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10 secrets of the South West Coast Path

PUBLISHED: 11:45 15 August 2016 | UPDATED: 12:14 15 August 2016

Rhododendrons near County Gate

Rhododendrons near County Gate

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To mark the release of a book celebrating the history of the South West Coast Path, author Ruth Luckhurst shares top 10 secrets along the route

Hangman Grits at GlenthorneHangman Grits at Glenthorne

1. Glenthorne Beach

400 million years ago, Somerset was on a continent known as the Old Red Sandstone landmass and lay 10° south of the Equator. Large rivers flowing across extensive plains washed sediments from the red mountains lying inland, forming Exmoor and the Quantocks. County Gate’s Glenthorne Beach shows fine exposures of the red Hangman Grits that underlie Exmoor’s “hogsback” hills.

Coastal woodlandCoastal woodland

2. Porlock Bay

Waves pounding Glenthorne’s cliffs dashed massive boulders to the beach, smashing them together as it swept them into Porlock Bay. Over time the bay filled with shingle, which was continually redistributed by the waves, so that the sea flowed repeatedly inland. After numerous failed attempts to prevent flooding, the decision was taken to let the sea in. International experts watched, amazed, as the waves sculpted a better barrier than people ever had, and today the marshland behind is a haven for rare wildlife.

Culbone Church Saxon windowCulbone Church Saxon window

3. Bury Castle Iron Age Hillfort

The last storms to breach Porlock’s shingle bank, in 1996, uncovered the bones of the famous Porlock Aurochs, from the Bronze Age, when people were settling on the high heathland above the coast. Numerous cairns and barrows where they buried their dead can still be seen around Selworthy Beacon. The defensive hillfort of Bury Castle was built nearby in the Iron Age that followed.

Porlock BayPorlock Bay

4. Coastal Woodland

As natural climate change melted Britain’s ice sheets, around 10,000 years ago, rising sea levels drowned the wildwood stretching between Exmoor and Wales. Fossilised tree remains can be seen at Porlock and Minehead at very low tides. Today the Exmoor cliffs sport the longest stretch of coastal woodland in England and Wales. Sheltered from prevailing winds, on hillsides too steep and remote for cultivation, this woodland is very similar to the original wildwood and has been designated a SSSI for its plant diversity. Varieties of whitebeam growing here are unique to Exmoor.

Wind & Weather HutWind & Weather Hut

5. Culbone Church Saxon Window

Culbone’s coastal woodland is so remote and the terrain so challenging that throughout history outcasts have been banished here. St Beuno’s Church was founded in the Dark Ages by a Welsh missionary, one of many Celtic saints landing on the south west coastline to stem the rising tide of paganism. Today England’s smallest church still in use (and the setting for the filmed version of Lorna Doone’s fated wedding) is a refurbishment of a refurbishment of the original chapel, but one window still remains from the early Saxon church.

Map of 10 pointsMap of 10 points

6. Burgundy Chapel

The crumbling remains of another chapel overlook the Bristol Channel from a plunging hillside near Minehead. The Luttrells of Dunster Castle built the Burgundy Chapel on North Hill, probably in thanksgiving for the safe return of a family member from a 15th-century expedition to Burgundy following the Hundred Years War. Archaeologists found the remains of an older building inside the chapel walls, possibly the Bircombe Chapel named in Dunster documents at the start of the century.

7. St Peter’s Chapel

St Peter’s fishermen’s chapel in Minehead was also built in thanksgiving – along with the town’s almshouses – after merchant and churchwarden Robert Quirke survived a storm at sea in the 17th century. Contemporary Ma Leakey’s son had less cause for gratitude, as his “Whistling Ghost” mother hung around the Mermaid Inn and whistled up a storm every time he entered the port.

8. Selworthy Wind and Weather Hut

Storms never deterred Holnicote’s Sir Thomas Acland from walking around his 19th-century estate, where he and his son laid out forty miles of walks, and the family built Bossington Hill’s Wind and Weather Hut to commemorate his Sunday strolls on the hill. They also erected a memorial cross in the woodland below, which he had planted in blocks to celebrate the birth of each of his children. Holnicote’s Katherine’s Well and Agnes Fountain are also thought to be named after daughters of the family.

9. Ashley Combe Tunnels

Porlock’s Lady Ada Lovelace (Lord Byron’s daughter) was also given to architectural flamboyance in Ashley Combe. She had Swiss mountaineers dig tunnels to provide privacy when she descended to her beach below, and her terraced gardens were the scene of her many learned conversations with Victorian computer geek Charles Babbage. Lady Ada – who translated maths papers from Italian – is credited with devising the world’s first software.

10. Moor Wood Tank Ramps

During World War Two North Hill was extensively used as a tank training area. The ramps used for unloading tanks can still be seen in Minehead’s Moor Wood, as can the ‘dragon’s teeth’ set in the hillside to act as brakes, and a radar hut. The high road to Porlock was built to give the tanks access to Bossington Hill, where tracks and moving targets provided training facilities. Cobble-clad pillboxes on the Porlock shoreline below helped defend the Bristol Channel.

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