Walk Of The Month: Slapton Ley, Devon - Slapton Ley is a favourite haunt of naturalists. Mark Rowe discovers mute swans and tufted ducks amid the reed beds

A sea mist was lurking to the south of Torcross as I made for the steps that led from the sea wall towards Beesands. But Torcross itself was dazzling under a gorgeous autumnal sky.

The brief flight of steps lifted me high above the village to a stirring viewpoint: to the right was Start Bay, calm and almost unnaturally blue for this time of year. To the left was Slapton Ley, an inland lagoon that sends naturalists into deep reveries.

The two contrasting settings – a powerful sea and a freshwater lake – are bisected by a narrow road and shingle beach. Beyond this immediate, charming view, the landscape gently folds away – reed beds around the lagoon give way to the rolling south Devon hills, while Start Bay ebbs and flows against finely-named rocky outcrops such as the Dancing Beggars. In the distance, the gaping mouth of Dartmouth opens to the sea.

It was hard to pull myself away – I could have stood there all morning with my pasty and coffee – but the spectacle to the south, once I followed the coast path for a few hundred yards, was only a little less delightful. First the path tilted down towards Beesands. Beyond, you could just pick out a handful of rocky promontories – the location of the ill-fated village of Hallsands, which was washed away by a storm in 1917, though it seems the trigger that weakened the village defences was dredging for gravel offshore. The view then halted: the sea mist was sitting squat above Start Point and its lighthouse. Five miles distant, its sonorous, warning boom echoed through the valleys of the South Hams.

Once off the coastal path these views gave me a spring in my step to help negotiate some muddy fields. Paths and lanes took me past thatched cottages and down steep Devon lanes with characteristic tall banks of red mud, covered in ferns.

At Stokenham, I nosed around the pleasant village church with its wagon-style roof before heading up a steep hill and crossing fields to Coleridge Cross, a remote fork in a narrow lane. All I needed to complete the ghostly scene was for the spectre of an old seadog to emerge through the mist.

The path dropped down to Deer Bridge, below the village of Slapton. Tempted as I was to climb the hill to sample the community's two pubs, I was drawn away by, for me at least, an even more irresistible charm – Slapton Ley Nature Reserve.

The Ley is the definitive wildlife sanctuary. Mute swans, goldeneye and tufted duck trundle up and down, while giant pike are said to haunt its waters. Its willows and elders are good places to spot skulking firecrests, which wrestle with the goldcrest for the title of Britain's tiniest bird. Butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies all linger here deep into autumn and you may spot a painted lady, a comma or the common darter.

Bitterns also choose this spot to overwinter, hunched over the reedbeds. The thrushes and blackbirds rely heavily on the Ley at this time of year, feasting on the red berries of Butcher's Broom, while you may encounter the first of the blackcaps, retreating from the continental winter.

The thick reedbeds, the humid air – even the fiercest storms struggle to penetrate too deeply into these woodlands – and the swamp-like mudflats, make Slapton Ley seem altogether other-worldly, a land of muffled silence. If you stumbled across a grazing dinosaur it wouldn't seem out of place.

I finally dragged myself away. The ley and its reedbeds only falter once you are almost upon the beach. A coastal road, straight as a die, cuts between the ley and the shingle beach, but you can dismiss this easily enough by sticking to the path below the banking. It's a mile-and-a-half back to Torcross, but you could linger along here all morning, and many do.

As I arrived back in the village, I passed the renowned Sherman tank, recovered from Start Bay in 1984 and which now forms the centrepiece of the tribute to the 946 servicemen who were killed in Exercise Tiger, a trial run for the D-Day landings. Slapton was chosen for its resemblance to the Utah section of the proposed landings. More than 3,000 local people were evacuated and such is the tranquillity and forceful presence of nature that it's difficult to comprehend the activity that overwhelmed the town, or the disastrous German torpedo attack that caught these military exercises by surprise.

You read a lot about struggling rural communities, but at the end of this walk you're spoilt for choice: a good pub, a fine café and a vibrant, cheerful village store selling home-made pasties are all squeezed close together. Just watch out for the ducks as they waddle across the road to vacuum up the crumbs.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Bus 93, between Kingsbridge and Dartmouth, runs through Torcross. Consult Traveline for more details (0871 2002233; travelinesw.com).

Further Information

Farm & Cottage Holidays (01237 459889; holidaycottages.co.uk) offers several barn properties near Slapton, such as Slate Barn or The Oaks. A four-night stay, in a property sleeping six, costs from £340.

Map: OS Map: OL 20, South Devon.

Start/Finish: Car park by Torcross Stores.

Distance: Eight miles.

Time: Four hours.

Directions: Climb the steps at the southern end of Slapton Sands, signposted Beesands. Follow the path around the holiday houses, through a gate, and across a field. After descending, follow the wooden footpath sign to the right, and trace the field edge. Cross two stiles to the path through the woods and behind the thatched cottage. Take a paved path and the footpath signed right for Widewell. Descend the field to a gate and go straight ahead down the road. At A379, cross and walk up past the church. At the top of the hill, dog-leg right to left to continue ahead towards Frittiscombe. Take the field path on the left to Coleridge Cross. Bear right along the lane to Deer Bridge, and follow the path and boardwalk along Slapton Ley. Turn right along the footpath south to Torcross.