Walk - Teignmouth to Dawlish Railway Walk
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.
Note: This walk runs along the sea wall and so should not be attempted in stormy weather, as waves break over the wall, and there is the risk of being swept off. Part way along the walk, the path crosses underneath the railway and this is impassable without getting your feet wet for about an hour at high tide. You can see tide times here.
- From the Lookout Station on the seafront, pick up the South West Coast Path and follow it along the sea wall to the steps just before the headland at Hole Head.
The railway line is part of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Penzance-Paddington line, and the tunnel as you leave the seawall to climb Smuggler's Lane is one of five Brunel had to build to bring the line around the coast here. Brunel was appointed as the engineer to the South Devon Railway in 1843, and decided to use the innovative atmospheric railway system to power the trains. This involved running pipes along the rails and creating a vacuum in them to propel the train by means of a piston from the train running through the tube via a sealable slot.
The system encountered two problems: one was due to the fact that the railway line was not connected to the telegraph system, and so the tubes had to be emptied of air at the pumping stations along the route according to a timetable, whether the train was on time or not, which was both inefficient and expensive. The other problem was the spray from the sea during stormy weather, which made it difficult to seal the tubes effectively. Because of these issues, atmospheric trains were used for less than a year, from 1847-1848.
Brunel's tunnel here is known as Parson's Tunnel, named after the Parson and Clerk rocks off the headland. Local legend tells of an ambitious parson from an inland parish who nurtured hopes of succeeding the Bishop of Exeter, who lay dying in Dawlish. The parson paid the bishop regular visits, accompanied by his clerk. On one of their journeys the pair lost their way in thick fog, and spent hours wandering around in heavy rain. The parson, an impatient man at the best of times, lost his temper and cursed his unfortunate clerk for his incompetence, swearing that he would be better off guided by the devil.
Shortly afterwards they came upon a kindly peasant, who led them to a tumbledown cottage, where there was a rowdy crowd. The parson and his clerk were only too pleased to accept the hospitality offered, and they were rather the worse for wear when a messanger arrived at dawn to say that the bishop had died. The two men threw themselves on their horses, ready to leave, but neither horse would move an inch. At the same time, the merrymakers around them were turned into leering demons who howled in delight at the parson's predicament, and the cottage disappeared in a puff of smoke.
Realising, too late, that his hasty wish had come true and he had indeed been guided by the devil, the parson found himself stranded in the sea, with his clerk a short distance away. In that instant, they were both turned to stone, and stand there to this day.
- Go down the steps and through the archway beyond, and follow Smugglers' Lane steeply uphill to the main road.
- Turn right onto the main road and follow it a short way, until you come to Windward Lane, on your right.
- Walking a short distance up Windward Lane, you will find the Coast Path on your left. Follow the Coast Path around the back of the headland and steeply downhill to where it runs alongside the railway line.
Note the red cliffs ahead of you, and the two small stacks beyond. Like the Parson and Clerk rocks these once formed part of the headland, until the pounding waves weakened cracks in the rock and caused some parts to break away and stand alone as stacks. If you check out the cliff face beside the tunnel, you will see that the red sandstone contains angular fragments of limestone. This is a type of breccia (where one rock contains angular fragments of another), in this case dating from the Permian period.
- From here the Coast Path pulls back uphill and then turns left, inland, up to the road again.
- Going up the steps and onto the road, turn left on the road and walk a short way, until you see the footpath sign pointing between houses on the opposite side of the road.
- Take this footpath and follow it along the right-hand boundaries of three fields, to the road beyond.
- Turn left onto this road and follow it gently downhill for a couple of hundred yards.
- At the sharp left-hand bend leave the road to carry straight ahead on the lane leading to the right. Follow this lane as it travels up and down between fields at the back of Holcombe, finally dropping gently down via Oak Hill Cross Road to Teignmouth Road again.
- Cross the road and go straight down Cliff Road, opposite. Picking up the footpath a little way beyond, on the right, follow it down, through the delightful Mules Park at Eastcliffe, to the seafront and so back to the start of the walk.
In Teignmouth or Dawlish or halfway in-between at the Salty Dog kiosk.