Walk - West Down Beacon
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 Budleigh Salterton's Public Hall walk northwards up Station Road, carrying on along Moor Lane to come out at the top of Dark Lane, by the school.
- Turn right onto Dark Lane, and then almost immediately left, to carry on in the original direction up Bedlands Lane.
- From the top of Bedlands Lane turn left onto the B3178 and then right a moment later, to walk up Bear Lane.
- At the railway bridge pick up the cycle path on your left, leading towards Exmouth, and follow it through the woods to Castle Lane.
This is part of the Budleigh-Exmouth Cycleway, which here runs along the former railway line which linked Budleigh Salterton and Exmouth.
Work started on the railway line in 1899, and it took four years for the labourers to construct its numerous bridges and embankments and cut its path through Knowle Hill. They did this using picks and shovels, with the help of two 'steam navvies' - steam shovels - which they employed at either end of the cutting, to meet in the middle. The line never reached its full potential, however, and by the 1950s was scarcely used at all. In 1963 it fell foul of the infamous Beeching report, 'The Reshaping of British Railways' and the last train ran in 1967.
As is the case elsewhere, however, the rail traveller's loss is the walker's and cyclist's gain. Many of the former railway lines in the south west have been redeployed as cyclepaths and footpaths. Most of these are broad and flat and have been surfaced with tarmac, making the peaceful countryside they travel through accessible to a wide range of users.
In a tidy piece of history, the Budleigh-Exmouth Cycleway was officially opened in 1998 by Lord Clinton, a relative of Mrs Williams-Drummond, daughter of Lady Gertrude Rolle and the honorary driver of the first train from Tipton St John to Budleigh, in 1897.
The surrounding woods and hedges are home to a plethora of wildlife, including foxes and badgers, dormice and bats, adders and lizards, and butterflies, dragonflies and rare wood crickets.
- Turn left up onto the path to Castle Lane, turning onto the lane at the top to head roughly southwards.
- When Castle Lane turns sharply right, take the footpath ahead which continues in your direction, and follow this alongside the Golf Club for about a mile, ignoring the Littleham Church path which crosses yours, also ignoring the detours to the left shortly afterwards. Follow the waymarkers around to the right when they cross the golf course, turning off again to the left at the end.
Be aware of the golfers around you and the possibility of flying balls as you cross the golf course, and keep dogs under control here.
- Turn left when you come to the South West Coast Path, and follow it for about three quarters of a mile towards Budleigh Salterton.
East Devon is particularly noteworthy for its red sandstone formations, dating back to the Triassic period, some 245-240 million years ago. The red cliffs here are a sample of the stunning rock formations which have earned the 'Jurassic Coast' of East Devon and Dorset World Heritage status.
At the highest point on this part of the coast you will come to a trig point. This is West Down Beacon, once a fire beacon, and later a signal station during the Napoleonic Wars.
By 1795, before the Napoleonic Wars began, Britain was already in conflict with France and the Admiralty needed a faster means of communication than the current system of horseback messengers. A network of signal stations was established, connecting the Admiralty in London with its fleet ports along the south coast. These included Dawlish Head and Berry Head on one side of West Down Beacon, and Peak Hill and Beer Head on the other.
This was before the invention of the electrical telegraph, and the signalling system used was known as an optical telegraph, which required a direct line of sight between the signal stations. Standing on West Down Beacon on a good day, you can see why it was chosen: there is excellent visibility in all directions.
Signals consisted of flags and balls, and the system warned merchant vessels as well as RN cruisers of where the French privateers where lurking. Signals used included: 1 ball above a flag for an enemy frigate or frigates; 2 balls above a flag for a small cruiser; 3 balls above a flag for an enemy vessel close under the land. Eventually, this system was replaced with a semaphore telegraph – a high pole with hinged signal arms, ironically devised by the French themselves during the Napoleonic Wars!
The signal stations were also used to warn of suspected smuggling activities, and if goods were seized as a result of information received in this way, the signal station concerned would be entitled to a share of the booty.
- From West Down Beacon the Coast Path descends gently into Budleigh Salterton. Carry on along it, past the first few houses, until you come to an open green area. At the far end of this field turn left, to walk up Victoria Place and onto the B3178 road beyond.
- Turn right here, and then take the next left, into Station Road, to return to the start of the walk.
In Budleigh Salterton, or the Dog and Donkey in Knowle.