Plymouth to Dartmouth - narrative

The idea for this walk came when Jeremy heard one of the Presenters of BBC TV's Coast say that Start Point was his favourite bit of the UK Coast. We’ve walked a lot of the Cornish Coast Path, but never before done Devon. It seemed a strong recommendation, and it turned out to be a lovely coastline, with lots of beautiful coves and sandy beaches.

After the train to Plymouth, we wanted to get just clear of the town, and we walked about three miles over two and a half hours. It was a grey, cloudy day, Jeremy was disappointed that Devon was different from Cornwall, I was feeling a bit queasy; so it was a low-key afternoon. We cut south through the town, down to the Lighthouse on the coast by the Barbican, and took the Mount Batten Ferry - a 5 minute journey across the mouth of the Plym. Having avoided town roads, it was a pleasure soon to be on gently undulating paths, through lush greenery, blackberry brambles, pink campion, mauve thistles and white michaelmas daisies.

There’s a lovely viewpoint above Rum Bay, looking across Plymouth Sound with the surrounding rocky bays of grey slate-like sedimentary rocks. There are lots of little coves, and after Holbrook Bay we set off inland to find Gabber Farm near Down Thomas. It was quite a walk, but there’s a nice pub there called The Mussel Inn, with a more interesting menu than often. We also had a good Farm breakfast in the morning.

A gentle walk down to Wembury Beach brought us to a nice National Trust café: The Old Mill Café provided good fresh sandwiches for our picnic and fresh squeezed orange juice. The ferry across the River Yealm was rather fun; when you get there you flip a sign, and the boatman comes. Thanks to NT acorns on stiles and gates, the path finding was generally easy. We walked up through oak woods to a wide drive, or contouring balcony path. This is Revelstoke Drive, created in the 19th century by Lord Revelstoke to show off his estate. As an excellent high-level walk, it’s a wonderful, well-surfaced route, giving splendid views. After a fine viewpoint above Greylake Cove, The Warren lived up to its name, with a large number of rabbit burrows. The Stoke Dow view is followed by the charming Stoke Beach, where we had our picnic.

Inland there are real, working farms, producing sheep, cows and wheat. On the sea side, the grey shale rocks showed the aeons of geological time in their frequently near vertical tilt. Sometimes the rocks resemble quiescent pre-historic dinosaur tails, or ancient groynes. As the sun got lower they acquired a silvery shine from mica schist.

The tide was out when we came to the Erme Mouth, but the river still runs through it. So we took our boots off, rolled up our trousers, and waded across. Some quite large fish swam away, the current was noticable, it was a couple of feet deep, and as we put our feet down, the sand began to give way. Both of us thought, independently, "oh, I'm having an mini adventure." Our minds are now governed by our strapline! The other side of the river, the sand of the bay was very hard on the feet, but it was an invigorating few minutes walking across before we put our boots back on.

Up the other side there were more fine views, both back the way we’d come and forwards to more coves and seaward rocks. Most of the day had been gently undulating; however the last mile had the biggest switch-back of ups and downs, and were more challenging. Despite a day of on-and-off fine drizzle and grey clouds, we noticed how all the outdoor activity, being surrounded by nature, opens the mind and conversation. There is much pleasure to be had from the drama of where the land meets the sea.

The holiday resort of Bigbury-on-Sea is beautifully situated, but has the atmosphere of a ghost town, being inhabited almost entirely by visitors. However, the caravan site pub in Challaborough Bay, The Warren, produced the best pudding I’ve had in years - generous portions of marshmallows, strawberries, chocolate flakes and chocolate brownies, all to be dipped in hot chocolate sauce.

It took half an hour to go up Folly Hill and down quite steeply to the ferry landing stage. We had to whistle and shout, but eventually the slightly reluctant ferry man came and took us across the Riven Avon to Bantham. More mild undulations took us past the Golf Course on our left and a string of sandy bays on our right. There was masses of spiky green gorse, with occasional outbreaks of bright yellow broom, purple heather, some montbretia and much wild white clover.

After about an hour and a half we arrived at the pleasant Hope Cove, where there are plenty of eateries to choose from. At the far end of the cove, we found the Sun Bay Hotel, and had a very tasty plate of seafood on a verandah overlooking the sea. Round the corner, at Bolt Tail, we saw our route of the past 3 days. Then we went on up, to another high level ridge path, along the crest of a rocky spine. There was more mica schist, in flat, longitudinal shapes.

