SOUTH WEST COAST PATH NATIONAL TRAIL
Stage 18: Salcombe to Wonwell
Thursday, May 30, 2013
This was to be my last day's walking for this visit to England. After seven weeks on the road and off the grid, it was almost time to head for home and back to work, to which I had managed to avoid giving much thought since about the second day of my trip. The life of a walker is so much simpler and less stressful than what I do for the rest of the year to pay for my walking holidays.
A longish bus ride from Plymouth to Salcombe via Kingsbridge gave me plenty of time to contemplate the long flight home and the nine flavours of chaos that I would probably find at work the following Monday, but as I stepped off the bus such thoughts were forgotten for one more day.
From the Ferry Inn, which looks out over Salcombe Harbour from the foot of Fore Street, I set off along Cliff Road, from which there are good views both downstream (picture 1) and upstream (picture 2). A few minutes walk down Cliff Road, the path passes by a tall Celtic cross (picture 3), which serves as both the town's war memorial and as a memorial to thirteen local men who lost their lives aboard the Salcombe Lifeboat on October 27, 1916.
Beyond the cross, the road climbs steadily for a while, eventually levelling out and leaving the houses of Salcombe behind to pass along the edge of a wood before reaching the sheltered inlet of North Sands (picture 4). There was virtually no sand exposed here as I passed close to high-tide, but the inlet is actually very shallow and a big sandy beach fills the inlet at low-tide.
The Coast Path follows the road downhill and around the back of North Sands then over a small wooded hill to reach South Sands, which is very similar to its neighbour, but busier due to there still being a small strip of sand above the tide, a hotel right next to the beach and a caravan park stretching up the valley behind the beach. After passing by the little beach, a sharp left turn takes the route uphill along the south side of the inlet to a viewpoint with good views back inland (picture 5) before the road curves around the promontory and heads into Fir Wood, passing a National Trust sign indicating that the wood is part of the Trust's Bolt Head estate.
After a few minutes walking, the wood begins to thin out and the path clings to the steep hillside of Sharp Tor, which boasts several spectacular jagged rocky outcrops. The path passes right over the middle of one of these (picture 6) at the tip of the small headland, to join a vertiginous and narrow path halfway up the almost sheer cliff face above Starehole Bay -- probably not a favourite part of the Coast Path for anyone with a fear of heights, but quite exhilarating for the rest of us.
From here one can see across the bay to Bolt Head (picture 7) and after descending to cross a small stream the ascent up to a point just below the peak of the headland is the first of several stiff climbs on this fairly demanding day's walk. Once again, the grassy headland is dotted with sharp rock formations and the path passes just behind one of these as it rounds the point (picture 8).
Once over the spine of Bolt Head, the path runs parallel to it for about 200 metres, passing close to another spectacular tor (picture 9) before climbing up to a gate in a drystone wall. Beyond the gate the path levels off for a while at about 130 metres above sea level as it passes high above the lonely Off Cove (picture 10).
After about one and a half kilometres the path passes close to the promontory of Goat Rock, which stood out more once I had passed it (picture 11). Soon afterwards, the path leaves the plateau, descending across the hillside into The Warren (picture 12).
A little further on, the isolated Soar Mill Cove comes into view (picture 13) and the path continues to descend to pass just behind the cove, which is sheltered by a line of jagged rocks (picture 14).
On the Coast Path, what goes down must soon go up again, and after finding a wooden footbridge over the small stream that flows into the cove, I was soon climbing a steep zig-zag path up to the 130-metre Cathole Cliff (picture 15). The path is then relatively level for the next kilometre up to the National Trust car park on Bolberry Down, and for another two kilometres beyond that to the point where the path starts a gradual descent towards Bolt Tail, with views gradually opening up over Bigbury Bay (picture 16).
The shape of the land means that it isn't initially obvious that there's a valley behind the headland of Bolt Tail and this only becomes apparent when you get closer (picture 17). The route of the Coast Path goes down into the grassy valley, but instead of climbing up onto the headland it turns right, heading along the valley floor to cut across to the other side of the headland in the direction of Hope Cove (picture 18).
The path descends through woodland to reach a lane above a slipway in the village of Inner Hope. The lane runs along the top of a short section of sea wall before the route bears left into a driveway and then continues on a footpath over a small hill overlooking the busy a little beach and harbour at the adjoining village of Outer Hope (picture 19).
The path heads through the busy area behind the beach, where there are several attractive thatched shops, and climbs a grassy footpath behind a second beach that is separated from the first by a small rocky headland. As the path climbs higher there are good views back across the cove to Bolt Tail (picture 20).
Just beyond the last houses of Outer Hope, a sign had been posted to indicate that the next section of the path had been temporarily closed since November 2012 due to a cliff fall. The sign included a map showing a diversion route, by which the path followed hedge-lined farm tracks inland for a little more than a kilometre to Pitchingstone Cross before following a sealed lane back to the coast at South Milton Sands (picture 21). In all the diversion skipped about 700 metres of the Coast Path, and was in place until a new footbridge was opened in August 2014.
