Walk - Avocet Line: Topsham Station to Powderham & Starcross

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.

Route Description

  1. Coming out of Topsham station turn left, turning left again onto Station Road. Reaching Fore Street, cross the road, turning right and then immediately left onto Follett Road to walk to Ferry Road, at the bottom. Turn left here and walk to the ferry landing just before the Passage House Inn.
  2. Take the ferry across the river to Topsham Lock. On the far bank cross the canal and turn left to follow the Exe Valley Way along the canal to Turf Lock.

During the summer the ferry operates daily except for Tuesdays, from 9.30 am – 5.30 pm. In the winter it runs from 10.00 am until dusk, on weekends and bank holidays. Ring 07801 203338 for details.

Exeter Ship Canal was built in 1563, the first canal to be built in England since the Romans (see the Countess Wear Walk). In 1827 it was extended two miles downstream to Turf. The Turf Hotel was built at the same time, providing accommodation for the lock keeper and the crews of the ships using the canal. Dwindling trade caused Exeter City Council to close The Turf in the 70s, but Exeter Maritime Museum obtained a listed building order and set about restoring it. Today it is one of the few pubs in the country that cannot be accessed by car, and it is an ideal place for a lunch break before continuing the walk. If lunch turns out to be the kind of leisurely affair that makes you decide you want a lazy afternoon after all, take a ferry back to Topsham. There is a blackboard by the jetty giving the time of the next ferry.

  1. From Turf Lock carry on along the riverside path to where it crosses the railway line, running alongside it to meet Church Road in Powderham.

There is a mudbank in the middle of the estuary to the south east of Turf which dries at low tide, known as 'Greenland Bank'. This is said to be where the whalers were laid up during the winter. After Italian explorer John Cabot discovered the Newfoundland Banks in 1497, many westcountry fishermen took their nets and trawlers there to fish for cod - a trade that provided a reasonable livelihood. Some more intrepid fishers ventured out into the bitter Arctic hunting whales for their oil and a number of other by-products. The catch was much smaller, and conditions much harder, but there was a government bounty for those willing to take the risks.

The mud and sand of the estuary's riverbed, swept here from the source of the Exe high up on Exmoor, are rich in nutrients for invertebrates such as cockles and lugworms, which in turn provide a valuable food source for birds. The estuary is a traditional stop-off point for migratory birds, including Brent geese travelling from as far away as Siberia, and in the middle of winter there may be as many as 25,000 birds in the middle of the river, thousands of them having flown from Northern Europe to join the native wildfowl and waders roosting and feeding in this internationally important habitat. Birds to be seen in large numbers include the avocet, with its long spindly legs and its upward-curving black beak, once rare but now increasing in number and seen in the hundreds on the Exe Estuary. Other species regularly spotted include godwits and black-tailed wigeons, as well as long-legged curlews with their down-turned beaks and black-and-white lapwings with twitching legs designed to disturb the invetebrates in the soil.

There are many small birds to be seen along the seawall between Turf and Powderham, too. Finches, buntings and pipits cluster along the tideline or inside the embankment, including reed buntings and rock and meadow pipits, and wagtails. From spring onwards look out for wheatears, their breasts flushed pink beneath a grey cap.

  1. Turn right onto Church Road and walk through Powderham Park. At the right-hand bend leave the road to carry on along the footpath, heading steeply uphill through parkland into the woodland at the top. Over the crest of the hill the path drops down through the trees and into the valley below.

Powderham Castle was the home of the Courtenay family (see the Countess Wear Walk) for 600 years. Built by Sir Philip Courtenay in 1391, it was added to in later years and is a fortified manor rather than a castle. The walk travels through its deer park, where herds of several hundred fallow deer can sometimes be seen grazing among its mature trees. Powderham is the site of the main heronry on the Exe, and grey herons can often be seen standing in the marshland bordering the river, or flying to and from the nests they build in high trees in the spring. Look out for buzzards wheeling overhead, too.

During the English Civil War, in 1645, the Parliamentarians established on the east bank of the Exe set their sights on capturing Powderham in order to stop provisions travelling up the river and reaching the Royalists, under siege in Exeter. On approaching the castle, they found it far better defended than they had been expecting and they holed up overnight in the church, setting about fortifying it the next day. The Royalists in Exeter sent down 500 men to reinforce the 200 already in the castle, and it was the Roundheads who found themselves under siege, in the church, although the castle fell to them the following month.

  1. When the path splits take the left-hand fork onto a short footpath leading to Slittercombe Lane. Turn left and follow it up to the main road on Kenton Hill. Turn left here and walk a short distance to Warborough Hill, on the opposite side of the road.
  2. Cross the road and walk up Warborough Hill, turning left at the top to walk a little over a mile, with far-reaching views across the Exe on your left.
  3. When the road forks, bear left, turning sharply right shortly afterwards and then bearing left beyond, to carry on down Brickyard Lane to the T-junction at New Road.
  4. On New Road turn left and walk to The Strand. Turn right on the main road, crossing over and walking a short distance to the jetty for the ferry to Exmouth.

The redbrick church-like building by the ferry stance is the last remaining pumping house from Isambard Kingdom Brunel's ill-fated atmospheric railway. Numerous technical issues plagued Brunel's ingenious scheme to drive trains using vacuum power to 'suck' them along the rails, instead of the traditional steam engine, and the trains failed to run on time – in fact a lot of the time they failed to run at all. A shame-faced Brunel refused his salary for the year's work and the line was turned over to steam trains after all.

  1. Landing in Exmouth, walk along Pier Head and take the first turning on the left, following the footpath through the small parking area to walk alongside the marina, bearing right through the car park to turn right onto Shelley Reach and right again at the T-junction with Camperdown Terrace. Follow Langerwehe Way to the roundabout and then turn left through the car park, bearing right along the shoreline. The station is on your right on The Royal Avenue, beyond the bus station.
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