Walk - Marsland Valley Nature Reserve

Walk information provided with help from Natural England. Map reproduced by permission of Ordnance Survey on behalf of HMSO. © Crown copyright and database right 2020. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100022021.

Route Description

  1. From the car park at Welcombe Mouth take the South West Coast Path towards Marsland, on your left as you face the sea, climbing steeply with it.
  2. Turn left on the footpath towards the top of the cliff, leaving the South West Coast Path for now, and walk along the hedge to the lane beyond, which will bring you out on the road at Mead.
  3. Turn right on the road, turning right again at Mead Corner to take the lane signed to 'Morwenstowe'.
  4. Ignore the footpath on your left beside the junction, but take the take the cycle path on your left a little further on, dropping downhill through the trees. Fork right halfway down the hillside and at the bottom cross the old mill leat on the footbridge.

Covering about 470 acres, the Marsland Valley Nature Reserve is a part of the Marsland to Clovelly Coast Site of Special Scientific Interest. Nature lover Christopher Cadbury left his employment in the family's famous chocolate business to pursue his passion for wildlife conservation, and in the 1950s and 60s he bought the land here in sections to develop it as a nature reserve. He later donated the land to the Royal Society for Nature Conservation. In 1997 the Devon Wildlife Trust took over management of the site on a lease arrangement.

Most of the nature reserve is a steep-sided woodland, consisting largely of oak, with some ash, sycamore and beech, and an understorey of rowan, holly and hazel. Along the bottom of the valley, the stream is bordered by moisture-loving alders and willows. Near the coastline the habitat is heathland and maritime grasses, and further inland there are meadows and woodland glades with small streams and ponds. The wide range of habitats encourages many different species of wildlife, including otters and dormice. On the sunny slopes 34 species of butterfly have been recorded, including the rare pearl-bordered fritillary. Above the ponds and streams, the wings of dragonflies and damselflies shimmer as they hover over the water. Birds nesting in the reserve include buzzards, green woodpeckers, and spotted and pied flycatchers. Coastal birdlife includes linnets, rock pipits and stonechats.  Gannets can be seen out at sea during autumn.

  1. Carry on ahead, climbing through the woods, to where the cycle path turns sharply left, out of the wood and along a lane.

You are now in Cornwall: the county border follows Marsland Water as it makes its way to the sea at Marsland Mouth. For almost three millennia, from the Iron Age into the Dark Ages, Britain's culture was largely dominated by the Celtic people known as Brythons, or Britons. Cornwall's population was a branch of the Brythonic Dumnonii tribe, known as the Cornovii (or Cornish). When the Anglo-Saxons began to arrive in England in large numbers in the fifth century, after the Romans had left, there was frequent conflict between the Cornovii and the ever-expanding Anglo-Saxon kingdom, as the new settlers sought to bring the territory under their control. To contain the conflict, in AD 936 King Athelstan set a boundary between the English and the Cornish, following the River Tamar. The river rises just a few hundred yards to the east of the source of Marsland Water, and at that point the Devon/Cornwall border turns abruptly south to follow the Tamar all the way from here to Plymouth.

  1. Leave the cycle path here, continuing ahead along the footpath. Fork left and left again to follow the hedge at the top of the nature reserve.

There is evidence on the ground that people have lived in this area since prehistoric times. In a corner of a field a short distance south there are some stones which some claim is a Bronze Age cairn, although this has never been confirmed. Remains of a more recent enclosed settlement nearby have been identified as Iron Age or Romano British, where the Celtic population lived before the Saxons and then the Normans took control of Britain. In 1284 the medieval settlement here was known as 'Maddokeslonde' (meaning 'Maddock's Land'), and traces of its field system still remain in the landscape.

Marsland Manor itself, just over the hill to the south, dates from the sixteenth or seventeenth century and is considered to be a fine example of what is known as a 'small courtyard house', hardly changed from when it was built. The manor has an underground hole, said to be an old smugglers' hole, and a nearby platform, along an ancient lane, is thought to have been the manor's mill. The tithe records indicate that there was also a malthouse here (see the Shipload Bay Walk).

  1. Reaching the Coast Path again, turn right to follow it downhill to a junction. Fork left here, still on the Coast Path, to carry on down to Marsland Mouth, where the mill leat flows on past West Mill and tumbles onto the rocky beach in a waterfall. Climb out of the valley on the far hillside to return to 2, just over the top. From here you can retrace your steps down Marsland Cliff and back to the car park at Welcombe Mouth.

At Marsland Mouth there is a little stone hut by the path. Like the Reverend Hawker just down the coast at Morwenstow (see the Hawker's Hut Walk), poet and playwright Ronald Duncan was inspired by the rugged romance of this coastline and he came to the hut to write (see the Embury Beacon Walk).

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