Text and images courtesy of Rachel Mead
There’s a fair few miles to cover on my adventure, so in conjunction with the South West 660 team, I am travelling along the coastline by foot and public transport. This hybrid approach gives eco-conscious hikers the opportunity to explore the SWCP during peak seasons without adding extra motor vehicles to the road network. It feels good because you’re adding to the local economy and supporting local businesses but in a sustainable way.
Coffee in bed followed by freshly made pancakes served with crispy bacon and drizzled with maple syrup? More than fair to say that Day 2 of my South West 660 eco-hike is off to an exceptionally good start. The Masons Arms in Branscombe makes for a fabulous mid-way rest stop for those of you who are exploring the South West coastline over a few days. Even with a power cut in last night’s freak storm, the team at this 14th century St Austell pub still served up a piping hot meal despite working by candlelight.
The first bus of the morning servicing the village of Branscombe sleepily winds its way around the lanes and arrives twenty minutes late. The locals are completely chilled with this 10.15am departure, accepting of the fact that buses get waylaid by straw-laden tractors or traffic lights. It’s an approach which needs to be adopted with this South West 660 hybrid eco-hike – it’s all about flexibility and adaptability – and of course, this all adds to the adventure!
Branscombe is one of those must-see destinations along the coastline. Laying claim to being the ‘longest village in England’ you won’t be disappointed by the warmth exuded by the thatched cottages as they line the quiet roads from the sea to the rich green farmland beyond. With the National Trust iron forgery and old bakery nestled in the heart of the village there’s plenty to see before you catch the bus and weave your way on to the seaside town of Sidmouth.
Sidmouth, with its grand hotels and beachfront promenade exudes a certain classiness. Perhaps this was why Queen Victoria favoured Sidmouth when she wished to take some sea air! The Connaught Gardens, named after one of the Queen’s sons makes for the perfect place for South West 660 hikers to grab a bench, rest weary toes and enjoy the floral displays before climbing up Peak Hill. Alternatively, if you keep at beach level, I can highly recommend walking under the red cliffs with wind battered ‘caves’. Here you can climb up Jacob’s ladder or simply follow the beach path round to join the footpath and begin the next stretch on towards Budleigh Salterton.
The freedom of the footpath
The 7 mile stretch between Sidmouth and Budleigh Salterton is a stunner. It’s views like these which make the Devon coastline so appealing to us walkers! Excavations at High Peak show that our ancestors were also pretty keen on a sea view, with archaeological digs finding proof of settlement going back to Neolithic times (4000 – 2000 BC). The vista across the ocean is spectacular, but be sure to look right too because the views looking north over open farmland are also remarkable. The footpath will take you through narrow hedgerows and across open clifftops and showcases Devon to its absolute best.
The next area of note is Ladram Bay. The ever-changing shape of the coastline is evident here as information boards depict how the sandstone stacks that are seen today, will look very different again in a century or so’s time. Wildlife lovers may also wish to pause here a while – sightings of bottlenose dolphins have been known. Similarly, if you carry binoculars, cormorants regularly nest on the cliffs and can often be seen proudly standing on the rocks with their wings outstretched to dry.
Heading along the coast you’ll soon be at Brandy Head, renowned for liquor smuggling in ages gone by, but also home to the Brandy Head Observation Hut used throughout WWII by the RAF. Situated right on the coast path, you can even book this hut for overnight accommodation. With a log burner for winter stays or a fire pit for summer evenings it could certainly offer a unique place for a mid-hike sleepover. I bet the sunrise and sunset views are incredible!
You’re there, but not quite!
The next part of your hike will certainly tease you. The footpath is easy walking across a well-trodden path through relatively flat farmland and Budleigh Salterton is well within view, but don’t be fooled! The River Otter is meeting the Channel and in doing so, the SWCP has to divert inland before you can cross the waterway and head back to the beach. It’s another variation to the walk however which is welcome – you’ll have the opportunity to walk alongside the river where viewing platforms give you the chance to observe kingfisher, curlew, redshank or lapwing on the grazing marshland. The Lower Ottery Estuary, along with the cliffs at Otterton Point are designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and are currently undergoing a huge restoration project as humankind work with Mother Nature in the battle against rising sea levels.
A lunch you won’t forget!
One of my most favourite things whilst out hiking is the feeling of taking off my rucksack and sitting down to some top nosh! When you’ve walked a long way, you certainly deserve some good fuel to replenish your energy and I can not help but wax lyrical about The Longboat Café in Budleigh Salterton. For the ultimate combo, you must order the Bacon & Scallop roll and if you’re fortunate enough to eat it in the company of a friendly West Highland White Terrier even better! There’s indoor and outdoor seating so this is an all-weather pitstop recommendation and knowing that the seafood on the menu is caught within a 5-mile radius just adds to the ‘Devonish’ delight of it all.
The River Exe by rail
The next leg of the journey is hopping on the bus between Budleigh Salterton and Exmouth before catching the scenic train ride up to Topsham. Be sure to sit on the left-hand side of the carriage so that you can max out on riverbank views. The train tracks run close to the water’s edge and you’ll see countless little fishing boats anchored in the estuary. Home to the Topsham Quay Antique Centre, book and jewellery shops and many independent retailers, it’s worth spending a while exploring this town steeped with architectural heritage.
The wander down from the rail station takes you through sleepy alleyways before opening out on what can be quite an invigorating breeze along the Strand. I picked up ‘The Goat Walk’ where the river laps the edge of the footpath and leads you towards the RSPB’s Bowling Green Marsh before heading back to the town centre.
For the day to end as good as it started, foodies recommend heading to The Globe. With more exceptional West Country fare on offer, your appreciation for the South West in combination with your South West 660 road trip, will yet again be affirmed. Enjoy your travels!