Welcome to the North Devon Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). The AONB stretches from Marsland Mouth on the Cornish border up to Combe Martin on the boundary of Exmoor National Park.
It includes a diversity of coastal landscapes from sheer cliffs and surfing beaches, razor-like reefs and extensive sand dunes, holiday resorts and fishing hamlets.
This is Barnstaple and Bideford Bay which lies about half way along the length of the North Devon Coast AONB. Looking out to sea, the furthest headland that you can see to the left is Hartland Point and to the extreme right is Baggy Point.
Two miles to the north along the pebble ridge is the estuary of the Rivers Taw and Torridge which flow through Barnstaple and Bideford respectively. Twelve miles out to sea you can see Lundy Island, famous for its puffins. Look on the map to better appreciate your position.
On this walk we will be exploring the coastline either side of the seaside settlement of Westward Ho! to discover the processes that have shaped the landscape.
We will see a dynamic coastline with some spectacular landforms and find out how it has changed. We will find out how humans have made use of this landscape but also how ongoing coastal change has influenced or limited their activities. And we will discover how this unique landscape, its wildlife and heritage is protected.
This walk was created by Dave Edgcombe who is a Project Officer with the North Devon Coast Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). Throughout his career he has had responsibility for both the coast and countryside in this area.
Dave: “I was born and brought up in Bideford and have lived and worked in North Devon all of my life.”
“The North Devon Coast was designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in 1960, the same year that I was born.”
“I am proud to be involved in its conservation and protection, as well as having opportunities to explain its natural and heritage features to visitors.”
Remain on the pebble ridge. Do take care as the stones can be slippery and can also move underfoot.
2 A pile of pebbles
We start our appreciation of some of the spectacular features along the North Devon coast with the pebble ridge beneath your feet. Here we’re almost at the southern end; it stretches two miles north from here to the Taw-Torridge estuary. Have a look at the map to understand its orientation and shape.
Although the pebble ridge has been in existence for hundreds of years it is geologically still quite young. Its creation is thought to have been triggered by a tsunami in 1607. The pebbles originate further along the coast to the west of here. They have been steadily transported around the bay due to the predominant direction of the waves, a process known as ‘long shore drift’. Over time this material has accumulated into a two-mile long embankment known as a ‘spit’.
It is also a dynamic landform; in other words it is continually moving and changing shape as fresh material is transported along the coastline by the waves.
The changes can be quite rapid during high tides and winter storms. On average, the ridge is moving one metre inland every year.
Although the continual movement of pebbles along the spit is a natural process, humans have interfered with this process. There is a traditional practice called ‘potwalloping’ which dates back to the 1800s. Local people ventured down to the beach to throw back pebbles that had fallen from the ridge during the winter months.
The development of Westward Ho!, especially in terms of the seawalls and buildings along the cliff edge, has affected the natural supply of pebbles being transported westwards along the bay. A major concern is that without a constant supply of new pebbles, the ridge might breach at the southern (this) end which would flood the land behind and damage property. For many years heavy machinery was used to move pebbles back along the ridge and artificially-recharge the supply. Nowadays the attitude to managing the ridge has changed and it is only repaired when there is a breach or threat of a breach.
Intervening in natural coastal processes is controversial here as elsewhere around the coast of Britain. What do you think: should the pebble ridge be allowed to change naturally or should we maintain the current shape and line, particularly in view of potential sea level rise?
If the tide is out, go onto the beach. Look for an area about 100 metres from the bottom of the pebble ridge that is distinct from the surrounding sand. It may resemble a lumpy raised platform and be a grey colour in contrast to the light brown of the surrounding sand. If the tide is in and you cannot go onto the beach, go along the top of the ridge to the slipway.
3 Dry cliffs and a wet forest
We frequently hear about potential sea level rising in relation to the process of global warming but it is important to recognise that changes in the sea level have gone on throughout geological history as the earth goes through cycles of cooler and warmer periods.
During cooler periods, known as Ice Ages, some of the water from the oceans becomes ice and this causes sea level to fall. During warmer times ice gaps and glaciers melt and the water is released back into the oceans causing sea level to rise again.
