Exmouth is located in East Devon in the South West of England and easy to reach by rail from London.

Change at either Exeter Central or Exeter St David’s for The Avocet Line which operates a service every half an hour or so.

Stops include Topsham, Lympstone and the intriguing Lympstone Commando.

This request stop opened in 1976 and is apparently restricted to the use of those with business at the Commando Training Centre although the MoD has admitted that it cannot limit access because it does not own the station.

The Exe Estuary Trail passes between the Station and the Training Centre and affords beautiful estuarine views, but be careful where you point your camera!

Anyone taking photographs from the station platform should:

‘…be aware that this would attract interest from the security staff at Commando Training Centre RM (CTCRM) Lympstone, particularly if photographs of the camp are taken.’

Presumably the same applies to those snapping away from the Trail.

On this occasion we began our walk at Exmouth and ended at Lympstone proper, so any residual curiosity had to be satisfied by the view from the passing train as we arrived and departed from Exmouth. I saw nothing remotely photogenic.

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The walk from Exmouth to Lympstone is some 2.5 miles, beginning in the vicinity of Exmouth Station, now a mere terminus, although:

‘A branch line with a junction immediately beyond the end of the platforms was opened on 1 June 1903. This ran around the outskirts of Exmouth on a long, curving viaduct, passing through Littleham and then on to Budleigh Salterton meeting the Sidmouth branch line at Tipton St Johns where it connected with an earlier line to Sidmouth Junction railway station. This route was used for through carriages from London Waterloo station sometimes called the Atlantic Coast Express…’

That did not survive Beeching.

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The Trail is a shared walking and cycling route, which works when the cyclists are the recreational variety, but is rather less satisfactory when they are testosterone-fuelled boy racers, or lycra-clad pot-bellied parents imagining themselves Bradley Wiggins on a time trial.

I suppose the relationship between pedestrian and cyclist rather resembles the brittle tension between cyclist and motorist on any busy main road.

The estuary itself is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Protection Area for the conservation of wild birds. The RSPB has an interest:

‘The Exe Estuary nature reserve is two areas of coastal grazing marsh that are on opposite sides of the river…One side of the estuary is Exminster Marshes and the other side is Bowling Green Marsh.

In spring, you can see lapwings and redshanks and listen for rare Cetti’s warblers. In winter, during floods or around high tide, there are thousands of waterbirds including black-tailed godwits and wigeons.

Special RSPB cruises to see avocets can also be booked.’

The estuary has its own voluntary management partnership which employs an Exe Estuary Officer. It prepares a ‘State of the Exe Report’ – a veritable mine of information – plus an annual action plan. Cycle calming measures ought to feature in the next edition!

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I rather like Lympstone because it conveys the impression of a substantial village with a thriving and supportive community spirit, whereas Topsham feels to me like a made-up place – an agglomeration of outsiders, too many over-burdened by conspicuous wealth, who inhabit a rather pretentious Exeter suburb.

Topsham does have some historical significance. It was Exeter’s main port in the 14th Century and was still a shipbuilding centre during the Napoleonic wars.

Lympstone had a similar profile. The village website says:

‘Medieval farming brought prosperity to Lympstone, with a fine church tower built in 1409. Maritime adventuring and enterprise and modest tourism in the early 19th Century brought subsequent waves of prosperity, still reflected in many of the 70+ older listed houses of the village. Cod fishing, whaling, boat and ship-building, river and inshore fishing for mackerel and salmon have all boomed and faded, leaving a rich history and heritage.’

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The South West Coast Path website adds further colour:

‘Shipbuilding has been an important part of Lympstone life since as long ago as 1588, when shipwrights from the village helped fit out the 50-ton Exmouth vessel, the ‘Gyfte of God’, which sailed with the English fleet against the Spanish Armada. Between 1785 and 1813, when the Napoleonic Wars ended, 25 ships under 100 tons were built here, including the Royal Navy 12-gun warship HMS Urgent, built in 1804 by John Bass, who also built the frigate HMS Cyane. Many fishing boats were built here, including a number that sailed 2000 miles every spring to the prime cod fishing grounds in Newfoundland. In 1869 as many as 63 fishing boats were moored in the harbour. There were also three whalers based here, used in the Arctic in the summer, and in the winter they were laid up on the sand bank in the middle of the river which is still known as Greenland.’

