Walk - Avocet Line: Lympstone to Topsham
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.
- From Lympstone Station, facing towards Topsham, take the path at the end of the platform rising gently to the bridge over the line. Cross the bridge to pick up the cycleway running along the eastern side of the railway line.
The Exe Estuary Trail, when completed, will provide 26 miles of safe walking and cycling on both sides of estuary, giving easy access to Exeter and opening up spectacular views of the Exe for cyclists and walkers. The final stretch, due to open in Autumn 2013, will start at Bowling Green Road in Topsham, and include a 120-metre span bridge over the River Clyst, as well as a section of raised walkway through the RSPB Goosemoor Nature Reserve. The route, part of the National Cycle Network, is signed using decorative waymarkers featuring the outline of the head of the Exe Estuary, sculpted in metal.
The Exe Estuary is of international importance for its wildlife, especially birds. Over thousands of years the river has washed mud and sand down from Exmoor, forming extensive mud flats, sand banks, marshland and pastureland. These 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, and in the middle of winter there may be as many as 25,000 birds in 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.
To the right of the path shortly after Lympstone, the mature trees and ornamental gardens of Nutwell Park can be seen. The 150 acres of rolling parkland – the venue for an annual British Eventing Horse Trials – is part of Nutwell Court, first recorded as a manor in the Domesday Book of 1086. The present house was built in the first part of the fifteenth century and its chapel still stands, with the original glass. Nutwell's Home Farm was built around 1700, and The Belvedere dates from around the same time and was Nutwell's dower house.
- The cycleway passes Lympstone Commando Station, built in the 1970s to serve the Commando Training Centre of the Royal Marines. There are a number of information boards beside the Training Centre, and viewing platforms. Carry on ahead along the cycleway.
The Training Centre dates from 1939, when the corps expanded prior to the Second World War. In the 1940s, Exton Camp – as it was known then – trained 'hostilities only' recruits, and many thousands of men passed through here during the war. In 1941 it was renamed Depot Royal Marine Lympstone, and Flags Records show that in 1946 there were 3000 officers and men staying in the 74 wooden huts, with an average of 1000 being trained at any given time. After the war, training schools for officers and non-commissioned officers were transferred here, and in the 1960s there was a major building programme as most of the corps infantry training, command and communication courses were moved here. In 1970 it was renamed the Commando Training Centre of the Royal Marines and the facilities were expanded to include a swimming pool, gym, medical centre, indoor range and lecture complex. All elements of the training and communications courses were brought together under the one roof, and the centre even had its own railway station built.
The centre's famously rigorous physical training is described in detail on a series of information boards along the cycleway, and there are viewing areas where recruits can be seen on the assault course. The legendary commando tests that have to be passed in order to win the coveted green beret include an endurance course, where a recruit must carry full combat equipment and a weapon over two miles of tunnels, pools, streams, bogs and woods and run four miles back to base, all in under 72 minutes. On his return, he must hit a target with six of his ten shots, do a nine-mile speed march in under 90 minutes, fully equipped as before, and then complete the Tarzan assault course.
- Just before Exton Station the cycleway leaves the railway line and heads up to Station Road. Turn right here, walking past the Puffing Billy Inn to turn left onto Exton Lane at the right-hand bend. At the sharp right-hand bend leave Exton lane to carry on ahead along along Green Lane, forking left a short while later to follow the cycleway back to the railway line, where it turns right to follow the line to where the railway crosses the River Clyst.
In summer the railway embankments and the verges along the path are alive with wildflowers – tall stands of foxgloves, teasels, evening primrose, ragwort and tree mallows, feathery heads of cow parsley, white bindweed trumpets winding through the vegetation and creeping fronds of purple vetch doing the same nearer the ground, clumps of huge white ox-eye daisies overshadowing delicate clusters of pink and speckled white campion flowers dotted with tiny blue speedwells. In the marshy areas where streams run into the estuary rushes and yellow flags grow beneath small willow and alder trees, and pondweed paints the water's surface a vivid green.
- Carry on ahead along the cycleway to go through wooden gates beside an area of workshops on the wharf below Ebdon. Take the road to the right, turning left a moment later to follow the lane past the houses to where the cycleway continues on a path beyond, coming out on the main road.
- On the road turn left, crossing the Clyst Bridge and walking up Bridge Hill, past the Bridge Inn and on along Elm Grove Road to the roundabout. Turn left here and walk down Station Road, turning left again to Topsham Station, from where you can take the Avocet Line back to Lympstone.
The Clyst Bridge, at the bottom of Bridge Hill, was first built in the early seventeenth century, but was destroyed a few years later during the English Civil War when Roundhead chief Sir Thomas Fairfax seized Exeter from the Royalists. It was subsequently rebuilt and widened twice, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The Bridge Inn is thought to have been a dwelling at the time of the 1086 Domesday Book, and that the stonemasons who were building Exeter Cathedral in the twelfth century may have stayed here. The main fabric of the present-day inn dates from the sixteenth century, and it has been in the hands of the same family since 1897. In 1998 the Queen visited, and when the pub brewed a special ale in its 111th year ('111'), a case was delivered to Buckingham Palace.
In the thirteenth century Isabella de Fortibus, Countess of Devon, enlarged her fishing weirs across the River Exe in the thirteenth century and suddenly Exeter was no longer accessible from the sea. Topsham became the river's chief port instead, and by the seventeenth century the booming export trade of serge, wool and cotton from Exeter's mills made it one of England's busiest ports. In 1688 William of Orange and his wife Mary had their baggage, ammunition and stores landed here when they arrived to take up the throne, and Holland became one of the port's chief customers. Dutch ships brought bricks across the Channel as ballast and they were used to build a number of Dutch-style houses along the waterfront. There are a number of fascinating buildings and businesses in the town, as well as the Topsham Museum, housed in one of the elegant seventeenth-century buildings overlooking the estuary. Allow time to look around before you take the train back to Lympstone.