Walk - Speke's Mill Mouth
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.
- From the far end of the car park above the Hartland Quay Hotel, pick up the South West Coast Path as it heads south towards Spekes Mill.
A romantic outpost in a spectacular setting, Hartland Quay has been used as a location in many films, including 'Treasure Island' and 'Solomon Kane'. Built towards the end of the sixteenth century, the first reference to the quay - as 'Mr Abbott's Key' - was in 1602/3, and is thought to refer to William Abbot of Hartland Abbey. By 1629 the breakers driven onto the pier by Atlantic storms had pounded it so hard that it was already in need of repair. The work was carried out again although the area is remote and was not easily reached overland. In 1729 and in 1887 it needed repairing again. When the railway arrived in Bideford at the end of the nineteenth century, the old customs houses and warehouses were converted to an hotel. Today the old stables are The Wreckers Retreat Bar, and their hay and corn lofts now en-suite bedrooms. They also house a fascinating museum telling of traders and smugglers, as well as shipwrecks and lifesavers.
The Hartland coastline is prized by geologists for the dramatic folds and faults in its cliffs and rocks. This is the result of huge forces at work beneath the Earth's surface during a period of mountain-building, about 300 million years ago, known as the Variscan Orogeny. Fossils in the face of the towering cliffs tell of the creatures which once lived in the sand and mud at the bottom of a brackish sea. The hard fingers of sandstone running out into the water tell of the deadly ridges beneath the sea which wrecked many a ship over the centuries.
The path runs behind the dramatically soaring peak at St Catherine's Tor, at the side of a 'sea-dissected valley'. The rock along this coastline is so hard that, although over the millennia the pounding waves have eroded it into tall cliffs, the rivers running down to the sea have failed to carve a channel into it. As a result they reach the coast high above the shoreline and fall to the beach in spectacular waterfalls. Beside St Catherine's Tor the waves have exploited a weakness in the rocks and have cut a deep inlet that has crossed the valley and caused the Spekes river to fall into a lower valley that runs at an angle to it, formed as a result of the crashing waves.
There was once a chapel on the tor, thought to have been part of the monastery at Hartland Abbey. The monks also had a swannery in the valley, and they built a dam across it to enclose the pond for their swans. The remains of the large earthen stone-faced walls can still be seen here.
- Take the stepping stones across the stream and follow the Coast Path waymarker across the field. Go along the path through the gate beyond, ignoring paths heading inland to the left, to descend steeply to Speke's Mill Mouth.
Here another dramatic waterfall cascades down the sheer rock face from the sea-dissected valley and tumbles into the valley below in a series of spectacular falls.
- Shortly after the Speke's Mill Mouth waterfall, the path forks. Bear left here, away from the Coast Path as it continues along above the cliffs, and bear right a moment later to follow the public footpath along a good track to Lymebridge. Stay on this track, bearing right at the next fork and ignoring all paths on either side, to walk to the road. Turn left on the road and walk to the crossroads ahead.
- Detour left here to Docton Mill Gardens and Tearoom, but otherwise turn left and climb steeply to the next crossroads, at Kernstone Cross.
- At Kernstone carry straight on ahead, towards Stoke and Hartland, following the track to Wargery Farm. At the farm follow the lane as it descends to the river, climbing steeply on the far side to the outskirts of Stoke and continuing ahead into the village at the next crossroads.
- In Stoke turn left and follow the footpath through the churchyard, signed to Hartland Quay. Coming out of the far end of the churchyard, follow the footpath over some steps to pass in front of the row of cottages, and then turn right onto the footpath running through the field, parallel to the road. At Rocket House take the path to the left and follow it steeply downhill, back to hartland Quay.
St Nectan is said to have been one of the 24 missionary offspring of the fifth-century King Brychan of Brycheiniog. The saint established his hermitage in a remote and densely wooded valley. The well that he used for drinking water and baptisms can be seen just down the road. Built in the fourteenth century, today's church at Stoke replaced a collegiate church founded in 1050 by Gytha, mother of King Harold, which had been built on the site of St Nectan's early hermitage.
According to tradition, a swineherd gave St Nectan two cows in return for helping the man recover his lost pigs. On discovering that the cows were stolen, St Nectan tracked down the thieves and tried to convert them to Christianity. In response, they beheaded him. The legend says that Nectan picked up his head and carried it back to his well before he collapsed and died, and foxgloves grew wherever his blood fell.
There is a hotel, pub and shop at Hartland Quay and tea rooms at Docton Mill and Stoke. There is also a shop and some pubs in the nearby village of Hartland.