From here we can see two types of evidence of such sea level changes in the past.
First stand with your back to the sea and look landwards to see evidence of higher sea levels. Just over half a kilometre away is a ridge which is wooded in places. This higher ground was once the line of cliffs along this coast about 125,000 years ago before the last Ice Age. You can see that it is much further inland than the coastline today. If sea levels do rise again the coastline may return to those cliffs although this is not likely to happen in our lifetimes.
Second, if it is low tide, look around the beach for evidence of lower sea levels.
Look for a patch which is a dark brown-black colour, quite in contrast to the light brown of the surrounding sand. This is a deposit of peat and clay.
Sometimes, after winter storms when sand has been scoured away by the sea, you can see the remains of wooden tree trunks, twigs and other bits of wood among the dark material.
These are the remains of a woodland that stood here in Mesolithic times about 6,000 years ago. Preserved in the peat and clay is evidence of our Stone Age ancestors: the remains of a midden (a rubbish dump) were found which included bits of bone, seashell and the remains of ancient flint tools.
Go across the beach towards the slipway. At the slipway go up the ramp and turn immediately right. Stand on the sea wall above the slipway and look back along the beach.
4 Amphibious landing
Today you may see children paddling or building sandcastles but the scene here has not always been so calm.
During the Second World War a lot of military training and testing took place here, specifically preparations for D-Day.
In fact the whole North Devon Coast from Morte Point to Westward Ho! was used by the British and Americans as the landscape closely resembled what was to be found on the Normandy beaches.
Westward Ho! was used primarily for testing ‘funnies’, a type of modified tank that would be suitable in the invasion of Normandy.
This beach was also the test site for The Great Panjandrum, one of a number of highly experimental projects developed by the Directorate of Miscellaneous Weapons Development (DMWD) in the final years of the war.
The panjandrum was a massive, rocket-propelled, explosive-laden cart capable of penetrating the concrete defences that made up part of the Atlantic Wall, the coastal fortifications built by Nazi Germany along the western coast of Europe and Scandinavia.
A prototype constructed in East London was transported by night to Westward Ho! but plenty of holidaymakers witnessed the test so the weapon was hardly a secret.
The trials were not a success and the project was scrapped over safety concerns.
However, it has been claimed that the entire project was a hoax devised to convince the Germans that plans were being developed to attack the heavily fortified defences surrounding the Pas-de-Calais rather than the less-defended Normandy coastline.
Military testing continues to this day. At nearby Instow on the other side of the River Taw is Arromanches Camp, a military installation operated by the Royal Marines.
The geographical conditions of the tidal estuary are ideal for using amphibious vehicles. Drivers of landing craft are trained to negotiate the most demanding beach conditions, especially through surf onto a shallow gradient beach.
Meanwhile, the Amphibious Beach Unit trains personnel in beach reconnaissance, assessing vehicle mobility over beaches and recovery operations.
The Great Panjandrum on Westward Ho! beach Imperial War Museum (CCL)
Go along the seafront promenade with the sea on your right. There is a short stretch of pavement alongside Golf Links Road. Stop on the next stretch of promenade which is adjacent to an open green space.
5 Novel origins
Before we discover how the town of Westward Ho! has been shaped by coastal processes, we need to find out when and why it was established.
In 1797 the famous English watercolour artist, Thomas Girtin, painted a watercolour of this area. It captured a physical landscape of cliffs and coast not dissimilar from today but the main difference was there was no settlement of any kind.
Until the 1860s the settlement here in the bay comprised just one farm and a few scattered cottages. It owes its subsequent development and name to the writer, Charles Kingsley.
In 1855 Kingsley was staying in nearby Bideford and wrote an historical novel called Westward Ho!
It was about a young man from North Devon who sets sail to the Caribbean with Francis Drake where they battle with the Spanish.
In 1863 a company was formed by local entrepreneurs with the express purpose of creating a seaside resort in the area described in Kingsley’s book.
And what better name than the title of the book itself? Thus Westward Ho! was born, the only settlement in the British Isles with an exclamation mark after its name.
