Walk - South Sands Hotel - Sharp Tor and Bolt Head
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 South Sands Hotel turn left to walk uphill along the road to the left of 'The Tide's Reach'. Follow the sharp curve left and then right, carrying on ahead past the sign to Overbecks and the Youth Hostel. At the postbox, continue ahead along the public footpath and keep going straight ahead past the National Trust hut.
The ornate boathouse with the curly-tailed pig emblem is the old lifeboat station, built in 1870 after 13 people died when the 'Goassamer' was wrecked off the rocks at Prawle Point. When the alarm was raised that a ship was in trouble, there was a delay while the crew ran from the town to South Sands, and in 1922 the lifeboat was moved to a mooring nearer the town. The South Sands lifeboat house then became a store.
- At the next junction follow the sign for the Youth Hostel & Overbecks, walking uphill along a winding drive through tropical trees. Immediately before the gates to Overbecks, turn right up the footpath signed to Tor Woods, Sharp Tor and Bolt Head.
The original building at Overbecks was a small villa known as Sharpitor. It was built at the end of the nineteenth century and acquired in 1901 by Edric Hopkins, who bought two more acres of land and set about creating terraces on the sheltered site and planting some of the exotic trees seen around you as you walk along the lane.
In 1913 the next owners demolished the villa and had the current house built, still named Sharpitor. In 1928 it was bought by eccentric chemist, collector and inventor Otto Overbeck, who lived there until his death in 1937. He left it to the National Trust, on condition that it be turned into a museum and a youth hostel, and not a brothel, which he claimed was the fate of too many such properties locally.
Overbeck's obsession was with a 'theory of electric health'. His 1925 text 'A New Electronic Theory of Life' claimed that most ailments were due to an imbalance of electricity, and could be cured by 'restoring the natural balance of the electric body'. Putting his theories into practice, he invented the 'Overbeck Rejuvenator', which used intricate electrodes to deliver minute electric currents to the affected area of the body. He marketed his invention extensively throughout Europe, claiming that people using it could live 350 years. While there is no evidence that this was ever true, nonetheless the sales of the Rejuvenator enabled Overbeck to buy Sharpitor House and enlarge the collection of exotic trees in the grounds, which he eventually opened to the public.
Today the house is also open to the public, as well as the gardens, with Overbeck's inventions and collections of stuffed animals on display, and various other exhibitions. For more details see the Overbecks website or ring 01548 842893.
- Turn left up the steps at the next fingerpost, following the path signed for Sharp Tor, Starehole and Bolt Head. Carry on along the footpath past the high viewpoint at Sharp Tor, marked by a compass on a plinth, turning sharp right here to continue along the path above the rocky hillside.
Devon's 'Tarka the Otter' author Henry Williamson called this area 'Valhalla', the majestic hall in Norse mythology where the bravest warriors went after their death.
This part of the Devon coastline was formed in the Devonian geological period, between roughly 350 and 400 million years ago. Much of the area consists of sedimentary mudstones and sandstones, laid down in layers. However, the bedrock of the tip of the headland, from Hope Cove in the west to Hallsands in the east, is formed of metamorphic schists and hornblendes, giving Sharp Tor and Start Point their dramatic spikes and pinions. These rocks were formed from magma intruded from the Earth's crust and later altered by enormous heat and pressure. The schist at Sharp Tor has crystals of mica embedded in it, which split off easily into flakes or slabs. (The name 'schist' comes from a Greek word meaning 'to split').
- When a path leaves on the left a short distance beyond, signed to Starehole and Bolt Head, ignore it and keep going straight on, along the plateau before descending into the valley. Cross the stream to climb the steep path opposite, continuing ahead alongside the wall at the top. At the ﬁngerpost take the second path on the left to follow the South West Coast Path as it travels between ridges of rock towards the headland.
The coastal heathland around Bolt Head is managed by the National Trust, working closely with its tenant farmers to preserve this rare habitat. Animals are used to graze the heathland, keeping the scrub under control so that wildlife and flowers can flourish. Look out for the speckled white flowers of sea campion, the delicate freckled violet-blue sheep's bit scabious and the creeping yellow-flowered bird's-foot trefoil.
The flowers attract many butterflies, such as the grayling, with black 'eyes' and fawn patches on its brown wings, and the common blue. You may even see a rare silver-studded blue, with white-tipped, deep blue wings.
It is a good habitat for birds. Ravens wheel overhead and birds of prey such as kestrels and peregrine falcons hunt above the cliffs, while yellowhammers and stonechats call from the bushes where linnets sing, and shags fish from the rocks on the shoreline.
- At Bolt Head turn left with the Coast Path, heading due north back towards Salcombe.
- Ignoring the path to the left above Starehole Cove, carry on along the Coast Path as it rounds the bottom of Sharp Tor and returns through the trees in Fir Wood to the drive at Overbecks. From here you can retrace your steps to South Sands Hotel.
Between the ninth and eleventh centuries there were repeated Viking raids on the South Devon coast, and Vikings are said to have landed in Starehole Bay and even settled here.
In 1936 the German four-masted barque 'Herzogin Cecilie' ran aground on Ham Stone Rock and drifted onto the cliffs at Bolt Head. Parts of the cargo were unloaded and she was towed to Starehole Bay and anchored here. Three years later she capsized and sank. She can still be seen as a dark shape beneath the water, and at particularly low tides parts of her still appear above the surface. The handsome ship sported an acre of sail and was one of the fastest merchant sailing ships of her day, repeatedly winning the great grain races in the 1920s. Timber and brass portholes salvaged from the chart room were used to build a small room in the Cottage Hotel at Hope Cove.
Shortly before his death in 1889, poet Alfred Lord Tennyson stayed with his friend Froude at The Moult, on the hillside to the north of South Sands. His last poem, 'Crossing the Bar', is said to have been inspired by Salcombe's famous sandbank of the same name, which during southerly gales makes it almost impossible to enter the estuary.