Walk - Braunton Burrows

Walk information provided with help from Natural England. Map reproduced by permission of Ordnance Survey on behalf of HMSO. © Crown copyright and database right 2018. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100022021.

Route Description

  1. From the parking area at Velator Quay go up onto the bank alongside the river and turn right, walking away from Braunton, along the top of the bank. The path soon crosses an old slate stile and continues alongside the waterway known as 'The Pill'. As the road draws away to the right the path carries on along the riverbank to a toll house.

'Pill' is a common westcountry name for creeks, possibly from the Cornish word 'pol', meaning 'pool' and often used to denote any body of water. In the nineteenth century Velator Quay was a thriving port, with sometimes as many as a hundred vessels using it at any given time.

  1. From the toll house the bank crosses the mouth of a tidal inlet known as 'Inner Marsh Pill' and continues above the privately-owned toll road. Carry on ahead to where the path forks.

To your right is RMB Chivenor, the Royal Marine base whose servicemen's wives achieved national fame at Christmas 2011 with their Number One hit 'Wherever You Are'. The song was created using extracts of correspondence between choir members and their spouses in Afghanistan, and the single sold 556,000 copies within a week of launch, with a percentage of profits going to Forces charities.

Originally a civil airfield, Chivenor was designated an RAF Central Command Station in 1940. After the war it was used for training, primarily weapons training, flying Hunter aircraft. In 1974 the RAF moved out, returning in 1979 to re-establish flight training using Hawks. The Royal Marines moved in at the end of 1995 when the RAF departed again. Today the yellow Sea Kings of the 22 Squadron Search and Rescue unit are the only aircraft permanently based here, and the Vigilant motor gliders of the 624 Volunteer Gliding Squadron, which trains air cadets. By 2015 the Sea Kings too will have been stood down, as the private sector takes over the Search and Rescue role.

  1. The right-hand fork travels along a boundary drain that cuts off the portion of land ahead. Ignoring it, carry on ahead along the high bank as it curves around to the right when the river opens out into the Taw estuary.

Now you are walking on Horsey Island, renowned for the large number of over-wintering bird species that feed here. Occasionally a rare osprey is spotted fishing over the estuary.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century Braunton Marshes were used for cattle grazing. However, as a tidal zone, it was subject to flooding during storms. As well as sometimes being dangerous, it provided poor quality grazing. After a surveyor was sent by the Board of Agriculture in 1808 to consider reaclaiming the land a scheme was set up to enclose the marshes and drain them. The Great Sea Bank that you are walking on was built and a series of gravity-fed drainage channels was dug, with sluice gates to control them. These gates can still be seen around Horsey Island.

The River Taw flows into Bideford Bay along the estuary here, having arrived via Barnstaple and the Taw Valley from its source on Dartmoor. As you continue along the open part of the riverbank you can see the River Torridge joining it from the Bideford direction (see the Taw Estuary Walk). Across the water, Fremington Quay was once a bustling port in its own right (see the Home Farm Marsh Walk), and the infrastructure from the power station at Yelland can still be seen (see the Torridge Estuary Walk).

At the mouth of the Torridge, the Victorian seaside resort at Instow is still linked by ferry to the old fishing village of Appledore (see the Appledore Walk); while the greater mouth of the estuary combining the two is flanked on one side by the shingle beach at Westward Ho! (see the Kipling Tor Walk) and on the other side by the long golden strand of Saunton Sands (see the Saunton Down Walk).

  1. At the White House stay with the South West Coast Path as it drops behind the beach and runs parallel to it, until you reach the start of the old American road at Crow Point.

There was once a ferry path running the length of Braunton Burrows, from Sandy Lane to Crow Point, and this was straightened and widened during the Second World War to enable American troops to reach the ferry stance. Tucked away in the dunes a short distance down the track, ramps and other concrete constructions are still visible in the area used by US troops to train for the Normandy landings.

Crow Point Lighthouse gives a guide to vessels navigating the Taw and Torridge estuary in North Devon. It is a small 5 metre hightubular steel structure, 7.6 metres above the sea at high water. Its light flashes every 2.5 seconds and can be seen for 6 nautical miles. It was originally powered by acetylene gas but was converted to solar power in 1987. 

  1. Turn right onto the track at Crow Point and follow it through Braunton Burrows, to the car park at the far end.

The dune system at Braunton Burrows covers over 2000 acres, with some of the dunes over 30 metres high. It is internationally renowned for its plant and animal life. In 2003 it was placed at the heart of the UK's first UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The designated was made to celebrate the 'communities living and working in harmony with nature, encouraging sustainability in the local natural and economic environment'. As well as featuring the North Devon Coast Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Biosphere incorporates no fewer than 63 Sites of Special Scientific Interest, 671 County Wildlife Sites and 4 Local Nature Reserves.

Over 400 different species of plant have been recorded in Braunton Burrows, including some very rare ones growing in abundance. In the dunes themselves, the sand-loving plants, such as sea cabbage, sea rocket, sea spurge and sea holly, have long roots and rubbery leaves in order to reach and conserve water. Around the dunes the grass is cropped short by grazing rabbits and fragrant with the scent of wild thyme and water mint. In summer it is alight with colourful flowers such as dandelions, buttercups, and pink and white clover. Tall stands of pale yellow evening primrose and speckled pink foxgloves tower over creepers such as silverweed, vivid yellow bird's foot trefoil and pink-flowered restharrow. The flowers attract many butterflies and moths, while the beetles and grubs at their roots bring in songbirds. Watch out for lizards in the sand, and take care not to disturb a sleeping adder, easily recognised by the V markings on its skin. Overhead skylarks and meadow pipits trill, and buzzards wheel in search of prey.

  1. Reaching the car park at the end of the American Road, leave the Coast Path as it peels off to the right, and instead carry on ahead along the road to the first junction.
  2. Turn right here and follow this road as it winds through Braunton Marshes beside the stream.
  3. At a right-hand bend, a track leaves on the left, heading through the Great Field. Carry on along the road past it.

Braunton Great Field is one of the last surviving areas of land still farmed today in narrow, unfenced strips of land as it was in Saxon times.

  1. When a road leaves on the right to the toll house, carry on ahead to return to Velator Quay.

Nearby refreshments

In Braunton or Wrafton

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