Driving here isn’t ideal if you’re in a hurry. En route to the South Devon coast, I’m confronted with some sinuous single-track lanes, flanked on either side by towering hedgerows. The novelty of these scenic byways quickly wears off when I encounter a tractor coming the other way, and am obliged to reverse to the nearest passing bay to let it go by. But soon, the roads open up, the sea looms in the distance, and I arrive at Hope Cove, a picturesque bay sheltered by steep hills dotted with pastel-coloured houses, where small fishing boats bob on the waves in the harbour as the sun descends below the English Channel.
Views such as this are why South Devon was designated an area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB) in 1960 (it was also cited as a potential national park during the 1930s), and why Agatha Christie spent summers here. The AONB encompasses 337 square kilometres from Plymouth Sound in the west to just outside Brixham in the east, as well as the estuaries of five rivers – the Yealm, Erme, Avon, Salcombe–Kingsbridge and Dart – which all flow southwards from Dartmoor into the Channel.
The rivers are key elements of the local geography. After the last ice age, their valleys were flooded by rising sea levels, creating what are known as rias. ‘Our AONB is characterised by this set of rivers and estuaries, which means it’s a very folded and indented landscape,’ says Robin Toogood, the AONB’s manager. ‘We’ve got these big expanses of water at high tide, and at low tide, great expanses of mud flats.’
These estuaries provide habitats for a host of wildlife. Previously restricted to warmer climes, little egrets have moved north and begun to breed here, while kingfishers, otters and salmon are also resident. The Salcombe–Kingsbridge estuary, which is tidal up to the town of Kingsbridge, eight kilometres inland, is designated as a marine local nature reserve due to its eelgrass beds, which provide a nursery site for seahorses.
CLIFFS AND COVES
The AONB’s other defining feature is almost 100 kilometres of undeveloped coastline. The high cliffs comprise Devonian slate laid down 400 million years ago, while the coastal lowlands are marked by sandy beaches and dune systems, including 68 public beaches and more than 100 inaccessible coves.
These coves made South Devon a prime location for smugglers during the 17th and 18th centuries, and a walk along the South West Coast Path reveals evidence of the region’s varied maritime past, from lighthouses to former coastguard’s cottages. ‘Historically, the rivers were the transport system rather than the roads,’ Toogood says. ‘There was a tradition of legitimate trade, and there are all sorts of stories and fables about smuggling as well. The coastguard cottages were there to prevent smuggling and patrol the coastline. That presence all along our coast is testament to the fact that trying to control the import of illicit smuggled goods was a full-time occupation.’
While the area began to thrive in medieval times, as signified by castles such as those at Dartmouth and the historic town centres of Totnes and Salcombe, its human history extends much further back, with evidence of Bronze Age transhumance agriculture. ‘It used to be thought that because on Dartmoor, you find stone circles, standing stones, crosses and so on, that’s where people lived, and nothing much happened here,’ Toogood says. ‘But our area was organised and settled very early, and with quite sophisticated patterns of trade and movement. There are ancient drove roads that connect the coast with Dartmoor, and the theory is that Bronze Age people used to move their cattle between summer pastures on Dartmoor and lowland pastures on the coast in winter.’
Also dating from around that time are some of the 4,000 kilometres of hedge banks that bound the AONB’s farmland; more recent ones, such as those I encountered on my journey here, line many of the roads. Known as Devon hedges, they are impressive and imposing, consisting of a bank of earth two or three metres in width from which trees and shrubs sprout to form an impenetrable barrier as tall as it is wide. Today, these hedges provide homes for wildlife such as dormice, bats and the UK’s only cirl bunting population.
Land and sea collide in dramatic fashion at Slapton Line, a thin shingle bank comprising the beach of Slapton Sands and a five-kilometre stretch of the A379, together providing a precarious bulwark between the freshwater lagoon of Slapton Ley and the seawater of Start Bay. This remarkable bit of coast was born at the end of the last Ice Age, when rising sea levels pushed flint shingle back to form an embayment that trapped fresh water as it drained from the land, creating the lagoon.
Today, the road is a vital route between the villages of Strete and Torcross, but increasingly frequent storms and rising sea levels are eroding the narrow ridge on which it’s perched. This was brought into stark focus in 2001, when a severe storm eroded five metres of beach and damaged part of the road, which had to be rebuilt 20 metres further inland.
It wasn’t the first time that the sea had inflicted its wrath on this coastline, either: in 1917, the cliff-side fishing village of Hallsands was utterly devastated by storms and subsequently deserted, 20 years after shingle had been dredged from the nearby coast to provide building materials for the naval dockyard at Plymouth. ‘It goes back to how it was formed post-Ice Age,’ says Alan Denbigh of the Slapton Line Partnership, an alliance of local authorities and environmental bodies that aims to maintain the road and help the community adapt to the changing coastline. ‘The shingle’s doing what shingle does – move – which is incompatible with the fact that it has to take 38-tonners along the top of it.’
Complicating matters is the fact that Slapton Ley is a national nature reserve and site of special scientific interest. Once the shingle barrier is breached – most likely in a century from now, although the road will go much sooner – it will become an intertidal zone. Today, it’s a thriving ecosystem, with several different habitats supporting hundreds of plant and lichen species, and breeding birds such as Cetti’s warbler.
Elsewhere in the AONB, the changing climate is having a more positive effect. Sharpham Vineyard, situated on a slope overlooking a meander in the Dart, produces wines from grape varieties that thrive in the mild South Devon climate. ‘Without doubt, global warming is affecting us,’ says Mark Sharman, the vineyard’s managing director.
‘It’s getting easier and easier to ripen grapes every year. The trend is to earlier harvests and to much riper grapes, which allows us to make better wine, in simple terms.’
As we walk away from the south-facing vines onto the uncultivated north slope, Sharman says, with a chuckle: ‘[This patch] isn’t currently suitable for grape growing, but who knows – if some of the climate predictions happen, vineyards all over Europe will start planting on the north side to get away from the sun’s heat.
‘You imagine if Bordeaux gets two or three degrees hotter, it could completely change the style of their wine,’ he adds. ‘It opens up possibilities for other areas in northern Europe to become producers of Bordeaux-style wines.’ It’s a thought-provoking vision, and I can’t help wondering whether South Devon will be mentioned in the same breath as that classical French region by the bon vivants of the future.
On the right path
‘The headland village of East Prawle is a favourite starting point on the South West Coast Path. From there, a series of winding paths, secretive bridleways and steep tracks fan out to the cliffs. The coast there is wild and remote.’
Robin Toogood, manager, South Devon AONB
‘The beach of Beesands is not sand, but shingle. It has views of the sweeping arc of Start Bay to the north and the lighthouse to the south. It’s still a fishing village; the remains of conger eels for bait often hang from a rail in the middle of it.’
Alan Denbigh, business and community development manager, Slapton Line Partnership
‘I love the “green lanes” – ancient country tracks bordered by tall hedge banks topped by trees that meet overhead. The Dart Valley Trail takes in a number of green lanes between Totnes and Dartmouth.’
‘On the inside of a bend on the River Dart is a field called Ashprington Point. There used to be a ferry crossing here to the hamlet of Duncannon. These days, it’s very tranquil: the views up and down the river are great and there is always something to see, whether it’s birds overhead or wading in mud, or the seals that play in the river.’
Mark Sharman, managing director, Sharpham Vineyard