In the footsteps of smugglers

A curse for ships' crews and cargo, the rugged North Devon coast was a blessing for smugglers bringing in their ill-gotten gains. We follow in their footsteps along a stretch of the South West Coast Path.

By Tor McIntosh

Rockham Beach: the resting place of SS Collier, shipwrecked in 1914

Rockham Beach: the resting place of SS Collier, shipwrecked in 1914

Starting point: Ilfracombe harbour (OS Grid Ref: SS 52604 47850)
Distance: 13km / 8 miles
Grade: moderate
Time: 3.5 hours

Brandy, gin, salt, tea and, er… playing cards are some of the illicit goods smuggled into secluded beaches on the North Devon coast by menacing smugglers – or Gentlemen of the Night, as they liked to call themselves – during the late 18th and early 19th century. This wild and rugged coastline is a popular stretch of the South West Coast Path, but unknown to many walkers that admire its dramatic beauty it has a rich history of smuggling and the often-barbaric practice of “wrecking”.

The walk starts from Verity, Damian Hurst’s imposing statue at the end of Ilfracombe Harbour. Follow Capstone Road a short way before turning right to pass around Capstone Point. Climb a flight of stairs behind the curiously shaped Landmark Theatre to reach the start of Torrs Walk, a waymarked route cut into the cliffs. For a brief diversion follow the signs to Tunnels Beach where an impressive network of hand-carved tunnels – once used as smugglers’ caves – lead to a tidal Victorian bathing pool.

At the top of Torrs Walk turn right onto the coast path signposted for Lee to follow a grass track across Severn Hills. From here on the route tracks the waymarked South West Coast Path – follow the acorn symbol – to the walk’s end at Woolacombe. As the path crosses high cliffs many of their names bear witness to the area’s connections with smuggling and wrecking: Brandy Cove Point, Breakneck Point and, a little further on, Damage Rock. The path, which starts as a track but later becomes a minor road as it descends steeply into Lee, is the old coach path between Ilfracombe and Lee.

The small village of Lee, nestled in a remote and rugged coombe, is known for its fuschias that set the hedgerows ablaze with scarlet flowers during the flowering season, as well as an infamous smuggler, Hannibal Richards. Originally a member of the notorious Cruel Coppinger’s smuggling gang from North Cornwall, Richards moved to Lee in 1789, and despite a number of close encounters with authorities he amazingly managed to evade conviction. Three miles into the walk Lee is a good spot for some mid-walk sustenance. On the seafront is a suitably named café, Smuggler's Cottage, to buy an ice cream before heading for a paddle on the sheltered rocky beach, where at low tide it’s a haven for rockpooling.

Leave Lee Bay following the road past Smuggler's Cottage and uphill to reach a gate on your right signposted to Damage Cliffs and the coast path to Woolacombe. Not long after joining the coastal path a stile on your right leads to a detour down a steep flight of steps to Sandy Cove, a secluded cove where smugglers secretly landed their contraband. One of the caves above the cove is where Hannibal Richards set up his look-out point, and where the lucky smuggler hid when the rest of his gang were captured during a raid. While exploring this hidden beach it is easy to conjure up visions of midnight landings and catch the smell of brandy and rum.

From Sandy Cove the coast path becomes a bit like a rollercoaster, with steep steps leading into and out of valleys until you reach Bull Point lighthouse. The geology along this section of coastline is stunning and terrifying in equal measures. Stretching from Lee all the way to Woolacombe are near-vertical shards of slate, known as the Morte Slates, that have been sculptured by the elements and the pounding sea into jagged rocks jutting out of the seabed. It’s these vicious rocks that are to blame for the staggering number of shipwrecks in the area. Between 1816 and 1918 there were over 50 wrecked or stranded ships, which led locals to plead for a lighthouse at Bull Point, which was finally built in 1879.

Continue following the waymarked coast path as it winds up and down along cliff-tops carpeted with maritime wild flowers to arrive at Rockham Beach, the resting place of SS Collier, which was shipwrecked in January 1914; its remains can be seen at low tide. For fans of Tarka the Otter, this hidden beach will be familiar as the location in Williamson’s novel where the intrepid otter picks up the scent of his mate, White-tip. After Rockham Beach there’s a steep climb up steps as the path continues to hug the dramatic coastline. A well-positioned bench overlooking Whiting Cove provides an agreeable rest spot with views back towards Bull Point lighthouse, and a great perch for spotting Atlantic grey seals bobbing in the sea below.

It’s not long before you reach Morte Point (meaning “death point”), a distinctive jagged ridge protruding into Morte Bay. Lying just off Morte Point is the deadly Morte Stone, where eight ships were wrecked or stranded in a single day on 26 October 1859; the areas reputation as a graveyard for ships encouraged another sinister local pastime, wrecking. The small village of Morthoe, ¾ mile from Morte Point, was a base for wreckers and home to Elizabeth Berry, who was infamous for gruesomely drowning shipwrecked sailors with a pitchfork. As you round the Point you’re greeted with panoramic views across the sweep of Woolacombe Sand to Baggy Point in the middle distance and Hartland Point in the far distance.

Leaving Morte Point the path continues to follow the coastline along a grassy path past Grunta Beach, humorously named after a ship was wrecked off Morte Point and its cargo of pigs escaped ashore, before climbing up a steep grassy hill to a gate leading onto a road. Turn right for a downhill walk to an esplanade where the coast path follows a strip of grass to reach Woolacombe and its expansive surf-pounded, white-sand beach, which regular tops polls as Britain’s best beach. From here you can catch a bus back to Ilfracombe.

Part 1 of the route along the South West Coast Path from Ilfracombe (Map: Ordnance Survey)

Part 1 of the route along the South West Coast Path from Ilfracombe (Map: Ordnance Survey)

Part 2 of the route along the South West Coast Path to Woolacombe (Map: Ordnance Survey)

Part 2 of the route along the South West Coast Path to Woolacombe (Map: Ordnance Survey)

This feature was originally published in the Great Days Out section of BBC Countryfile Magazine, August 2016.

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