Like other seaside settlements along the North Devon coast such as Woolacombe and Ilfracombe it became a bustling seaside resort which capitalised upon the wonderful natural landscape.
Later we will find out more about the Northam Burrows Hotel and Villas Company that developed the resort and see some of the grand buildings dating back to this era.
The heyday of Westward Ho! was the 1950s and 1960s when it was an extremely prosperous resort attracting thousands of visitors every year.
Ease and low-cost of overseas travel brought a period of decline to the North Devon resorts and seaside towns across Britain. But, as you will see, Westward Ho! remains popular for seaside and recreational activities today. New buildings are beginning to appear and there are signs that Westward Ho! is returning to its glory days.
Cover of Westward Ho! (1920) Wikimedia Commons CCL
Continue a short distance along the seafront promenade. Stop by the first large apartment block (Horizon View) and look over the seawall.
6 An unnatural barrier
When building of the new resort began in the late 1860s little thought was given to natural coastal processes. But between 1860 and the early 1900s the southern end of the pebble ridge and the coastline here moved inland by as much as 150 metres.
In 1875 the Union Club was constructed beyond the current seawall, only to be hastily dismantled and rebuilt on Atlantic Way in 1879. Another building called Lower Lodge suffered a similar fate at around the same time.
The famous Bath Hotel (on the site of Horizon View apartments), which was built in 1866 as a bathing establishment primarily for ladies, was also at risk from the retreating coastline.
By the 1920s it was recognised that a seawall was needed to prevent further erosion of Westward Ho! The work was undertaken between 1928 and 1931 to construct the current seawall.
The seawall serves a dual purpose: as well as protecting the main part of Westward Ho! from the sea, it serves as a lovely place for strolling and admiring the view. This promenade added to the popularity of Westward Ho! as a desirable resort.
The wall itself is under continual attack from waves and tides. While the naturallysloping pebble ridge can absorb the waves, the impact on the vertical concrete wall is more intense and the wall needs regular maintenance.
Look back towards the slipway and you will see large boulders which have been deliberately placed against the seawall in order to absorb and deflect some of the waves and protect the seawall from the worst excesses of the sea.
Seafront before the seawall was built (c.1920s) Courtesy of Westward Ho! History Group
Continue for a short distance along the promenade. Before reaching the next modern apartment block, look over the seawall onto the rocky foreshore for a seawater swimming pool.
7 The Uses of Sea Water
The growth in popularity of sea bathing developed from the perceived health benefits of mineral springs, such as those in Spa in Belgium and Bath in England.
In 1753 Dr Charles Russel published ‘The Uses of Sea Water’ which recommended the use of sea water for healing various diseases.
This was followed in 1769 with William Buchan’s book ‘Domestic Medicine’ which also advocated the practice.
Winter was considered to be the best time to go sea bathing!
With Buchan’s recommendations people suddenly flocked to the coast. Thus by the end of the eighteenth century sea bathing had become highly fashionable and many seaside resorts sprang up along the English coast such as Brighton and Bournemouth.
The proliferation of rail travel in the mid-nineteenth century made it possible for large numbers of people to visit the coast. Seaside towns and resorts promoted the purported health benefits of sea water and resort towns such as Westward Ho! grew enormously.
Here you can see the Rock Pool, a tidal swimming pool blasted out of the rock in the early days of the resort. It appears on the first Ordnance Survey map of 1880. It is naturally filled by the incoming tide and is still used today.
There was another swimming pool along the seafront from here where the next modern apartment block (Nassau Court) stands. It was called the Nassau Baths and built in 1875 for the United Services College, a boarding school here in Westward Ho! for the sons of military officers.
The pool was also blasted out of the rocks, which to some extent explains why the site juts out from the seawall.
The pool was 130 feet long and eight feet deep and was filled with sea water from a steam engine at the rate of 700 gallons a minute.
It later became the Westward Ho! Bathing Lido and remained in existence until the late 1990s.
Continue along the seafront. At the new apartment block of Nassau Court (where the old swimming baths were) the coast path goes around the inland side of the building. When you reach Pier House go through the car park on the lower side of the building and stop on the path on the other side.
