The South West Coast Path is one of Britain's National Trails and, weighing in at a mighty 1,015km (or 630 miles), is its longest. It covers the whole coastline between Minehead in Somerset and Poole in Dorset, and can be tackled as a series of day walks or all in one go. The Entries in this series are suitable for either type of walker. All routes are described in the traditional anti-clockwise direction of travel.
As on much of the coast path, wheelchair users and those with puchchairs and prams will find the going difficult away from the more accessible beaches, mainly due to the steep hills - in fact, the SW Coast Path has ascents totalling more than three times the height of Everest! Sections of the coast path can be remote and difficult, and walkers should make sure they have taken sensible precautions in case of an emergency:
Let someone know where you are going, and when you expect to be back - and don't forget to contact them on your return to let them know you are safe!
Waterproofs, warm clothing, a good map, plenty of water and food are considered essential, even on short walks in good weather.
Be extremely careful near cliff edges, especially in windy or wet weather, and remember that your dog (if you have one) may not have the same wariness of danger that you have.
A Remarkable Coast
The eight mile stretch of coast between Sidmouth and Beer in Devon is sensational. It is an absolute lung-burster of a route, diving down to fossil-strewn beaches and rising again to incredible views before snaking through the chaotic vegetation at Hooken Undercliff. Off the local coast lies part of the Lyme Bay reefs, which are some of the most spectacular in the UK, and the route is at the heart of the East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty1. The day as suggested finishes at the village of Beer, where there is a smattering of accommodation, pubs and restaurants. The larger town of Seaton lies just two miles on, and although it is an easy walk onwards, it would be a shame to miss Devon's 'little piece of heaven2'. Landslips are common all around this part of the coast; in the last few years, they have caused a major path diversion up Salcombe Hill (just after leaving Sidmouth) and affected the valley at Weston Mouth. The brown sea and crumbling cliffs are testament to the geological and erosive forces at work here. A highlight of the walk, the Undercliff, is the site of a major landslip; over two hundred years ago, millions of tonnes of rock came crashing down into the sea, forming a sort of sub-cliff. Vegetation took hold and created a strange landscape for the modern walker to pass over; above the sea yet below the cliffs simultaneously. It's an awesome part of the coast.
A good level of fitness is an absolute must on this section of the coast path, as the route climbs three 150m hills, all from at or around sea level. Water is also an issue, as there is nowhere to refill until you arrive at Branscombe less than two miles from the finish. Take at least a couple of litres; more on a hot day.
The Jurassic Coastlink service X53 runs between Bournemouth and Exeter along the coastal road. It goes into Beer village and stops at Sidford; from here services 52A and 52B run to and from Sidmouth, which is just two miles away. The X53 runs approximately every two hours through the day; check the Traveline website for timings. Ordnance Survey Landranger map 192 covers the route at 1:50,000 scale, or for more detail it is covered by Explorers 155 and 116. The excellent Sidmouth Tourist Information Centre at the start of the walk also sells excellent local walking guides.
Onwards and Upwards
From Sidmouth sea front, take the old pedestrian bridge over the river Sid and turn left up a gravel track; the old coast path route in front of you has been closed due to erosion. The path meanders steeply through a residential area and passes the edge of a field before climbing through a final and even steeper wooded section. Fortunately, there are occasional great views over Sidmouth on the way up, so there are ample excuses for a quick break! You'll probably need a quick breather, and fortunately some kind soul has installed a few benches at the top of Salcombe Hill; it's worth the effort for the views at the top.
The path then crosses an open field before descending very steeply towards a beach at Salcombe Mouth - make sure you follow the yellow coast path markers and not the green ones, which indicate a local circular route leading back to Sidmouth. No sooner have you completed the steep descent than the path begins to rise again at an almost malicious gradient; there are actually a few routes leading up, but the most direct, which follows the cliff edge in great zigzags, is probably the most satisfying. At the top, great views open out once again, and the steep climbing is over - for a while, at least.
After that, walking along the top seems a breeze. Wonderful views dominate, and there is even a chance of spotting one of the handful of peregrine falcons that make their homes on Dunscombe Cliff below you. All too soon, the path descends more and more steeply before coming out on the pebble beach at Weston Mouth. This makes a fantastic lunch spot; the sea rarely does anything but crash here, the cliffs are spectacular, and the beach seems to go on forever in either direction3. You'll need revitalising before the next climb, anyway; Weston Cliff is the highest point of the day at 162m, and the final stretches take considerable effort.
The good news is that that's the really hard stuff over with. The path crosses fields for a good mile or so; keep your eyes peeled for the tiny huts and shacks down on the cliffs below you. Finally, on entering the woods near Branscombe, the path begins to descend once more. Other paths are signposted in the woods; to Branscombe Church and even at one point there are two coast path signs pointing in different directions! Keep straight on and suddenly a final drop through a field is revealed, leading to Branscombe Mouth. Much of this area is now managed by the National Trust, who perform an admirable job in making a relatively large number of tourists appear inobtrusive. Earl Grey tea, local beer and excellent fish and chips are available in the restaurant, and the temptation may be too much to resist.
Over the Undercliff
Now climb once more but, instead of going all the way up, turn right into a caravan park and carefully follow signs for the coast path. The alternative route leads straight up and over the top to Beer, but you miss Beer Head and the Undercliff by going that way. After a couple of hundred metres, the path leaves the caravan park and enters a tunnel of vegetation; this is the start of Hooken Undercliff. It was formed by a massive landslip in 1790 and now offers excellent walking. There are great views of the cliffs both above and below you, and the path winds gently through the scrub and woodland up and around towards Beer Head. Just after the bay in front of you comes into view, keep your eyes out for a half-hidden bench which offers perhaps the best resting place of the day - the views in almost every direction are stupendous. Finally, the path turns left and climbs out onto Beer Head itself. Keep an eye out for the local colony of cormorants here.
Excellent views of Lyme Bay and Seaton Bay accompany you as you take the final steps to Beer, finally entering another caravan park and dropping down a tarmac road into the village. The small village was once a haven for smugglers, as well as producing some of the finest lace in the country. Perhaps the most welcome sight of the day is the Anchor Inn at the bottom, with great ales, a beer garden and summer barbecues. Go on. Today, you're really earned it.