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The Terrifying Sea Along the Coast to Start Point

The sea has left a sobering reminder of its strength on the coast from Slapton Ley to Start Point.

Distance 6 miles (9.7km)

Minimum time 3hrs

Ascent/gradient 328ft (100m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Good coast path, 1 stile

Landscape Undulating cliffs and shingle beaches

Suggested map aqua3 OS Outdoor Leisure 20 South Devon

Start/finish SX 823420

Dog friendliness Dogs to be kept under control at all times

Parking Long stay car park at Torcross

Public toilets In Torcross, and by beach at North Hallsands

1 Follow the footpath sign over the road to turn right along the concrete promenade (a sea defence scheme from 1980). At the end ascend steep steps onto a gritty track, following coast path signs, with great views back along Slapton Ley. This, the largest natural lake in the West Country, is a haven for goldeneye, grey herons, mute swans, tufted ducks, pochards, great crested grebes, mallards, moorhens and coots, and is popular with birdwatchers. There's a good information board by the Duckery near the car park.

2 Go through a gate into a field on the cliff top, then through the next gate and along a track which drops down with spectacular views over Widdicombe Ley and Beesands. The track runs behind the beach into the village, which has a slightly forgotten feel about it. Pass the tiny St Andrew's Church and the Cricket Inn (on the right), and continue straight on, following signs for Hallsands. Follow the path as it climbs steeply up the cliff and on through a brackeny area. When North Hallsands comes into view, look carefully down to sea level to the ruined village beyond.

3 Go through the next gate and along the lower edge of the field. The beach at North Hallsands is quiet and remote, the houses across the field behind the beach were built to re-house some of the displaced villagers in 1924. Another gate leads into the next field; go through the next gate and field to reach the beach. Cross the beach to join the lane leading to Hallsands Hotel, then follow the coast path 'Start Point' up steps behind the hotel. This leads on to Trout's holiday apartments above Hallsands, former home to the indomitable Trout sisters, survivors of the devastation of 1917. Walk down to the gate above the old path to the village and look down at the ruins; there's a real feeling of desolation here.

4 Continue to follow the coast path towards Start Point. A couple of old apple trees have been blown over the path to form arches, giving an idea of the strength of the winds here. The path leads up to a stile to join the car park for Start Point and Great Mattisombe Sand, and the gate to the lighthouse. There are spectacular views back to South Hallsands and all along the length of the coast.

Visit the little village of Torcross, at the southern end of Slapton Ley, south of Dartmouth, on a sunny summer's day and it's quite impossible to believe that it could ever be anything but warm, calm and tranquil. The views south to Start Point are particularly wonderful in May, when the point shimmers under a carpet of bluebells. But on 16 January 1917 the fishing village of Hallsands just to the south was almost totally destroyed during a huge storm which smashed through the sea walls and washed the cottages away. Perhaps it was the result of extensive dredging work off the coast here between 1897 and 1902, when tons of shingle were removed for Royal Navy building work at Devonport in Plymouth. Around 1,600 tons were dredged up each day, so altering the patterns of coastal erosion. The remaining villages still suffer - Torcross sea front was badly damaged during heavy storms in 1951 and 1979.

This is a versatile walk, giving a good feel for the coastline. You can turn back at Beesands, or Hallsands, or go all the way to the lighthouse at Start Point. From the blocked-off path to ruined Hallsands village, you can still see the remains of some of the cottages. You glimpse the ruins from various points along the coast path, too.

What to look for

You'll notice an American Sherman tank in the car park, which was lost during the D-Day landing practices in 1944, and recovered from the sea in 1984. It now stands as a memorial to those American servicemen who perished during Operation Tiger, a training exercise that went tragically wrong in the early hours of 28 April 1944. Nine German torpedo boats intercepted a 3-mile (4.8km) long convoy of US vessels moving from Portland to Slapton Sands during a landing rehearsal. Two landing craft were destroyed, and two more damaged, leading to the loss of almost 1,000 lives.

Where to eat and drink

The Start Bay Inn opposite the car park is a free house and welcomes families, and there's fish and chips at Torcross too. The Cricket Inn at tucked-away Beesands has a great atmosphere, and specialises in sea food. It serves traditional ales, and has a little beer garden, but the best place to sit and relax is on the sea wall. There's a lovely garden too at Trout's, just above the remains of Hallsands village, where you can enjoy tea or excellent local ice cream en route for Start Point. There's also a seasonal beach café at North Hallsands.

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