Walk: Rocks and Wrecks, Ilfracombe, North Devon
A curse for ships’ crews and cargo, the rugged North Devon coast was a blessing for ‘Gentlemen of the Night’ bringing in their ill-gotten gains, says Tor McIntosh
Brandy, gin, salt, tea and, er… playing cards were just some of the goods smuggled onto the North Devon coast during the late 18th and early 19th century. The secluded beaches were a favourite of smugglers, or ‘Gentlemen of the Night’, looking to avoid the import duties levied on wares from overseas.
This rugged coastline is a popular stretch of the South West Coast Path. But unknown to the many walkers that admire it, the surrounding landscape has a rich history
of smuggling and the often barbaric practice of ‘wrecking’.
The walk starts from Verity, Damien 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 Beaches where an impressive network of hand-carved tunnels – once used as smugglers’ caves – leads to a tidal Victorian bathing pool.
At the top of Torrs Walk turn right on to 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.
The names of the cliffs that the path crosses bear witness to the area’s smuggling past: Brandy Cove Point, Breakneck Point and, a little further on, Damage Rock. The path, which becomes a minor road as it descends steeply into Lee, is the old coach path between Ilfracombe and Lee.
2. Lookout point
The small village of Lee, nestled in a remote and rugged combe, was home to the 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, managed
to evade conviction.
Lee is a good spot for a rest. The suitably named seafront café Smuggler’s Cottage is perfect for buying an ice cream before a paddle on the sheltered beach, which is a rockpooling haven at low tide.
Leave Lee Bay following the road past the café and uphill to reach a gate on your right signposted to Damage Cliffs and the path to Woolacombe. Not long after joining it, a stile on your right leads to a detour down a steep flight of steps to Sandy Cove, a secluded spot where smugglers secretly landed their contraband.
One of the caves above the cove is where Richards set up his lookout 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.
3. To the lighthouse
From Sandy Cove the coast path becomes a bit like a roller-
coaster, with steep steps that
lead in and out of valleys all the way to Bull Point lighthouse.
The geology along this section is stunning and terrifying in equal measure. Stretching from Lee all the way to Woolacombe are near-vertical shards of slate, known as the Morte Slates, sculpted by the elements and the pounding sea into jagged rocks jutting out of the water. These vicious rocks are to blame for the staggering number of shipwrecks in the area. From 1816 to 1918 there were over
50 wrecked or stranded ships here, which led locals to plead for a lighthouse at Bull Point that was finally built in 1879.
Continue following the waymarked coast path as it winds up and down along cliff-tops carpeted with wild flowers to arrive at Rockham Bay, the resting place of SS Collier, which was shipwrecked in January 1914; its remains can be seen at low tide.
Then 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, but is also a great perch for spotting Atlantic grey seals.
4. Pigs and pitchforks
It’s not long before you reach Morte Point (meaning “death point”), a distinctive 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 area’s reputation as a ship graveyard encouraged another sinister local pastime: wrecking (luring ships into dangerous waters). Mortehoe village was a base for wreckers and home to Elizabeth Berry, infamous for drowning shipwrecked sailors with a pitchfork (locals couldn’t claim a wrecked ship’s cargo unless its crew was dead).
Leaving Morte Point, the route follows the coastline along a grassy path past Grunta Beach, named after a cargo of pigs from a wrecked ship that swam ashore here. The path climbs up a steep hill to a gate leading on to a road.
4. Complete beach
Turn right for a downhill walk to an esplanade where the coast path follows a strip of grass to Woolacombe and its expansive surf-pounded, white-sand beach, which regularly tops polls as Britain’s best. From here you can catch a bus back to Ilfracombe.
Tor McIntosh is a freelance writer and photographer specialising in travel, nature and outdoor adventure.