South West Coastal Path : Slapton – Start Point – Strete – Slapton
This is a beautiful walk – You can take Bill Bryson’s word for it, if you don’t believe me:
‘The view took in the mighty sweep of Start Bay, which is surely one of the very loveliest in England’.
So we unexpectedly found ourselves on an impromptu staycation in Devon. It was our 30th wedding anniversary and we had been searching for a cottage where we could take Ruby and have a few days to ourselves. We couldn’t find anything at all available. Then a chance conversation with a friend led to us grabbing this short break in South Devon.
With days drawing in, and coronavirus rules tightening again, I’m keen to keep on schedule. So a plan to hit the South West Coastal Path was made. I’d been keen to walk this (or rather parts of this) for some time and it was on the original 20 walk list. The path itself was roughly 3 miles from our cottage. A chat with our hosts though made it clear that this would lead to an epic hill to finish, on a day that would be full of epic hills. So we decided to take the day before to explore this part of the walk. So a leisurely 7.5 mile warm up walk – with a truly epic hill to finish nearly finished us off before we started Walk 16.
Neil then pointed out we really should finish where we could grab a pub meal and so all things considered we decided to drive into Slapton for the start and head confusingly to Start Point.
I always map routes in advance to get a guide for timings and terrain. This one was showing a completion time (without breaks) of 8 3/4 hours. We decided an early (for us) start of 9.30 so we were able to stop along the way and still get back with some daylight in hand.
As is often the case, footwear almost instantly needed some readjustment but the view across Start Bay from here showed us our first destination point – the Lighthouse at Start Point. Its always great to have a visual ‘target’ on these walks.
I will warn you now, but make no apologies, that this blog will be full of photos. It would be wrong not to share these. We had perfect walking weather, sunny spells with a gentle breeze. It didn’t take long to head down the hill to Slapton Sands and pick up the South West Coastal Path (SWCP) with its acorn symbol guiding our way.
A level walk towards Torcross, with the sea on the left and Slapton Leys nature reserve on our right. This part of the coast has a fair amount of history. The tall stone memorial here commemorates the villagers of South Hams who were asked to leave their homes with 6 weeks notice in 1943, so the area could be used to practice the D Day landings.
Arriving in Torcross as the Leys stop, the car park holds another memorial to the D Day practice and the tragic loss of life from Operation Tiger. This exercise was overseen by Allied commander Eisenhower, and used live ammunition to ensure the conditions were as realistic as possible. This exercise was so secret that not even the men involved knew what was about to happen.
By chance there was a German patrol fleet in the Channel that picked up the vessels on its radar and started attacking the flotilla. This created carnage and pandemonium with 700 killed. This was not the end of the disaster though. As the boats started landing and faced the live shells another 300 troops were killed within minutes. This was more than were killed in the actual landing on D-day at Utah beach.
Whilst I knew there had been rehearsals for D Day, I did not realise the extent of the tragedy that surrounded them.
After a pause to read the information boards here and absorb the history, we headed along the seafront at Torcross to start the climb up to the top of the cliffs and on towards Beesands.
Once you have got this climb underway, it is here that you grab that view that Bill Bryson made reference to. I will share the view here towards Start Point and you will have to wait til we return to get the views back across Start Bay towards Slapton Sands.
This up was swiftly followed by the down towards Beesands, back to sea level and the walk towards the next climb up to Tinsey Head.
So we crossed Beesands and started the climb up to Tinsey Head. The path was very pretty here with trees making a tunnel as we walked. Neil unfortunately assumed he had a tinsey head and forgot to duck under the branches. There was a sudden yelp behind me and Neil was on the ground with a bleeding head. A quick check it was nothing severe and no concussion evident, we carried on – this time ducking under the branches.
The views from here were wonderful, really captivating – just look over Neil’s shoulder in that picture above. It was about now my phone beeped. We had friends, Helen & Steve, that moved with their family to this area last year and we had shared our iPhone location so they could track our progress and potentially meet us for part of the walk later on. They knew from our location we were on a tough uphill and were sending encouragement , along with a tip for an easily missed point of interest at Hallsands – our next passing point.
We missed this info point on the way up, but we found it on the return. Hallsands was a village lost to the sea in 1917. I’ll pick that story up on our way back.
So now we were progressing back up and along the headland towards Start Point.
All I can say about this stretch is apart from steep hills, is its simply view after view.. I’ve said it before that this is the reward of hill walking – amazing views.
The path ventured out on to wide pasture with a sudden diversion where the cliff had fallen away. The cows didn’t seem bothered about it , nor the stream of walkers flowing through their field.
We finally reached the car park at Start Point. You can , if you are inclined, avoid the steep walk and drive here to get the view. You won’t though burn off the cream tea by doing that..
