Walk - Heddon's Mouth Cleave
Walk information provided with help from Natural England. Map reproduced by permission of Ordnance Survey on behalf of HMSO. © Crown copyright and database right 2019. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100022021.
- Arriving at Hunter's Inn from the direction of the National Trust shop, take the road to your left and follow it around the edge of the woodland for a couple of hundred yards, until you come to the path on the far side of the river, just around the corner on your right-hand side.
- Follow the path alongside the river through the woodland for about half a mile, until you come to the path heading steeply uphill through the trees to your left.
- Climb the hill with the path. After a while you are joined by another path heading uphill from your right. The Coast Path runs along this path here; and the Tarka Trail does too.
The Tarka Trail is another long-distance footpath, with stretches of cycle path included along the way. It runs 180 miles in a figure of eight around northern Devon, and features locations mentioned in Henry Williamson's book Tarka the Otter. Williamson himself lived a little way down the coast, at Georgeham, and his eponymous otter is celebrated in numerous ways throughout the region.
Heddon's Mouth and neighbouring Woody Bay comprise the West Exmoor Coast and Woods Site of Special Scientific Interest, because of their areas of ancient sessile oak woodland, maritime plant communities and rich bird population. There are also important geological features within the site (see the Martinhoe Roman Fortlet Walk).
Only the sessile oaks and downy birch trees flourish high up on the scree-clad slopes here; but lower down, where the soil is richer, there are clumps of rowan, holly and hazel. Bracken, ferns, bilberry and lichen also flourish, and violets and primroses in the spring and summer; while a little further around the headland, the coastal heathland, featuring heather, bell heather and gorse, provides a useful habitat for many species of insect, including moths and butterflies, and a number of bird species, including winchat, stonechat and wheatear. Coastal plants abound, too, like the pink-headed thrift and the spotted white flowers of the sea campion.
Woodland birds, across the valley, include pied flycatchers, redstarts, wood warblers and woodpeckers; while this is the best place in North Devon for spotting nesting seabirds like guillemots and razorbills. Keep an eye open for peregrine falcons, too: their 120-mile-an-hour plunge after prey is a rare but spectacular sight.
- When you come to the fork high up on the hillside, take the right-hand path and follow it northwards around the hillside, past Peter Rock. Turn sharp left with the path around the cliffs, and stay with it to East Cleave.
Exmoor has the highest coastline on the British mainland, as well as the most remote shoreline. Because of the height and steepness of the cliffs from here to Combe Martin, there is no landward access to the six-mile stretch of coast between the two places, and it has been estimated that if you were to wait for the right tides to walk the 34-mile Exmoor shoreline, it would take you five years. This is made all the more difficult by the fact that the Bristol Channel is subject to the greatest variation in tidal ranges anywhere in the world other than in the Bay of Fundy in Canada.
- The Coast Path turns sharply again in the cleave, this time to the right, uphill and southwards, and then it splits into two, at the top of the hill where it opens out into fields. The Coast Path continues to the right, on its way to Combe Martin via Trentishoe and Great Hangman; but it's the left-hand path that you want for this walk. Take the left-hand fork and follow it around the hill, ignoring the path plunging down to the river on your left about a quarter of a mile later.
- The path curves to your right and starts descending gently, flattening out and turning more sharply to the right before it comes to the lane. Take the track to the left, curving steeply downhill into Birchey Cleave Plantation, and follow it down to where it joins the lane, beside the stream.
- Continue with the lane back to 2, from where you carry on around to the right to return to the start of the walk.