Walk - Salcombe & Soar Mill Cove
Walk information provided with help from Natural England. Map reproduced by permission of Ordnance Survey on behalf of HMSO. © Crown copyright and database right 2022. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100022021.
- From the entrance to the North Sands car park turn right to walk above the beach, along Cliff Road, bearing right at the end to follow the brown sign towards South Sands. Carry on around the double bend uphill, past 'The Moult', to the junction at the top of the hill.
Looking back across North Sands, you can see the ruin of Fort Charles on the rocks. In 1646, during the English Civil War, it was the last fort in England to hold out against Cromwell's men, when the Royalist troops occupying it held out for five months while under siege (see the East Portlemouth and Gara Rock Walk).
Originally a small fishing village, over time Salcombe's picturesque waterfront, combined with its deep waters, made it a lively centre of maritime activity. Its remote location meant that its main communication links were by sea, and its growing prosperity was based on its shipbuilding and associated trades. From the end of the eighteenth century it was producing as many as three new ships every couple of years. Between 1796 and 1887 its shipyards turned out 200 vessels. The foreshore was developed through land reclamation and a growing population was drawn here by the romantic landscape and the warm climate resulting from the shelter afforded by the hills surrounding the estuary. In 1850 William White's 'History, Gazetteer, and Directory of Devonshire' commented that Salcombe was considered ‘the warmest place on the south-west coast, as oranges, lemons and American aloes bloom in the open air, in the pleasure grounds of Woodville and the Moult'.
Described by Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘the first gentleman's seaside residence in the area', The Moult was built in 1764 and substantially improved in the mid nineteenth century, when it was owned by Viscount Courtenay, the eldest son of the Earl of Devon. Victorian historian and biographer James Anthony Froude often rented The Moult from Courtenay for the summer season (although he also declared that, thanks to the balmy climate, ‘Winter in Salcombe is winter only in name'). In 1889, Alfred Lord Tennyson is said to have joined him there, penning his poem 'Crossing the Bar' in a summerhouse in the garden.
- Turn right by the post box then, almost immediately, select the left fork. This is Moult Road. Carry on up-hill and ahead along the public footpath when the road turns to a track. Passing the bollards, go into the woods, forking left and crossing a stile to descend through trees to a road. Bear right to continue ahead to Combe, forking left by another postbox to climb to Rew.
- Near the top of the hill, turn left onto the public footpath signed to Soar at Higher Rew. Going across the yard, follow the public footpath between the barns and then carry on above the campsite until you enter a field. Here you turn right and follow the right-hand hedges up the hill. At the top, turn right to go through the gateway and across an old cattle grid to the junction by the coastguard cottages at Soar. Carry on along the lane ahead, past the rear of the cottages, to the next junction, with a grassy area on your left above some converted barns.
- Ignoring the footpath to your left, take the left-hand road beyond it to walk downhill along the drive signed Soar Mill Cove. Ignore another footpath on your left by the thatched cottage at Lower Soar, carrying on until the road turns left below the hotel. Go through the gate on the right-hand side of the road, and follow the public footpath down the valley to the South West Coast Path at Soar Mill Cove.
- Turn left on the Coast path above the cove to follow the acorn waymarkers back to Salcombe. Climbing out of the cove and dipping into another valley before ascending again, carry on along the Warren to the gate at the end of the open access area. Go through the gate then bear right to head across the field towards the lower gateway, signposted as the South West Coast Path route to Bolt Head. Follow the path down around Bolt Head and carry on, descending steeply to Starehole Bottom.
There are a number of warrens along the South Devon coastline, established and maintained during medieval times for breeding rabbits as a food source. Fishponds were common at the time, too, as well as dovecotes and duck decoy ponds. Warrens were introduced to Britain by the Normans in the twelfth century, when rabbits were also prized for their fur. To start with only the wealthy landowners bred rabbits, but by the thirteenth century many areas kept rabbits in 'coneygarths' or 'pillow mounds', and the practice spread through the population until the late eighteenth century, when rabbit began to be regarded as a pauper's food.
