Walk - The Hangman Hills
Walk information provided with help from Natural England. Map reproduced by permission of Ordnance Survey on behalf of HMSO. © Crown copyright and database right 2021. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100022021.
- From the car park take the Coast Path up the steps past the houses and keep climbing with it to the junction of paths above Wild Pear Beach.
Although it is possible to reach Wild Pear Beach on foot, it is a difficult and dangerous enterprise, leading to the beach being a popular naturist haunt. There was once a lime kiln on the cliffs here, which processed lime for agricultural purposes, and an associated counting house (see the Little Hangman Walk). Ships travelled between here and South Wales bringing coal and limestone, and taking away iron and manganese from the nearby mines.
Combe Martin itself was once a busy port, with its share of tales of seafarers and shipwrecks. The most noted visitor from foreign shores was the seventeenth century Earl of Rone (from Tyrone in Ireland), whose ship was said to have been wrecked at nearby Raparee Beach, in Ilfracombe. Allegedly the Earl's vessel was not wrecked at all; but like many another community the folk of Combe Martin didn't let the truth get in the way of a good tale (and a good celebration), choosing instead to honour the event every year with the annual “Hunting of the Earl of Rone”.
Taking place on the Spring Bank Holiday, the revelries include the Earl, a hobby hoss, a fool, a donkey, and some grenadiers, accompanied by musicians, drummers and dancers. The practice was abolished in 1837, when the “licentious and drunken behaviour” of the revellers led to one unfortunate merrymaker falling off a wall, but it was revived in 1970 and is now one of the highlights of the North Devon calendar.
- Ignoring the path to the right above Wild Pear Beach, carry on up the hill towards Little Hangman.
- To visit Little Hangman, take the sheep track to the left and return to the original path a little further on. (Be aware that there's plenty more uphill yet though!). Otherwise stay on the path and follow it around the coast above The Rawn's and steeply uphill to Great Hangman.
On the area to your right here are the remains of a rifle range and target butts here, and what was possibly a building associated with them. They were built sometime after 1887 and are only visible now as a small mound covered in turf and scrub.
At 1044 feet, or 318 metres, Great Hangman is England's highest sea cliff. From the cairn at the top here are tremendous views over the surrounding countryside, including the rounded humps of the “hogsback cliffs”, formed of the red Hangman Grits which were laid down as desert sands here 300 – 400 million years ago and raised high by the movements of the earth beneath.
- At the cairn, take the path heading downhill to the south east for about 400m.
- Turn right onto the bridleway and follow it through the fields to Girt Down Farm.
The whole of the area enclosed by this walk was once an important mining area. As early as 1292 Combe Martin was defined as a Royal Mine, and a hundred years later King Edward III sent miners from the South Pennines to work here. In the fifteenth century, King Henry V found the mines a valuable resource for the “betterment of his wars in France,” and declared that “the battles of Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt were won in the shafts of Combe Martin”. A further century later, Henry VIII appointed a notable German mining engineer to oversee operations here and elsewhere in Devon, and gave him a thousand men to work with.
Combe Martin was particularly noted for its silver, but manganese, iron, lead, zinc and copper were also mined around here, and there are remnants of shafts and adits throughout this area, especially around West Challacombe, Girt Down and Knap Down, as well as the remains of an old wheel-house to the south of this walk.
- After passing Girt Down Farm, head left up Girt Lane and then after approximately 100m turn right onto Knap Down, to where it meets the road at Netherton Cross.
There are the remains of a mediaeval settlement at Netherton, long since abandoned. There is also an ancient standing stone somewhere on Knap Down, although there is some controversy over where and what it is. It seems to be prehistoric, however, and is known as the Hangman's Stone.
- Turn right onto the track and follow it past the Netherton ruins, towards East Challacombe Farm.
- Cross the stream and, ignoring the lane to East Challacombe Farm, turn sharply left down the path and stay with it beside the stream down onto the edge of the village.
- Take the left-hand track downhill into the village towards the main road.
- Turn right just before the main road and follow the back street back past the tourist information office to the car park.
In Combe Martin