Walk - Weston Plats
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.
- From the car park in Weston, take the track downhill until you come to the place where the track pulls uphill to your left, and a path continues ahead, through a gate.
This is a combe – a hollow valley cut through the soft chalk and sandstone, typical of this part of the coastline. Landslides along the cliffline in earlier years created extra areas of land here which proved to be horticultural paradises: the soil was rich and, being south-facing, was warmed by the sun, while the cliffs above the plots protected them from wind and frost, and the nearby spring provided all the water they needed.
- Take the path through the gate and carry on downhill, bearing right at the National Trust sign to walk to the bottom right-hand corner of this field. From here, steps lead you down onto the beach.
The beach is sufficiently remote to be a place of tranquil beauty, where the delightful waterfall streaming down from the combe carves a passage through the multi-coloured shingle and meets the incoming waves in fascinating little whirlpools. A stint in the lookout post on the right-hand side of the beach cannot have been a great hardship for the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century customs men posted here to watch out for smugglers!
- On the beach turn right and walk towards the old lookout post, to pick up the South West Cast Path as it heads steeply uphill on the right beyond the little waterfall.
On your right, along the valley under the cliffs, are the 'Weston Plats', plots of land which, from the end of the nineteenth century until the middle of the twentieth, provided a livelihood for local people. These have been recently restored in a joint project between the National Trust and the East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Crops grown here in the past included potatoes and corn, as well as fruit and flowers. The cliffs rising above the Plats provided shelter against wind and frost, while the land’s south-facing aspect meant they made the most of the sun’s energy. A nearby spring also gave a reliable source of water for their rich soils.
These ideal conditions gave the Plats a long, productive season and their 'early Branscombe spuds' were particularly famous. The abundance of their harvests meant that they were able to sell their produce commercially as well as providing for themselves, and crops from the Weston Plats travelled as far as London.
Business was so good that individual plots were handed down through the generations, but it was not an easy life. Many of the workers had to walk here from Branscombe, a mile and a half over the cliffs, before they started work, with the prospect of the same journey in reverse at the end of a hard day working the land. The steepness of the hillside made it liable to subsidence, and rockfalls were a frequent hazard, too.
Donkeys were used to carry seaweed up from the beach, to spread it on the soil as a fertiliser, and their panniers were also used to carry the harvest home and onwards to the markets.
In the 1930s, when food started to be imported from abroad, the Plats became less profitable and the people looked to tourism for a livelihood instead. The linhays, or barns, along the coastline were converted into holiday homes and the donkeys were used to carry up luggage instead of produce.
The last worker retired from the Plats in the mid 1960s, and the area became a haven for wildlife as nature took over once again. It wasn't until 2007 that the National Trust and the East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty joined forces to reclaim the Plats from beneath the scrub which had buried them; but not at the expense of the wildlife.
Surrounded by trees and bushes and still enjoying the same sunny, sheltered conditions, the combe is home to an abundance of species, from woodpeckers, nuthatches and bats to badgers, foxes and beetles, not forgetting the shy adders and lizards which sometimes come out to catch the sun.
- A short way up the hill there is a path to your right, heading inland above the Plats. Leave the Coast Path to take this one, and follow it along the edge of the fields and into the woods.
- At the next waymarker fork right, to carry on through the woods. Towards the top, the path turns into a track and carries on uphill through the grounds of The Donkey Sanctuary.
This is a charity which works worldwide to improve conditions for donkeys and mules. With eight farms in the UK - including Slade House Farm, as well as several others nearby - it exists to provide care and protection for donkeys and mules anywhere in the world, and to prevent cruelty and suffering. It was started by Dr Elisabeth Svendsen, who bought her first donkey in 1969 and within four years had given refuge to 37 others.
Things went from there, and since then more than 14,500 donkeys have passed through the charity's gates in the UK and Ireland. In addition, the Donkey Sanctuary works to care for donkeys and mules in various places around the world (see The Donkey Sanctuary Walk).
- Coming out on the road beyond The Donkey Sanctuary, turn right and walk back into Weston, forking right to return to the car park at the start of the walk.
In Sidmouth or in Branscombe