If you don’t sail, then it is easy to feel left out and overwhelmed by the yachtie spectacle that greets you in Salcombe. The harbour and estuary teem with boats of all sizes and their respective crews. But this Devon town has just as much to offer the landlubber, squeezed as it is into some glorious folds of the South West Coast Path.
As I head out of town, towards Batson Creek, walking against a five-abreast tide of Breton jumpers and deck shoes, I realise Salcombe has not altogether lost its soul to tourism. The northern edge of town is a hinterland of narrow lanes that runs into the sea and that throws up glimpses of a disappearing past.Around Island Street are small, squat workshops, home to glassblowers, boat builders and sculptors with resonant Dickensian-sounding names such as “Bangers”.
The throng is quickly behind me, and as I walk along the edge of Batson Creek, there’s another surprise: my guidebook tells me that I’m looking at a line of English elm trees that somehow managed to survive the devastation caused by Dutch Elm Disease elsewhere in Britain. Along with Brighton, this is one of the very few places in the UK where you can still see this tree fully grown (it does live on elsewhere in some hedgerows). The banks of the creek are studded with lime kilns, leftovers from the Napoleonic wars when farmers laid lime on their fields as fertiliser.
The creek is tranquil and evidently little visited, with whitewashed houses, a parish pump and a watery cul-de-sac matted with wavy reeds and wading birds pecking away hungrily in the mudflats. As my route swings around to the north bank, there are snatched views over little inlets towards Salcombe and further west towards the jaws of the estuary, the high and rugged headland known as Bolt Head.
The views open up and just get better. I follow the path around and above Snapes Manor to Snapes Point, a headland that prods deep into Salcombe estuary. The name is misleading as the water here is not an estuary – no major river flows into it; instead it is a ria, a deep-cut harbour, or drowned river, formed after the last ice age. A rowing-boat sized ferry shuttles back and forward across the ria from Salcombe to the beaches of East Portlemouth (a distance of some 17 miles by road), playing a game of dodgems with the larger traffic on the water.
High above the beaches is East Portlemouth’s church, St Winwaloe. With the backdrop of Portlemouth Down, Bolt Head and a jumble of creeks in all directions, it’s all very easy on the eye.
It’s probably best not to get too misty-eyed about the scene though: in the dim past the villagers of East Portlemouth made their living as wreckers, luring ships to their doom before ransacking the booty; and they whiled away the time chasing off outsiders with pitchforks – especially religious missionaries. I learn this from a superb walking guide, Six Self-guided Walks Around the Salcombe Kingsbridge Estuary, published by the Coast and Countryside Service.
I drag myself away from Snapes Point, heading north with the views opening up towards Kingsbridge, with the brooding backdrop of Dartmoor. The walking is pleasant, partly because the farming here allows for wide field margins and hedgerows full of birdsong. The route appears to pass under a flightpath for herons and cormorants contouring up the creeks. The tide is on its way out and the mudflats are taking over much of the estuary. If you linger for a while you may well see kingfishers, otters and little egrets along the shoreline. Gannets and basking sharks are not unknown visitors.
I reach the small boatyard of Lincombe, where the path, having dropped down to sea level, lurches uphill again for one last view from the summit of Lincombe Hill. It’s worth the effort, as up here, the view is a 360-degree delight, capturing Bolt Head, Salcombe and Kingsbridge. I retrace my steps to Batson Creek and sit under the elms for a while.
OS Map: OL20 South Devon
Distance: Five miles
Time: Two-and-a-half hours
From Salcombe, follow the path around Batson Creek. Turn left uphill in front of Snapes Manor, and follow waymarkers to Snapes Point. Drop down to the east flank of Snapes Point, following field edges through gates. As the path drops down to Lincombe boatyard, turn left, steeply uphill via wooden steps, to the ridge line of Lincombe Hill. Turn right to the National Trust car park. Turn left here, following the fingerpost signs towards Snapes Point, and retrace your steps past Snapes Manor to Batson Creek and Salcombe.
The nearest mainline railway station is Totnes, served by First Great Western and Cross Country (08457 484950; nationalrail.co.uk).
Mark Rowe stayed at Soar Mill Cove Hotel, Soar (01548 561 566; soarmillcove.co.uk) which has double rooms from £149, including breakfast.
Salcombe tourist information centre: 01548 843927; salcombeinformation.co.uk
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