Sunday, 17 April 2011

South West Coast Path Section 45 Teignmouth - Starcross

Teignmouth Pier
As I was only able to start my journey down to the South West at about lunchtime I was eager to make use of what remained of daylight hours at the first available opportunity. I had identified the short section from Teignmouth to Starcross as a potential late afternoon/ early evening walk and after the haul down I arrived at around 4.30pm, which seemed just about perfect for this eight mile section since I reckoned on being able to return on the train at just after 7.30pm.
Teignmouth Church
This part of the Coast Path actually follows the train line virtually all the way and gives the walker a rather better view of the amazing engineering feat that is this part of the Great Western Railway than riding on the train. Most rail enthusiasts will agree that this is one of the finest rail journeys in the whole of the UK, running as it does along the sea wall adjacent to the beach for most of its length, diving through cliffs to maintain a level route in several places. No such luck for the walker, who has to climb up and over the same hills!
The Journey Shrinker
As I started the walk in Teignmouth it was at the tail end of what had clearly been a very unseasonably warm day and there were quite a few families out and about enjoying the first evening of the school holidays. I decided to head down to the lighthouse at the southern end of the seafront so that I could enjoy all the spring bulbs and flowers, that were now giving way from daffodils to tulips and pansies to primulas. There was a very colourful show along the seafront and it felt good to have lungfuls of sea air after my long journey down here.
Teignmouth Sea Wall
I soon came to the pier – a fairly modest affair but nevertheless in good order. It rather oversold itself by being known as the “Grand Pier”, but it is fairly unusual in Devon, a county not over-endowed with pleasure piers. I was slightly puzzled by the significance of the dates proclaimed at the entrance. I assumed 1865 was the date it was built but 2011? That by my reckoning makes it 146 years old. Why not wait until 2015 and celebrate its 150th birthday? Being so early in the season it was rather inevitably closed up still, although its summer re-opening was probably only days away I would guess. A little further on and the beach was also getting some final maintenance before the season gets under way. Given the size of the beach, I would guess that it probably requires quite a bit of winter maintenance to make sure it doesn’t was away!
Dinnertime View
I passed by the iconic church of St Michael, which dominates every picture of Teignmouth, and soon came on to the sea wall adjacent to the railway line. This would be my companion for approximately a mile and gave me the opportunity to really stretch my legs along this easy flat section. The sea was like glass and ahead I could see all the way along the Jurassic Coast as far as Portland Bill, which is almost 55 miles away! The light was phenomenal, reminding me why I love evening walking so much. I soon came to the enormous sign for Teignmouth, which was put there for the benefit of rail travellers, but which today seemed to be the focus of a group of young skateboarders using it as a prop for their activities.
Dawlish
Several trains rattled past me as I wandered along this section and although it was fairly clear where the short multiple unit trains were headed (most travel from Paignton to Exmouth), I couldn’t help but wonder where the longer express trains were headed. In British Rail days it would have been almost impossible to tell whether the high speed trains were heading north or to London, but these days the northern bound trains run by Cross Country Trains are a lot newer (and shorter at generally only four carriages). Still these trains can head as far afield as Leeds, Newcastle and Edinburgh although I suspect that those starting so late in the day won’t be going quite as far.
Dawlish Gardens
Eventually I reached the end of the sea wall and the start of my detour. The railway plunged into the first of four tunnels on its way to the next station at Dawlish. For me I had to cross underneath the railway line and head up a fairly steep hill to the main road that links the various towns along the coast. Luckily the path doesn’t stick with the road for long heading off almost immediately along a green lane beside a field. This lane was alive with insects, most of which had recently escaped from their winter hideaways I suspect, and also pungent with the smell of cow parsley and may blossom (the latter seemed very early!). In the field were a group of sheep, munching away on the lush looking grass and seemingly oblivious of the stunning view across the bay towards the town of Dawlish.
Railway Action
