Stage 17: Torcross to Salcombe

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Slapton Ley

(1) Slapton Ley


(2) Torcross

Widdicombe Ley

(3) Widdicombe Ley


(4) Beesands

After a fairly lengthy bus ride over from Plymouth, with a change at Kingsbridge, I alighted at Torcross on the edge of Slapton Ley at around 9:30. Unfortunately, the sunny morning weather was about to disappear, with dark clouds approaching from the west as I gazed across the water to the long line of houses stretching along the western end of the Ley (picture 1). I had my waterproofs in my backpack, as I always do when walking in England, so I headed back along the road to the corner of the Ley and then cut across to the western end of the seafront promenade to rejoin the Coast Path.

From the end of the promenade, which was built in 1980 after severe storms had battered the village the previous year, the path climbs some steps through a short tunnel cut through the rock of Torcross Point, emerging at a viewpoint with good views back along the seafront (picture 2).

The Coast Path follows a driveway around behind the clifftop houses, eventually finding a narrow enclosed path leading up to a grassy hillside covered in little yellow wildflowers. Soon another enclosed path takes a winding route through a small wood, emerging on a downhill slope overlooking the village of Beesands beyond the triangular lagoon of Widdicombe Ley (picture 3).

The route descends the steep slope, joining a gravel track that runs along the back of the beach, passing a soccer pitch, the end of the lagoon and the village green to reach the village. Just before I reached the village, the heavens finally opened, and I was forced to stop and hastily pull on my waterproofs, before continuing along the seafront past the Cricket Inn (picture 4).

Beesands is a small community of around 100 people, with a history going back at least 800 years. Today the village relies primarily on crab and lobster fishing, and the seafront is a jumble of small boats and piles of crab and lobster pots.


(5) Hallsands


(6) Hallsands

Old Hallsands

(7) Old Hallsands

Start Point

(8) Start Point

When the road behind the seawall forks at the far end of the village, the Coast Path takes the right-hand branch, climbing a rough path behind the last few houses to enter the National Trust's Tinsey Head property. The path soon levels out and runs along a series of field edges for a little over a kilometre, never far from the grassy clifftops, before descending to the beach at Hallsands (picture 5), where a dozen or so people were engaging in the curiously English pastime of walking on the beach in the rain.

Despite the rainy weather, the sea was very calm as I crossed the beach to the small cluster of seafront houses (picture 6), where the Coast Path climbs up steps between post-and-rail fences to skirt around the back of a house before returning to the clifftops in front of another couple of houses.

A viewing platform down wooden steps on the left gives a view over the ruined and abandoned village of Old Hallsands, perched on a ledge between the cliffs and the sea (picture 7). Established in the 1700's, the village had 37 houses by the end of the 1800's. In the 1890's, the engineering firm building the Devonport docks in Plymouth was given a license to dredge for shingle along the coast here and between 1897 and 1902, around half a million tons were removed before the unhappy locals gave up on their politicians and took direct action to stop the dredging. By that time, however, the damage had been done, with the beach that protected the village from the sea having been reduced in height by more than three metres. By 1903, six houses had been lost to the sea, and on one night in 1917, most of what remained was swept into the sea during a ferocious storm, with only one building surviving undamaged. Amazingly, all of the villagers survived, but the village was never inhabited again.

(Update: The sea continues to gnaw at the coast here. When I revisited Hallsands in May 2019, the building in the foreground of picture 7 had disappeared.)

From above Old Hallsands, the Coast Path follows a well-worn trail across the sloping hillside towards Start Point and it's iconic lighthouse (picture 8), reaching a carpark after a little more than a kilometre.

Start Point Lighthouse

(9) Start Point Lighthouse

Start Point

(10) Start Point

The Benches

(11) The Benches

Great Mattiscombe Sand

(12) Great Mattiscombe Sand

From the carpark, it's another kilometre down to the tip of Start Point, following a narrow lane beside a sturdy stone wall. The 28 metre tall castellated lighthouse (picture 9) took a team of forty men two years to build from eighty courses of granite blocks, first displaying its light on 1 July 1836. Two keepers lived on-site until the light was automated in 1993. The light, which changed from oil to electricity in 1959, has a range of 25 nautical miles (46 kilometres), with more than 13,000 commercial ships passing within range of the light each year. The tower is often open to the public, though not when I visited, presumably due to the bad weather.

From the lighthouse, the Coast Path backtracks up the lane for about 500 metres to a signpost showing 168 miles (268 kilometres) back to Poole and 462 miles (739 kilometres) ahead to Minehead, meaning that I had so far completed a little more than a quarter of the South West Coast Path.

