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Devon coastal walk: Start Point and South West Coast Path

Start Point from the east, the lighthouse 'a 150-year-old beacon of protection' (c) Beth Richardson
Start Point from the east, the lighthouse 'a 150-year-old beacon of protection' (c) Beth Richardson

Start Point is a good start point. From the promontory looking north, the departing rain is rushed away on the lunchtime wind, unveiling sections of Start Bay in turn. The outline of Hallsands, the abandoned village reclaimed by the sea - and seemingly by the cliffs - is ghostly in the grey gloom. The dredging for shingle a century ago decided its destiny. Beyond, Blackpool Sands is luminous, crowned by lush canopy holding on to the last low-lying clouds. On the furthest reach of land, the Daymark at Kingswear looms out of the fading mist to declare the Dart’s mouth.

No crowds. In fact, no other walkers at all. Just a kestrel, blurred in the vapour-laden haze, hovering above us. With a wide tail, he braces expertly against the bluster, dodging imaginary bullets with all his body but his head which is fixed on the bracken below. No warning and he changes shape, wings tucked. He swoops low, like a fast jet, disappearing against the feathered tapestry of burnished gold. Catching an updraft above the cliff, he veers skywards, using the wind as a break to resume his hover.

Great British Life: Exploring Start Point along the South West Coast Path (c) Beth RichardsonExploring Start Point along the South West Coast Path (c) Beth Richardson

I close my eyes, inhale deeply and roll my shoulders, more weight gone with every shrug. Turning west, my eyelids are translucent in the growing glare. Descending along the fringes of the cliffhanging field, we pass a weathered mob of sheep towards the Point. The lighthouse, with a new coat, glows in the promised sun. This 150-year-old beacon of protection has flashed its warning every night since 1836.

Turning our back on the blaze of bracken, we leave the formality of Tarmac to scramble steeply up. Above the tower, we are suddenly tall against its 28 metres. Balancing on its dragon-like spine we peer down the peninsula to its tip, named Start from an Anglo-Saxon word for ‘tail’.

Great British Life: A skerry of seals appears from the shadow a few metres offshore (c) Beth RichardsonA skerry of seals appears from the shadow a few metres offshore (c) Beth Richardson

We ramble along the rubbly cut that traverses the carpet of cropped, tight grass. Dropping away, white froth hems the furthest reaching rocks coming into view. The cliff’s outposts, innocent in these calmer seas, are dotted with drip-drying cormorants and their excremental stripes. The sound below is stolen by the wind ‘shushing’ in our ears. Only the complaining calls of the gulls gliding above reach us.

The up and down of the path rhymes with the heave and roll of the slow-motion swell. My steps, then my breaths, sync with the beat, undulating in unison like a magical metronome. Only broken by the buffets and gusts that chivvy and halt us in time with another tune. I bask in the breeze. It whispers in my ears and dances hair around my face. For a moment, nothing man-made is in view.

A pelmet of smoky cloud hangs above the sea. Kaleidoscopic sunbeams spotlight the ocean in celestial circles, my gaze following theirs. I eagerly dart from one to another checking every white wave top for life. A column of light makes land in front of us. Iridescent velveteen moss gleams next to the muted winter hues. I hurriedly trip down the stone stairs to step onto the green. I sink into the spongey thatch, giving and sumptuous underfoot. I imagine the platform in summer – a welcome break for walkers, a picturesque picnic spot, a comfy wild camp. Springing forwards, we look down into bubbling pools begging to be explored. The overhang’s eroded edges expose chocolate trifle-like layers of ages. As the sun refocuses, a skerry of seals appears from the shadow a few metres offshore. Satin dry backs glisten as they slumber idly, digesting their meals.

Great British Life: The sheltered seclusion of Mattiscombe Sands rises up to greet us from below (c) Beth RichardsonThe sheltered seclusion of Mattiscombe Sands rises up to greet us from below (c) Beth Richardson

The shade shifts once again, highlighting the route out of our amphitheatre. Back on the hard trail, another nook turns our backs on the open sea. We circle inland to sudden stillness. Heat smarts our cheeks. Our ears open, free of percussion. The rapid gunfire of a wren’s warning, no doubt aimed at us, is soon silenced by my approaching curiosity.

Miles of westerly coast path uncurl ahead through fields checkered with cattle and wild scrub. Pushed closer to the edge, the sheltered seclusion of Mattiscombe Sands rises up to greet us from below. A perfect arc of ombre beiges crowned by salt-licked boulders that only a spring tide would touch.

The beachbound ripples meet the spent waves ruffling on the waterline, no longer reaching the morning’s delivery of seaweed and detritus. A detour invites us down to sea level. Finally. The freshest salt hits the back of my throat, jump starting my senses. The clouds free the sun and I am on summer holiday again. A cold stream wending a way off the hill behind trickles a route to the sea. I pocket the odd bit of plastic and admire an old egg case amongst the deposits on the high tide mark.

Familiar fences and signposts herd us away from the coast. Yet, still the path is our own. In and out the hedges, chestnut breasts abound in choral chaos. Busy cirl buntings welcome us away from the wildness, flitting in garlands along the gorse bushes lining our route. Never stopping long enough to get a good look. A grassy groove softens our steps as we gently catch cowpats and methane on the breeze. Curious auburn heifers peer half-heartedly through a break in the blackthorn as the grey darkens once again overhead. Passing through a weighted gate, we end back at the Start.

Great British Life: I pocket the odd bit of plastic and admire an old egg case amongst the deposits on the high tide mark (c) Beth RichardsonI pocket the odd bit of plastic and admire an old egg case amongst the deposits on the high tide mark (c) Beth Richardson

About Beth

Beth Richardson is a Sussex-based nature and travel writer.
Having grown up overseas and spent annual childhood visits to the UK with relatives in the West Country, she has been a regular summer visitor to Devon for over 40 years.
With dreams of moving to Devon, and with her own children growing up fast, she and her husband have started visiting their favourite county in autumn and winter to enjoy its beauty during the quieter months.
Inspired by reading Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path, their walk around Start Point marked their first exploration of this section of the South West Coast Path.
 



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