As I rounded the field the path then dropped sharply down towards the railway once again almost meeting at level before climbing once again towards the road. I couldn’t help think this was a bit of a tease, but it did provide the opportunity to warm me up for the harder days that will come later in my week down here. At the top of the hill I took the former road that has now been by-passed by modern traffic. I guess this would originally have been a turnpike for I passed by an attractive looking toll cottage on the edge of Dawlish. Fortunately the road walking here wasn’t very long and I entered a park that was dominated by World War II defence buildings including a pillbox (bricked up) and a lookout (acting these days as a shelter with a view!).
Fossilised Sand Dune
The descent into Dawlish was via a very steep set of zig-zag steps, making me be glad that I was heading in this direction! I came out on the sea wall once again at the entrance to Kennaway Tunnel, the fourth and last on the railway in this direction. By now the sun was getting lower in the sky and much of Dawlish promenade was in shade. Luckily for me, the centre of Dawlish was still bathed in warm sunshine and there were still a lot of visitors milling about making for a nice atmosphere. I looked for the famous black swans of Dawlish, introduced from Australia many years ago and something of an emblem for the town. Although the park and Dawlish Water were lovely, there was no sign of any swans and so I pressed on past the railway station.
Heading Inland
The guide book had warned me not to tackle the next section at high tide. Luckily for me visibility was excellent ahead and although the sea wall was clearly still wet, the tide had subsided considerably allowing me access along the wall. Walkers arriving at high tide either have to sit it out, or follow a diversionary route on the other side of the track at higher level. Although the walk along the sea wall can seem like it takes a long time, there were a few fascinating features on the way. The wall is clearly a favoured route for runners, of which there were plenty in evidence. I was also captivated in the ever changing light conditions as the sun behind me slowly sank and allowed a smaller and smaller proportion of the vivid red sandstone to be illuminated as I headed eastwards. The geology of the sandstone is very interesting, with bedding that clearly shows its desert wind blown origins. The erosion patterns showing an almost honeycomb pattern, exploited by various birds for nesting was also most interesting.
Dawlish Holiday Carriages
Eventually I reached Dawlish Warren before the sun sank completely behind the cliffs and was pleased to see that this gave me a new lease of life with respect to daylight! No longer was the sun obscured by the cliffs and ahead was the expanse of the Exe estuary and Exmouth on the other side. Dawlish Warren occupies the spit that acts as a partial barrier to the estuary and has been exploited to provide budget holiday accommodation on a coast that is otherwise a bit cramped. Reminders of how holidaymakers often used to be accommodated could be seen in sidings at Dawlish Warren station in the shape of several vintage railway carriages. At this point I crossed the line and had a choice to make. I could either wait here for the next train or continue to Starcross a little further up the line and where the official route meets the ferry to cross the river.
Atmospheric Railway
As I still had 50 minutes available for the remaining two miles I decided to go for it. However, I can’t say that this was a pleasant walk for much of it was along a surprisingly busy country lane where drivers seemed to travel much too fast for the type of road. The village of Cockwood arranged around a small harbour was some compensation; it was delightful. I eventually reached Starcross with about twenty minutes to spare and had plenty of time to look at the pump house of the former atmospheric railway that used to run between here and Newton Abbott. This experiment by Brunel was doomed to failure and was withdrawn after only one year due to spiralling costs and failure of the vacuum in the pipes that were meant to provide propulsion (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atmospheric_railway for a detailed explanation of how it worked). The fact that the old pumping house still remains is something of a miracle after all these years and provides a monument of sorts to a doomed experiment. A little way beyond the pumping house was the small unmanned station at Starcross where I had a pleasant wait for the train back to Teignmouth. There are no creature comforts at the station (not even a seat!), so I was pleased that it was a nice evening.
Starcross Ferry
This was a great warm-up for bigger challenges ahead and in truth probably doesn’t warrant a full day out. Using this little walk on an evening following your outward journey is probably ideal. If you are a train spotter you will be very entertained!

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