8 Handsome and commodious
The Pier House is now an upmarket bar and restaurant but the original part of the building was Merley House, one of the earliest houses in Westward Ho!
Built in 1885, it was a classic Victorian villa, a style seen across other new seaside resorts in North Devon as well as Europe and the Black Sea.
As the name of the restaurant indicates, this was also the site of the pier.
The middle and late Victorian period was the heyday for piers and most resorts had at least one. They generally served a dual purpose of being a berthing place for pleasure boats and a place for leisure and entertainment.
Work began in 1870 on a 600 feet (over 180 metres) long pier which would provide “a handsome and commodious promenade and landing pier, available for embarking and disembarking of passengers and goods from the Steam Boats etc, in the Bay and thus preventing delays arising from the tidal bar harbour”.
Although it was unfinished, boats began using it in 1871 but the sea had other ideas. Within a year parts of it had washed away then severe winter storms in 1880 led to further collapse.
It was eventually dismantled and no replacement ever built. If the tide is quite low you may be able to see some iron posts sticking up out of the water which is all that remains of the structure.
Westward Ho! pier under construction (1870) Courtesy of Westward Ho! History Group
From The Pier House continue along the coast path past a row of beach huts. The next major building is Seafield House (built in 1885) adjacent to which are some public toilets. Here the coast path passes between Seafield House and the car park and continues across an open green area. Keep to the seaward edge of the field. Go past the first set of benches and continue along the cliff top. Look for a gap in the hedgerow which reveals the crumbling cliffs and a view to the sea below.
9 Slopes and slumps
This pleasant meadow is backed by a steep slope and we have stopped here to see some more clues to the cycles of sea level change. This very steep slope was once the natural cliff line about 125,000 years ago. As we discovered earlier, during warmer periods global sea levels were much higher than today.
Where we are standing was the beach at the base of the cliffs. If you look carefully over the cliff edge you may spot a layer of pebbles – similar to the pebbles we saw on the beach earlier – which are remnants of the old beach.
As the earth entered the last big Ice Age sea level fell again leaving these cliffs and beach high and dry. This is a landform known as a ‘raised beach’.
Although ice sheets did not reach as far south as the North Devon coast Kipling Tors would have experienced an arctic-like climate. During these ‘periglacial’ conditions the soil and surface rock epeatedly froze and thawed. The freeze-thaw cycles caused the rock to fragment into a layer of angular stones and small debris.
During periods of thaw, the saturated mush of soil and loose stones slid down over the more permanently frozen layers below under the force of gravity, a process known as ‘solifluction’.
This had the effect of creating the straight angular slope that you see today rather than the nearvertical cliffs that were originally here.
The sloping field where we are standing is the deposit of debris that slumped down the slope. Since it comprises loose material it is geologically weak thus susceptible to erosion.
Continue along the bottom of the field to the end where a slight incline takes you up onto a surfaced track. Turn right and follow the track. On the left is a small quarry, one of several in the area that provided building stone for the development of the town. Stop almost opposite where there is a fenced section of cliff.
10 From cave to platform
Look over the cliff and, unless it is high tide, you will see a wide and flat rocky foreshore between the base of the cliffs and the sea.
On average it is about 100 metres wide and stretches along this section of coastline from the end of the pebble ridge where we stopped earlier for about five miles.
Look at a map or an aerial image to better appreciate its shape and size. This is a landform known as a ‘wave cut platform’.
As the name indicates wave cut platforms are created by the erosive power of waves. They particularly occur where cliffs are composed of relatively soft rock. At first sea waves hit the cliff face and their repetitive force chips away at the cliff creating a ‘wave cut notch’ between the high and low water marks. Over time this enlarges into a cave. Eventually the cave becomes so large that the overhanging rock above cannot hold and it collapses.
Material from the cliff collapse is broken down by the ongoing motion of waves and tides and some of it is washed out to sea. Thus the cliff line moves landwards (or ‘retreats’).
The rock that was below the zone of wave action, in effect the floor of the cave, remains as a rocky plateau known as a wave cut platform.
You should be able to see that the rocks of the wave cut platform below appear to run in rows with a series of parallel ridges and grooves.
