71. Exeter to Dawlish

January 2014

East of Dawlish is the Exe estuary. The nearest bridge over it is the M5 motorway, but the South West Coast Path crosses it via the Starcross to Exmouth Ferry. I decided however to walk around the estuary into the county town of Devon, Exeter where I could walk across. This is because a fairly recent path has been created, the Exe Estuary Trail, a combined cycle path and footpath that goes down both sides of the Exe estuary. As I said in my rules, where there is a good path around I might choose to walk around estuaries. This is one such case and I was also curious to try this new path, which did not exist (at least not fully) when I lived in Exeter.

I drove to Exeter. I had hoped to take the train, but there was a rail replacement bus for part of the journey and I hate those. I used the park and ride off the A30 and so took the bus from there into the city centre. This was the first time I had seen the new shopping centre, Princesshay, which replaces an old 1960s parade which existed when I lived here. It is nice but also quite bland, I can’t help but wonder if in 30 years time it will be seen to be as dated as the old centre seemed.

I headed down the High Street, largely unchanged I was pleased to see, and turned left onto the Cathedral Green. This was exactly as I remembered it too.

Exeter Cathedral

Cathedral Close, Exeter

I took the minor road to the right of the Cathedral, heading downhill and crossing one of the main roads at the bottom. I then followed the path down to a bridge over the A3015 and alongside the Cathedral and Quay car park. Once around this I reached Exeter Quay, another lovely spot with the old custom house at the end of the cobbled steps on the right.

Exeter Custom house

Now of course I was at the Exe but I then needed to cross it. First I turned right to cross a little tributary into what was once an old mill I think. When I lived in the area it housed nightclubs, one of which was imaginatively titled Warehouse. Now it was boarded up and for sale. Passing this there was then a footbridge over the river into a housing development. Here I turned right passing on the river side in front of the houses.

Exeter Quay

I headed south along the good promenade soon looking across to the various craft shops that are houses in the arches on the retaining wall on the other side.

Exeter Quay

On my side of the river I remembered this area as housing a Maritime museum, sadly now closed. In fact the area of land I was on was an island, with the Exeter Ship Canal to my right and the main channel of the river to my left. The reason for the canal is that the weir constructed at Countess Weir meant the Exe was no longer navigable as far as Exeter. To resolve this, the Exeter Ship Canal was built, to priovide a navigable route into the city. At the tip of my little island I crossed another bridge onto a grassy area, with a flood channel on the left and the ship canal to my right. The flood basin soon ended and I was then following the eastern bank of the Exeter ship canal.

This was initially surfaced, but soon became unsurfaced and rather muddy. The houses on my right soon gave way to industry on the other side of the canal. Somewhere in this industry on my right is an incinerator – and it doesn’t half stink. It was really disgusting. Thankfully the smell soon reduced and I reached a little car park on the left, popular with dog walkers. Here there is a lock and so you can cross the canal, but I stuck to the same side. The path soon became tarmac again, but the surroundings more rural.

The Exeter Ship Canal

This good track continued and soon bought me to the Double Locks Hotel.

The Exeter Ship Canal at Double Locks

This and the Turf Lock Hotel further down the path were a popular cycle ride from the city when I lived here, when it was customary to have a few pints in each. I’m sure it’s still the case. I headed through the car park of the pub and back onto the path again beside the canal. Soon on my left was an area of marsh created to form a nature reserve, Riverside Valley Park, where there were a few viewpoints over to the reserve.

Exeter Ship Canal

I was also near the railway line now and watched a train pass by on the other side of the canal.

Soon I reached the Countess Weir swingbridge. This carries the road to Dawlish, but before the M5 was built, this was once the main route into west Devon and was something of a bottleneck. I crossed the road and took up the route of the Exe Estuary trail once more, which is now on the eastern side of the canal. I could here the roar of the traffic on the M5, now not far ahead, but the immediate surroundings were peaceful, with marsh to my right and the canal on my left, with a few people canoeing down it, even though it was January.

Exeter Ship Canal

Looking back I could see across to the main channel of the Exe now and the rather lovely stone bridge also at Countess Weir, this one not needing to lift as the river is not navigable here.

It was an easy and pleasant walk alongside the canal which twisted and turned a bit and had become quite wide now.

The Exeter Ship Canal

Soon I was approaching the M5 bridge. This is the last (fixed) crossing of the Exe before the coast, but it has no pedestrian path. It is not a terribly elegant bridge, being a concrete construction.

The Exeter Ship Canal and the M5

The weather had picked up now, and the sun was out making the canal a beautiful blue as I looked back up towards the M5.

The Exeter Ship Canal

The canal soon began to narrow and was once more separated from the river by only a small strip of land. After around half a mile I reached the old Topsham Lock, which once provided access to the main river channel, but is now disused. Beyond this I came to a bridge over the canal where you can then cross and take a ferry over to the pleasant riverside village of Topsham on the other bank. I went down to have a look at the ferry but didn’t cross, but if offered a nice view of Topsham.

