15. Ilfracombe to Combe Martin

May 2000

I’m certainly turning back the clock for this walk, as it is nearly 8 years earlier than the previous walk I wrote about and nearly 14 years ago! At the time I was living in Exeter, one of the reasons I began walking the South West Coast Path as it was close at hand. It is also a shorter walk than usual as I didn’t tend to cover as many miles then as I do now.

I’m also photographing this walk using a film camera (remember those…) as at this point in time digital cameras were not affordable or readily available. So I’m using a cheap point-and-shoot film camera with some cheap film and scanned them in hence the photos are not very good quality.

Although at the time I was living in the same county as this walk, I didn’t have a car and so getting to the North Devon coast from South Devon was somewhat time consuming. Devon is a large county and it really shows when you travel from one end of it to the other. I walk down to Exeter St Davids station and take a train  on the Tarka Line to Barnstaple. This takes a little over an hour and is a pleasant journey through the wooded valleys and rolling hills of Mid Devon. The station it Barnstaple is however some way from the town. Indeed it used to be called Barnstaple Junction, with another station nearer the town, called Barnstaple Town. However since all the other railway lines from Barnstaple were closed in the 1960s, the “Junction” suffix was dropped and this is now the only station in Barnstaple.

To get to Ilfracombe I need to walk to the bus station, which rather unhelpfully is nearly half a mile walk away, partly through an industrial estate. If we had an integrated public transport system, there would be a bus from Barnstaple railway station to the town centre and bus station, timed to connect with the trains at Barnstaple and included in the cost of the train ticket to Barnstaple. However we don’t and there isn’t, so I have to walk through the industrial estates on the other west side of the River Taw and cross the river on the attractive town bridge.

At the time of writing the Barnstaple Western Bypass had not been built, so all traffic wanting to cross the Taw and get to other parts of North Devon had to cross via this one bridge, so not surpisingly traffic was heavy. Thankfully the new bypass and bridge has helped the situation here. Once over the bridge I turn immediately left to the bus station, which was located here at the time, but has since been moved to a bit further along the A361.

I reach the bus station and take one of the First Red Bus routes to Ilfracombe. This company no longer exists (they became First Devon and Cornwall who later abandonded their services in North Devon). Buses from Barnstaple to Ilfracombe are now run by Stagecoach and is numbered route 21. Helpfully these days this bus serves Barnstaple station too, which would certainly make things easier.

The bus takes around 45 minutes to reach Ilfracombe via Braunton along the A361. I get off at the bus station, which  unfortunatly has since closed. I make my way from here to the sea front. Ilfracombe is very much a resort town, with a large number of hotels, but unusually for a resort it doesn’t have much in the way of a beach. Instead there are a couple of beaches, The Tunnels Beach, reached via tunnels dug into the cliffs in the 1820s and were largely responsible for Ilfracombe’s development as a resort. Some sea swimming pools were also built and the beaches were segregated for Men and Women. These beaches still exist but are private so you have to pay an admission charge to access them via the tunnel.

The only other beach is a small beach to the south of Capstone Point, but this is largely rocky.

View over the beach at Capstone Point

View over the beach at Capstone Point

Despite this the town has many hotels so acts as something of a base from which to explore the nearby countryside. The town is rather dominated by the Landmark Theatre, two round white domes looking a bit like salt and pepper pots. The coast path goes around the road here behind the rocky beach near Captstone Point. The coast path then goes around the base of Capstone Point on a tarmac path, probably another Victorian path known as Capstone Parade. On the top of this hill is a small little chapel St Nicholas Chapel which although I don’t visit this time (there is an admission charge), I have visited before.

When the path ends I join Capstone Road and then follow this out to the harbour. This brings me out to the harbour and I soon realise I’ve made a mistake, as this is a dead-end. In the summer months there is a ferry service from here to Lundy but the boat is not in today.