The area around the Warren was inhabited during prehistoric times. Flint tools have been found here, and there are traces of hut circles where families lived in round houses. There are also the remains of field systems from the Bronze Age, some 4000 years ago.
Today the National Trust looks after the area, and Dartmoor ponies are used to graze the cliffs, preventing scrub from smothering the more delicate species. Look out for grey bush crickets and their cousins the great green crickets (the largest in the British Isles). Ravens and buzzards fly over the rocky crags above. Fulmars and gulls breed on the cliff-faces, and cormorants and shags hunt from the rocks below. In spring and autumn migrating swallows and house martins pause on the headland at the start and end of their long journey south.
The headland was the site of a Second World War lookout until it was demolished in 2007. When the sea is still you can see the seaweed underwater marking the wreck of the German four-masted barque 'Herzogin Cecilie', which ran aground on Ham Stone Rock in 1936 and was towed to Starehole Bay and beached here (see the Sharp Tor & Bolt Head Walk).
Vikings are said to have landed and settled in Starehole Bay sometime between the ninth and eleventh centuries when there were a number of Viking raids around south Devon.
- Cross the bridge to climb out of Starehole on the rough steps and narrow rock ledges that round the point at Sharp Tor. Carry on along the path through Fir Wood to emerge in the lane accessing the National Trust car park at Overbeck's.
The path over the steps and ledges is known as the Courtenay Walk. It was cut in the 1860s by Viscount Courtenay, so that visitors to Salcombe could reach Bolt Head.
You are now above the treacherous Salcombe Bar of Tennyson's poem. Stretching from here to Leek Cove, across the water, the Bar is less than two feet (60cm) below water as the tide ebbs and it is a notorious shipping hazard. It was the scene of Devon's worst lifeboat loss, when the 'William & Emma' capsized as she was rowing back from a rescue in 1916. The lifeboat had been launched in southwesterly gales to go to the aid of the Plymouth schooner, Western Lass, which had run aground in Lannacombe Bay. Shortly after it was launched, a message came through saying that all those on board the schooner had been brought safely ashore by the Prawle Rocket Company. Tragically, there was no way of recalling the lifeboat, and the men arrived at the schooner to find that they were not needed. As they recrossed the Bar on their way home, a huge wave threw the crew across the boat and a second swiftly followed and capsized it, drowning all but two of the crew of 15.
Unlike most estuaries, the Salcombe-Kingsbridge estuary is not fed by a single sizeable river. Instead, a number of springs rise in the hills behind it, with small streams flowing from them. It is considered to be one of the best examples of a 'ria' that is disproportionate to the size of its feeder river. (A ria is a long, narrow inlet formed when rising sea levels drown a valley).
The estuary is tidal beyond Salcombe, to Kingsbridge, and it is both a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a local nature reserve. Because there is so little water flowing from inland, it is largely a marine system, which has created some important and unusual habitats, including reed beds, mudflats and eelgrass beds. The extensive mudflats at the top of the tidal area are crammed with worms, snails, and bacteria - a feast for the estuary's wading birds and fish - while further downstream there are crabs and shellfish. Down on the foreshore, the rare eelgrass beds provide a nursery for fish and seahorses.
It is also the site of several notable shipwrecks, including one from the Bronze Age (see the Sharp Tor & Bolt Head Walk).
Overbeck's, built at the end of the nineteenth century, was bought in the 1920s by inventor Otto Overbeck, after his pioneering electrotherapy machine 'The Rejuvenator' amassed him a small fortune (see the Sharp Tor & Bolt Head Walk). He lived there until his death in 1937, having bequeathed it to the National Trust, on condition that it was turned into a museum and youth hostel, and not a brothel.
- Coming out of Overbeck's, carry on ahead down the road and follow it downhill back to South Sands. Continue past the back of the beach, climbing the hill beyond and then dropping down on the far side to return to North Sands.
Salcombe; North Sands, café; South Sands, pub, kiosk; Soar Mill Valley, hotel.