It is the Thursday before the August Bank Holiday weekend and I’m heading back to North Devon for a few days walking along the South West Coast Path. I’m staying further west than Barnstaple but have a gap in the coastal walk that I’m planning to fill. I will stop off in Barnstaple on the way and walk the coast between Barnstaple and Braunton, a gap I have left. Looking back it’s a little odd that I have this walk left to do – Barnstaple was easy to reach when I lived in Exeter but somehow I never got round to doing this walk. I expect the temptation of heading to the lovely sandy beaches of North Devon proved too much temptation and I overlooked this walk.
In some ways this works quite well, as this is a shorter than usual walk which is useful to break the journey. I am driving to North Devon and this being the Bank Holiday weekend I am expecting the traffic to be bad although by leaving on Thursday I hope to avoid the worst of it. This is the case and I have a straightforward journey to Barnstaple with no hold ups on the way. In fact I have made good time because the A361 is a better road than I had expected.
As I am approaching Barnstaple I see signs for the park and ride. I wasn’t aware that Barnstaple had a Park and Ride but I know from past experience the traffic in Barnstaple can be heavy so decide this is a good option. I follow the signs to the car park and am pleased to note the car park is beside the river, so I know where I am already. There is a bus to the town centre but I don’t know when it leaves and since I have made good time and am already beside the river I decide to start the walk from here. A subsequent check on the Devon County Council website suggest this may not be such a good idea, warning that the park and ride sites are only for the use of those using the Park and Ride Bus and that usage is monitored and a fine may be issued for improper use. This being the case I got away with it, but it might be wise to use the bus into town instead!
Nevertheless I am soon heading on the familiar route towards the town centre and by the road leading to the town bridge. This was the only bridge over the river Taw in Barnstaple until the new bypass was opened a year earlier, in 2007. The path I am following today is the route of two long distance paths, the South West Coast Path and the Tarka Trail. Both walks follow the route of the old Barnstaple to Ilfracombe railway line. Given the traffic problems in Barnstaple and the slow bus services I can’t help but think closing the railway was a big mistake, but without it perhaps this part of the coastal path would be further inland.
Barnstaple is looking attractive today with many flowers around the town and in the roundabouts.
I’m walking on a path right beside the river and soon pass what is now Barnstaple Heritage Centre on the right. I remember this as the bus station so at least the grand building has been put to good use and the forecourt that used to be used by the buses is proving popular with skateboarders.
I soon pass the mouth of the River Yeo on a bridge and am passing alongside old industry on the right. I can see the new Barnstaple bypass bridge ahead, which now goes high over the river. Whilst certainly needed, I don’t find the bridge very attractive.
There is a lot of industry on the right hand side of the path here on the edge of Barnstaple, but thankfully a line of trees between me and the warehouses means it is not so ugly. I soon pass under the new bypass bridge high above me. Alongside the path I see old railway signs giving the gradients on the line. I nice touch that they have been kept and restored.
This old railway line is now a combined cycle path and footpath and so is heavily used by cyclists as well as walkers. This might be a sight about a coast walk, but this seems a good path to cycle too, since unusually you can enjoy the same views with less effort, and still stop off when you want. The only downside is you’d have to cycle back again too, since this is the old railway line so there are no trains back and buses don’t take bikes (other than the short-lived Devon Bike Bus that I remember running around here but has long since ceased).
On this grey day and at low tide I don’t fine the views desperatly inspiring, certainly they are not as spectacular as previous walks on the South West Coast Path. However there is plenty of bird life to watch on the mud banks and the view is now a rural one.
As I continue west I see some people out on the mud banks fishing. I guess you must need some local knowledge to feel safe doing that, as it would be easy to sink into the mud or get cut off by the tide.
Near Ashford I pass close to the Sewage works, which make their presence known by the smell. Thankfully the smell is short lived and I’m soon back to fields on one side and the river on the other.
Soon I have the A361 road close to my right and just past here I pass under an old railway bridge, an attractive brick built structure that I’m sure looks just as it did when built. To my left the tide is beginning to come in, so the muddy banks are being replaced by water, making for a more attractive scene. Soon I pass a very grand building on the right. This used to be Heaton Court but is now a pub, The Braunton Inn with a lovely beer garden overlooking the trail and the river. Sadly I am driving today so I can’t stop for a drink.
Just beyond the pub I come to another muddy area, marked on my map with the rather un-attractive name of North Gut. This marks the point where the river turns south for a while, but sadly the coast path does not, keeping ahead on the old railway path now inland of the river, so I now lose the river views.
I am passing the military base of RAF Chivenor, and can see numerous buildings behind the high wire fence that borders the site. I pass another old railway bridge this one returning to nature, and the access road to the military base.
I can hear what sounds like a helicopter within the site too, but I can’t see it. The military base continues for some distance and I am soon passing the airfield itself on the left. Soon I pass another road and this marks the end of the military base. Although I can’t see the river itself, to my left now is marshland. The weather has also taken a turn for the worse, as it is now drizzling.
The marshland is short-lived for soon I am at the head of the River Caen where I had walked a couple of years previously, completing this walk.
This is a pleasant enough walk but it is certainly not the best on the South West Coast Path being rather lacking in variety compared with what I have been used to. Still it is a pleasant traffic free route and just as easy to cycle on as walk, there being no significant hills or major roads to travel along. I imagine it must be lovely to commute this way by bike if you live in the area.
I continue north this time along the A361 to the centre of Braunton. The town is rather dominated by traffic sadly, as the main road still runs right through the centre. This does not give the best impression and I don’t linger, not helped by the drizzle which is turning to rain. I soon find the bus stop for the regular bus back to Barnstaple. This was run by First at the time, but they no longer run buses in North Devon (it is now a Stagecoach route). This does not take long and soon I am back in Barnstaple. I have made good time, probably because this is a flat and un-demanding walk
Whilst in Barnstaple Pannier Market. This seems to be one of the “must see” sights in Barnstaple and despite visiting the town before I have missed it. There is a book market on today so it is nice to see the building in use and it looks especially attractive with all the flags inside. I realise my mistake with the Park and Ride earlier though, as I will need to walk back to the car park to avoid any questions about why I don’t have a ticket if I try to use the bus and am asked how I got to town in the first place! This takes around 15 minutes and is pleasant walk. I am soon back at my car to continue the journey further west.
Here is details of the public transport needed for this walk.
Stagecoach Devon 21 : Westward Ho! or Appledore – Northam – Bideford – East-the-Water – Fremington – Bickington – Barnstaple – Braunton and Ilfracombe