The river to my left is at low tide, exposing slimy green sandflats that support the drunken hulls of a few small boats tethered limply to brightly coloured buoys. On my right, a series of small meadows, neatly divided by rush-filled ditches, extend into the distance, halted only by the wrinkled appearance of sand dunes that align the horizon and hint, along with the occasional cry of a gull, at the presence of a beach.
As I reach Crow Point, where the estuaries of the Taw and Torridge rivers merge before draining into the Bristol Channel, I turn right and, following the shoreline around the point, head into the most southerly sand dunes of Braunton Burrows. Little yellow and purple flowers, and the occasional bush of red berries, add a splash of colour to the sand, lichens and grasses underfoot. A dragonfly buzzing noisily past my head startles me, reminding me it has been more than an hour since I’ve seen anyone.
Suddenly, a sign appears in the dunes declaring, to my alarm: ‘Military training area, live firing – caution’. My pulse quickens. Should I be here? I turn around and swiftly retrace my steps without looking back.
THREE IN ONE
The North Devon Coast Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) encompasses three distinct blocks between Marsland Mouth on the Cornish border and the village of Combe Martin on the boundary of Exmoor National Park. ‘It’s the only one to be designated legally as “areas” of outstanding natural beauty,’ explains Linda Blanchard, AONB manager. ‘It just makes it a lot clearer in people’s minds that we’re talking about [several parts of] a specific region and also helps to convey that sense of place.’
Originally, the AONB was going to be divided between two national parks. ‘Interestingly, before Exmoor National Park was designated, its boundaries were going to encompass a broad swath of the north Devon coastline, at least as far as the Torridge–Taw estuary,’ says AONB project officer Dave Edgcombe. ‘And it was all going to be linked, at the time, to a Cornwall National Park, so we would have been divided into two.’
But Cornwall didn’t get a national park (12 areas of it were instead designated under the Cornwall AONB), Exmoor stopped at Combe Martin and the north Devon coast became an AONB in its own right in 1959.
And it’s easy to see why. Its three defined areas are filled with a range of habitats and landscapes that support an abundance of wildlife and are enshrined under a bafflingly complex array of protections, including a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve at its centre.
The north and east of the AONB, above the estuary, is characterised by rugged cliff scenery, distinctive headlands and small rocky coves around the historic fishing town and Victorian seaside resort of Ilfracombe, which is overlooked by ‘one of the best examples of an Iron Age cliff castle’, according to Blanchard. The town is a major draw for tourists, who come to enjoy its surrounding cliffs, or to explore the lobster pots, fishing nets and rope strewn around its picturesque walled harbour.
Following the coastline west and south to the resort of Croyde, where surf shops outnumber cafés and ice-cream parlours, a series of gently rolling hills stretch from quite a way inland to the rounded headlands of Morte Point and Baggy Point. Here, the narrow lanes that connect Woolacombe, Georgeham and Putsborough are lined by tall hedgerows that prevent you from appreciating the views but, in themselves, add to the distinct character of the area and offer a welcome refuge to wildflowers, insects and birds.
‘The hedgerows are classic icons of Devon and were built to protect the land from the strong westerly winds coming in,’ says Blanchard. ‘Quite a lot of them have stone bases that reflect the local geology,’ Edgcombe explains. ‘They’re not dry-stone walls, but rather stone-faced banks, with a variety of vegetation on the top depending on where they are. If you go to the Mortehoe area, the underlying geology consists of very thin rocks that aren’t great for load bearing, so they used to stone-face the hedge banks there with quite intricate herringbone patterns.’
The westernmost point of the AONB is Hartland Peninsula, which is quite different to the areas north and east of the estuary mouth. Frequent batterings from the Atlantic Ocean have carved the wonderfully contorted layers of rock that make up Hartland Point into dramatic sheer cliffs and other fascinating landforms. Inland, a small pocket of a rare grassland adds to the variety.
‘One of the last remaining areas of Culm grassland can be found at Bursdon Moor,’ says Edgcombe. ‘It’s a very important grassland habitat that is quite rare now – about 95 per cent has been lost because of agricultural improvements, drainage, reclamation and so forth. From an agricultural point of view, it’s pretty useless, but from a wildlife conservation point of view, it’s very special.’
