Salcombe Hill Trail, Sidmouth

The Devon Trust for Nature Conservation, 2 Pennsylvania Road, Exeter

li miles off A3052 through Salcombe Regis or I mile east of Sidmouth on unclassified road to Salcombe Regis

Map Reference: SY139

4i-mile circuit of public footpaths crossing 500ft Salcombe Hill through trees and heath with beautiful sea views

Information boards; illustrated brochure from local tourist information offices or from Devon Trust. Car Park at trail start

To the west of Lyme Bay, the National Trust has secured some five hundred acres of the lovely Devon coastline between Sidmouth and Branscombe. Adjacent to the western end of this strip of land, the Devon Trust has designed and maintains the Salcombe Hill Nature Trail. Although the inadequare coast road is constantly overcrowded during the summer months, you will find that the trail itself is visited by manageable numbers.

The walkway is situated on a plateau consist-ing of greensand upon marl, geologically similar to many spots in the south east Devon area. Holding no agricultural potential, this land was planted last century with broad-leaved woodland and, more recently, conifers.

From its start point at the car park off the Sidmouth-Salcombe Regis road, the trail follows a well-signposted four-and-a-half-mile circuit. The first section of the pathway has to be regularly cut back, to prevent the encroachment of the abundant gorse, bramble and bracken. The resultant dense thickets provide ample cover for tiny songbirds such as the wren and yellowhammer.

Turning westward, the trail now enters woodland. Mature oak and ash are prominent, but sweet chestnut and sycamore are aleo in evidence. You may be fortunate enough to spot a pair of buzzards who maintain a sporadic tenancy high up in a Scots pine, and spring walkers will most likely hear the chiffchaff’s distinctive droning song, as the profuse insect life here makes migration unnecessary.

Over a stile and across the road is a second copse. Here the Scots pine and holm oak, interspersed by sycamore, enshroud the closely-grouped ivy and bramble bushes. You are sure to come across many fallen trees, ideal breeding grounds for many interesting fungal growths. Towards the next clearing, the natural muddiness of the path often betrays the passing of roe deer. However, daytime appearances of these elegant creatures are rare.

From this point of the trail, vegetation be-comes markedly different. For you are now in

the Observatory Estate, grounds in which the late Sir Norman and Lady Lockyer carried out extensive ornamental planting. The rhododendrons, daffodils and seventy-year-old cypresses are particularly impressive. A long-established sett is at the end of a tell-tale badger track near the estate’s flint boundary wall. Full marks must go to the Devon Trust for enabling this burrower to thrive in what would otherwise be a hostile environment.

Beyond this wall the track meanders through a larch spinney to a point where steep steps are cut into the hillside allowing access down to Milltown Lane. The tall trees of this section are frequented by sparrow-hawks and carrion crows. If you notice movements in a heavily-foliaged nest at a trunk’s main fork, the chances are that a grey squirrel family is in residence.

The track now climbs sharply up the heather-rich Soldier’s Hill, affording a fine view of the Sid valley region. From the field at

the end of the now-wider track, you can glance down at the various domes and buildings of the Observatory Estate. The enterprising Sir Norman Lockyer had this private astronomical station built in 1912 when in his seventy-eighth year. Its present-day functions include study of upper atmosphere ionisation and environmental research. An annual open day is held during the summer, when the public can see for themselves the work carried out here.

Back across the road, the Forestry Commis-sion has had the thick gorseland cleared and planted Norway Spruce and Douglas Fir. This was back in 1960, and although growth tends to be slow because of the exposed location, the trees have already changed this area.

Just beyond here, there is a short-cut back to the car park, but this means missing the sea views. Once past the large hunk of hard sand-stone known as the Frog Stone, incoming waves can be heard crashing against the rocks five hundred feet below. Weather permitting, Berry Head, Brixham and Portland Bill (landmarks seventy miles apart) are both visible from the clifftop. Focus your eyes on the much nearer Beer Head and you will see several columns and pinnacles of composite white chalk, the result of a momentous ten-acre landslide two hundred years ago. The whole of the Sidmouth-Beer stretch of coast, on which you stand, is riddled with smugglers’ caves, a legacy of the region’s illegal 18th-century trade. Whitethroats, bullfinches and collared doves now patrol this area with endless swoops and dives.

On leaving the cliff’s edge, the trail leads straight back to the parking lot. There is only space here for about thirty cars, but for some distance either side of the pull-in you can park safely on the verges. If by this time you have worked up an appetite, it is only a very short walk to a delightful 12th-century church, near which is an old-world shop serving traditional Devonshire cream teas.

Away from here, ardent trail-tracers have dozens to choose from at Farway Countryside Park near Honiton. Also within these hundred-and-thirty-acre grounds pony and donkey-cart rides may be taken and the children will love to see all the farm animals roving about at will.

In Honiton itself, there is a pleasant parkland golf course which welcomes visitors and the progress of the town’s internationally-famous lace-making industry is traced by clever displays at the Allhallows Museum.

At the resort of Beer, a passenger train plies the scenic route beside the bay to the sure delight of all steam railway enthusiasts. The track also passes through the fun-filjed Peko Pleasure Park.

In the village of Branscombe there is a tiny bakery which, amazingly, still produces bread from ovens fired by wood faggots. Several miles of footpath connect Branscombe with Lincombe and Western Combe, providing walkers with more clifftop vistas. Branscombe is particulary fascinating since it has rich red cliffs to the south and slate grey cliffs to the north.

Back westward, near to the large Ladram Bay Caravan Site, is the tiny village of Otterton where a cornmiil mentioned in the Doomsday book has been lovingly restored. Various craft items are made and sold at the adjacent workshops. From Otterton you can go down to the sea again, via the estuary of the River Otter. Anglers will appreciate the free fishing for trout and mullet at Budleigh Salterton where the estuary meets Ladram Bay.