63. Bantham to Bigbury-on-Sea

June 2013

With most river estuaries I’ve encountered so far, I’ve taken a ferry or bridge across if one exists. To the east of Bigbury-on-Sea is the River Avon. One of several rivers with the same name, I’ve already passed on River Avon in Bristol. There is good reason for this, the word Avon comes from the Celtic word meaning River. Hence River Avon is really River River (a bit like PIN number, then) which goes some way to explaining why there are so many of them.

This River Avon separates Bigbury-on-Sea and Bantham. In my rules I have stated that I won’t walk around all the estuaries and where there is a bridge or a ferry I will use it. But of course that doesn’t mean that I have to use it and where an estuary looks to be both picturesque and easy to walk around I might choose to do it. That is the case here, as the river has a convenient marked trail along both it’s bank to the first bridge inland. This is the Avon Estuary Walk and it is listed on the South West Coast path website as the alternative winter route, when the ferry is not operating. It heads inland to Aveton Gifford, the lowest road over the river.

As the ferry over the Avon is also infrequent this is a useful alternative if it is not running or the timings aren’t suitable. I began from Bigbury-on-Sea, parking in the “Economy” car park (a field at the top of the village, with payment via an honesty box). I followed the path from here down to the village centre and the coast. As the ferry over the Avon is infrequent I timed it so that I could take the ferry over to Bantham first, then walk back, so I didn’t have to worry about timing my walk into one of the one-hour windows during which the ferry runs. Currently the ferry runs during the summer only, Monday – Saturday between 10 and 11am and between 3 and 4pm, but not at any other times of the day.

It was a glorious sunny day and the tide was low, I walked the whole way on the beach. It was lovely with soft sand all the way and it being fairly early in the morning the beach was not crowded. Soon the river was on my right and the beach became a little more rocky (and I suspect muddy if I went further out).

Bigbury-on-Sea

As I rounded the corner I could see what I thought was the boat some distance away and further than I expected so it turned out I would be crossing nearer 11am and then 10am. I followed another couple who I thought (correctly) were also making their way over to the ferry. I reached the ferry just behind them so could go over at the same time.

The ferrymen explained the return times, although there was no need for me as I’d be walking back. It is a short crossing and in a few minutes I was in Bantham. Bantham is a very pretty small village (almost a hamlet really) with a thatched boat house behind where the ferry dropped me.

Bantham boat house
The River Avon at Bantham

On this side of the river it was quite windy, I had obviously been sheltered from it in Bigbury. The path initially follows the road for a short distance through the village. The street climbs and soon has gained enough height to give a good view over the sandy estuary.

The River Avon at Bantham

Bantham itself is a very pretty village with almost all houses white painted thatched cottages. Despite it’s small size, it also boasts a pub, the Sloop Inn. I imagine it is very popular in the summer season. A short distance after the pub I spot my first sign for the walk which shows Aveton Gifford, the mid point, and where I will cross the river again, as 3.5 miles. So this walk is probably about 7 miles in total.

The path soon leaves the village behind and heads on a higher path one field back from the edge of the river. The extra height this offers is enough to reveal Burgh Island just out to sea.

The River Avon north of Bantham

I can also look back at Bantham village and the river, which looks very shallow from here.

The River Avon at Bantham

Despite it’s shallow appearance, the advice is that it is dangerous to attempt to wade it, so stick with the ferry. The path becomes a track again as there is a track (a footpath) off to the right leading to the hamlet of Aunemouth. The track path I want however is ahead and continues around fields as the river is now narrowing below.

The River Avon between Bantham and Aveton Gifford

There is a brief section through the woods, Stiddicombe Wood, which are nice and cool and shady which is welcome as it’s becoming quite warm.

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Emerging from the woodland I am at the back of a little creek off the river, Stiddicombe Creek.

Stiddicombe Creek

From here the walk on the eastern side of the river leaves the river bank and is now a little distance inland, almost half a mile in places. There is a fairly steep climb out of Stiddicombe Creek, and then past another small area of woodland to Stadbury Farm. The sea is now getting quite distant as I look back to the coast.

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The walk rounds Stadury Farm and then follows the access track for the farm for a distance and then forks left on another track and begins to descend gradually. Before I lose all the height there is a good view down to the river and the rolling Devon countryside.

Aveton Gifford

The track continues to descend, eventually becoming the public road. This goes beside a little stream at Efford where there is a few boats moored up in various states of repair.

Rounding the creek the minor road I’m on meets the busy A379, which comes as a bit of a shock after the peaceful walking I have enjoyed so far. The river has split into two little channels here so I have to follow the road to cross both of them. For a while there is a separate path just next to the road, but for a short distance I have to walk in the edge of the road.

After crossing both bridges I come to something i hadn’t expected, particularly so far inland. The path follows the route of a road, but it’s a tidal road, meaning it floods each day at high tide, so obviously the river is still tidal this far inland. It leads to the hamlet of Milburn Orchard and if the road is flooded the journey round is about 3 miles so it is quite useful. Having said that if you drive it everyday I’m not sure how long it would be before you car began to rust away.

