Devon is a country of exquisite contrasts and natural wonder. Whether you’re looking for an easy afternoon stroll along the shore, a riverside ramble to an atmospheric country pub or a tor-topping trek on the moors, there’s something to suit every boot in Patrick Kinsella’s inspiring collection of 40 Devon walks.
Those who like their hikes to have a historical backdrop are particularly well served here, with headlands and hilltops offering a series of forts, castles and defensive structures, some dating from prehistoric tribal times, others a remnant of more modern scuffles with our near neighbours. The Spanish Armada cruised right along this coast, with Sir Francis Drake and co in hot pursuit, and the cliffs are fringed with forts, gun batteries and lookouts from the Napoleonic Wars and the Second World War.
Even inland, you will come across ancient hillforts – some from the Iron Age, others of Roman, medieval or Civil War origin – and Second World War pillboxes. Many of the latter form part of the Stop Line, a defensive boundary created between the Bristol Channel and Seaton – following the evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk during the Second World War – to protect the rest of England in the event of an enemy land invasion of Devon and Cornwall (where the coast was considered almost too extensive and wild to be defendable).
Successful attacks on England had come this way before. William of Orange landed at Brixham on his way to dethroning James II during the Glorious Revolution in 1688, just a few years after the Duke of Monmouth led a less successful attempt at toppling the king by sailing into Lyme Bay and whipping up a revolt.
A twisted tangle of inlets, estuaries and bays – some savagely serrated and lined with snarling rocky teeth – the Devon coastline on either side of the county is a joy for walkers, but often a perilous place for sailors. Both shores are littered with the wrecks of ships that have floundered in times of war and peace, across hundreds of years of seafaring activity, which has included plenty of piracy and other salty shenanigans. The coves and caves that punctuate the peninsulas have certainly been well used by smugglers down the centuries, and folk songs and stories recounted on the walls and in the bars of ancient pubs in fishing villages all across Devon keep such maritime memories alive.
Around the beaches and bays of the north coast and the South Hams, curious seals fish and frolic amongst the rocks, dolphins do regular swim-bys and basking sharks – and even the odd sunfish – can occasionally be spotted from the cliffs above. It’s a feather-filled heaven for twitching trekkers. The wetlands and estuaries of the south coast boast cacophonous populations of wading birds, and this is the first port of call for many migratory species making their way north from continental Europe and Africa. The South Hams is one of the last refuges of the endangered little cirl bunting, and raptors from kestrels to peregrine falcons soar high above the heathlands.
The moors are populated by wild ponies, an evocative sight in the dawn mist when you’re out for a morning meander. In the woodlands, deer, foxes and badgers can also be seen, and lucky walkers might catch a glimpse of an otter on the riverbanks – or even a wild beaver, now that the species has staged an unlikely comeback on the River Otter, several hundred years after the resident English population was annihilated.
The climate here varies almost as much as the terrain. You need to be prepared for anything on Dartmoor, where conditions can turn extremely challenging in the blink of an eye, but generally speaking temperatures are relatively warm in this part of England compared to walking destinations further north. Rain, of course, is no stranger to these shores – those near-luminous green fields that provide such lush fodder for the Devon dairy industry are well watered by the elements – but sun-drenched summer days are plentiful too.
This eclectic selection of walks, rambles, hikes, treks and dawdles reflects the astonishing diversity of Devon’s topographic offering. Each is worth doing multiple times, because they change so completely with the turning of the seasons. On one wander you might find yourself wading through a high tide of bluebells, and the next time you’ll be showered with a colourful confetti of autumn leaves.
None of these walks demand a huge degree of fitness, but Devon is undeniably a county of curvy contours and voluptuous valleys, and hills are the common denominator. As walkers, you know that the high ground is where the best views live, and we’re not talking mountaineering here – just ambling ascents of bucolic bumps. So dump an extra dollop of jam on your scone (after the clotted cream, always…), lace your best boots up and get stuck in.