These rock formations are actually evidence of some more dramatic geological history in this area. In fact they are so significant that this foreshore has been designated a geological Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).
Three hundred million years ago, we would have been standing within a large freshwater lake. Sand and muds were carried into this lake by rivers and deposited on the bottom.
Over time more and more sediment was deposited on top and the material at the bottom was compressed and hardened into rock.
Subsequent movement of the earth’s crust has folded and cracked these layers. In some cases this deformation was so extreme that layers that formerly lay horizontally are now vertical.
Further stresses from within the earth’s crust have caused additional faults and cracks making some of the layers move so that they do not always line up along the beach.
It is only through the creation of the wave cut platform that this interesting cross section of bare rock has been revealed.
The rows of rocks that you can see are upended layers of sandstone and mudstone.
The harder sandstones look pale grey and have less seaweed cover on them than the mudstones.
The flat expanse of the wave cut platform with its rocky grooves is covered and uncovered by the daily tides. If it is low tide you should be able to see a small pool know as Mermaid’s Pool. Rock pools like these provide a haven for marine life.
Some creatures attach themselves to seaweed and rocks – including those with shell-like bodies such as barnacles, limpets and dog whelks, as well as types of anemones such as beadlet (red) and snake-lock (green).
More mobile species include crabs, prawns, jellyfish and many species of small fish.
Historically, local people would have come down onto the rocky foreshore to collect crabs and prawns to eat, as well as seaweed.
Continue along the path. There are several places where you can stop and look over the cliff to the sea and appreciate the wave cut platform if the tide is low. After about 700 metres look for a small path on the right that leads walkers off the main surfaced path. There is a South West Coast Path sign (acorn and yellow arrow) but this is sometimes obscured by vegetation. This path is a short loop that re-joins the main path after about 200 metres. Stop on this cliff-top path.
12 Striding out
This short diversion off the main path has a claim to fame. In 1978 this was where the South West Coast Path was officially opened.
In 1949 the government passed the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act which affected the management of the countryside.
Legislation contained within the Act led to the identification and designation of Long Distance Public Footpaths, now known as National Trails.
The South West Coast Path was first designated in 1961 and opened here in 1978.
It is Britain’s longest National Trail at 630 miles (1,000 kilometres) long stretching from Minehead in Somerset to Poole Harbour in Dorset. Along the way it passes some spectacular coastal scenery.
The 15 National Trails in the country are managed by the local Highways Authority and organisations such as the National Trust which receive a grant from central government via Natural England to assist in maintenance and improvement.
The South West Coast Path is one of the major income earners for the Southwest of England. In 2012 the route attracted over 8½ million visitors (excluding dog walkers) who spent £460 million in the local economy supporting nearly 10,000 jobs.
Continue along the cliff-top path. Where it rejoins the main path you may like to stop for a rest at the benches. When you are ready, go along the main surfaced path back towards Westward Ho! Stop after about 500 metres on a straight section of path where you can see ahead to where the path passes through a notch in the cliff.
13 Rail route
So far we have been finding out about the dramatic natural forces that have shaped the coastal landscape but ahead of us is a manmade landform.
Can you see where the slope of the cliff is interrupted by a V-shape? This is an old railway cutting. In fact much of our route since leaving Westward Ho! has followed the old railway line.
As we have already discovered, the expansion of the railway network played a significant role in the development of seaside resorts around Britain during the Victorian era.
The railway came relatively late to Westward Ho! and the town was not connected to the national railway network despite being standard gauge. The Bideford, Westward Ho! and Appledore Railway Company (BWH&AR) was established in 1896 with the first part of the line opened in 1901 and the extension to Appledore in 1908.
Look at a map and you will see that the railway did not take the shortest route from Bideford to Westward Ho! That would have necessitated a steep ascent and descent over the old cliffs which stretch from Cornborough to Appledore. Instead the railway line took a more logical route across the peninsula.
After travelling along Bideford Quay the line made its way up the Kenwith Valley. When it reached Cornborough Cliffs it curved northwards where this cutting took the line through the end of the ridgeline. Presumably the friable nature of the rock here meant that a cutting was cheaper to build and easier to maintain than a tunnel.