Here the Coast Path leaves the lane, climbing steeply over the jagged granite spine of Start Point (picture 10), before turning away along the southern flanks of the ridge through an area known as The Benches, with granite tors above and countless rocks lining the shoreline below (picture 11). Around the next headland, now looking over the sweep of Lannacombe Bay, the path winds its way along the ragged cliffs towards Great Mattiscombe Sand (picture 12). The path scrambles around the cliffs above the beach, where there is evidence of a number of landslips, before a fairly level grassy path leads along the clifftops of an area known as The Narrows.

Lannacombe Beach

(13) Lannacombe Beach

Higher Borough

(14) Higher Borough

Maelcombe House

(15) Maelcombe House

Sharpers Head

(16) Sharpers Head

After a little more than a kilometre, the path reaches Lannacombe Beach (picture 13), where signs had been erected to indicate that the next 500-metre stretch of the Coast Path had been cut by a cliff fall during a storm in January 2013.

A map showed a diversion route of a little more than three kilometres, heading up the lane behind the beach, across open fields to Higher Borough Farm (picture 14), then down through a wood to rejoin the official route on the far side of Woodcombe Sand.

(Update: By October 2013 a much shorter permanent route had been opened to replace the collapsed section of the path. I walked this short stretch of new path in May 2019 as part of a circular walk from Beesands to East Prawle and back.)

The Coast Path twists along the low, ragged cliffs, passing below the isolated Maelcombe House (picture 15) then following a straighter stretch of cliffs above a narrow beach towards the impressive granite tors of Sharpers Head, looking rather like a piece of Dartmoor transplanted to the seaside (picture 16)

View from Langerstone Point to Prawle Point

(17) View from Langerstone Point to Prawle Point

View back from Prawle Point

(18) View back from Prawle Point

Signalhouse Point

(19) Signalhouse Point

Standing stones

(20) Standing stones

At the end of the beach the path turns left to skirt around the grassy sheep-grazed slopes below the tors before a gate in a stone field boundary wall takes the path into crop fields on Langerstone Point. The path follows the seaward edge of the fields around the point, with more tors rising a short distance inland. Across the cove ahead, I could see the stone archway on the end of Prawle Point, the southernmost point in the county of Devon (picture 17).

The path circles around the cove, eventually bearing away from the cliff edge to climb uphill past a row of coastguard houses then bearing left after passing through another gate in a stone field boundary to climb the rest of the way up to the coastguard station on the top of Prawle Point, with good views back over the path just covered (picture 18).

The path continues along the western side of the headland, here known as Signalhouse Point, with views westwards to Bolt Head (picture 19), which would be a prominent landmark for most of the afternoon. The path passes through several more stone field boundaries, including one made of tombstone-like standing stones (picture 20).

Elender and Maceley Coves

(21) Elender and Maceley Coves

Deckler's Cliff

(22) Deckler's Cliff

Rickham Sands

(23) Rickham Sands

Rickham Common

(24) Rickham Common

The path, which is quite stony in places, soon goes around the back of the twin Elender and Maceley Coves (picture 21), before climbing up onto Gammon Head, another National Trust property. The route cuts across the back of the headland to rejoin the clifftop at Pig's Nose, from which a well-worn three-kilometre stretch of path leads along Deckler's Cliff (picture 22), behind the small cove of Rickham Sands (picture 23), and along the flanks of Portlemouth Down to Rickham Common (picture 24) at the mouth of Salcombe Harbour.

View towards South Sands

(25) View towards South Sands

View towards Salcombe

(26) View towards Salcombe


(27) Salcombe

Ferry landing

(28) Ferry landing

Once around the corner and into the sheltered harbour, the path starts to run through scrub and then through woods. A gap in the woods gives a view across the water to the inlet of South Sands (picture 25) and another a little further reveals the town of Salcombe on the opposite bank further upstream (picture 26) before the path dives back into the trees to circle around the back of the sandy Mill Bay. On the other side of the bay, the path joins a quiet lane that runs behind some riverfront houses, outliers of the nearby village of East Portlemouth. After about 500 metres the lane reaches the Venus Cafe, beside which is the landing for a small ferry that runs across the river to the larger town of Salcombe.

At this point my GPS showed 24.8 kilometres walked for the day, including the path diversion near Lannacombe Beach. Since encountering that diversion, which had added about half an hour to the walk, I had been hurrying along the path to make up the lost time, as I had read conflicting information about whether the last ferry would be at half past five or six o'clock. As it turned out, I made it to the ferry landing at about a quarter past five, finding a sign advertising the last ferry at half past six, so I need not have hurried at all.

Before long the little ferry arrived to whisk me across to Salcombe, where a number of large houses and apartment buildings cling to the hillside (picture 27), like a smaller and more modern version of Dartmouth. Within a couple of minutes the ferry was pulling up beside the ferry steps below The Ferry Inn (picture 28). At the top of the steps I turned right along the narrow Fore Street, heading through the town centre and then up through the town to find my bus stop on Shadycombe Road. With another change of buses at Kingsbridge, it took me just short of two hours to arrive back in Plymouth.