The River Avon flows through the village I live in, and I’ve walked most of its length many times. It rises high on the moor – the aptly named Avon Head Mire fills a bowl of land bounded by Nakers, Skir and Ryder’s Hills, and is a bleak spot. From there its possible to walk along or close to the banks of the river for large parts of its length.
There’s even a waymarked footpath, the Avon Estuary Walk, which takes in its final few miles to the sea. I’ve walked this before and, while it’s mostly beautiful, I thought that a big chunk of the western section was a little disappointing; in an effort to stay as close to the river as possible, it follows tarmac, with no views. So I planned to link parts of that route with some beach and coast path walking to make a slightly longer and, for me, more satisfying walk.
There are several possible starting points, but I parked at Aveton Gifford. A bit of planning and timing is needed; there’s a ferry across the mouth of the Avon which is essential for linking the two halves of the walk, but it only operates in the Summer, and then only between 10:00 and 11:00 in the morning and between 3:00 and 4:00 in the afternoon (and not on Sundays). In addition, the best part of a mile of the walk follows a tidal road – it’s barely covered during neaps, but on a spring tide it can be impassable for about two hours either side of high. Add in my wish to walk a stretch along a tidal beach, and things can get quite complicated (although there are alternative routes should either of these sections be under water).
Leaving the car park, there’s a footpath alongside the 15th century bridge, which avoids having to walk along what is now a fast, busy road before turning down a minor lane alongside the South Efford Marsh nature reserve. Its very hot, and I’m glad as the path turns into a narrow sunken lane, hemmed in by Devon banks and overgrown by trees offering welcome shade, which I follow steadily uphill before emerging on a farm track leading to open fields. It’s a delight to walk along the edges of these today – areas that have not been sown with crops are now carpeted in wild flowers, and the path leads through these, with glimpses of the river and its mouth appearing on the right.
After a while, the path drops down incredibly steeply, on soft grass, to reach Stiddicombe creek, and continues through head high reeds to a narrow wooden bridge. Once over this, its up and into a patch of managed deciduous woodland which is remarkable. The trunks are tall, and well-spaced, and in today’s bright sunshine, the light streaming down through the canopy and between the trees is magical. A narrow, earthy, way-marked trail winds through the wood, arriving eventually at a gate which leads again onto open ground, where the views back inland along the river, and out towards the mouth of the river, framing Burgh Island, are great.
From here the path contours along above the river, before dropping down and back up to join a dusty path leading to Bantham. This village is privately owned (although there’s no sign of that here) and the road leads past a café and a pub (great paces to kill time if you’ve misjudged the time and arrived early for the ferry) and eventually out to the beach itself. Bantham Sand is probably the best surf beach on the south Coast when swell and wind are right and is popular with surfers and kite surfers – in the summer, there are also plenty more opportunities for refreshment in the car park if needed.
But that involves a slight detour, and I’ve timed it right, so I head down to the slipway to catch the ferry. The word ferry makes it sound very grand – its actually one man (and sometimes a dog) operating a small, open, clinker-built boat, with space for about 5 passengers. I step into the shallow water and then the boat, along with a couple of others, and the journey of less than 5 minutes begins. The water is clearer than I’ve ever seen it and an opal blue above the sandy river bottom – so the trip is a real pleasure and we are quickly crunching into the sand of the rather splendidly named Cockleridge Ham.
From here, the waymarked route heads right, up steps, but I turn the other way and walk on sand alongside the estuary, towards Bantham, and Burgh Island. As I said, this section is tidal, but if its underwater, there’s a steep grassy climb up from the Ham, leading to the road to Bantham. The other side of the estuary is noisy; although it’s a Tuesday in term-time, the beach there is packed with holidaymakers. This side however, is empty at first and I dawdle – admiring the houses perched on the cliff-top above, and the ingenious paths carved from them down to the sand. They may have beautiful outlooks, but they are built in precarious situations, with storms causing regular land-slips in the cliffs on which they are built – one house at least seems to have been undergoing remedial action for years.
All too soon it gets busy, and I’m walking through full-on summer beach activity, up to the car park and onto the coast path. On a quieter day, I’d have walked across the tidal causeway to Burgh island and climbed to the huer’s hut on the top; apparently this was used by fisherman as a lookout point from which to spot shoals of pilchards. There’s also a (private) art-deco hotel and an ancient pub on the island – when the tide is in, the only access is by a unique sea-tractor, which makes the crossing with a platform of passengers held well above the water.
But I push on – it’s horribly busy – and quickly reach Challaborough – a beautiful beach, but inland is a huge and terrible gathering of holiday chalets and caravans; I don’t know how permission for the development was allowed in this beautiful area. So on I go, and within minutes I’m away from the crowds, heading up the coast path away from the bay, and enjoying enormous views west along the coast, and back towards Burgh Island, and Bolt Tail beyond.
At the top of the hill – Toby’s Point – you can turn right and head into Ringmore, but I prefer to continue, and drop down to Ayrmer Cove; one of my favourite beaches; beautiful, almost empty, and a complete contrast to the last 20 minutes. After a quick paddle, I put my boots back on, and head up the smugglers path, through the National Trust car park and pick up the path into the village.
From here, paths lead through fields, alongside (and, at times, in) a stream to Bigbury, where I re-join the waymarked path for its final couple of miles. On along tracks cut through the centre of fields of barley, through Doctor’s Wood, and down through fields full of cattle to the tidal road, with views of the much emptier estuary re-appearing below. Again, if the tide is wrong, the last 15 minutes can be sidestepped along tracks to the north, but the tide is well out now, and the mud flats are gently stinking in the sun. I walk along the road slowly, watching the egrets strutting through the shallows and the swans – one at least with cygnets – before shortly getting back to the car.
I’ve covered all this ground before, but never linked it all together and I like this walk – it’s got a bit of everything; woodland, coast path, field-walking, beaches and a lovely, if brief, ferry ride.