Walk - Windbury Head

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.

Route Description

  1. From the National Trust car park at Brownsham, take the path leading away from the road, opposite the car park entrance, and follow it into the woods.

This is part of the Marsland to Clovelly Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The range of habitats in cliffs, clifftops and valleys provides homes for a rich variety of species.

The grassland, heath and scrub in the open areas enables insects and other invertebrates to flourish. They provide food for birds such as the stonechat, linnet and meadow pipit. Rocky ledges on the cliffs give nesting grounds for the fulmars wheeling overhead in their stiff-winged flight, as well as peregrine falcons, whose dramatic dives after prey can reach speeds of up to 200 mph. In the summer, manx shearwaters glide over the sea in search of fish.

In the woodlands, listen out for woodpeckers drilling the trees, and the liquid notes of the mistle and song thrushes. Nuthatches and tree creepers can also be seen hunting for insects in the branches. This is a nationally important area, too, for lichens, which only thrive in clean air. Some 250 species are found in the woods along this part of the coast, including two sub-tropical varieties found nowhere else in the UK. Among the great swathes of lichen festooning the trees, look out for the long 'string of sausage lichen', the 'writing lichens' resembling oriental script on the bark, and tree lungwort which grows in cabbage-like clusters. Watch out, too, for deer in the distance, usually roe, but sometimes red, or the glimpse of a fox.

In spring bluebells and wild garlic carpet the woods, dotted with rosettes of primroses. In summer banks of red campion, wild carrot and cow parsley line the path, with tangles of purple vetch and yellow bird's-foot trefoil. On the cliff edges, plants such as the speckled white sea campion and bladder campion flourish in the salt air, as do the clumps of sea pinks, or thrift. Stands of foxgloves provide spires of colour in among the bracken and young sycamore saplings on Windbury Head. The banks of coconut-scented gorse are vivid in the heathland, their pods popping in the sun at the end of summer.

The wildflowers attract a wide range of butterflies, including the speckled wood, brimstone, silver-washed fritillary, and the gatekeeper. In open areas the orange tip, painted lady, red admiral and dark green fritillary can also be seen darting from flower to flower.

  1. Take the path signed to Windbury Hillfort and follow it alongside the stream to the footbridge.
  2. Do not cross on the footbridge, but carry on ahead towards the hillfort. Fork left shortly afterwards where the path is signed towards the hillfort and the Coast Path. Ignore the path to the right, carry on as the path pulls uphill through the trees and out onto open heathland.

Windbury Hillfort crowns the hill as you climb to the Coast Path. Sited 142 metres above sea level, this was an Iron Age hillfort, one of several along the north coast, where settlers from the last millennium BC used the high cliffs of a promontory as a natural defence against invaders, sealing off the inland approaches by means of earthen banks. Much of the structure at Windbury has been lost to sea erosion, and the National Trust is working at preserving what is left from being damaged by roots.

  1. Reaching the South West Coast Path, turn right towards Mouth Mill, carrying on along the path as it starts to descend towards the next valley.

A short detour to the left when you reach the Coast Path will take you to a plaque erected to the memory of the five-strong crew of a Wellington bomber which crashed here in April 1942.

From this part of the coast there are tremendous views across the water to Lundy Island, a granite outcrop some 12 miles away. Radiometric dating of its rocks has shown that the island is much younger than similar rocks found in Devon and Cornwall, and it is thought to have been linked with Scotland and Northern Ireland, possibly formed as a result of volcanic action some 62-65 million years ago. There are strong links between Bucks Mills and Lundy, and when the herring and mackerel shoals diminished in the nineteenth century local men commuted daily to the island to work in its quarries.

  1. Coming to the junction of paths as you head downhill, take the right-hand path, signed Beckland Woods, for a dog-leg route through the woods, back to the footbridge at 3. This time cross the bridge, and take the path to the left, back out to the Coast Path. Turn right onto the Coast Path to continue towards Mouth Mill.
  2. The Coast Path carries on along the edge of fields and drops downhill through Brownsham Wood, turning left towards the bottom to come out above Mouthmill Beach. Leave the Coast Path here to take the path inland to the right, pulling gently uphill into Brownsham Woods. 

The building by the path above the beach is an old lime kiln, used to burn limestone and culm (see below) to make lime, mostly used as a fertiliser to sweeten the acid soil.

The coastal cliffs between here and Clovelly are another feature of the SSSI, being an important geological site. During the Variscan mountain-building period, some 300 million years ago, bands of shale within a sequence of sandstone strata were formed into large-scale folds. These were later inclined or overturned to the north before being refolded in a series of much smaller folds plunging to the east. This has resulted in some spectacular rock formations around the edge of Mouthmill Beach. The most striking is Blackchurch Rock, a large arch-stack feature with 'windows' carved out of it by the sea, visible far below as you descend to the beach from Windbury Hillfort.

  1. After about half a mile, bear right on the public bridleway to carry on uphill.

Here the rocks are known as Culm Measures, named after the patches of culm in them -a soft, sooty coal. Culm Grasslands grow on the slates and shales of the Measures and are visible in the fields to the left of the track as you approach Brownsham. They are wet, acidic, grazing pastures that are a characteristic mixture of marshy grassland, bog, wet heath and scrubby woodland. Their purple moor grass and rush pasture support a wide range of wildlife, including the Marsh Fritillary, an extremely rare butterfly. More than 90% of Culm Grassland has been lost during the last century, mostly through damaging agricultural practices. A number of conservation groups are working to protect it.

  1. Turn right onto the track, about a mile beyond, to walk the last couple of hundred yards to Lower Brownsham Farm. From here follow the signed footpath back to the car park at the start of the walk.
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