From here the line went along the cliff top and made a gentle descent down into Westward Ho! The main station was located just behind the new apartment block of Horizon View that we passed earlier; you may have noticed the remains of one of the railway bridges there.
From Westward Ho! the line then went over the fields close to Northam Burrows to the small port of Appledore.
In total the line was seven miles long with 11 stations and halts along the way.
The various stops allowed visitors to alight and enjoy the bracing air along the coast or bathe in the sea. For example, there was a halt with a wooden platform at Cornborough Cliffs close to here which encouraged visitors to walk along the cliffs.
While scenic, the coastal route was precarious. During winter storms, trains had to slow to little more than walking pace for safety.
Sadly the railway never really paid its way and closed in 1917.
Today you can see that coastal erosion is eating away at the cliff edge. Had the railway remained operational significant engineering works would have been required to protect the line.
Westward Ho! railway station (c. 1910) Westward Ho History Group
Continue along the path. After going through the old railway cutting and past the old quarry, look for a turning on the right which marks the entrance to the National Trust Property at Kipling Tors. As you begin the ascent keep to the right and ignore all left hand turnings. Stop when you reach the coastguard lookout building.
14 From wreck to rescue
In December 1909 a steamer sank off Clovelly a little further around the bay with the loss of 20 lives. Locals believed that this could have been prevented had a reliable coast watch system been in operation.
In response a group of Bideford Volunteers launched an association to build and develop a series of lookouts along the coast and this coastguard hut was one of them. In 1911 it was handed over to the official coastguard agency.
When the coastguard agency was first set up in the early nineteenth-century, its task was actually not to save lives but to help prevent smuggling and the evasion of import duties and tax.
Helping to save lives came later as a result of some treacherous deeds relating to ancient laws. If a ship was wrecked and there were no survivors, salvagers could claim the right to the property. Thus there were some cases of deliberately enticing ships onto coastal rocks and the killing of survivors in order to take the bounty.
In response the coastguard agency took responsibility of helping to save lives on wrecked ships, hence its revised role today in safety and rescue in partnership with the RNLI.
Take time to appreciate the stunning views of Barnstaple and Bideford Bay. You can see Westward Ho! and many of the coastal features that we have found out about so far. A toposcope will help to identify various landmarks both near and further afield.
When you are ready, retrace your steps back down the path and take the first turning on the right. This goes along the higher ridge path of Kipling Tors. Stop at the third bench which is directly above Seafield House and the car park.
15 Protected beauty
This long narrow hillside is known as Kipling Tors. It is named after Rudyard Kipling, another nineteenth-century novelist with links to Westward Ho!
Kipling went to United Services College, the public school that we heard about earlier.
He and his friends used to come up here and smoke cigars and pipes and read books together.
He wrote ‘Stalky and Co’, a semi-autobiographical novel about his schooldays here.
In 1938 Kipling Tors was presented by the Rudyard Kipling Memorial Fund to the National Trust. The National Trust still own and manage the site today. In fact they are significant landowners along the North Devon coast ensuring that much of our valuable coastline is protected and managed appropriately.
Another means of protecting landscapes is to designate them. We heard at the beginning of the walk that this is part of the North Devon Coast Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).
The primary purpose of AONB designation is to conserve and enhance the natural beauty of an area which includes its landscape, wildlife and heritage.
This provides protection under planning laws although, unlike National Parks, AONBs do not undertake a statutory planning function.
The North Devon AONB was designated in 1960, the first AONB in Devon. The 171 square kilometres of coastal land was selected because it possessed some of the finest coastal scenery in the country.
We have already heard about the rocky foreshore which is a geological Site of Special Scientific Interest. In addition, the areas adjacent to the mouth of the Taw and Torridge Estuary are both designated as SSSIs.
Braunton Burrows on the north side of the estuary has one of the largest and best sand dune systems in the country. It is also a Special Area of Conservation and forms the core area of the
North Devon Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO designation which was granted in 2003. Northam Burrows on the south side of the estuary has been designated as a SSSI for its rare habitats and the pebble ridge. In addition, in 1991 the area was also defined as a part of the Hartland Heritage Coast which was designed to conserve, enhance and promote areas of undeveloped coastline.
