Salcombe Mouth Beach was not my intended destination for GetOutside Day 2020 – I hadn’t even heard of it! I had planned to head east and inland in the hope of capturing some pretty autumn colours with my camera. However, during the drive it quickly became apparent that autumn has not really come to East Devon yet. So instead I decided to head for the coast, and explore an area I must shamefully admit that I haven’t been to before – Salcombe Hill.
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I found a route from the lay-by, where I had quickly rearranged my plans for the day, to what looked like a car park near the sea. Driving slowly through meandering, narrow lanes, I eventually found the spot, which turned out to be directly opposite the Norman Lockyear Observatory, another place I must admit I have never visited. Opening the Maps app on my iPhone, I headed for a path that seemed to go straight to the cliffs, quietly hoping to discover some interesting vistas.
Always listen to the locals
I had barely begun walking along the leafy path, when suddenly, under the branch of a tree, the view below came into sight. And my enthusiasm for suddenly seeing the stunning sea stacks of Ladram Bay must have been clearly visible upon my countenance, because an elderly gentleman came up to me and told me that he lives nearby with his wife, that they consider the South West Coast Path their front garden, and that the view that opens up under this particular tree branch never fails to impress him. He kindly told me a bit about the area as well, explaining which paths go where and saying something about a frog stone…? I thanked him and made a mental note to make sure I located this mysterious megalith.
A little further along the path, I discovered a view point with unparalleled views of the South West Coast Path. A vast stretch of the Jurassic Coast, from Otter Head in Budleigh Salterton to Jacob’s Ladder in Sidmouth was clearly visible in the late September sun. There was also a toposcope (aka an orientation table) that pointed out places like Hay Tor on Dartmoor, Danger Point near Budleigh Salterton, and Straight Point at Sandy Bay in Exmouth.
After taking even more pictures, I followed the path eastwards around the bend, keen to find the fabled Frog Stone. I found it without any problems, but it took a little while before I actually noticed it, because…
Salcombe Mouth Beach kinda stole the show
I mean, I have lived in East Devon for… Oh, I dunno, 15 years, I think? I honestly thought I knew this area and how beautiful it is. And then today I found out that I have unwittingly been living pretty much right around the corner from such a breathtaking place as this. What have I even been doing with my time all these years? Why hasn’t every person I’ve met down here told me about Salcombe Hill and Salcombe Mouth Beach?
Do you know what? I actually don’t think I am to blame for this oversight. The locals are probably keeping it on the DL, you know? I mean, you can’t even find it on Google Maps. I only found out that the beach is called Salcombe Mouth Beach because I saw the name on an old signpost at the bottom of the hill. Talk about an undiscovered gem!
It is SO steep, though!
Now, the thing is, I am NOT good with heights. I am a total sissy when it comes to taking any kind of risk, really. I’m like Ben Stiller in Along Came Polly, minus the cushy job as a professional risk analyst. Anyway. An elderly couple was sitting on a bench a few metres in front of me, so I figured it had to be safe to walk up to the edge of what looked like a ledge overhanging a sheer drop, but I did not have the courage to do it.
I cleverly camouflaged my near-paralysing fear by slowly ambling back and forth behind them. I pretended to be looking for juuust the right angle to photograph Salcombe Mouth Beach. You know. As you do. Then I noticed that a man was sitting on the hill a little further away from the cliff edge, where the slope was fractionally gentler. It looked like you could tip-toe down there with some fancy footwork if you were very careful.
Slip slidin’ away
By now you think I am exaggerating how steep it was, but nah-uh. I sat on the ‘slope’ (i.e. near vertical drop) enjoying the view of the cliff opposite and Salcombe Mouth Beach for a while, being extremely cautious every time I put down my camera because, darling, it would have been one seriously long hike to fetch it if it had rolled down the hill. Then I decided to try to take a selfie with the striking cliff in the shot behind me. (I mean, what is that cliff even called? Does anyone know? Is that a secret, too? So many questions.) I figured the safest way to do this was to lie down on my stomach (seriously, it is SO steep!), and I actually started to slide down the hill!
Under the hills and over the hills my paths led
In the end, I was too much of a scaredy-cat to attempt the steps that are right by the cliff edge and lead down the stupidly steep slope to the top secret cove. This despite the fact that I could see lots of old ladies having no problems with it whatsoever. I did get down there, though. I noticed another path that cut diagonally through the field I was slowly sliding down, and figured that there must be another way to get from the field I was in to the one below.
There was. It involved climbing a very precarious wooden fence that was lined with barbed wire. Suddenly I felt all kinds of tough and brave again. I still had to climb a few steps (also very steep) to get down to Salcombe Mouth Beach, but at least they weren’t right on the edge of the cliff, balancing on a cloud or something equally sturdy.