Halfway along to Bolt Head we went down to Soar Mill Cove, another unspoilt beach (no facilities). Back on the top again, there are more rabbit warrens. After Bolt Head, the path turns north up the estuary. There’s a very pretty section round Starehole Bay and Sharptor; but soon civilization takes over, and the final two miles of road into Salcombe were harder work.

This was Jeremy’s birthday, and we were blessed with good weather: a fine sunny morning, cloudy afternoon and a bright evening. Even Cornish-biased Jeremy declared this an excellent walk, with plenty of variety; the scenery got better and better, including lovely green sward, splendid rocks, and valleys with smooth, steep sides. We had a celebratory dinner at the slightly trendy Dick and Wills restaurant.

The ferry across the estuary to East Portlemouth made a delightful start to the day, giving good views of Salcombe on the hill above the water. We passed the charming Mill Bay, and went on into peaceful woodland; then there was a good sequence of rocky coastline and sandy coves. There was lots of gorse being suffocated by the red tendrils of the parasitic dodder.

An hour and a quarter took us to the Gara Rock Café, with more lovely views over the surrounding coast; and then further good viewpoints going round Prawle Point.

We paused for our picnic (bought at the nice Salcombe Deli) in Stinking Cove (no: it didn’t!) I noticed that Lannacombe Farm does B&B, for those wishing to break this day. The ridge out to Start Point is the most interesting thing from this, the south side - rather like a dinosaur’s back. Round the corner, the view changes to lower cliffs, and the land and sea being closer. Perhaps what are now barley fields were once raised beaches, in long gone times. With lower undulations, the walking was quick, passing a series of pebbly beaches.

The weather had started cloudy, developed into a sunny morning, threatened rain in the afternoon, and then cleared for a sunny evening. Finally we were in landscape of deep red Devonian rock. Round Start Point we saw a pair of grey seals, and then a whole pod (school?) Of them. When the sun was up, the water twinkled delightfully and the clear shallows were a beautiful crystal turquoise.

At the end, as the tide was out, we walked along the beach and rocks at Dun Point, between Bee Sands and Torcross Point. There were some very unusual slate rocks, stretched and looking like they’d been painted with great streaks of grey paint along the longitudinal lines. We only just got round the final edge, but were soon at Startlea, which turned out to be our favourite B&B of the week, with a lovely balcony above the beach where we had breakfast. And there was first class fish and chips at the justly successful Start Bay Inn.

A beautiful sunny morning made the seas twinkle, and showed the splendid, grand sweep of the broad shingle beach. With the Slapton Ley Nature Reserve to our left, we walked on the inland side of the shingle, watching for birds over the water reeds. However our ignorance of birds meant we recognised very little; though, later in the day, we thought we saw the rare cirl bunting.

It was fast walking, with relatively small climbs; so we reached Blackpool Sands in a couple of hours. This is a popular beach, with a good café; we bought sandwiches for our picnic and went on about 50 minutes to Warren Point, with a great view back to Start Point, and forward to the mouth of the Dart River. Then there were pretty beaches and some rocky coves.

Dartmouth Castle stands on a rocky shoulder, historically defending the town from attack from the sea. Finally through the woods, past the last coves, and into Dartmouth on a quiet road.

The town is the most normal/real of this coast, in giving a sense of having a life apart from tourism. However, there were loads of boats coming and going on the river, and indeed a huge cruise ship, while we were there. We had a pleasant 2-course dinner at Taylor’s, right on the harbour, watching the setting sun light up the station house for which there had never been any train.

We decided on a leisurely journey home, including visiting friends in Totnes. This meant we took the pleasantly scenic trip by River Boat up the Dart. The hour and a quarter journey was accompanied by a dryly humourous commentary from the Crew’s No 2, on local history, people and river life. Then we took the three and a half hour train ride back to London.

Devon showed it has plenty to offer, and we enjoyed the variety of the coast, sweet little beaches and charming towns. People were friendly, and the interface of land and sea was delightful. Was it the best bit of UK coast? It didn't really matter.