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Exmouth has smartened itself up since I last visited some years ago, when it seemed rather more dog-eared and tatty.

A 2011 Devon County Council review gives the population as 34,432. The Mosaic profile of the Exmouth area (including Lympstone, Budleigh Salterton and sundry smaller villages) describes 20.7% of the population as ‘active elderly people living in pleasant retirement locations’ and a further 17.7% as ‘residents of small and mid-sized towns with strong local roots’.

A town website refers to pre-18th Century Exmouth as ‘a small fishing town with a small harbour’ renowned only for being Sir Walter Raleigh’s preferred port of embarkation and a victim of raids by Barbary Coast slavers.

‘However the Golden Age of Exmouth history begins when the town established itself during the 18th century as the first holiday resort in Devon. Fashionable holidaymakers unable to visit Europe due to the revolutionary turmoil in France were attracted by the views and medicinal salt waters.’

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The Open Plaques movement commemorates several of the people associated with the town during this period including Fanny, wife of Lord Nelson and the former Lady Byron.

Tourism increased rapidly with the arrival of the railway in 1861. Bartholomew’s 1887 Gazetteer of the British Isles describes the town thus:

‘Exmouth was the first watering-place on the coast of Devon, and is used not only for sea-bathing, but as a winter residence for those suffering under pulmonary complaints, the climate being mild, and the town being sheltered from the easterly winds. There are assembly rooms, baths, libraries, &c.; and the sea-wall, 1800 ft. long and 22 ft. high, makes a fine promenade. The chief industries are lace-making and the fisheries… Near the town is a natural harbour called the Bight, and docks were constructed in 1869.’

Our own arrival coincided with the Surf Life Saving GB Youth Surf Championships. I had never previously encountered the sporting form of this pursuit, which has a particular hold in the South West.

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Towards the end of Exmouth beach the South West Coastal Path ascends the cliff and proceeds via Sandy Bay to Budleigh Salterton.

The Geoneedle at Orcombe Point marks the beginning of the Jurassic Coast a natural World Heritage Site which extends through to the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset.

This section of the Coastal Path affords many superb views, but is blighted by the mobile home and caravan megalopolis at Sandy Bay, located right next to the Royal Marines’ firing range at Straight Point (which is of course off limits).

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Later on the path skirts the edge of the East Devon Golf Club, marked off by a large wire fence.

I’ve always been rather mystified by the sport of golf, not least the tendency for spectators at major events to holler ‘get in the hole’ in the vain belief that the inanimate ball will obey their injunction.

I do not begin to understand why the Scots public can apparently ramble on their golf courses, yet the English and Welsh public do not enjoy the same right. That is worse than ‘a good walk spoiled’; it is a good walk forbidden.

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The journey to Budleigh is rather more enjoyable than the arrival since, on a brief acquaintance, the popular epithet ‘God’s Waiting Room’ is perfectly justified. A palpable air of ennui and somnolence descended as we sought out the better of the town’s two public houses for lunch.

The Devon County Council Review says that almost half the population is over the age of 60 adding – rather strangely – that 95.1% of the town’s children are living in poverty! (The comparable figure for Exmouth is a mere 1.7%)

Is there some kind of endemic inter-generational extortion, or is this simply the stark contrast between wealthy incoming retirees and poor local families?

While we’re on the subject of money, the price of a pint in these parts is a welcome bonus to the visiting Londoner but, compared with an Oyster fare, the cost of the 5-mile bus ride back to Exmouth is exorbitant.

 

TD

September 2015

 

 

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