SOUTH WEST COAST PATH NATIONAL TRAIL
Stage 51: Barnstaple to Woolacombe
Thursday, July 09, 2015
After a day off for poor weather I set out from Barnstaple early on a bright and warm Thursday morning. From the square in front of Queen Anne's Walk (picture 1), the route heads along Castle Quay (picture 2), which was Barnstaple's last working commercial quay and was named after the nearby Castle Green.
A wooden castle was built on the green in the 11th century and was replaced by a stone castle after the Norman invasion. By the early 14th century the castle was in ruins and all that remains today is a tree-covered mound on which the castle once stood. The spiral path up to the flat top of the mound makes a pleasant evening stroll.
Near the end of Castle Quay the path passes by the former Barnstaple Town Railway Station, opened in 1898. The station was a stop on the branch line between Barnstaple Junction and Ilfracombe and was also the start of the narrow gauge Lynton & Barnstaple Railway, which followed the River Yeo onto and over the western part of Exmoor to the town of Lynton on the coast. The L&B closed in 1935 and the branch to Ilfracombe followed suit in 1970, leaving the station redundant and it has now been converted into a small school. A two-kilometre stretch of the L&B has been reopened as a heritage railway at Woody Bay on Exmoor and has plans to reopen more of the line in the future. I spent a very enjoyable afternoon visiting the line a week after this walk.
Barnstaple was once an important railway town. Barnstaple Junction Station, situated on the south side of the river was the terminus of the mainline from Taunton as well as branch lines to Exeter, Ilfracombe and the North Devon Railway, which ran to Great Torrington and Okehampton. The 63 kilometre branch line from Exeter is the only one of these that still operates -- now called the Tarka Line -- and the station has been renamed as Barnstaple Station as it no longer serves as a junction. The trackbeds of the North Devon Railway and the Ilfracombe branch now form part of the 300 kilometre Tarka Trail as well as providing part of the previous stage of the Coast Path from Bideford and the first eight kilometres of today's stage.
From Barnstaple Town Station, the Coast Path heads through an archway under apartments that have been built over the old line, following the riverside cycle path past the Barnstaple Civic Centre, across a swing bridge over the narrow mouth of the River Yeo and on past playing fields and under the A361 Taw Bridge. The alternative route of the Coast Path comes down from the bridge and joins the riverside path, which continues to follow the course of the old railway, separated from the marshy banks of the River Taw by a low flood-wall (picture 3) and separated from the large Pottington industrial estate by a tall band of greenery.
Not far beyond the bridge I came across an interesting sign stencilled onto the path (picture 4). I didn't see any of the homicidal pepperpots on the path though, nor any mysterious travellers in blue boxes.
Beyond Pottington, the view opens up to the right across fields towards the village of Ashford (picture 5). For another three kilometres the path sticks to the riverbank, with far-reaching views over the latter part of the previous stage of the path, until the river bends away to the left (picture 6) and the path suddenly becomes enclosed by trees as it continues straight ahead past the village of Chivenor, though the village is well-hidden by the greenery (picture 7).
The path emerges near a roundabout after about 500 metres, crossing over the road and continuing ahead on another section of the old railway, now running parallel to the razorwire-topped fence of the Chivenor Airfield (picture 8), which is a base for the Royal Marines. After another two kilometres easy walking, the path suddenly turns right for about 30 metres before resuming its previous direction on another cycle path for about 500 metres to reach a roundabout at Velator on the edge of the town of Braunton.
The route turns left at the roundabout, passing a couple of commercial buildings and crossing a stone bridge over the River Caen before leaving the road to climb onto a man-made floodbank, built in 1811 to turn the large stretch of Braunton Marsh to the west of the river into farmland. A short distance along the bank is Velator Quay, a thriving port from 1853 until the railway arrived at nearby Braunton in 1874, and now a safe haven for a few dozen small pleasure boats.
The Coast Path runs downstream atop the floodbank (picture 9) and parallel to an unsealed farm road for about a kilometre before the road bears off to the right alongside a drainage ditch. Along the way there are views across the flat reclaimed marsh towards the headland of Saunton Down (picture 10), still a couple of hours walk away. Just as the path and the road diverge, an SUV pulling a horse float trundled by, its radio loudly playing the late Peter Allen's "I Still Call Australia Home"; the last song I expected to hear in rural Devon.
Another kilometre southwards, the floodbank turns 90 degrees to the right as the River Caen flows into the Taw. For another kilometre the path keeps to the top of the floodbank, this time with views to the left towards Appledore, only two kilometres away across the Taw-Torridge Estuary, but more than thirty kilometres walk behind me on the Coast Path.
Reaching the sheltered beach at Broadsands (picture 11), the Coast Path finally departs from the floodbank near a lone white house and joins a dusty unsealed road that runs behind the beach but out of sight of it. After a few minutes walking the route reaches a junction with American Road (picture 12), another stony, unsealed road built by American troops during World War II, when they were using this area as a training ground for D-Day.
The American Road runs roughly north-south along the boundary between Braunton Marsh and Braunton Burrows. The Burrows is the largest expanse of sand dunes in England, covering a little over 13.5 square kilometres.