Topsham Ferry

Continuing on the west side of the canal the path passed this swing bridge and continued south with the town of Topsham visible above the reeds. The canal turns to now head exactly south as it nears the end. It was about a mile of pleasant walking until I reached a narrowing of the canal beyond which a little basin was filled with moored boats.

The Exeter Ship Canal
Turf Lock

At the end of this basin I reached the Turf Lock Hotel, where the canal ends and joins the river at the large lock. This used to be the end of the cycle trail, but it now extends south.

The Exe Estuary at Turf Locks

I was surprised to see the hotel was closed, but only temporarily but I could go into the Beer garden for a view of the now large estuary that had opened up to my left whilst I had been following the canal.

Crossing the lock gates, I had a last view up the canal.

Turf Lock

And in the other direction a view to the sea.

Turf Lock

The path now followed a sea wall alongside the estuary, with the railway close by to my right over some very boggy marshes. I was glad the path was raised up, as walking through those marshes would get you very wet at this time of year.

Train

The Exe was unusually calm as I looked up the river.

The Exe Estuary

It was a lovely stretch of walk for the next mile or so, running along the top of the sea wall. However after a mile or so it met the railway line and crossed it. A sign told me it was now 1.7 miles to Starcross and the Exmouth ferry. The cycle path continues for a short distance more before it reaches a minor road. This heads through the village of Powderham, which is largely dominated by Powderham Castle and the estate around it. The village, if you can call it that, consists of around a dozen houses just to my right. The church is pretty and made of the red stone that is so common in this area.

Powderham Estate

Sadly views of the coast path are now limited, as the railway is to my left and raised up, so the coast is hidden by the stone wall of the railway. There isn’t a pavement, but there is not much traffic either. It has been a wet winter and parts of the Powderham estate are looking very boggy too.

Powderham estate

In the distance I can see the castle over one of the lakes.

Powderham Castle

The castle is still in private ownership and is the country residence of the Earl of Devon. One interesting feature is that although the railway line blocks the view on the right at regular intervals there are steps leading to little paths over the track. In many cases this just leads to steps heading down into the river, so I’m not sure why they exist.

But they do get a view of the river.

The Exe at Powderham

Taking this photo did make the train driver give me a good blast with the horn too! Still as the train whizzed by just 1ft or so away I can see why they put this sign up!

Sensible advice!

Soon the minor road I have been following reaches the rather busier A379. I notice the road I am on is signed with a green Shared Road sign, perhaps trying to mimic the Green Lane signs on Jersey? A little gate house on the right presumably marks the end of the Powderham Estate.

Powderham gate house

Just before I have to turn onto the A379 there is a tarmac path ahead which leads along the promenade of the small village of Starcross. This is a pretty little town but rather dominated by the railway line through it, but it does have a station. Brunel tried to convert this line to run on pressured air (the atmospheric railway). It was never successful and quickly abandoned, but one of the old pumping stations that provided the air pressure on the right still exists and is a little museum.

Starcross

I notice that a pub had called itself the Atmospheric Railway too. At the station I reach the ferry, as the ferry departs from the coastal side of the railway, obviously, so the station footbridge provides the means of access to the pier. It being the winter it wasn’t running, but I went over to take a look anyway.

Starcross

I had now reached the South West Coast path, which crosses the river via this ferry, at least when it is running. Oddly it immediately diverted me away from the coast on minor roads, presumably in an attempt to avoid the A379 which has only a narrow pavement. Soon though at the end of the village the coast path returns to the A379. It’s a fairly tedious walk, but only for about ¼ of a mile when the A379 heads inland around the village of Cockwood, but the coast path goes through the village.

It has a pretty harbour although it was less pretty than usual at the time owing to the tide being out and being mostly mud.

Cockwood Harbour

Cockwood Harbour

The access to the harbour looked tricky. With the railway running right along the coastal side of the harbour, the only access to the harbour is under a low railway bridge. So if the tide is too high you won’t get under the railway line and too low and there is no water to enter the harbour. This is a popular location to photograph the steam trains that run along the railway in the summer too. The path follows the minor road passing a couple of pubs around the back of the harbour. At the end I take the little path which goes right up to the harbour entrance and I can just get under it to see the estuary beyond.

The next mile or so south of here is on another road, and although not an A-road it is still busy being the main road to Dawlish Warren. There is a pavement most of the way but even in winter it is quite busy. I head through the little village of Easton and a short distance beyond come to the start of the many caravans that seem to make up most of Dawlish Warren. I pass a grotty looking shop advertising “Summertime Booze” in the window, except that it’s winter! Follow the road through the village I soon reach the railway station on the left. The road under this is the access to Dawlish Warren which is a large car park leading to a lovely sandy beach. I remember that the Fire Brigade had to keep a special small engine so that it could fit under this railway bridge, which was larger than their normal engines – I presume they still do?