In Britain we are very fortunate to have a system and structure which recognises and protects the best of our natural landscapes.
Continue on the path along the ridge. Stop at the second bench which is directly above the modern apartment block of Nassau Court.
16 From common land to Country Park
From here you can look along the pebble ridge and see the vast expanse of flat land behind it known as Northam Burrows. Our walk started at the southern end of Northam Burrows but this elevated viewpoint helps us to appreciate its dimensions and characteristics.
The 600 acre site comprises coastal grassland, sand dunes and salt marsh which provide important habitats for wildlife, birds and insects.
Historical records show that the manor of Northam was given to the Abbey of St Stephen in Caen by William the Conqueror.
For centuries Northam Burrows was common land. To qualify for the rights to cultivate this land, or ‘Rights of Common’, local people had to prove that they had a fire for heating rather than for food. These ‘pot boilers’ (or potwallopers as they became known) helped the Lord of the Manor to maintain the land, hence their association with maintaining the pebble ridge as mentioned earlier.
Over the last 150 years the usage of Northam Burrows has changed although none of the changes have involved building as the risk of the pebble ridge being breached by a winter storm and flooding the land behind is still very real. Instead they have largely focused on recreation and conservation.
As a part of the development of Westward Ho!, a golf course was created in 1864. It is the oldest links (sand) course in the country and still very much a part of the Burrows landscape today. As we heard earlier, the beach and Burrows were used for military training during the Second World War.
In the 1970s the site became a country park. The management of an area as a country park offers the public access to areas of open countryside where they have opportunities for recreation, health and education. They are usually managed by local authorities, in this case Torridge District Council. The Open Access status of the Burrows today is a contemporary reflection of its status as common land many centuries ago.
Continue along the path which soon starts to drop down into woodland. At the first major crossroads of paths go straight across and follow the zig-zag path down into a wooded valley. Stop on the zig-zag path in the woodland.
17 From grassland to woodland
As we discovered earlier, Kipling Tors is the old cliff line from the days when the sea level was much higher. We’ve just walked along a sectionm of this hillside and, although we’ve now entered a little valley, look on the map and you will see that the ridge with its steep slope on the seaward side continues another kilometre to the east.
Old photographs show that when Westward Ho! was being built most of this escarpment was open land rather than wooded, and probably grazed by sheep.
As the town developed the grazing on the hillsides ceased (as ‘marginal land’ it was probably uneconomic to farm) but the steepest parts of the slope were not suitable for building either so they were left. In such circumstances where land is left without interference the vegetation goes through a ‘natural succession’ back to its original state.
Here that transition led from grazed grassland to scrubland (in the form of bracken, gorse and blackthorn) then to woodland. The first section of Kipling Tors that we walked along from the coastguard lookout represents this intermediate succession stage while the woodland here is the latter stage. The term for woodlands that have regrown on abandoned or neglected ground is called ‘secondary woodland’.
Most of the trees here are sycamore, recognisable by their large green leaves, similar to the Canadian Maple Leaf (as seen on the Canadian flag). Sycamore was introduced to this country in the 1600s and, although it is not native, it is one of our commonest trees. It is particularly salt tolerant so thrives in coastal locations like these where the sea breezes carry salt in the air. It also grows extremely fast in comparison to the oak trees which are the native species around here. Unfortunately, from a biodiversity point of view, it is a poor tree. Its large leaves cast dense shade preventing other native tree species getting established and in comparison to say oak it supports a much smaller range of insects.
At the bottom of the steep valley is a t-junction of paths. Turn right and follow the footpath. This eventually joins a small track and then soon meets the bend in a road (Stanwell Hill). Turn left and go round the bend. Cross over the junction with Merley Road and stop in front of the four red-brick apartment blocks called Ocean Park.
18 The Company, the Captain and Charles
Ocean Park stands on the site of the original Westward Ho! Hotel built in 1865 as the flagship building of the Northam Burrows Hotel and Villas Company.
