Outdoors: A bounty-hunter's paradise

Weekend walk: dramatic cliffs are testament to shipwrecks of old
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The Independent Culture
THE UNIQUE geology of this part of the North Devon coast - Hartland -with its promontories of jagged rock, has made scrap of ketch, schooner, cutter, brig, tug and warship alike. In just the 2.5 miles of windy Atlantic coastland that the walk takes in, more than 30 ships have been wrecked and their crew claimed by the sea. The route follows the South West Coast Path, with its outstanding scenery and wildlife, and then cuts inland to the small sheltered valleys. An invigorating walk whether on a blowy grey day, or one of the rarer sunny ones.

The walk starts at Hartland Quay, where the old Harbour Master's house and outbuildings have been converted into a relaxed, old-fashioned hotel. The original quay is now washed away, but for three centuries allowed smacks laden with Welsh limestone and other goods to reach this previously inaccessible area.

Join the coast path and follow the well-signed route for 1.5 miles in a southerly direction. At first the path skirts behind a series of three grassy cliffs. The last, and highest, of these cliffs is named St. Catherine's Tor and is said to be the site of a medieval lighthouse chapel.

Apart from the spectacular rock scenery, there is plenty to admire just inches from the path. Scabies (cornflower-blue) intermingles with clumps of Sea Pink (Thrift). Honeysuckle grows wherever an opportunity arises and in wetter places, the saffron spikes of Monbretia are unmissable. This is also a favourite habitat for the Stonechat; its bouncing flight is a clue to its identity, as is its peculiar "tsak tsak" song.

The path climbs gently after St Catherine's Tor through grassland covered in a haze of white and purple clover, then down a rocky path bordered by dense patches of purple heather and thyme.

Having reached Speake's Mill Mouth it is good moment to catch your breath, and linger at the waterfalls. The four falls are impressive, the first being a 56-foot drop down the flat face of the cliff. An old donkey path leads up from the beach, reminding the visitor that, for years, there was a business in collecting sand to enrich the farmland.

From here follow the path inland, taking a right over the stream - a promising spot for a glimpse of the elusive Dipper. Here the path splits, so the over-energetic can be sent racing up the steep path along the lip of the cliff, while others might prefer the gentler way that threads its way through a mass of gorse and bracken, around the base of the hill.

The two paths merge and carry on along the cliff edge. Three fields after the rusty remains of a gantry, take the half-mile-long footpath inland into Elmscott. On meeting the road, the path takes a sharp left behind Post Box Cottage, through a field and onto a quiet lane. Carry on through Milford, a collection of small houses and a wonderful old farm (note some of the old cob walling), to Docton Mill. A visit to the restored mill and its gardens is strongly recommended. There is an exceptional bog garden, 90 varieties of rose and Devonshire cream tea to be indulged in.

After the mill, take a left at the first crossroads and at the second (Kernstone Cross) carry straight across down the lane marked "Unsuitable for motors". Fork left at Wargery farm and follow the track into Stoke. The church tower of Stoke St Nectan is the highest in Devon, a good landmark for lost seamen - and walkers. The church was founded in 1050 as a thankful offering for a husband saved from shipwreck. Many of the less fortunate victims of the sea are buried in the churchyard. Inside the church, don't miss the late Norman font, the 14th century decorated waggon-head roof and the impressive rood screen.

At the back entrance of the church, take the fern-clad lane to the valley bottom. Following signs for the coast path, take a left through a field and carry straight on along the Abbey river, to the sea again. On the way there is a marvellous line of Hornbeam and Oak; styled by the strong gales, their branches snake up and out in impossible twists and curves.

Taking the coastal path go left, back towards Hartland Quay. On a fine day, Lundy Island can be seen. Watch out for the unstable cliff edges on Warren cliff, as the edge is sudden and the drops long. The rock strata on the beach below are quite incredible. They are a geologists' dream and jaw-dropping for the rest of us. For those curious to find out more about the rock formations, or the shipwrecks, a quick visit to the two- roomed Hartland Quay museum (50p) is a good idea. Full of all sorts of bounty washed up from the numerous wrecks, as well as dramatic photographs of sea rescues, it is well worth the visit.

The walk is about 6.5 miles long. To get there, take the turnoff for Hartland on the A39 between Biddeford and Bude and continue on to Hartland Quay. As a map you will need the OS Explorer 126: Clovelly and Hartland.