When the Brunel-designed South Devon Railway opened in the 1840s, it brought sea-side tourism to everyone and became one of the riskiest yet most scenic train journeys in the country. The train track remains to this day, but only just. Enjoy it while you can.
With the advent of the industrial revolution and the spread of railways, resorts such as Dawlish Warren and Teignmouth developed and became popular holiday destinations in the Victorian era. People could reach South Devon and the English Riviera easily and quickly by train – and they still can.
You will not believe how close the train track is to the sea just south of Exeter. At times, when the tide is in, a waist-high wall is all that comes between rolling stock and crashing waves, and at others there is not even a wall, just a footpath and a metal railing. You can normally walk between Dawlish and Dawlish Warren along this path, part of the South West Coast Path – great for train-spotters. However, just outside Dawlish, a small section is currently closed for repairs so you will be directed inland.
Nowadays, First Great Western operates trains from London Paddington to Penzance, Cross Country trains head for the same destination all the way from Aberdeen, while two-carriage local trains trundle past on the Riviera Line, shuttling between Exeter Central and Paignton, stopping at resorts on the way.
It was made on the cheap, and being so close to the sea and soft easily erodible sandstone cliffs there was bound to be the inevitable disaster.
In February 2014, major storms in this part of the world wrecked the train line at Dawlish, as waves crashed onto the tracks and swept the sea wall away. The line was closed for two months meaning Cornwall and all points south were cut-off from the rest of the country and could only be reached by bus. The tracks and sea wall have been repaired, but for how long? In the long-run, there is only going to be one winner in this battle – the sea. Network Rail are investigating alternative solutions for a railway to Cornwall.
If you tire of the train, take a daytrip by boat to the resort town of Exmouth, across the Exe Estuary. Take the Riviera Line to the romantically named Starcross, and then get the hourly fifteen-minute ferry (£5.50 return) from the pontoon practically on the railway platform.
A walk along Exmouth’s promenade backing onto its sandy beach will take you to Orcombe Point, where the red cliffs mark the western starting point of the Jurassic Coast walk to Swanage in Dorset – a pilgrimage for fossil hunters.
Back on the Starcross side of the estuary, and a few minutes walk south of the station, you will find the less romantically named village of Cockwood. Scenic village pub lovers will be in heaven at The Anchor Inn – a gorgeous little boozer on the twisty Dawlish Warren Road, with a view of fishing boats bobbing in the harbour from the roadside beer garden.
It’s a busy place, and I reckon everyone who goes past it – whether by train, car, bike or on foot – stops for a pint and photo.
Cockwood once had a thriving fishing harbour, but the coming of the railway put paid to that, as the train line cuts across it on a man-made causeway, blocking access to the sea. A tidal lake remains, with a tiny gap under the causeway for boats (and swans) to venture out. When the tide is out, boats are stuck to the mud, but when the tide is in I challenge you t find a prettier pub in England.
Despite being intrinsically linked to the railways, the Exe Estuary is an important ecological area, especially around our base for the week, Dawlish Warren – a huge spit of sand which has been awarded a Blue Flag for its beach.
There are 14 wooden groynes which are needed to protect the beach from coastal erosion. Beyond the sand are grassy dunes and the Dawlish Warren National Nature Reserve. Rare migrating birds settle here, and ponies are brought in from Dartmoor to graze and prevent the area from becoming overgrown. We couldn’t find any ponies, but we did see dozens of ugly giant jellyfish washed up on the beach. Overfishing has led to a lack of predators to eat baby jellyfish, so they grow and grow – there is currently a swarm of the things off south west England.
One downside to the advent of the railway down here is that you might not get the best night’s sleep if your accommodation is close to the tracks. Our static caravan on a holiday park shook every time a fast train whizzed past, and we could have done without the drivers blaring their horns just to let us know they were coming.