Only 4,000 hectares of Culm grassland remain in England – all in Devon and Cornwall, where it supports several threatened butterfly and moth species, and other rare wildlife, including otters and dormice. But, if the rare and unusual wildlife proves elusive, Lundy Island, which marks the boundary between the Bristol Channel and the Atlantic Ocean, can be easily seen from Bursdon Moor and Hartland Point.
FIGHTING ON THE BEACHES
For many, the most spectacular view within the AONB is over the dunes at Braunton Burrows. After leaving the sweeping sandy beach at Croyde, the road to Braunton via Saunton hugs the coastline and provides fantastic views over the Taw–Torridge estuary, the wide sweeping beach of Saunton Sands, and the vast lunar-like dune landscape that’s at the heart of the international biosphere reserve and the AONB.
‘The reserve covers 3,500 square kilometres and has 150,000 people living in it,’ says Andy Bell, Braunton Burrows Biosphere Reserve co-ordinator. ‘The ecosystem is centred on the estuary and the dunes at the mouth, and includes part of the marine area (including Lundy Island). It has three zones: the core area of pristine super-habitat, which itself is surrounded by a buffer zone in which various policies support the conservation objectives of the core area, and then around that you have what’s known as a transition area.’
Despite the area being considered as a pristine and unique environment that supports 400 different plant species, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) uses the dunes for military training, as I had discovered earlier. ‘It was used by the US military to train for the D-Day landings because it very closely resembles the Normandy coast and Omaha Beach,’ says Edgcombe. ‘And [MoD training] still happens on a regular basis today.’
But can conservation and preparation for battle really go hand in hand? ‘It’s interesting on Braunton Burrows that the military, the public and nature conservation have to co-exist,’ Edgcombe says. ‘You can quite often trip over some soldier or another hidden in the undergrowth and some people see what the military is doing there as being destructive to the site. We don’t.
‘What made this area so special in the first place was the variety of plant life you get in different successional stages – from bare sand through to woodland,’ he continues. ‘Disturbance and churning up of the ground can be good for the wildlife here – helping to regenerate it and get rid of scrub in much the same way as grazing.’
Bell agrees: ‘If it wasn’t for the military being there, the site would be in a far worse state. It’s widely accepted that the dunes are dynamic and ephemeral, and many of the species for which this area is designated need open sand to colonise. It’s counter-intuitive to a lot of people, I admit. But the science is there.’
Thousands of troops train here each year, and the MoD works closely with the landowners and Natural England to sustain the ecology of the area. And although the military has the right to use live ammunition, it rarely does so, says the AONB team; and when it does, a series of highly visible flags are put up as a warning to visitors. If the flags aren’t there, it’s safe to proceed – a fact I’ll keep in mind on my next visit.
Victorian beach experience
‘The best beaches in Ilfracombe are the Tunnels Beaches. You have to pay to get in, but once you’re through, you pass through a tunnel under the cliff that was cut by Welsh miners in the 1820s specifically for swimmers, and come out at the beaches. In Victorian times, a man with a trumpet used to sit between the ladies’ and gents’ bathing areas to help protect everyone’s modesty.’
Dave Edgcombe, AONB project officer
Time for flowers
‘In spring, the wildflowers on Braunton Burrows are second to none. You get carpets of orchids – there are lots of rare flower species. Some are so tiny you need a magnifying glass to see them, but it’s what makes it really special.’
Dave Edgcombe, AONB project officer
‘I just love Hillsborough and its dramatic cliff castle. You can get superb views of the town from there. Ilfracombe is often misunderstood because the town has had economic problems, but this is one of so many little gems the town has to offer.’
Linda Blanchard, AONB manager
‘Some of the nice slacks in the western and northern areas of Braunton Burrows are really good for dragonflies and the like. You can find a quiet sheltered spot and be lost – it can be a real wilderness experience.’
Andy Bell, Braunton Burrows Biosphere Reserve co-ordinator
Golden beach and rock pools
‘On the opposite side of the sands to Woolacombe village is a lovely place called Putsborough where there’s a lovely golden beach with lots of little rock pools. It’s a safe place to take children for a paddle or, if you’re more adventurous, you can go out and do a bit of surfing or take a nice circular walk around Baggy Point and enjoy some stunning views across to Lundy and Croyde, and back across to Woolacombe.’
First published January 2010