Volcanoes and African game reserves do not immediately spring to mind when visiting the furthest reaches of the north Devon coast. But the landscape overlooking Bideford Bay is so precious that Unesco has bracketed it alongside Mount Vesuvius and the Okavango Delta in Botswana as a biosphere reserve, according it international protection. At its heart are the Braunton Burrows, 970 hectares of magical shifting sand dunes, where the only sound is the muffled crash of waves on to the beach.
Start from Leadengate House B&B on the western edge of the village of Croyde, crossing into Leadengate Close. Cross the stile and turn left through the dunes on to the beach. Here, head left towards the solitary cliff-top houses to meet a path across the rocks under the sandy cliff-face. Go up the steps and through the kissing-gate, following the cliff-top path to a second kissing-gate. A bench here makes a lovely place to linger in fine weather. At low tide the retreating sea reveals rocky chasms, up to 20 feet deep, carved out since the last ice age.
Walk up past the derelict lookout house to the road and turn left for 20 yards before crossing the road and climbing the steps. Turn immediately right along the signposted coast path. The skyline here is vast, with swells banking up out to sea along Saunton Sands and your first view of the Braunton Burrows.
Continue for a mile to Saunton Sands Hotel and cross the road, following the coast path signpost behind the tennis courts and down to the beach car park, pausing to explore the beach or have an ice cream at the kiosk beneath the Sands Café. Walk up the car park entrance road and follow the coast path off to the right. On reaching the main road, turn right and walk 200 metres before taking the first right turning after the golf club entrance. At the left-hand corner in this small road, continue ahead through the bridle gate and pass to the right of the grassy mound to the next bridle gate. Follow the sandy track sign-posted "coast path" to the left.
After a while take the coast path/acorn sign as it branches left across the grass and into secluded hedgerows. Pass through the next bridle gate to enter the Braunton Burrows. Watch out for sharp rushes here – they're attractive but formidably armed and capable of impaling wayward golf balls. Pass through another bridle gate and walk ahead for half a mile, turning right when you meet another path. This leads towards the broadest, flattest sand dune which also has a flagpole sticking out of it, and the heart of the burrows.
You could spend half a day among the dunes, ponds and rare wild flowers and birds, though do beware of unexpected sheer drops. The burrows owe their name to the resident rabbits that have dug holes for centuries, though even they have failed to unearth the chapel buried here. Sea spray and the scent of flowers make for a pleasant, feel-good atmosphere, but while mystics believe that ley lines converge upon the burrows, recent history is more prosaic: US troops trained here for the Normandy landings, while the MOD still does on occasion.
The burrows, with dunes up to 100ft high, are unexpectedly disorientating and a ball of string might come in handy for finding your way out: best retrace your steps to the road by the golf course and cross to the small road opposite, bearing left to Saunton Court, passing their front drive and along the steep uphill track. Take the left gate at the top, passing a derelict house and bear right up the hill. The views here are outstanding. Braunton Burrows and Saunton Sands, three miles long, stand out but beyond lies the Taw and Torridge estuary. In the distance is Hartland Point lighthouse, while the lump of rock out to sea is Lundy island. Wales comes into view ahead and on a clear day Exmoor and Dartmoor can be seen clearly. On reaching the gate at the brow of the hill, pass through it and go straight ahead to the stile and continue straight on to the next double stile. Here, there are more fine views across to Baggy Point. Bear right in front of the seat along the grassy track to a stile and drop steeply through hedges, keeping straight ahead through the kissing gate to the next gate and on to the road into Croyde. The road ends, conveniently, opposite the Thatch pub.
Total distance: seven miles to flagpole dune and back. Time: four hours walking plus time in burrows. OS Map no 180.
For Croyde, leave the M5 at junction 27 and head for Braunton on the A361. In town, follow signposts for Croyde.
Doubles at Leadengate House (01271 890373) cost from £52 per night for b&b.
West Country Walks (01271 883131; www.westcountrywalks.co.uk) provides advice on this and other walks in the area and offers packages including accommodation, luggage transfers and transport to your car.
For a free copy of the North Devon & Exmoor Visitor Guide contact the North Devon Marketing Bureau (01271 336070; www.northdevon.com).
For guided walks in the burrows contact John Breeds (01271 812552).