking hub. From there, the path leads west between crags and wild goats in the Valley of Rocks to Woody Bay and the sheer-sided cleave at Heddon’s Mouth, then east past Foreland Point towards the Somerset border and Porlock. To the south rise the heights of Exmoor, while inland, the Coleridge Way trail meanders along the East Lyn River past the tearooms at Watersmeet to the glorious vale known as the Doone Valley.
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