Note that all maps on this site are only
indicative. You should never set out without the correct OS map.
Getting to the little roadside car park near Woody Bay can be a
perilous experience if you drive along the private lane from Lynmouth.
Once through the dramatic Valley of the Rocks the road comes as
close to the edge of 400-foot high cliffs as you'll ever want to
be on four wheels.
But, having arrived safely, it's easy to find the wide, rather
luxurious carriageway that heads west on the first half of the walk.
Luxurious, because it is rare for the Westcountry walker to find
such a well-made, and yet un-surfaced, track in such a wild place.
This is ideal in the circumstances because, instead of minding
here you tread, you are free to enjoy the breathtaking views that
across the Bristol Channel – as our photographs by Richard
Austin prove. The dramatic headlands that punctuate this vertical
coast fall over themselves in a queue as they line up to show just
who's best at being jagged and dangerous.
There's Crock Point, Duty Point, Hollerday Hill above Lynton and
Lynmouth and, of course the North Devon Foreland with its lighthouse
blinking intermittently above the grey sea. And below you, more
than 800 feet beneath your untroubled boots, there is Wringapeak.
This hike must surely be in the Top
Ten of Wonderful Westcountry Walks.
If there was such a chart, the perpendicular plod which meanders
from Woody Bay to Heddon's Mouth and back again would certainly
be up there among the best-sellers. It boasts views by the vista-load,
history by the ancient, dusty, book-full and enough solitude to
wither a lonesome pine.
Getting there: The easy way is to head north from
A 39 (Lynton to Combe Martin road) following signs to Woody Bay.
The lane-side car park is between Woody Bay and Martinhoe.
Basic Hike: From car-park above Woody Bay along
old carriageway down to Hunter's Inn, from there down to beach at
Hunter's Mouth and then up the steep Coast Path which will return
you to your car.
Ideal Map: Ordnance Survey Outdoor Leisure 9
Distance and Going: Just over 5 miles, not too
muddy, but steepish in places – and be warned: this is not
a good walk for those who dislike steep drops and heights.
Strange and lonely, and just about inaccessible,
this humble tooth of a headland is forever swathed in a white cloud
of gull and kittiwake. But it is what lurks deep in the dark waters
beneath the rocks that perhaps gives the place its air of danger
and threat. In those unwelcoming depths lives the "Gurt Fish
of Wringapeak" - which has been swimming about and striking
the fear of God into locals for centuries.
The journalist Peter Hesp once descended to what
he loosely described as the beach with a climbing expedition a
few years ago, and hot and bothered: "Plunged into the strangest
swimming hole imaginable. As the water closed over my head a huge
shape passed my blurred vision in the green, deep water and something
brushed against my leg. "For a moment I thought I'd narrowly
missed crashing into a rock as I dived, but when I turned to look
I found only deep water..."
Talking to a local farmer later, he was alarmed to find that the
man took quite seriously the legend of the "Gurt Fish"
and regarded his escape as something of a lucky break. Few people
would swim down there, he was told, not even James Hannington.
He was the boisterous young fellow - later to become a local curate,
and after that an African bishop - who found himself 'rusticated'
from Oxford to learn the duties of his calling at nearby Martinhoe.
You'll see this rugged little hamlet a few fields south of the carriageway,
but you won't see poor old Hannington who was eventually done to
death by irreligious natives in deepest Africa.
But throughout this walk you'll be accompanied
by traces of this adventuresome fellow who loved the vertiginous
landscape hereabouts so much that he opened up a myriad of dizzying
paths along the cliffs. Over the past 100 years since their making,
many of these have now been tipped into the sea by landslides, and
of those that remain, only a few are passable by anyone larger and
less nimble than a goat.
When he later met his untimely end in Equatorial Africa, Hannington
must have felt as homesick as the Italian soldiers who once froze
on guard-duty in the Roman signal-station, which abuts the carriageway
just before it turns the corner to head towards Hunters Inn.
Turning the corner you can enjoy the amazing drama of Exmoor's
deepest V-shaped valley. It's called Heddon's Mouth Cleave and it
must be one of the steepest, deepest valleys to be found anywhere
in the region.
It runs straight out of the depths of the hills to the sea, and
the fact that there's a hostelry at the bottom of the carriageway
is almost thrown into insignificance by the grandeur of it all.
The carriageway winds its way gently down to Hunter's
Inn. Turn right on the road and walk 500 metres and you will eventually
come to the path that leads down the river's side to the sea and
to Heddon's Mouth itself. Sitting in a humble snack by the old lime-kilns
in the blustery rain, it was easy to imagine why this was a favourite
haunt with smugglers and even, if modern legend has it right, with
Nazi U-boat skippers desperate for fresh water.
Heddon's Mouth is not exactly Brighton Beach when it comes to
being by the seaside. No prom here and the nearest thing you'll
get to a stick of rock is of the more literal kind, the sort that
might become detached from the gigantic cliffs.
And now, unless you're in the brandy-smuggling game, it's back
from whence you came, only this time along the lower, official South
West Coast Path. You'll see this ascending up the eastern flanks
of the valley, and this you must take to complete the circular walk.
Be warned though: those with weak heads for heights might like to
consult the map and find their own way back through Martinhoe.
There are bits of this path that take you alarmingly close to
abyss. But it's well worthwhile. For instance, you may well see
a peregrine quartering the slopes and you may even be lucky enough
to witness one taking a death-defying, 120 mile-per-hour dive to
consume yet another unsuspecting pigeon.
We saw a peregrine and a hen harrier, not to mention countless
sea birds winging in and out of their cliff-side colonies far below.
Eventually there's a climb through the woods back to the car, but
not before you've crossed just above Wringapeak where the "Gurt
Fish" lurks. Just looking at the darkness of the sea down there,
you'll feel glad to be safe and alive.