Ilfracombe Harbour

Ilfracombe Harbour

I return along the north side of the harbour and follow the roads around the west and south side of the harbour. The harbour is pretty with numerous boats moored up. I initially follow the road, passing a car park on the left and have a bit of difficult finding the path but soon find it heading along the cliff top around a golf course offering nice views back over the town, with the imposing Granville Hotel (now no longer a hotel) on the cliff top at the back of the town. After the golf course the path begins to climb on to a headland known as Fort Hillsborough and gives good views back over the town and harbour. The path has now become a bit more wild with gorse around and bushes. Soon I can see the whole town layed out below nestling in the hills.

Ilfracombe from Hillsborough

Ilfracombe from Hillsborough

The path heads through woodland and then descends down to the rocky and sandy beach at Hele Bay. This is something of a holiday centre with caravans along much of the back of the beach here.

Hele Bay

Hele Bay

In common with much of this part of the coast, the beach is mostly grey because of the slate rocks. Sadly from here I have to head along the access road to Hele Bay to meet the A399 (Watermouth Road) and walk along this. Thankfully there is a pavement and I’m soon cllimbing out of Hele Bay. Near the top of the hill I come to a viewpoint, where the path turns left off the road. From here I have good views back over Hele Bay, but Ilfracombe is now largely out of sight.

Hele Bay

Hele Bay

Hele Bay

Hele Bay

The path now runs alongside the A399 for the next ¼ of a mile or so, although in some places there is a path parallel to the road. As I reach Rillage Point the coast path goes around this little headland, away from the road. This gives fine views of the deserted beach at Samon’s Bay, a rock and shingle beach by the looks of it, although I don’t see a path down. The coast path now rounds Widmouth Head and comes round to Water Mouth Cove. This is a long narrow beach with land on either side and backed by Watermouth Castle. I get caught in a brief but heavy shower here but at least it doesn’t last long.

Water Mouth Cove

Water Mouth Cove

I had wondered if Watermouth Castle was open to the public. It is, but I’m rather disappointed to find that it is something of a theme park, so I don’t bother to make a visit.

Watermouth Castle on the cliff top

Watermouth Castle on the cliff top

The coast path misses out the little headland (The Warren) at the other side of the beach so I don’t follow it either, although there is a path out there I can see on the map. The path then runs just north of the A399 and comes round to another small beach, aptly called Small Mouth. The coast path ahead is very rocky, with steep sided wooded cliffs coming down to shingle beaches, which again look to have no access.

View to Combe Martin and Great Hangman

View to Combe Martin and Great Hangman

Heading round the beach at Napps the coast path soon heads into the woodland I could see ahead. This soon comes to a road, Old Coast Road passing a hotel. Presumably this road was once the A399 and fell away with a new road being built to the south. The coast path follows this old road and then brings me out onto the A399 once more. As the road goes into a steep right turn there is a path ahead on a track which cuts the corner and I’m soon descending down into Combe Martin, the end of my walk.

Combe Martin

Combe Martin

Combe Martin

Combe Martin

At the time I did this walk I’d not walked east from here, so having taken less time than I expected to complete the walk I head up to the top of Little Hangman and enjoy the views over the town  and to Wild Pear Beach. I stop for a while at the top before time is pressing and I must head back down to Combe Martin to take the bus back. .

I head back down to the sea front and find the bus stop. From here I take the number 30 bus back to Barnstaple, via Ilfracombe and then a more direct route than my journey this morning. This bus is run by Filers Travel rather than First Red Bus.

Whilst not as spectacular as Exmoor this is still a lovely walk, although the amount of road walking is a little bit of a disappointment.

The public transport needed for this walk is detailed below :

  • Filers Travel route 301 (Barnstaple – Muddiford -Hele – Ilfracombe – Combe Martin)
  • Stagecoach 21 (Westward Ho! or Appledore – Northam – Bideford – East-the-Water, Fremington – Bickington – Barnstaple – Braunton – Ilfracombe)

Here are the photographs from this walk : Main Link | Details | Slideshow

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