Salcombe Mouth Beach
What can I say about Salcombe Mouth Beach? Actually, I kind of don’t want to say anything. Just keep it all to myself, so it doesn’t get overrun with visitors. Yeah, ok, now I see how these things can happen…
To be perfectly honest, I think it must be one of the prettiest places I have ever visited. It is absolutely spectacular. This is where the red cliffs near Sidmouth start to merge into a paler, sort of amber colour, and in the distance you can see the white chalk cliffs between Branscombe and Beer. You get the whole coastal cliff colour palette here, and it really just takes your breath away.
Once you could walk here from Sidmouth, along the shore (on the low tide, mind – always check the tide times!), but since then, a cliff has collapsed and blocked the way. There has been a rock fall at the other end of the beach as well. For a while I stood in the middle of the beach, bewildered, trying to figure out which end to explore first. The rocks on the eastern end won out, because I was hoping I might catch a glimpse of the white cliffs I had spotted from the top of Salcombe Hill.
What can I say? As obsessed as I am with the red cliffs, I go gaga for the white cliffs. I guess it is because I see them so rarely, living in the ‘red zone’ as I do. So I trekked along the shingle beach, at snail’s pace, heading for the fascinating boulders on the beach and in the sea. I had spotted two people passing through there earlier, so I could tell it was possible to get through, but I wasn’t sure how safe it was, and nobody else went anywhere near that area… However, I was still in action mode after climbing that barbed wire fence, so I trudged on undeterred.
Yes, you can the white cliffs from Salcombe Mouth Beach
I was richly rewarded. You totally can see the white cliffs from here! After quickly taking a few snaps and rapidly beginning to feel that I was taking risks I really ought to be avoiding, I noticed a man making his way through the area. We got to talking, and he told me that you can walk all the way to Beer from here, if you time it right with the tides. That hike sounds absolutely epic, so it has made its way straight onto my bucket list. He also told me that the red cliffs are far more unstable than the amber and white ones, which made me feel slightly less daunted by the prospect of spending more time here.
Meanwhile, not content with having risked life and limb by clambering over boulders in a rock fall area in an attempt to get a *slightly* better angle for my photos, I decided to repeat the risky business by heading all the way over to other end of the beach to get some nice photos of the red cliffs and Sidmouth. Walking on shingle is great for your core, isn’t it? Sure it is.
Reason returning, I decided not to go all the way up to the collapsed cliff. (Ok, the real reason was that I could see there was no way I could achieve the angle I had hoped for.) I saw some cute cormorants among all the sea gulls though, so there was that.
There and back again
At this point there wasn’t really much else to do but head back up the scary steps. Because I had planned to go somewhere else entirely, I hadn’t brought enough food and drink for a prolonged stay on the beach. I had also spent over 3 hours here already, most of them faffing about trying to figure out how to get down onto the beach, and wading back and forth through deep shingle, so it was time to woman up and brave the steep climb back up to the car park.
Did I mention that Salcombe Hill is very steep?
Weirdly, the hike was no less steep when heading UP the hill. And I am totally blaming what followed on the heat. In my wisdom, I decided there MUST be a way to get from the bottom field into the top field apart from resorting to the super scary steps on the edge of the cliff. Which by now I had realised are directly above the cliff that has collapsed and blocked the beach access from Sidmouth. Yup, totally not an option.
I bumbled about for a while, looking for an alternative route, but found none. Which I refused to accept. So then I climbed that precarious wooden fence with the barbed wire for a second time. Not ideal, but far better than teetering at the edge of the cliff that all the old ladies seemed to have no problems with at all. In my defence, my balance is a little off at the moment due to an ear infection. But I’d be lying if I pretended that influenced my decision much.
Not one for the fainthearted (i.e. me)
Once I was safely back on the path that cut diagonally through the upper field, I realised I wasn’t actually very safe there at all. I cannot stress enough just how steep it is! One misstep, and you’d be tumbling down the entire hill, praying that you’ll stop rolling before you fall off the cliff and down onto the beach.
Ironically, just three steps from the top, a man nearly slammed into me – he was just a few inches away from knocking me over! I didn’t see him at first, because, you know, I was actually looking where I was going. No, I mean literally, I was very carefully watching where I was placing my feet. Maybe the steps would have been the safer option, after all. Fortunately the short walk back to my car was flat as a pancake and completely without incident. But as terrifying as the steepness of it all is, I will definitely be back. Oh, yes. I’ll be back.
Distance: 7.75 km from Salcombe Hill Road car park (probably 6 km if you use the steps)
Total time: 3h 50m (probably 1.5-2h if you don’t stop to take photographs all the time)