Walk - Estuary Walk from Barnstaple Station
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 the front of Barnstaple Station turn left and follow the signs for the South West Coast Path and the Tarka Trail towards Braunton and Ilfracombe, through two underpasses and onto the new bridge across the River Taw.
- At the end of the bridge turn left and follow the path along the old railway track beside the estuary.
- After you have passed the last buildings out of Barnstaple, the path to the right a couple of miles ahead will take you up to the road at Ashford, from where you can catch the bus back to Barnstaple for the shortest version of this walk (2¾ miles one way, or 4¼km).Otherwise continue ahead along the path. There are footpaths leading up to the road along this stretch of the walk, but it is a busy main road and narrow, with no bus stops.
- Before you reach Chivenor, a path to the right leads up to the Tarka Inn. Stop here for refreshments, but there is no bus stop on this dangerous corner of the road, so return to the Coast Path/Tarka Trail afterwards and carry on to Chivenor.
There was a civil airfield at Chivenor in the 1930s, which became an RAF Coastal Command Station in 1940. After the Second World War it remained as RAF Chivenor and was used for training, primarily weapons training. In the 1960s an RAF Tactical Weapons Unit flew Hunter aircraft here for training, followed at the end of the 1970s by Hawks.
In 1995 the RAF moved out and handed the base over to the Royal Marines. RMB Chivenor is now also home to the Commando Logistics Regiment and 24 Commando Regiment Royal Engineers. The RAF 22 Squadron continues to fly two Search and Rescue helicopters from Chivenor, and the 624 Volunteer Gliding Squadron remained to carry on training air cadets.
- At Chivenor the footpath comes out on a roundabout. Catch the bus here for the middle-distance walk (3¾ miles, or 6km), or carry on along the path past the wetlands to Wrafton. Taking the road to the right after the Chivenor crash gate will lead up to the main road, where there is a bus stop, while carrying on ahead will lead to Velator.
- At Velator the path comes out onto another roundabout. Carrying straight on ahead will lead into Braunton, where there are shops and refreshments, as well as a small museum. Buses travel regularly to Barnstaple from Tesco (to your left) if you decide that 5 miles (8km) is enough.
- For the dedicated walker who is keen to explore the delights of Braunton Burrows, the longest version of this walk turns left at Velator and carries on along the Coast Path and the Tarka Trail as they travel together from the quay around the nineteenth century flood defences towards Crow Point, at the mouth of the estuary.
Velator Quay was once a thriving port, with sometimes up to a hundred vessels at a time using it during the nineteenth century. Goods leaving included manganese ore, mined locally, as well as produce from the Great Field; while ketches from South Wales and elsewhere along the Bristol Channel brought coal and limestone, bricks and fertilisers, salt and flour.
In 1808, Braunton Marshes were used for cattle grazing, but it was a tidal zone subject to flooding during storms, and it provided poor quality pasture, as well as being dangerous at times. When a visitor from the Board of Agriculture suggested that reclaiming the marshes from the sea might raise their value from a total of about £10 for approximately 1,200 acres to a dizzy £3 per acre, a scheme was quickly set up to enclose and drain them. The Great Sea Bank was built, 100 feet thick, and animals were banned until the grass took root, following which sheep were kept there. A series of gravity-fed drainage channels were dug, and the sluice gates used to control them still provide this function today.
The result is an area of lush pastureland. The drainage channels quickly became lined with reeds and rushes, providing a habitat for a rich diversity of wildlife, and coots and moorhens can be seen scuttling through the pondweed, while families of swans glide gracefully between banks of wildflowers, dragonflies and other insects flitting around them.
The dune system at Braunton Burrows covers over 2,000 acres, and some of the dunes are over 30 metres high. It is internationally renowned for its plant and animal life, and over 400 different species of plant have been recorded here, including some very rare ones which grow in abundance.
Tucked away at the end of Braunton Burrows, a little way off the Coast Path, ramps and other concrete constructions mark the area used by US troops to train for the Normandy landings. The old ferry way from Sandy Lane to Crow Point was straightened and widened for access, and it is still known today as the American Road.
The 365 acres of Braunton Great Field comprise one of the few surviving areas of land still farmed in narrow, unfenced strips, unchanged from medieval days. The Great Field lies on a fertile plain carved out by the rise and fall of sea levels during the ice ages, when the northern ice cap advanced and receded. Following the melting of the ice, swollen rivers washed in great accumulations of alluvial silt, clay and peat, which laid down an exceptionally fine soil giving rise to ideal growing conditions.
- At the White House follow the Coast Path around the back of the beach and onwards to the American Road at Crow Point. Turn right here to walk past the car park at the end of the track and onto Sandy Lane, turning right at the junction to walk around Braunton Marshes and back to the Tesco roundabout, from where you can catch a bus back to Barnstaple. By this stage you will have walked 11½ miles (18.5km), which will probably seem like a good enough reason to stop here!
- If you'd like to do the Braunton Burrows part of the walk but with fewer miles to tramp, consider catching the bus to the Tesco roundabout from Barnstaple before you start. This reduces the distance you'll have to walk to 6½ miles (10.5km), assuming that you catch the bus back as well.
Barnstaple, Ashford's Trelawney Garden Centre, pub and restaurant in Wrafton, pubs, restaurants and tearooms in Braunton.