The Jurassic Coast
A strangely under-visited part of Devon is the sensational stretch of World Heritage–listed coastline that faces the English Channel on its southern flank. People typically associate the Jurassic Coast with Dorset, but this natural wonder doesn’t stop at the county line in Lyme Regis, it continues in a glorious arc of fossil-strewn beaches and colourful cliffs right around Lyme Bay to Exmouth, and the section between the estuaries of the Axe and the Exe is arguably the most interesting of all.
Here, while exploring sections of the epic South West Coast Path, you can walk back in time through 185 million years of geological activity, spanning almost the entire Mesozoic Era (also known as the Age of Reptiles). Trek from the Triassic, through the Jurassic to arrive at the Cretaceous, when the rockstar generation of dinosaurs – including T-Rex – was teetering on the edge of oblivion. Ruby-tinted Triassic-era cliffs, formed when England was an arid and landlocked region close to the equator, 200 to 245 million years ago, can be seen all along the East Devon coast, but most spectacularly around Sidmouth and during a walk that leads along the headland and the mouth of the River Otter.
Thanks to an ancient fault line at Seaton Hole – which turned a section of this coast’s topography on its head – Seaton is the only place along the entire Jurassic Coast where evidence of all three of these geological eras can be seen simultaneously. Here you can stand on the pebbly beach and observe classic Triassic-coloured cliffs to your left and immediate right – but you can also take in the great white walls that make up Beer Head, laid down during the Cretaceous era (145 to 66 million years ago), when this spot formed the seabed beneath a tropical ocean.
The opening of the Seaton Jurassic Centre in 2016 has started to magnify this region’s presence on the map, but the walking paths remain unruffled by crowds and can often be enjoyed in glorious solitude.
How to use this guide
The 40 walks in this guidebook range from 3km to 17.5km in length. Most are perfect for a morning mooch or an afternoon amble, but some – including the big daddy of the lot, the Bovey Valley adventure across a slice of wild Dartmoor – offer a slightly more serious challenge and are best done when you’ve got a full day to dedicate to the experience.
Between them, these trails will take you on a rollercoaster ride across moors and up tors, over headlands and hilltops, through wild woodlands, along serpentine rivers and down combes to cute coves and secret beaches. Without exception, your effort will be richly rewarded with stunning coast and country vistas, secluded picnic spots, surprise wildlife encounters and unforgettable experiences.
Several well-signposted long-distance footpaths thread through the county – including the epic South West Coast Path, the Tarka Trail, the Two Moors Trail and the West and East Devon Ways. The walks in this guide touch on many of these routes, and paths are generally easy to follow with decent underfoot terrain. But be aware that conditions can change quickly – especially on Dartmoor – and routes can be tougher than they appear on paper, particularly when it’s wet and muddy.
Each route is accompanied by a sketch map, showing key topographical features of the area you will be walking through, but these should not be relied upon for navigation – the Ordnance Survey (OS) maps are best for this purpose. The relevant 1:25,000 OS map has been highlighted in the introductory text to each walk (except where the route spans two map sheets, when the 1:50,000 map is sometimes recommended instead).
An estimated time allowance has also been provided for each route – this is a rough guide only and will obviously vary according to numerous factors, including conditions underfoot, your walking speed and how many viewpoints (or pubs) you stop at along the way.
These walks are primarily circuits or return routes. Details of how to catch public transport to the start point is provided wherever possible, alongside parking information, but be aware that some regional bus services do not run particularly regularly – especially out of season. Parking areas usually cost, but National Trust members can often take advantage of National Trust–managed car parks for free.
Strong winds can occur throughout the year right across Devon. Take care around clifftops, which are very rarely fenced off and can often plunge dramatically to rocks below, just metres from the path. This is especially important when walking with children. Be sure to carry adequate warm and waterproof clothing, as well as drinking water. Mobile phone reception is patchy in the more remote areas.
Dogs are welcome on most paths, as long as they are under control and do not pose a threat to sheep, cattle or wildlife. Always look out for signage, however, as some areas (such as Seaton Wetlands) do not allow dogs due to the fragility of the ecosystem.