Walk - Avocet Line: Topsham Station to Countess Wear

4.7 miles (7.5 km)

Topsham Railway Station - EX3 0DS Topsham Railway Station

Moderate -

In the thirteenth century Isabella, Countess of Devon, had a weir built across the Exe to prevent ships from reaching Exeter's quays. This led to prosperity in Topsham, from which she derived an income, and it became England's second busiest port. The Exeter Ship Canal was built in 1563 – England's first canal since the Romans. Starting with a short ferry journey across the river, this walk travels alongside the canal to Isabella's weir, taking in a number of waterside nature reserves and returning along the Exe.

There are a range of wonderful places to lay your head near the Coast Path for a well-earned sleep. From large and luxurious hotels, to small and personable B&B's, as well as self-catering options and campsites. The businesses that support the Path, where you've chosen to visit, are listed here.

Lower Halsdon Farm

We are a working farm, set on the Exe Estuary. The SWCP goes right past out fram gate. We offer "wild camping" to those walking the SWCP. We have a toilets & showers

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Route Description

  1. Coming out of the station turn left, turning left again onto Station Road. Reaching Fore Street, cross the road, turning right and then immediately left onto Follett Road to walk to Ferry Road, at the bottom. Turn left here and walk to the ferry landing just before the Passage House Inn.
  2. Take the ferry across the river to Topsham Lock.

During the summer the ferry operates daily except for Tuesdays, from 9.30 am – 5.30 pm. In the winter it runs from 10.00 am until dusk, on weekends and bank holidays. Ring 07801 203338 for details.

  1. Walking up from the ferry on the far bank, cross the canal and turn right on the path which follows its western banks to Countess Wear, passing under the motorway.

On the mud flats in the river along here is the Exe Reed Beds Nature Reserve, a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Special Protection Area (SPA) and a RAMSAR Site, maintained by the Devon Wildlife Trusts. An extensive area of tidal reedbed - one of the largest in Devon - as well as salt marsh and mud flats, it is criss-crossed by tidal creeks and is important for wildfowl and waders. Many of these use the creeks and mud flats adjacent to the reed beds to feed, including curlew, redshank, wigeon, teal and avocet. The tidal movements through the reedbed remove dead vegetation, maintaining habitats for the important invertebrate communities for the birds to feed on.

On the far side of the motorway bridge is the Old Sludge Beds Nature Reserve, also managed by the Devon Wildlife Trusts. Sandwiched between the canal and the river on the site of the former sewage treatment works, the site supports a mosaic of wetland habitats, open water, freshwater reedbed and scrub. This reserve, too, is an SSSI, an SPA and a RAMSAR site. The old sewage pump house has been converted into a bat roost, and other mammals flourishing here include harvest mice and otters. Slow worms and grass snakes are sometimes seen, as well as toads, and many different species of dragonfly flit over the water, including the hairy hawker, ruddy darter and golden ringed dragonfly. Look out for the flash of colour as a kingfisher hunts over the water, and listen out for the sudden loud bursts of song from the small Cetti's warblers in the willow and alder bushes.

  1. At Countess Weir Bridge turn right on the road and cross the canal and then the river.

When she was just twelve years old, in 1249, Isabella, daughter of the Sixth Earl of Devon and granddaughter of the Fifth Earl of Hertford, married William de Fortibus, a Count of Normandy, and she became one of the wealthiest women in England after her husband and brother both died and she inherited their extensive estates. Not content with this, she developed a passionate interest in the law of the land and, with her advisers, pursued numerous claims in the civil and criminal courts to add to her riches. Later in the century she built a weir across the River Exe to power her mills. This had the added advantage of preventing ships from reaching the bustling port at Exeter, instead diverting all the shipping income to her own port at Topsham. The district became known as Countess Wear as a result. After her death the Earldom of Devon passed to her cousin, Hugh de Courtenay, and he reinforced her weir by chaining trees together across the river bed and dumping large quantities of stones and gravel on top.

It was not until the sixteenth century, when Henry VIII executed Henry Courtenay and confiscated his lands, that the Port of Exeter was given permission to reopen the waterway. The river was found to be excessively silted up, and engineer John Trew was taken on to construct a canal linking the city to the river again. This was in 1563, and it was the first canal to be built in England after the Romans left. The canal too silted up over time, being just three feet deep, and it could not be entered at all states of the tide. In 1677 it was extended and the entrance moved downstream to Topsham. In 1701 it was deepened and widened, floodgates were fitted to the entrance and the number of locks was reduced to just the one. Until the decline of the wool trade at the end of the nineteenth century and the arrival of the railway it was a busy canal; but although the South Devon Railway maintained a link to the canal from 1867, by this time the canal was too small for ocean-going vessels and its popularity declined. Its popularity revived briefly during and just after the Second World War, but by the 1960s its commercial use was negligible. Today it is used for leisure pursuits only.

  1. On the far side of the bridge take the first road on the right (Glasshouse Lane) and walk to the left-hand bend.
  2. The footpath carries on ahead along the riverbank, but at high tide it is inaccessible, and at other times it may be marshy. (If you choose to carry on this way, be sure to have good footwear and do it on a falling tide. Reaching Topsham by this route, carry on along Ferry Road, turning left on Follett Road to retrace your steps to the station).

Unless you want to risk wet feet along the riverside footpath, fork left at 6 to follow this footpath through the trees and past the houses to come out on the Exeter Road.

  1. Turn right on the main road and walk to the footpath on the left just beyond the motorway bridge.
  2. Turn left onto this footpath, turning right with it to walk to the stadium. Turn left through the parking area to follow the path on the right beyond it along the hedge to Newcourt Road. Turn right here and walk to where Denver Road leads off to the left. Turn left onto it, going under the railway bridge to come out on Clyst Road. Turn right here, walking past the cemetery to the roundabout by the church. Turn right on Station Road and then left to return to the station.

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