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I’m assuming there is not a Highway Code sign for Tidal Road so they’ve used they “you’ve driven off the slipway” sign instead and added some text underneath to explain.

So to follow this route you would also need to make sure the tide is out. I assumed the tide was still low enough for the road to be clear, but there is an inland alternative route if it is flooded. The advantage of the tidal road from my point of view is that it is flat and right next to the river, giving good views. The downside is there is a bit of traffic to dodge, and you don’t want to go far off the road, as it’s rather muddy around.

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So the next stretch is easy following this unusual tidal road with trees on the right for most of the way. This is lovely as the trees provide dappled shade.

Tidal road at Aveton Gifford

After about half a mile of walking along the road it becomes something of a causeway over another little creek. This means I don’t need to head inland around this one but can cross it at it’s mouth on the tidal road. I assume this is one of the first parts to flood and wooden posts mark the route of the road, presumably for drivers that decided to use it when it begins to be covered with water.

Tidal road at Aveton Gifford

This is quite a popular walk with locals and dog walkers. On the eastern side of the river I saw no one between Bantham and Averton Gifford, but on this side there are quite a few people out walking the route. At Milburn Orchard, there is a large house and a few associated out buildings, but not a lot else. The tidal road now climbs and heads inland, but the footpath continues along the edge of the river for a short while.

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This gives a lovely view of the river now obviously at low tide with just a little channel of water remaining in the middle and mud either side.

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As on the eastern side of the river, the path soon heads a little inland from the river and gains height. This gives a view of the river as it nears Averton Gifford, with the narrowing river and salt marsh on the right hand bank.

View back to Aveton Gifford

This heads inland to almost reach the B3392 into Bigbury. Just before it however the path turns left and follows a permissive path through fields beside the road which is good.

The Avon Estuary near Bigbury-on-Sea

As the road turns to the right the path continues ahead on a track leading to an isolated house (Lincombe) and then turns left along this wooded track back to the river. The wooded track is lovely and heads alongside the river (often out of view) to reach the isolated village of Hexdown which seems to be only accessible on these narrow tracks with grass going down the middle. It does look a nice place to live though. Here the path heads back inland and gains some height again, but this offers a lovely view down to the river.

The Avon Estuary near Bigbury-on-Sea

At the top the path turns left onto a golf course and, as is so often the case, becomes less well signed. I think you can take a shortcut here and cut back to the road at the top of the village but I headed south for the path back to the ferry. Going down!

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Soon I have a good view of Burgh Island and the tide is still far enough out the causeway is still open.

Burgh Island and Bigbury-on-Sea

The path brings me down to the ferry and noticeboard, which I missed this morning walking along the beach. The directions for calling the ferry are “Please wave or shout to attract the ferrymens attention”. Now back where I started I decided this time to follow the official route of the coast path back to Bigbury-on-Sea rather than walk on the beach.

The path climbs up the field edge and gives a great view back over the mouth of the river. You can see the various channels the water follows and the glorious beach at Bantham beyond.

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Out to sea I can see the route of the river as it meets the sea.

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At the top of the hill the path goes through a farm yard and reaches the road. I can then follow the road down along the edge of the field, the same field that is the “economy car park” I used. This allows me to drop off empty drink bottles etc in the car and I then head back down to the beach. It is rather more crowded than when I left this morning!

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As it is still only early afternoon and the weather so miserable last time I walked this stretch of coast, I also walked a little west along the coast, to Challaborough and Arymer Cove so I can see this coast in better weather.

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The beach at Challaborough is also quite busy now although it is big enough there is still plenty of room. Rounding the coast I can look back at the now narrow strip of sand that separates Burgh Island from the mainland, a sure sign the tide is now coming in.

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The view ahead is a lovely one and somewhat better than last time I was here.

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Arymer Cove is, as I expected, rather quieter as there is no parking nearby.

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I finish here and spend a lovely couple of houses relaxing on the beach, before the short walk back to Bigbury and back to the campsite where I am staying.

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As I head back to Bigbury I can now see the sands to Burgh Island are completely covered and the sea tractor is making it’s way over.

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So something a bit different but a walk I really enjoyed, helped no doubt by the gorgeous weather. This is a peaceful walk mostly through fields close to the river and one that I recommended. A tidal road is not something you see everyday and the estuary is lovely and unspoilt. Certainly a walk to do even if the ferry is running I think so I’m glad I took the time to explore this estuary.

If you are planning to do this walk by public transport, although Bigbury-on-Sea only has one bus a week you could start and finish at Aveton Gifford, walk to either Bantham or Bigbury, take the ferry over and walk back the other side. This would meaning timing the walk carefully to arrive in one of the one hour windows during which the ferry is running. Averton Gifford has a regular bus service:-

First service 93 : Plymouth – Cattedown – Plymstock – Elburton – Yealmpton – Modbury – Aveton Gifford – Churchstow – Kingsbridge – Torcross – Slapton Bridge – Strete – Blackpool Sands – Stoke Flemming – Dartmouth. It runs hourly Monday – Saturday.

Here is the complete set of photos for this walk : Main Link | Details | Slideshow

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