It's close to two hours walking before the Coast Path has sight of the sea again. The next two-and-a-half kilometres northwards on the stony surface of the American Road was fairly slow going, before a signpost eventually points the way off the road to a wooden gate where the route skirts around a carpark on a mostly enclosed path for about 200 metres to meet an unsurfaced lane. Turning left for another 200 metres, the path then turns off to the right, just in front of a wide wooden gate and an information board. The path is briefly enclosed before emerging into the open nearer a large dune (picture 13). Through another gate, the path enters the Saunton Golf Club, skirting around the eastern edge of the golf course for another two kilometres until a signpost points across a patch of waste ground to the end of a short residential lane that leads to the B3231 Saunton Road.
The route turns left along the road's narrow verge for about 300 metres until a driveway bears off to the left. This soon becomes an enclosed path which gradually descends for another 300 metres to join a road down into the large carpark behind the beach at Saunton Sands (picture 14). As it was right on midday on a bright sunny day, both the carpark and the beach were rather busy.
Behind the beach shop, a path climbs up between post-and-rail fences to a viewpoint above the end of the beach, overlooking the wide six-kilometre long strip of sand running the length of Braunton Burrows, all the way back to the mouth of the Taw-Torridge Estuary (picture 15).
From the viewpoint the path switches back to climb around the end of the Saunton Sands Hotel and back up to the B3231 Saunton Road. Across the busy road, a wooden gate takes the Coast Path up onto the southern slope of Saunton Down, where the path turns left to parallel the road, with the mysterious plateau of Lundy Island far off on the horizon ahead (picture 16).
For the next two kilometres, the narrow but well-trodden path runs along the flank of Saunton Down above the road, which remains mostly out of sight below. Once past the Saunton Sands Hotel, there are wonderful views over Braunton Burrows and Saunton Sands (picture 17) and out across Bideford Bay towards the distant Hartland Point, which seemed like such a long way behind me on the Coast Path.
Reaching the sloping tip of the headland, known as Downend, the path briefly gains a view across Croyde Bay (picture 18) before descending to the road, where the route turns back along the narrow shoulder for about 60 metres to find a signposted path downhill beside a concrete wall and out onto the grassy tip of the headland. The route runs along low crumbling cliffs above a wide platform of wave-cut rock towards the beach at Croyde (picture 19), a popular destination for surfers.
Nearing the beach, the Coast Path heads down steps onto the rocks and then onto the soft sand to run across the back of the beach for 800 metres -- terrain for which my heavy hiking boots were not particularly well suited. At the far end of the beach the path goes up between buildings onto the short Beach Road then turns left onto Moor Lane, which heads out along the left side of the imposing bulk of Baggy Point (picture 20).
After about 400 metres the lane divides and the Coast Path goes left, and the same thing happens at the next fork another 200 metres later. Finally leaving the surf lodges and cafés of Croyde behind, the broad track winds its way along the side of the weather-beaten headland with good views back across the bay as the path climbs steadily higher (picture 21).
About 20 minutes walk from Croyde, the path reaches the impressive tip of the headland, with its grassy top (picture 22) and rocky sides falling steeply into small coves on each side of the narrow neck. After going out to the end, the path briefly turns back on itself before forking off to climb up into a field on the north side of Baggy Point, overlooking Morte Bay, with the destination of the day's walk visible across the water at the town of Woolacombe (picture 23).
For the next couple of kilometres a series of field edge paths head along the top of the steeply sloping Napps Cliff towards the corner of the bay at Putsborough Sand (picture 24).
The Coast Path passes high above the end of the beach at Putsborough Sand (picture 25), bearing right from the most well-worn trail and across the last field to reach Vention Lane, where the route turns left, well back from the beach. Lower down the field is a group of weathered concrete slabs forming a large arrow pointing out into the bay, perhaps some kind of navigational aid for aircraft.
The surfaced lane soon ends and the path continues ahead on an unsealed vehicle track and then a narrower bridleway across the hillside above the hamlet of Vention (picture 26). The footpath eventually joins up with the end of a track called Marine Drive, but the Coast Path almost immediately turns off it to the left to dip down into an area of dunes known as Woolacombe Warren (picture 27), which is managed by the National Trust.
The path through the dunes is obvious for most of the way to Woolacombe until, nearing the edge of the town, the path divides into three with no signpost. The middle path is the correct one, though all three join at various points along Challacombe Hill Road, which is followed for about 400 metres into the centre of the town.
Just before the road reaches an intersection with The Esplanade, the Coast Path take a left turn (unsignposted) onto a path between two large carparks and along the low cliff above the end of the beach to the Beachcomber Cafe. This seemed like as good a place as any to stop, with 33 kilometres walked for the day.
I had a little while to wait for my bus, so I went for a wander a little further along The Esplanade, where there's a good view over the long beach (picture 28) and then headed back in the other direction to explore the small town centre. The journey back to Barnstaple was rather lengthy, as I had to get a bus in the opposite direction to Ilfracombe, wait there for an hour, then get a bus to Barnstaple. The whole exercise took just over two hours in total, but gave me a chance to do a little exploring in Ilfracombe in advance of visiting on the next stage of the Coast Path.