The South West Coast path misses out Dawlish Warren and sticks beside the railway. But it is a lovely sand spit at the mouth of the Exe, with the coastal side being a good sandy beach and behind it a mixture of dunes and salt marsh forming a nature reserve.

I decided to walk around this too.

It was an easy walk initially along the promenade.

Dawlish Warren

Soon I dropped down onto the beach. After about half a mile I had it to myself and could see Exmouth clearly across the river and Orcombe Point beyond, a coast very familiar to me. I made it right to the end of the spit, although the sand got a little softer nearer then end making it a harder walk.

I now was almost in touching distance of Exmouth on the other side of the estuary – so close, but inaccessible without a boat.

Exmouth from Dawlish Warren
Exmouth from Dawlish Warren

Rounding the end of the spit I was struck by how windy it had become and had to battle the sand trying to blow into my eyes a bit. I followed the shore edge on the estuary side of the spit following another couple I could see ahead.

Dawlish Warren beach

The path went around a little bay and beyond this I could see the salt marsh began, and it was also a nature reserve. Therefore at the end of this little bay I cut back across the sandspit, which at this point is just a few metres wide back to the beach.

Dawlish Warren

Dawlish Warren

This time I retracted my steps on the path on top of the dunes, rather than the beach.

Dawlish Warren

After a while though I hit a problem, as the path descended to an area of marsh and went underwater, there being a very large puddle.

So I returned to the beach here and soon the promenade. At the end is a small amusment park consisting of an arcade and various other things like crazy golf and bumper cars. This marks the start of the promenade into Dawlish, initially a surfaced path with rock armour to my left. This soon reaches the railway line and then runs alongside it. At a rock ahead I pass the Red Rock Cafe, now closed for the evening.

The walk from Dawlish Warren to Dawlish was a favourite of mine when I lived in Exeter and a common Sunday afternoon walk. I used to stop at the cafe for an ice cream and I remember the people that ran it were lovely and real character, making a point of waving at all the trains that went past, whilst the walls inside the cafe were covered in photos of the people at the cafe and the trains. I wonder if the same people still run it? Although I note it is now the Red Rock Snack Bar instead.

Now rounding the corner past the Red Rock (actually called Langstone Rock) I am right on the coast, heaving left the estuary behind. The railway line was built at the back of the beach here, raised on a wall between the cliffs and the sea. It is I believe the most expensive railway per mile to maintain in the country. But it makes for a great walk, with the sea wall having a flat path next to it, that now forms the coast path. It’s quite surreal with the trains whizzing past on their way to Paignton or Plymouth just a couple of feet away.

Intercity 125 passing Dawlish
Dawlish

The sun was now setting, so I had timed it perfectly. It was around 1.5 miles further along the sea wall to the station. At one point the path along the sea wall dropped and with the sea splashing over the rocks to my left, I had to time it right to get past dry.

Dawlish Sea Wall

Soon it raised back up again and I could follow this until I was passing under the platforms at Dawlish station, the end of the walk. Time for one last photo in the dusk light over the sea.

Dawlish

I then took the train back to Exeter, which takes around 15 minutes. 2 weeks later, a storm washed away a large section of the sea wall and the railway tracks which were once on top of it were left dangling in the sea. It cut off the rest of Devon and Cornwall from the rest of the rail network, and engineers worked around the clock to repair it. A reminder of the power of the sea . At the end of the day, nature usually wins!

So whilst not all of this walk was part of the official coast path (except in winter I guess) it is a varied and interesting route. It is almost entirely flat and mostly well surfaced, making it a good walk all year round, especially in winter. The time I walked this was one of the wettest winters, but even then all the paths were dry enough to be easy to walk. I think it is best done this way too, so you finish at the sea rather than in a city. I really enjoyed it and it is good to see the access to this part of the coast has been improved.

Once more, although you can get back by both bus and train I highly recommend the train, as it runs more coastal than the coast path in places and is alongside the sea or estuary almost the whole way back to Exeter.

Here are details of the public transport needed for this walk:-

Train times Exeter to Dawlish (and on to Plymouth and Paignton)Exeter St Davids – Exeter St Thomas – Starcross – Dawlish Warren – Dawlish – Teignmouth – Newton Abbot – Torre – Torquay – Paignton. Roughly two trains per hour, Monday – Saturday. Less frequent on Sundays (between 1 and 2 an hour). There are also some longer distance services through from London and Birmingham.

If you want to catch the bus though, Stagecoach service 2 runs 3 times an hour Monday – Saturday and twice an hour on Sundays on a route between Exeter and Newton Abbot via Dawlish.

Here is the complete set of photos for this walk : Main LinkSlideshow

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One Response to 71. Exeter to Dawlish

  1. A great account of a lovely walk. I took the ferry across to Starcross, and so missed out one of the nicest parts of the river walk. But I clearly remember the section between Dawlish Warren and Dawlish – very exciting when the tide is high!

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