Walk - South Cleave - Valley of Rocks

Walk information provided with help from Natural England. Map reproduced by permission of Ordnance Survey on behalf of HMSO. © Crown copyright and database right 2020. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100022021.

Route Description

  1. Starting at the seafront, pick up the Coast Path and walk with it to the cliff railway. Alternatively, you might like to take a ride up the hill on the railway and pick up the Coast Path at the top.

The Lynmouth-Lynton water-powered cliff railway is world-famous, and it has never once been out of action in its 120 years. It was the result of the collaboration between local businessman John Heywood and London lawyer (with a second home in Lynton), Thomas Hewitt, using the services of local builder Bob Jones. With a certain amount of political power between them, which helped establish the project as viable, they nonetheless lacked sufficient capital to carry it out. As luck would have it, publisher George Newnes arrived in the district at just the right time, starry-eyed and with the funds to finance the funicular, and he was easily persuaded to do just that. (Newnes built himself a house on the side of Hollerday Hill, en route, which was subsequently burnt down, but the remains can still be seen in the woods on the hill – see the Hollerday Hill Walk).

Local engineer George Marks had been recruited to design the cliff railway. Realising that the length of the rails (862 feet) and the steepness of the cliffs (almost vertical) made it important to have extremely efficient brakes, he devised a system using four different sets of brakes: two sets of friction brakes, pressure being applied by hydraulic pistons to steel blocks holding each of the two cars on the crown of the rails, and two sets of hydraulic callipers. Interestingly, the hydraulic fluid used was water, not oil.

Each of the two cars driving the railway has a water tank holding 700 gallons of water, and as the passengers board, the tanks are fully filled, the variation in weight caused by the passengers being accommodated by the brakes on the cars. When it is time to go, the driver of one car begins to empty his tank. His car rises up the rails, causing the other to sink, as their relative weights change, making the whole completely carbon-neutral.

What makes the railway is unique is the fact that the water discharged is allowed to run away, where other similar railways have to pump theirs through the system to be reused. This is thanks to the political clout of Messrs Hewitt and Heywood, which enabled them to negotiate an Act of Parliament in 1888 which gave them a perpetual right to extract up to 60,000 gallons a day.

The funicular opened in 1890 and its final cost was £8000.

  1. Follow the Coast Path as it zigzags over the cliff railway to the lane above.
  2. Turn right onto this lane, and onto the path a little way beyond which travels around the cliffs, high above the sea. Wind with it around all the spectacular rock formations, until you come to the very appropriately-named Castle Rock, a mile or so beyond. Take a detour here for breathtaking views – or save your energy for later, when your climb up South Cleave will give you another chance to savour this amazing landscape.
  3. Reaching the road below Castle Rock, turn right, around the roundabout, and walk along the road to Lee Abbey.
  4. Just after the abbey, turn left onto the bridleway which climbs gently through the woods above the abbey.
  5. When the bridleway doubles back on itself, fork left with it and carry on uphill.
  6. When it doubles back on itself again, just as you are coming out of the woods, leave it, and take the path leading straight ahead, onto the open hillside. Zigzag up the hillside to the heathland high above the Valley of Rocks, and follow the path along the top of the hill.

The valley bottom below is well sheltered from all except southwesterly winds, and there is extensive evidence of prehistoric habitation here. The remains of low stone walls, visible through the bracken and stones, are the fragments of a Celtic type field system. There are also two circular enclosures that may have been stock pounds or settlements, and it seems likely that there are Bronze Age hut circles, although these are obscured by the bracken.

  1. The path starts to descend above the car park in the Vallewy of Rocks, turning sharply right and then dropping down to meet another track above the cemetery. Turn left onto this new track and follow it down to the road.
  2. Turn right onto the road for a short distance, to where two paths lead away to your left.
  3. Take the right-hand of these paths and zigzag up the hillside with it. Detour left for great views back over the valley, or continue on the left-hand path which leads around the coastal side of Hollerday Hill. Stay with this path, following the signs to Lynton (though the detours around the ruins of Hollerday House and the Iron Age hillfort are fascinating if you have the time and energy for them).
  4. Turn left onto the road beyond, and then left again on North Walk Hill to pick up the Coast Path again.
  5. Follow the Coast Path back over the cliff railway to return to the start of the walk.

Nearby refreshments

Mother Meldrum's Tea Room in the Valley of Rocks, and (in summer) Lee Abbey Tea Cottage; or in Lynmouth

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