I believe parts of Britain are as beautiful as anywhere in the world – it’s hard to beat the imposing drama of the Scottish Highlands in my book – but I’ve never felt like I was somewhere in southern Europe … until we walked the South West Coast Path from Salcombe to Prawle Point in Devon.
Our remit was to record walking routes in South Devon, and we’d driven from our home in Somerset on the final Saturday of the May/June school holidays to spend a week based in Salcombe. Our previous work trips were to La Palma and Emilia Romagna in Italy, so this one felt like popping next door.
An hour and a half after setting off, we were parked beside the Crab Shed in Creek car park, pulling on hiking shoes (not the best choice as it happened) and eager to take to the trail.
Crossing the Kingsbridge Estuary
The first obstacle to walking the South West Coast Path east from Salcombe is the Kingsbridge Estuary. For newby visitors, the obvious ferry to head to is at Whitestrand car park, but there is more than one ferry from Salcombe. The one we wanted, to East Portlemouth, departs from Salcombe Landing, hidden away down a narrow passage beside the Ferry Inn.
Despite it being a busy Saturday on an unseasonably warm May day, we didn’t have to wait long before a small craft transported us across the estuary (£2.30pp each way). There’s something about catching a tiny ferry which heightens anticipation and adds to a feeling you’re setting off on a journey rather than going for a hike. There was also a sense of leaving the crowds behind, relatively speaking as plenty of people were also making the crossing throughout the day, drawn by the golden sands on the eastern side of the estuary.
East Portlemouth Beach to Gara Rock
After a few minutes on the water, we were back on terra firma and ready to get the muscles working. The first notion we could have been beside the Mediterranean was the stretch from the ferry to Mill Bay. Although not Salcombe busy, the road was populated by families en route to the beach carrying picnics, umbrellas, inflatable boards etc. Just the sort of scene you find on dusty tracks heading to Southern European beaches. When we arrived at Mill Bay we understood why. It’s a glorious, golden crescent of sand tucked into lush forest. Looking at the turquoise water lapping the golden sand through the greenery conjured up memories of almost identical scenery outside Roses on the Costa Brava.
Instead of continuing on the Coastal Path, we headed inland, passing a squabbling couple who had managed to jam their car between other parked cars and an earthy bank in an attempt to manoeuvre into a rare space; a reminder that exploring Devon’s coastline by foot is far less stressful than attempting to do so by car. Once we cleared the car park we were on our own, enjoying the cool tranquillity of dappled shade as we climbed through a magical avenue of ancient lime trees, a rarity in Devon. The path eventually emerged close to the Gara Rock Hotel, where we re-joined the Coast Path after a brief detour to Gara Rock lookout hut, originally a coastguard station, whose window frames exquisite views along the coast.
Gara Rock to Prawle Point
Until Gara Rock, the walk is an easy hike through pleasing scenery. The steep descent to Gara Rock Beach, another inviting sandy cove, is a portent of what’s to come for those who continue eastward, and a deterrent of the masses; the beach was populated by a handful of sunworshippers. From Gara Rock, the path climbs toward Deckler’s Cliff where low stone walls known as lynchets are evidence the area has been farmed for at least two millennia.
It was somewhere beyond this point, as we scrabbled over rocky outcrops and climbed a path that increasingly resembled more of a goat trail, we realised hiking shoes weren’t the appropriate footwear. Boots are definitely more suited to some of the terrain along the wilder sections of the coastal route.
The path skirted cove after cove, each one more deserted than the last, until we passed above the heart-shaped coves of Macely and Elender to look back toward Gammon Head. The scenery on this stretch of the South West Coast Path is out of this world. It is sensational, and a surprise to find such untamed beauty so close to a popular centre such as Salcombe. The view back to Gammon Head was the crowning glory of a coastline filled with scenic wonders. So much so, the final stretch to Prawle Point felt like an anti-climax, the landscape levelling out, becoming softer and lacking the dramatic impact of the preceding stretch.
But it’s worth continuing to the Coastwatch station where a small visitor centre adds historical and environmental context to the route and also reveals how its wild beauty hides a malevolent side. A paradise for walkers this section of the Coast Path might be, but offshore it has been a nightmare for sailors; the skeletons of numerous ships line the seabed between Gara Rock and Prawle Point, chillingly also known as ‘the ship trap’.
There’s a great line on the excellent Submerged website which claims: ‘if you could pull the plug out from the bottom of the sea, you could almost walk from Plymouth to Start Point over the remains of all the ships that have been wrecked along this part of the South Devon coast.’
This is a walking route with exceptional beauty as well as a rich and interesting history – the essential ingredients for the best hikes. Another preferred ingredient, of course, is a pub at the end of the route in which to toast the trail. There are plenty of them in Salcombe, so thumbs up all round.