Description of the Path
North Devon (Combe Martin-Marsland Mouth)
Landscape Overview of the Coast - North Devon
Most of the North Devon coast faces north over the Bristol Channel. Much of this length comprises cliffs of moderate height with, in the east, some prominent headlands like Morte Point and Baggy Point which offer fine coastal vistas. In the centre of this length is the large joint estuary of the Taw and Torridge Rivers, flanked by areas of sand dunes and marshland. Adjacent to the estuary and just east of it are extensive sandy beaches, popular with surfers and families.
Seascapes typically have the coast of Wales beyond the Bristol Channel as the backdrop in the east of this length, while in the centre and west the offshore island of Lundy, at the "mouth" of the Bristol Channel, is the focal point. At the west end of this length is Hartland Point, one of the Coast Path's major headlands (referred to as the Point of Hercules in a Roman geography). It marks an abrupt change in direction from the east-west typical of most of North Devon (and Exmoor) to the north-south length beyond. This north-south length is very dramatic, with high cliffs fronted by jagged fingers of rock stretching into the Atlantic. Deep and steep valleys cut into this coastline, but there are no bays or harbours - an historic attempt to make a harbour at Hartland Quay was foiled by the elements. This is a length of great atmosphere.
Geology of the Coast - North Devon
The geology of the North Devon coast is composed primarily of sandstones, slates, shales and mudstones. Between Exmoor to the east and the joint estuary of the Taw and Torridge rivers these rocks are largely of Devonian age, laid down in seas between 400 and 300 million years ago. West of the Taw and Torridge estuary the rocks date from the succeeding era, the Carboniferous.
The hard sandstones and slates on the eastern side of the North Devon coast are often quite resistant to erosion, resulting in prominent headlands as at Bull Point, Baggy Point and Morte Point. Whether sandstone or slate, the rocks of this coast are characteristically grey or blue in colour.
The Carboniferous rocks to the west often become very folded and faulted, giving rise in places to steeply inclined strata especially visible on the cliffs in the Hartland Point area. These rocks, also quite hard, tend to result in poor quality soils; they are locally known as "Culm measures". These poor soils, paradoxically, often give rise to valuable areas for nature conservation.
Historical Development of the Coast - North Devon
It is known that early man occupied parts of Devon, and the earliest archaeological evidence on the North Devon coast is associated with the Mesolithic period, c.6800-3500BC. Artefacts from these very early times have been found at Baggy Point and at Westward Ho! Because of subsequent changes in sea level, it is likely that these locations were a little way inland at that time. In all probability, these has been a human population in this area ever since.
Barrows of the Bronze Age period (3500-1000BC) have been discovered near Hartland and standing stones near Ilfracombe also date back this far. Later, during the Iron Age of the first millennium BC, a number of promontory forts began to be built around the coast of the South West. In North Devon, Hillsborough near Ilfracombe, Windbury west of Westward Ho! and Embury Beacon near Hartland are good examples.
The Saxons arrived in the 7th century and established a number of settlements in the area, though generally a little inland of the coast. On the joint estuary of the Taw and Torridge, Barnstaple and Bideford are certainly Saxon settlements and other places such as Ilfracombe, round the coast, probably are. There are traditions of a battle between Saxons and Vikings near Appledore in the 980s, commemorated in the place name Bloody Corner.
Barnstaple and Bideford were important ports from medieval times onwards. Other settlements, like Ilfracombe and Appledore, were more known as fishing centres.
Attempts were made from Elizabethan times onwards to establish further ports and harbours round this coast both for trade and for naval use, and harbours were built at Clovelly and at Hartland Quay. The latter was swept away by storms, as was a later attempt here in the 19th century.
The railway reached North Devon in the later 19th century, and the Coast Path now uses two lengths of former railway on the Taw-Torridge estuary closed in the Beeching era - the line between Braunton and Barnstaple and that between Barnstaple and Bideford. A further short length of a narrow gauge line on the cliffs west of Westward Ho! is also used.
Character of the Coast - North Devon
This length of coast is cut in the middle by a major feature, the joint estuary of the rivers Taw and Torridge. There is some difference in the character of the coast on either side of the estuary. To the east the coast is one of high cliffs and often rugged headlands plus, where this part of the coast nears the estuary, some extensive sandy beaches.
The cliff sections are high and open, with views over the Bristol Channel to the South Wales coast and out to the island of Lundy.
The beaches make quite a contrast. Some of them are very extensive, for example Saunton Sands and the combined Woolacombe and Putsborough Sands, often backed by major dune systems. Not surprisingly, the beaches are popular with families and surfers, though on the larger beaches there are usually some unexpectedly remote lengths.
There are a number of coastal settlements along this stretch, mostly quite small like Woolacombe and Croyde, which tend to be based on their neighbouring sandy beaches for family and surfing tourism. There is also the larger old fishing centre of Ilfracombe, which grew into a holiday centre in Victorian times.
The Taw-Torridge estuary, in the middle of the North Devon coast, is a landscape of tidal mudflats and marshes, sand dunes and beaches, all surrounded by rolling green hills and with a number of towns and villages. It has a character all its own, quite unlike the rest of the North Devon coast. An additional intriguing feature is the presence of Braunton Great field, a relic of the medieval open field system which has, oddly, survived here next to the estuary.
The estuary is relatively busy and developed, with numerous population centres like Braunton, Instow and Appledore, as well as the largest towns in the whole of North Devon, Barnstaple and Bideford. At its mouth it is flanked by the enormous dune systems ofBraunton Burrows to the north and east, while to the south and west is Northam Burrows, an open grassy area fronted by a substantial pebble ridge.
West of the estuary the cliffs rise again, this time largely unbroken except for a few narrow clefts, and the character becomes more remote. The cliffs undulate west from Westward Ho! and then become clothed with mostly ancient oak woodland on either side of Clovelly, a unique village snaking up its narrow gap in the cliffs from the old harbour.
Beyond Clovelly high, remote cliffs lead to the prominent Hartland Point, where there is a major change in the trend of the coast from east-west to north-south. Its importance was noted early, being referred to in a Roman geography as the Point of Hercules.
The north-south length beyond Hartland Point is even more dramatic, with twisted geological strata visible in the cliffs and great jagged fingers of rock stretching out into the Atlantic. It is cut by narrow, steep valleys, some with coastal waterfalls, but there are no settlements except for the hamlet at Hartland Quay. This is a spectacular length.
Walking the Coast - North Devon
Because of the more frequent settlements and facilities, the length to the east of the Taw-Torridge estuary tends to be more popular with walkers. Even so, there are several gradients up and down the cliffs here, though there are also a number of quire accessible stretches. These easier stretches include substantial lengths around Woolacombe, Croyde and Saunton.
The Taw-Torridge estuary makes for an almost level walk, though it is inevitably estuarine rather than coastal. It is easily accessible around most of the estuary.
West of the estuary the Coast Path becomes more remote. However, the first length out of Westward Ho! gives a good easy-going sample, using an old railway line. Further on, the cliffs and woods are best suited for those happy to cope with a lack of refreshments and other facilities. On the length south of Hartland Point the frequent steep valleys make for a physically demanding walk.
There is bus access at Combe Martin, Ilfracombe, Woolacombe, Croyde, Braunton, Barnstaple, Instow, Bideford, Appledore, Westward Ho! and Clovelly. National Express coaches serve Ilfracombe, Barnstaple, Bideford and Westward Ho! There is a branch line rail station at Barnstaple which connects to mainline services at Exeter.