Branscombe village is a place I have heard much about, and that I have wanted to visit for a very long time.
The other day I decided that the autumn colours simply MUST have arrived in East Devon by now! So I jumped into my car and headed east, but all the trees were still green and lush. At a loss for what to do, a brown sign caught my attention, and I took a sharp right hand turn – down into Branscombe village.
Getting to Branscombe village
It is on days like this that I don’t regret replacing my trusty van with my little Blueberry of a Ford Fiesta. Finding Branscombe village isn’t difficult, but getting there can be a little bit tricky. Why? Oh, because the village is ancient.
Wikipedia reckons the area has been populated since 2700-2000 BC. The name is apparently a composite of the Welsh words Bran and cwm, meaning black valley. (The locals are of a different opinion, and say the name means Branoc’s Valley.)
Anyway, as you can probably imagine, getting to an ancient village in a valley by the sea involves navigating narrow and winding country roads. Then there’s the issue of parking. Branscombe is a pretty big village, not in terms of population, but because it is so spread out. It is actually believed to be the longest village in the country!
There are three main car parks, one belonging to the National Trust (tiny and full, even in autumn), a slightly bigger one at the village hall, and a big one down by the beach.
I hadn’t planned on visiting the beach – in fact, I hadn’t planned on going to Branscombe village today at all – so I opted for the first free space I found, which was by the village hall. Which was kind of brilliant, and almost worth the trip in itself. Because when was the last time you paid for parking by throwing money into a wishing well?
The Forge, The Bakery and Manor Mill
Much of Branscombe village, including The Forge, The Bakery and Manor Mill, is owned by The National Trust. This goes to show just how pretty and historically important the village is.
The Forge was my first stop, as it is located right next to Branoc Hall. It is believed to be the only thatched working forge left in the country, and it has been running for 400 years now.
Next, I headed the The Old Bakery Tea Room, which unfortunately was closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. So was Manor Mill, but I decided to follow the pretty path anyway. That way I at least got to see the outside of the two National Trust properties.
St. Winifred’s Church
Branscombe village is also home to a lovely church dedicated to St. Winifred, which is another Welsh connection. Saint Winifred was a Welsh virgin martyr in the 7th century, but she became popular in England in the 12th century. Which sorta kinda tallies with the only year I could find inside the church to date it – the first vicar started working there in 1269.
Eager to find out if the church really dates from the 13th century, I googled it when I got home. Turns out it is much older than that. According Wikipedia, it was built between 1133 and 1160, but probably dates back to 995! Whoa! There is also some archaeological evidence that may suggest there was a Saxon church on the spot before that. Told you Branscombe village is ancient.
The church is tucked away in a pretty little dell. It is theorised that the original Saxon church was deliberately located there in order to protect it from invading Vikings. I run into my ancestors everywhere.
Anyway, did I mention that Branscombe village is really pretty?
Here is just a small selection of the many gorgeous buildings in this long but tiny village (population 507 in 2011).
How to get to Branscombe Beach
If you follow the path along from Manor Mill, you can walk all the way down to the beach – normally. The circular walk of the village, including the beach, takes 1,5 hours and must be one of the prettiest walks in Britain. Unfortunately, on this day it was closed due to repaving work.
That’s just one of the risks of visiting places like this in the off-season, I guess. Having got almost to the beach, but not quite, and then been redirected back inland, I decided to drive down to the beach car park instead.
I was worried about how narrow the road might be (and it is, it really is), but I was lucky and didn’t meet any oncoming cars. I parked in the car park (and had a bit of an argument with the parking meter – I mean, I make my living online, but that meter was too high-tech for me. (Not really, I won the argument eventually.)
I then walked back up the road a little bit. I wanted to explore a property I spotted on the way down that had a National Trust sign outside. It turned out to be a B&B called Great Seaside Farm. I certainly wouldn’t mind spending a few nights there!
I then tried following a path that went from the B&B towards the cliffs. That turned out to be an excellent decision. Because that is how I discovered that you can join the South West Coast Path here. And that not only can you drive all the way to the cliff edge… you can rent a chalet and stay right on the beach!
Since I hadn’t planned to go exploring, I was carrying a heavy satchel with my computer in it. (Urgent deadlines aren’t a problem when you can work anywhere that has a phone signal!) This wasn’t ideal for hiking, though. Instead of trying to get to the clifftop, I did the sensible thing and walked down the hill to the beach instead. The view did not disappoint.
There was hardly anyone around, so I spent ages photographing the oddly fascinating orange fishing boat and just soaking up the relaxing atmosphere. It is true what they say – life is better at the beach!
An environmental disaster
If the name Branscombe sounds familiar, it may be because it was on the news a lot back in 2007, when the MSC Napoli was deliberately beached there. Yes, they actually decided to beach a ship in the middle of The Jurassic Coast, Britain’s first natural UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Jurassic Coast is the only place on Earth where you can see 185 million years of geological history played out in the cliffs. East Devon is also an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It doesn’t seem an obvious choice of location for an oil spillage.
Approximately 1000 birds were sent to the RSPCA for treatment. Only six hundred of them recovered to be released again. The ship spilled roughly 300 tonnes of oil, most of which was carried by the tide to other beaches further east, as far as 30 km away. A total of 114 containers fell off the ship, but only 80 of them washed ashore.
The wrecking revival
It is estimated that 200 people decided to revive Devon’s long tradition for wrecking, aka marine salvage, and numerous more came to watch. Seventeen BMW motorcycles, nappies, perfumes and car parts that washed up on shore were all scavenged. The medical waste not so much. This is technically not illegal, provided you report what you find to the Receiver of Wreck. If you don’t, it is equivalent to stealing.
The police initially turned a blind eye, but soon threatened to enforce powers they hadn’t used for 100 years in order to make people return the goods they had scavenged.
Nine months after the beaching of the MSC Napoli, the people who had reported their finds were informed that they could keep them. The salvage and wreck removal continued until July 2009. The cleanup and salvage costs plus loss of vessel and cargo added up to £120 million. At the time, it was the second most expensive wreckage in maritime history.
Anyway, history lesson over. At this point it was getting quite late, and the tide was coming in (always, always check the tide!). That meant I didn’t have time to walk all the way to Hooken Cliffs. I had no idea you could access them from Branscombe. I thought you had to go to Beer village for that!
For now though, I was content to just enjoy the scenery and slowly amble back to the car park before it got dark and the meter ran out.
Bye-bye, Branscombe – I will definitely be back.