Walk - Teignmouth to Dawlish
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.
- Leave Teignmouth Station, cross the car park and roundabout and head for the seafront down Hollands Road and the Esplanade. Turn left and from the Lookout Station on the seafront, pick up the South West Coast Path and follow it along the sea wall to the steps just before the headland at Hole Head.
The railway line is part of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Penzance-Paddington line, and the tunnel as you leave the seawall to climb Smuggler's Lane is one of five Brunel had to build to bring the line around the coast here. Brunel was appointed as the engineer to the South Devon Railway in 1843, and decided to use the innovative atmospheric railway system to power the trains. This involved running pipes along the rails and creating a vacuum in them to propel the train by means of a piston from the train running through the tube via a sealable slot.
The system encountered two problems: one was due to the fact that the railway line was not connected to the telegraph system, and so the tubes had to be emptied of air at the pumping stations along the route according to a timetable, whether the train was on time or not, which was both inefficient and expensive. The other problem was the spray from the sea during stormy weather, which made it difficult to seal the tubes effectively. Because of these issues, atmospheric trains were used for less than a year, from 1847-1848.
Brunel's tunnel here is known as Parson's Tunnel, after the Parson and Clerk rocks off the headland. According to local legend, an ambitious parson from an inland parish had high hopes of succeeding the Bishop of Exeter, who lay dying in Dawlish. To further his cause, he paid the bishop regular visits, guided by his parish clerk. One day the two lost their way in thick fog, and spent hours wandering around in the heavy rain. The parson, a man of uncertain temper, lost his rag and berated his unfortunate clerk for his incompetence, assuring him that he'd rather be guided by the devil.
Stumbling upon a peasant a short while later, they allowed him to lead them to a tumbledown cottage, where a riotous crowd was enjoying a lively drinking session. Warmed and soothed by a good meal and rather too much ale, the parson and his clerk were somewhat the worse for drink when news arrived at dawn that the bishop had died. Throwing themselves upon their horses, the two men tried to set forth, but the horses would not move. Suddenly the crowd of merrymakers turned into leering demons, hooting horribly at the parson's plight, and the cottage disappeared in a puff of smoke.
Realising, too late, that he had indeed been guided by the devil, the parson found himself stranded in the sea, his clerk also adrift some distance away. In that instant, they were both turned to stone, and stand there to this day.
- Go down the steps and through the archway beyond, and follow Smugglers' Lane steeply uphill to the main road.
- Turn right onto the main road and follow it a short way, until you come to Windward Lane, on your right.
- Walking a short distance up Windward Lane, you will find the Coast Path on your left. Follow the Coast Path around the back of the headland and steeply downhill to where it runs alongside the railway line.
Note the red cliffs ahead of you, and the two small stacks beyond. Like the Parson and Clerk rocks already mentioned, these were once part of the headland, until the erosive action of heavy seas on the rock weakened cracks in its structure and caused these parts to break away and stand alone as stacks. The cliff face beside the tunnel shows a rock type for which this part of the coastline is known: a breccia (one rock – in this case a sandstone – containing angular fragments of another) from the Permian period.
- From here the Coast Path pulls back uphill and then turns left, inland, up to the road again.
- Going up the steps and onto the road, turn right and follow the Old Teignmouth Road (not the main A379). Follow the Coast Path into Lea Mount Gardens. The path goes down a steep walkway onto Marine Parade. Either walk along Marine Parade or along the beach to Dawlish Railway Station.