If you look carefully in that picture above you can make out the coastal path across the landscape. We started our walk off picture on the far right. You can get the sense of the climbs, when you realise we returned to sea level at each beach on the way.
So here we had to do some mental maths for route planning. IF we had walked here from our cottage we would have been at the half way point, but as we came from Slapton village we were a few miles short. The plan was to walk out along this headland to the Lighthouse and back (1/2 mile each way) then head further round on the coastal path turn and retrace our steps. When we retraced though we would not walk to the lighthouse again, but continue past. We therefore had to calculate at which mileage point that turn needed to be made. It sounds simple, but a bit hungry and tired we got rather confuzzled and couldn’t agree. No bickering just us both trying to over explain our own calculations.
We got distracted though as all around us the sky was suddenly peppered with birds of prey swooping into the ferns. I’ve not seen so many so close before, all hunting and diving right in front of us. Here’s the picture that we thought would not be usable at all, its of two birds – one inconsiderately dived in the ferns as I clicked though:
So after the walk down the long path to the lighthouse we found the sign that said it was closed. We were looking forward to a lighthouse visit. Another coronavirus impact. Disappointing, but understandable.
So we started the trek back along the path and turned back on to the Coastal Path with a plan to keep following the acorns for another 3 or so miles – we were still computing that turnaround point.
The change in landscape as we rejoined the path was amazing. The path narrowed and closely followed the cliff edge – the one with a sheer drop and no fencing. Those that have walked with me will understand the gravity of this. It was so narrow and close to sheer drops that Neil actually put his rucksack on properly.. Yep it was serious walking here. A few scrambles too and we came out into a wider area where we could stop and grab a snack before pushing on.
Quote of the day from Neil ‘You wouldn’t want to be falling off here”.. We kept Ruby close as she was keen to explore. We had put her on the extending lead for this stretch but it prompted a debate. She’d been unsettled by the terrain and kept heading back and forward almost looping us up in the lead.
We had options ahead – carry on on this narrow cliff top path with sheer drops and a stressed dog, or turn inland and loop back to Start Point – not our start point, the Start Point.
I’d promised mum that I wouldn’t walk close to crumbling cliff edges on this walk (oops too late) and we were conscious that retracing our steps and passing those walking towards us was going to be difficult. We decided to walk round the point we were at and assess the path ahead. The sign said it all.
It was really tempting though. Look at this water and views, it would have been incredible – maybe next time, without a nervous dog trying to trip us up and social distancing challenges on narrow paths..
We reached a fork in the path by Great Mattiscombe beach where we could walk across country, not sheer cliff tops, and took the turn. Frustratingly we were only around the 7 mile mark here and the route took us up again to the pasture above the cliffs. It was narrow but felt nice and secure. It was getting busy with people heading down to Mattiscombe beach from the Lighthouse car park, loaded with body boards and picnics – maybe carrying on the coast path would have been easier to negotiate after all!
So now we retraced our steps knowing that we would need to find another 7 miles when we got back to the memorial at Slapton. From the advance route planning there was a Plan B which was to walk the SWCP towards Stoke Fleming and Dartmouth. Plan B was now in action.
So we picked up the SWCP again here and started back towards Slapton. Coming in this direction you really were constantly rewarded with that amazing view of Start Bay. Heading back towards Hallsands now we made sure we found the Lost Village this time. It was much easier to spot from this direction and lots of information here to take in.
The village was devastated in 1917 by exceptionally high tides and a particularly fierce storm and strong winds. 128 people lived here and by midnight four houses were gone. The villagers grabbed their belongings and gathered up on the cliff tops. The devastation continued and by the end of the day only one house remained – 29 had been taken by the sea.
This however, was not caused by freak weather alone. The village had stood for many years protected by a large pebble ridge, but this was caused by the works completed to extend the naval dockyard at Plymouth 18 years earlier. The building plans involved taking sand and gravel from the sea in this area – a total of 660,000 tonnes was removed. The assumption was this would be replaced naturally over time, however these shingle beaches were actually formed by ice age deposits. As a result this dredging was removing the natural defences for the village and exposing it.
Whilst there was no loss of life, the loss of homes , belongings and livelihoods was devastating. The village ruins have been left as a reminder of the impact of man meddling with nature.
There’s a little side point here. These 20 mile walks could easily be done with blinkers on, striding the miles away to get them finished. Not pausing for views or discovering the history of the areas we are walking. To be honest – when you are facing walking time of over 8 hours any stop is adding to the time on your feet and its something you become aware of. However, the amount of knowledge that can be gathered by these pauses and from the information boards is a great thing. I find it fascinating and you get a greater sense of history of each area. It also means I have something to share with you in each blog – not just how many steps we’ve taken and how we ached or got lost. A small disclaimer though – these ‘history’ points are always a brief summary from what we have gleaned to include them for this blog.
