Walk - Babbacombe & Oddicombe
Walk information provided with help from Natural England. Map reproduced by permission of Ordnance Survey on behalf of HMSO. © Crown copyright and database right 2019. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100022021.
- From the Walls Hill Road car park, behind the Old Coach House, walk along Babbacombe Downs Road to the Downs.
At 90 metres above sea level, this is one of Britain's highest cliff-top promenades, and it gives spectacular views in both directions. Looking east on a clear day you can see the Dorset coast beyond East Devon, some 30 miles away, its white limestone cliffs glimmering in the sun in sharp contrast to the rich red of the older sandstone cliffs closer to hand in Tor Bay.
- Pick up the South West Coast Path at the northern end of the Downs, just past the statue of Lady Mount Temple and follow it down to Oddicombe Beach (or take the cliff railway).
Babbacombe Cliffs are a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), for their rock formations. From Oddicombe Beach you can see how 'faulting' caused by earth movements has resulted in a section of red rock dropping to a lower level than the white limestone beside it, at the same time steeply tilting the red rock. This rock is a 'breccia', a kind of sandstone formed in a desert environment, when flash flooding caused torrents of water to sweep stones and rocks through dry valleys to an open plain. Over time these fragments of younger limestone became embedded in the layers of red sand, and the whole was compressed to form a red sandstone studded with angular pieces of limestone, known as breccia.
Elsewhere in the cliffs, earth movements during what is known as the Variscan mountain-building period turned some of the rocks upside down, and near the cliff railway the dark mudstones and shales at the bottom are actually younger than the limestones at the top of the cliff!
On the hillside beyond the cliff railway a substantial portion of the cliffs broke away in February 2010, and the unfortunate owners of the house at the top saw the value of their property plummet as their garden did the same in the resultant landslide.
The idea of a cliff railway here was first suggested as long ago as 1890 by publisher and MP Sir George Newnes (see the Hollerday Hill Walk in North Devon), although he failed to gain permission to proceed, and it was not until 1923 that the project was revived, when the Torquay Tramway Company announced its intention to build a lift to and from Oddicombe Beach. The engineer consulted by Torquay Corporation consulted was George Marks, who had worked with Newnes on a number of funicular railways in the 1890s, including installations at Bristol Clifton, Bridgnorth, Aberystwyth and Lynmouth, Newnes's adopted hometown, where today the cliff railway is the only one in Britain to be powered entirely by water. Work started at Oddicombe in December 1924, and the railway was completed in 1926, at a construction cost of £15,648.
Take a look at the walls of the building at the base of the cliff railway. The blocks are of the red breccia, laid down in the Permian period and if you look carefully, it is possible to see oval marks in the limestone fragments, evidence of tiny corals in the warm shallow seas where the limestone was laid down before it was broken up and swept into the sandstone.
- Carry on along the Coast Path beside the shoreline as it travels towards Babbacombe Beach.
The dark rock in the steep cliffs to your right as you cross the bridge is shale, a soft sedimentary rock formed in brittle layers from consolidated mud and clay. If you look carefully it is possible to see 'goniatites' in it: curled shell fossils that are the ancestors of the famous Jurassic age ammonites. Shale is impermeable, meaning that water cannot pass through; while the limestone above it is permeable. This results in a spring line, where the surface water has passed through the limestone but cannot go through the rock below it. If you drop down the steps to the left by the woods, before the bridge, you will see a series of small waterfalls tumbling down the cliff as this water falls to the shoreline.
On the site of the car park behind Babbacombe Quay, there was once a house where one of Queen Victoria's ladies in waiting lived. The tragic story of the murder of Elizabeth Whitehead's daughter, Emma Keyse, made Babbacombe nationally famous, when Elizabeth's manservant, John 'Babbacombe' Lee was charged with her murder. Condemned to death by hanging, three times the trapdoor failed to open when the lever was thrown, and in accordance with the law of the time, Lee's sentence was changed to one of life imprisonment. The evidence against Lee was circumstantial and very flimsy, and throughout his life he continued to plead his innocence. In 1971 the folk group Fairport Convention released a folk/rock opera, 'Babbacombe Lee', telling the tale.
- Continue along the Coast Path as it climbs up into the woodland behind the Cary Arms, emerging on the open grassland of Walls Hill.
Walls Hill is also an SSSI, for its rocks and flora. Several rare plant species are found here, including the white rock rose, which loves limestone, and the rich variety of vegetation encourages butterflies like the beautifully ornamented marbled white. The grassland has benefited from a three-year project led by the Torbay Coast and Countryside Trust, an independent charity founded to protect Torbay's key wildlife and heritage areas (see the Maidencombe Walk). The Trust's strategy of removing scrub and other invasive species is protecting one of the UK's most fragile and precious habitats, 22 hectares of squill-spurge fescue grasslands, found nowhere else on earth
Archaeologists have found evidence of human activity here dating back to prehistoric times, when a Celtic hillfort took advantage of the defensive properties of the cliffs and the panoramic views of the bay to protect its Iron Age inhabitants against hostile tribes.
- Stay with the Coast Path to the far end of Walls Hill, where you have good views down over Anstey's Cove.
Note the high limestone cliffs on your left, with Long Quarry Point at the bottom of them. The limestone was much quarried all around the coastline here and was used in the construction of many of the local buildings. The stone would have been taken away by boat.
The fissures in the cliffs to your right were caused in the rock by earth movements and subsequently enlarged by chemical weathering, when rainwater dissolved the rock, being slightly acidic. Here blocks of limestone have become detached and fallen into the sea, leading to Redgate Beach, below, being closed because of the danger of rockfalls.
- Turn back towards Babbacombe and follow the path along the edge of Walls Hill to return to the car park at the start of the walk.
In Oddicombe and Babbacombe