Walk - Maidencombe Circular

Walk information provided with help from Natural England. Map reproduced by permission of Ordnance Survey on behalf of HMSO. © Crown copyright and database right 2021. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100022021.

Route Description

  1. From the Watcombe Beach car park go over the stile and follow the steep path down towards Watcombe Beach to join the South West Coast Path.

Watcombe is an idyllic sandy beach sheltered by the imposing bulk of Watcombe Head, whose red cliffs rear precipitously from a rocky spit and are topped with vegetation and trees. Out in the bay the pounding of the sea has over time eaten into the cliffs and driven them inland, leaving stacks and rock arches standing in solitary splendour in the water, surrounded by wheeling gulls. With water to a depth of 10 metres and underwater caves reputedly the size of double-decker buses, it is a popular place for divers. Seals are sometimes seen here too.

  1. Go straight ahead on the Coast Path, towards Maidencombe, and follow the woodland path through the Valley of Rocks and up some steep steps. When the path forks take the right-hand fork to continue along the Coast Path, descending steeply through trees and then following the hedge above the cliffs. Ignoring the path inland, carry on along the Coast Path into Maidencombe.

The rocks here were laid down in a dry desert environment just north of the Equator some 280 million years ago, in the Permian period, when sand was deposited by the strong winds blowing through, and the occasional violent storm swept stones and rocks through the valleys and gorges to the open plain beyond, laying down sandstones and breccias which are of international importance to geologists today. If you look at the closely at the rocks along this walk, you will see that some of them (the breccias) have angular fragments of limestone embedded in the sandstone, where the rocks carried through the desert were deposited in the sand and then the whole was compressed over time into the strata (or layers) of rock you see around you.

Where the grains of sand were particularly fine, the sediment was deposited as clay, giving rise to a booming business in terracotta pottery. The Watcombe Pottery was started in 1871, and within a decade it was employing a substantial workforce to produce the wares which had become internationally famous. It continued in production until 1962. Meanwhile, the rival Torquay Terracotta Company was established in direct competition in 1875, producing very similar wares, and a number of other potteries flourished elsewhere in the area, including the Longpark China and Terracotta Works, set up in a building originally erected as a pumping station for the ill-fated 'atmospheric railway' designed by Victorian civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who lived nearby (see below).

  1. Detouring down a steep path and steps to the right will take you to Maidencombe Beach, a small sheltered cove with a beach cafe and spectacular red cliffs, and stunning sea views. Alternatively, there are refreshments available in the picturesque thatched village of Maidencombe.

Maidencombe Manor was first documented in the Domesday Book of 1086, but the village itself grew up around the fourteenth-century courthouse, with its fine sea views.

Turn right outside Maidencombe car park to follow the Coast Path towards Labrador and Teignmouth. The going becomes rather harder here as the path rises and falls along the coastline. Walk about 0.7 miles, to the track heading inland at Mackerel Cove.

  1. Turn left onto this track and follow it steeply uphill. At the top, there are breathtaking views out across Lyme Bay to Portland and the Dorset coast, where the white limestone cliffs of the Jurassic rocks are a striking contrast to Torbay's earlier red rocks.
  2. Towards the top turn left on the path heading through fields back to Maidencombe. Near the bottom of the hill bear right over the stile, then left and over another stile. 

Much of this area was bought in 1935 by the Torbay Corporation to protect it from development. Its management was subsequently taken over by the Torbay Coast and Countryside Trust, an independent local charity dedicated to looking after 1750 acres of the country parks, nature reserves, woodland, farmland and coastline in some of Torbay's most significant heritage and wildlife sites. The Trust and other local landowners are working with the RSPB to bring about the revival of the cirl bunting, a small songbird related to the Yellowhammer which was in danger of extinction in the late 1980s (see the Labrador Bay Walk). The traditional farming methods being used for this are encouraging a wide variety of other species too, including the greater horseshoe bat, guillemots and the small blue butterfly, as well as marine species as diverse as seahorses and dolphins!

  1. Turn left on Steep Hill to drop downhill through Maidencombe, carrying on, to the right, out of the village in front of the pub and along Rock House Lane, passing the orchard.

The Judas Tree outside the Court House dates back to the sixteenth century when a young sapling was brought back from Lebanon. There are various theories for why the tree is so named: that it originated in Judea; that Judas Iscariot hanged himself from such a tree; that the blossom hangs from it in a way that is reminiscent of Iscariot's act. The blossom appears in May, before the leaves, and sometimes sprouts directly from the wood.

A little way up the hill, at Orestone Manor, lived Victorian artist J C Horsley, the designer of the first Christmas card. In 1840 by Sir Henry Cole commissioned him to design a card with a brief message that could be reproduced and sent to all the people that Cole's busy life at the Public Records Office prevented him from contacting personally. Horsley came up with a greetings card saying 'A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year To You'. The idea was so successful that in 1843 the first batch of 1000 cards was produced commercially, selling at one shilling each.

Horsley was brother-in-law to Isambard Kingdom Brunel, whose role as Chief Engineer of the South Devon Railway brought him to the area in the 1840s. Brunel was so taken with Torbay that when he brought his wife here for a holiday they decided to move here. Brunel bought some land and started to build a country house with lavish gardens, to be called Watcombe Park, planting an area of woodland now known as Brunel Woods. Sadly he died before the house was finished; but when the Great Storm of January 1990 uprooted many trees in his wood four of them were carved into totems by sculptor Keith Barrett in memory of the engineer, with a centrepiece some 58 feet high known as 'Brunel's Dance' in celebration of the pleasure that Brunel derived from Watcombe.

  1. Carry on ahead to climb a steep hill, then turn left along the track.

This is the start of the John Musgrave Heritage Trail, a 35-mile walking trail set up in memory of the much-loved man whose legacy made it possible. Musgrave was Chairman of the local branch of the Ramblers' Association, also chairing the Ramblers' section of the Torquay Natural History Society, and was a passionate walker throughout his life, despite various difficulties associated with his childhood polio.

  1. Fork right down the hill to retrace your steps along the Coast Path and the Musgrave Trail, going straight across in the Valley of Rocks to return to the Watcombe Beach car park and the start of the walk.

Nearby refreshments

At Watcombe and Maidencombe

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