The South West Coast Path and the Tarka Trail

28 November 2011

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Instow signal box. © 2011 Ted Forman.Instow signal box. © 2011 Ted Forman.

Think of South West England and you think of its superb and varied coastline. The best way to explore this magnificent landscape is on foot and the South West Coast Path National Trail makes this possible. It offers 630 miles of continuous coastal paths, from Minehead on the edge of Exmoor National Park all the way to Poole Harbour.

Few people manage to walk the entire trail all in one go but those who do, manage it in about 6 or 7 weeks. There are some strenuous sections and if you did complete the path it would be the equivalent of climbing mount Everest 4 times! Most of us prefer to walk more manageable sections that take up to half a day or less and there are hundreds of routes to choose from that can be downloaded for free from the South West Coast Path website.

It’s a great way to discover more about the natural and human influences that have helped shape the landscape we see today, from coastal erosion to industrial revolution which saw much of the South West coast mined for its rich resources. Around the same time in the 19th Century, some of the first railways travelled along the coast but later fell into disuse. These make excellent walking and cycling routes today and are the ideal level surface for pushchairs and mobility scooters.

One of the longest stretches of the Coast Path that travels along old railway trackbeds is in north Devon. It follows the route of the Tarka Trail, of which about 30 miles is available to cyclists between Braunton and Meeth. It passes through largely unspoilt countryside as it was described by Henry Williamson in his classic novel ‘Tarka the Otter’ first published in 1927.

Fremington Station. © 2011 Ted Forman.

The railway was built in 1855 to link Bideford with Barnstaple and became part of the London and South Western Railway. Passenger services ended in the 1960s but the line was retained for clay trains into the 1980s. As you walk along this stretch of Coast Path some of the old railway remains as a reminder of its former place in the history of rail travel. The signal box at Instow stands proud as a listed building and a signpost noting the mileage from Waterloo remains at the end of the station.

Further up the line at Fremington Quay, the old station here has now been developed into a cafe, bike hire and visitor centre, including a superb look-out over the Taw estuary. Views encompass Heanton, Chivenor airfield and the extensive dune system of Braunton Burrows, a UNESCO Biosphere reserve that’s teeming with wildlife.

 Wherever you walk along the South West Coast Path, there’s something to capture the imagination, whether it’s wildlife, geology our heritage and culture or simply the breathtakingly beautiful scenery wherever land meets the sea.

Post by Alex Green, South West Coast Path National Trail.


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