The leading figure in the Company was Captain George Molesworth. He had served a short time in the Navy (hence the title), married into money and retired to Westward Ho! at the age of 33.
He was a larger-than-life character and the main driving force behind the early and most impressive developments in Westward Ho! You will see some of these as you continue exploring the residential streets of the town.
The purpose-built hotel here was built in a gothic Victorian style, boasted 33 bedrooms as well as smoking, reading and billiard rooms. It had a tennis court, croquet lawn and a swimming pool on the seafront.
After being patronised by Edward, the Prince of Wales, in 1867 it was soon renamed The Royal Hotel.
An adjacent annex called The Villa (the next building along the road after the four blocks of Ocean Park) was built to house the servants of those that came to stay.
Between Ocean View and the sea is a ‘holiday village’ with rows of simple chalets for visitors (we walked along the lower side of it earlier and saw it from above on Kipling Tors). There are several of these holiday villages and caravan parks for visitors on a lower budget.
In contrast new modern apartment blocks such as Ocean Park here, as well as Horizon View and Nassau Court that we passed earlier, reveal a new phase of development and building in the town.
Apparently Captain Molesworth and Charles Kingsley were once friends but after Kingsley saw the developments at Westward Ho! he accused Molesworth of ruining the place and the two never spoke to one another again! You might wonder what the two men would think of the resort today.
The Royal Hotel (early 1900s) Courtesy of Westward Ho! History Group
Walk along Atlantic Way past the four blocks of Ocean View. At the far end, below the church, the road forks. Take the right fork (Atlantic Way). Along this stretch look out on the left for the arched doorway of the old Union Club which was hastily relocated here in 1879 when the sea was encroaching on its original premises. Also look up to the right at the grand terraces, many of which were Molesworth’s developments.
Take the first left (Youngaton Road) which takes you straight downhill. On the right is The Village Inn, originally Youngaton Farm, which was one of the only buildings in Westward Ho! prior to its development as a seaside resort. At the crossroads with Nelson Road go straight ahead into Golf Links Road which takes you back to the seafront. Stop by the seawall at the bottom.
19 Coast of change
Here we are back at the seafront with expansive views across the bay. On this walk we have seen some spectacular coastal landforms and found out about the processes that have created them: from the pebble spit to the steep cliffs to the wave cut platform.
We have also seen evidence of changes in sea level: the fossil cliffs and raised beach showed where the coastline stood when sea levels were higher than the present day, while the sunken forest presented evidence of a period when sea levels were lower.
The forces of nature are relatively slow in human terms but it is vital to recognise that these processes are ongoing and the coastal landscape is not static. The ongoing waves and tides erode the cliffs, winter storms shift the pebble ridge, while salt-tolerant trees are recolonising the old cliffs.
The beauty of this coastal spot led to the development of a holiday resort in the 1860s. But since the beginning, the buildings and infrastructure that humans built here has been at risk from the sea. Early hotels too close to the shore were demolished and moved backwards, the pier was swept away and the seawall was built to protect land and property.
Climate scientists predict an increase in the frequency of winter storms as well as a rise in average sea level over coming decades so it remains to be seen how the resort adapts to environmental changes in the future.
The beauty of this coast, as well as its scientific significance and its special habitats, have led to a range of designations to protect and manage it: from the AONB and SSSIs to Heritage Coast and Country Park. Fortunately for us, the protective measures do not restrict public access so we can enjoy walking and other recreational activities along this stunning coastline.
The remains of ancient trees on the beach at low tide
Westward Ho! walk Devon credits
Thanks to -
Dave Edgcombe for creating the walk, providing photos and the audio
North Devon AONB for their collaboration and for permission to use their images
Jenny Lunn and Caroline Millar for editing the walk resources
Richard Fletcher for providing further information
Shawn Corrin from Northam Burrows Country Park for feedback on the walk
Maureen Richards, Marilyn Hughes, Westward Ho! History Group, Peter Keene from Thematic Trails, Torridge District Council and Neville Stanikk Photographyfor kind permission to reproduce images from their collections
Other images reproduced under Creative Commons Licenses