So back now towards Beesands – again retracing steps gives the views a completely different perspective. I wonder if anyone has walked the SWCP in both directions to see it from each ?
As I mentioned at the start, this break was a bit impromptu. I had planned to do a walk this week, but with a day spent travelling too we had to manage our work around our time away. It was getting quite warm in the sun now and so we decided to grab a brief stop at the Cricket Inn at Beesands so Ruby could rest – (see below , she was sending signs! )and Neil could make a couple of work calls.
Refreshed we walked along the shingle beach and up the steep incline before heading down into Torcross. The thing about an out and back walk is that you know on the way out that every welcomed downhill section , will become an uphill on the return. This had been the steepest downhill on the way out – so we just knew it was coming.
We climbed back down those steep set of steps from this morning out onto the road in Torcross and as we turned the corner were greeted by our friends, Helen & Steve with Martha and Fraser. We hadn’t seen them for a year and they had headed over to walk for a short while with us. Its always a great way to catch up – walking and talking. It also means the miles fly by for us with fresh legs and faces keeping us company.
So now we walked back along past the Slapton Leys Nature Reserve and parted with our friends at the point we would have expected to turn back for the last 1/4 mile to our car. We were only 12.5 miles in though – the biggest ‘underestimate’ to date on an adapted route, but we were on the SWCP so we could just keep walking and turn round at around 16 miles and we should be roughly right. We waved farewell to our friends as they headed for a swim in the sea and we headed towards Strete and the steepest climb. Helen snapped a picture of us (which we rarely get one of the two of us on a walk) but we realised it was by a bus stop – I promise you we definitely didn’t get the bus!
So along we went towards Strete now. It was very busy round here and lots of traffic negotiating the small lane we had to walk on to join the SWCP here. Again the beach was beautiful but the path was incredibly steep. Steps had been helpfully cut in places, but these have enormous treads for my little legs and often are more of a challenge for me than walking up a slope.
These climbs often lull you into a false sense of security. Starting gently and offering teasingly pretty views to entice you further up. This climb was reminiscent of mountain hikes we had done – zig zagging relentless up after up at each turn. We weren’t going to give up and turn back though ( I knew because I asked..) we are on a challenge and this was all part of the deal. Just what you need at 14 miles in.
Now we were right up at the top of the cliffs again looking back along the bay to the headland with Start Point lighthouse on the horizon. It was here Helen said that when they followed us on the tracker app we appeared to fall off into the sea.. Bloomin technology!
We walked along into the village of Strete. A pretty place and some fun things spotted in the garden of one house.
This village was also impacted by the D Day practice with a row of village buildings being destroyed with the live ammunition.
Our plan was to continue here for another 1.5 miles, but we were now on a narrow road with no pavement and a ridiculous amount of traffic in both directions trying to pass each other. We decided that this was going to just slow us down and with legs now starting to tire after the big climb here the last thing we needed was to stop start like this. We reluctantly turned back to retrace our steps back to Slapton Leys and make a decision there based on how many miles we would need to complete.
So down the very steep path now – not easy still with height of these steps and my knees were complaining. The light was beautiful though as we shifted towards evening light and of course we had the views to keep us going.
So back through nature reserve again towards Slapton Leys. Is was busy here with people taking an evening stroll. We arrived at the turning to the car at 16.5 miles – we needed to find 3 miles on an out and back – the SWCP sign above my head said Torcross 1.5 miles – so Torcross and back it was.
Back again at the turning for the car we still had to find an extra 1/3rd of a mile (darn those inaccurate mileage signs), so we headed into the Nature Reserve to walk along the Leys. The reed beds here were used for thatch in this area and the reserve is now home to Otters. No sign of them for us. The familiar obsession with the mileage ticking over before we headed back to the road for the uphill walk back to the car and our start point.
Then the 20 mile marker went off on my phone just as the car came in to sight. It attracted some attention from the sheep in the field right by us.
So we had done it Walk 16 and part of the South West Coastal Path – woo hoo!
We headed in to the village for something to eat and Neil synced his app which would give the graph of all the ups and downs to share with you (and hopefully entice some extra donations!).
We are in a rural place here with limited signal – the sync crashed and his data was lost to the cloud. Luckily by recreating our route exactly on OS Maps App I can recreate the ups and downs for you. We also managed to finish this 30 minutes faster than OS Maps predicted – that felt like an extra achievement..
So a beautiful walk on a lovely day. Just 4 more left to go, but this walk was a real reminder of the shortening days and the need to plan routes that suit the limited daylight hours.
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