The Coast Path follows an unsealed road behind the beach as far as the reed-filled South Milton Ley (picture 22), a fifty acre nature reserve. After crossing the footbridge over the middle of the Ley, the route joins a footpath that runs around the back of the small beach at Leasfoot Sand and then skirts around Warren Point, where the path begins a two-kilometre stretch beside the Thurlestone Golf Course. Fortunately, the view across Bigbury Bay to Burgh Island is much more interesting than the golf course (picture 23), as are the couple of sandy little coves the path passes, including Yarner Sand (picture 24).
Beyond the second cove, the path climbs steadily to reach a hilltop at the end of the golf course with views across the mouth of the River Avon to both Burgh Island and the town of Bigbury-on-Sea (picture 25). The path then descends gently to the next point at the mouth of the river, turning the corner to cut across the neck of Bantham Sand, a spit of land that sticks out across the river mouth with a popular beach on the seaward side (picture 26).
The path crosses a large parking area to reach the village of Bantham, soon turning down a lane above Bantham Quay. From the top of the lane there is a good view upstream along the Avon (picture 27) before the lane almost turns back on itself to descend to a thatched building on the small quayside.
From here, a small ferry service operates across the river from 10:00 to 11:00 and 15:00-16:00. I was about half an hour early for the afternoon shift, so I found a shady place to sit down and eat my lunch while I watched the falling tide gradually exposing most of the riverbed.
The ferryman arrived promptly on the hour, taking me across the deeper channel of the river to deposit me on a sandbank in the middle of the river, where his next passenger was waiting to go the other way. From there I was able to stroll across the riverbed to pick up the next stretch of the Coast Path, pausing to look back towards Bantham (picture 28).
The Coast Path climbs up through an area of scrub to emerge on a field-edge path along clifftops above the large expanse of sand exposed by the falling tide (picture 29). The field-edge path soon passes between the buildings of Mount Folly Farm to reach the B3392 Folly Hill, which heads down into Bigbury-on-Sea. Rather than follow the busy road, the Coast Path crosses it and heads down the edge of a large sheep-grazed pasture, parallel to the road but shielded from it by a tall hedge.
Three fields further down the hill, the route crosses back over the main road, continuing to descend across a rough hillside with Burgh Island directly ahead, joined to the mainland by a wide, sandy causeway at low-tide (picture 30). The island is best known for its posh hotel, which was formerly a haunt of Agatha Christie, an association that the hotel still exploits successfully.
The path descends almost all the way to the beach before joining another path up to a large carpark overlooking the beach and island. Crossing the carpark, where there is a handy café, the route follows the main road for a short distance until a footpath leads around Challaborough Bay (picture 31), where a massive caravan park occupies the valley behind the beach.
After climbing up onto the point on the far side of the beach, the scenery improves dramatically, with the path climbing over the next hill for a kilometre to the quiet Ayrmer Cove (picture 32).
The path descends steeply down to the back of the beach, crossing the sand briefly before climbing just as steeply up over the next hill to the even quieter Westcombe Beach (picture 33). After descending almost all the way to the beach again, the path zig-zags up the next 100 metre high peak to enter the National Trust's Scobbiscombe Farm.
For the next two kilometres the gradients are a little gentler as the path hugs the undulating clifftops to reach The Beacon at the mouth of the Erme Estuary (picture 34). The Coast Path now heads up the estuary, which like the Avon is mostly devoid of water when the tide is out (picture 35).
About two kilometres into the estuary, the path runs along the edge of Wrinkle Wood then drops down to the shore at Wonwell Beach, where the path is signposted across the river to Mothecombe. Unlike the other river crossings on the Coast Path, this one has no ferry service -- the only options are to either wade across the river within an hour of low-tide or walk about thirteen kilometres around the estuary, via Sequer's Bridge on the main A379 road between Dartmouth and Plymouth. The tide table I was carrying suggested that it was about an hour and a half past low-tide, so I decided that it was safer to stay out of the water. In any case, whichever side of the river I finished up on, I would have to leave the path anyway and walk up to Sequer's Bridge to catch a bus.
So, with 30.6 kilometres of the path completed for the day, I joined the narrow lane at the north end of Wonwell Beach, following it northeast to Lower Torr Farm where it meets another lane heading northwards through farmland on the eastern side of the Erme. The lanes were quite narrow in places with just enough space to stay out of the way of the surprisingly frequent traffic -- a far less enjoyable walk than the official part of the path, though there were occasionally some nice views across the valley in the late afternoon sun.
When I eventually reached the A379, I had to walk westwards for about 500 metres along the busy road to cross the narrow Sequer's Bridge (picture 36) and find the bus stop a little way further on in front of a house called Flete Lodge. Again, there was no pavement or verge, so I had to be careful to stay out of the way of traffic.
I was about 25 minutes early for the last bus of the day, giving me some time to reflect quietly on my efforts of the previous seven weeks. The trails I had walked on the Isle of Wight at the beginning of my trip seemed a very long way away, as did the chance to come back in a year and walk some more of the Coast Path. I was already very much looking forward to that.