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Best coast walks with ‘secret’ beaches

Want the lowdown on the stunning walks, hidden coves and rock pools only locals know? Muddy tapped mountain leader Jon Barnett of Peaks & Trails for his local faves.

1/Wild Pear Beach and The Hangman Hills, Combe Martin 

Distance and difficulty: a four-mile moderate circular route, starting and finishing in the quaint holiday village of Combe Martin, nestled between the larger towns of Ilfracombe and Lynton & Lynmouth.  

Why we love it: stunning sea views throughout! It’s rolling Exmoor coast and farmland as you climb up to the head of the valley before heading back along the South West Coast Path via Great Hangman Hill and Little Hangman Hill. The latter is like a mini-me Snowdon due to its sharp triangular shape. 

Beach: when you want to cool your feet and have a paddle, look out for the signpost between Little Hangman Hill and Combe Martin to drop down a steep path to Wild Pear Beach. It’s so secluded if you want to whip your top off, people won’t bat an eyelid.

Pitstop: there are a host of good cafes at Combe Martin for your caffeine fix, but we have a soft spot for Storm in a Teacup, a cafe in a boat right by the beach.

2/Mortehoe (Woolacombe) circular walk

The Med, surely? No, it’s Barricane Beach

Distance and difficulty: a moderate circular five miler starting and finishing in the tiny village of Morthoe, taking in Bennett’s Mouth cove, Rockham Bay, Bull Point Lighthouse, Morte Point, Grunta Beach and Barricane Beach. For a short-cut, go straight to Morte Point and then on to Barricane beach which will reduce the distance by half for a less arduous walk. 

Why we love it: if Carlsberg did coastal walks, this would be up there. There are quite simply too many WOW moments to list – it’s a mini adventure! The gateway to a wild remote coastline with a rich history in wrecking and smuggling where you can escape the hordes at Woolacombe and discover real hidden coves and bays. The ridged rocks that run down to the sea at Morte Point look like a dragon’s back – one your insta feed.

Beach: it ends at the tiny locals’ beach Med-like Barricane Beach (a few hundred metres to the east of Woolacombe beach) and when the tide is up there are no waves. (You can park on the promenade for quick access or you can include in this walk.)

For a secret beach you only can access on foot, head to Grunta – tiny, secluded, sandy, and with warm sea pools when the tide is out, or Bennett’s cove, a little rocky inlet on the coastal path with a steam and a wooden bridge running down to it (it’s not signposted but Jon can help you find it).

Pitstop: the tiny beach cafe on the beach serves up amazing Sri Lankan curries – plated up and delivered to you on your beach towel – that’s service!

3/Heddon’s Mouth to Woody Bay, Exmoor Coast

Woody Bay – Pic credit Ian Mortlock

Distance and difficulty: you’re on the coast for the duration of this easy five mile circular route. Start at the National Trust-owned Heddon Valley and return to Hunter’s Inn via the lower coastal path.

Why we love it: the start point is pristine National Trust and the finish point is Exmoor beauty, hidden a classic inlet at Woody Bay. It has a sea pool tucked away, built by the Victorian and a lime kiln – if tide is out you can have a dip in the sea pool. All tucked away from the hordes.

Beach: follow the old postal route along the higher coastal path with far reaching views of the rugged Exmoor coast before arriving at Woody Bay, one of the locals’ secret hidden gems.

Pitstop: the centrepiece of Heddon Valley is the Arts & Crafts style Hunter’s Inn, fashioned like a Swiss chalet due to the landscape known as ‘Little Switzerland’ being so reminiscent of the Swiss Alps. Open everyday for sit down meals (lunch and dinner), drinks and takeaways.

4/ Instow Sands and The Secret Beach, Barnstaple Bay circular walk

The ‘secret’ beach at the far end of Instow

Distance and difficulty: Easy. Start and finish at the well-heeled estuary village of Instow for a short three-mile stroll along the golden sands of the estuary. Cross the old railway line aka the Tarka Trail and head inland to Instow church to get the best views of the whole bay. 

Why we love it: it takes you around the most perfectly placed cricket ground in the country to a secret beach favoured by locals full of washed-up driftwood and sand dunes. 

Beach: locals call it ‘the secret beach’ as most visitors stop at the main town beach but half a mile down it becomes wilder and more rugged. Very atmospheric due to the abandoned boat on the sands covered in painted graffiti and an old disused jetty.

Pitstop: amazing sunsets mean here’s known for its idyllic sundowner beach bar and restaurants The Boathouse with its upper estuary-facing deck and locals fave The Instow Arms (book in advance).  

5/The Woolacombe Downs and Dunes 

Distance and difficulty: this magnificent two mile stretch of Woolacombe’s golden sands can be seen in all its glory when high up on the Downs above the dunes. Park at Marine Parade, it’s cheaper here than in the town – best to go first thing in morning or last thing at night to be sure of a space.

Why we love it: the best viewpoint in North Devon, delivering one of the best sunsets Mother Nature can conjure. On a clear day, you can make out the Welsh coastline, along with the three main peninsulas encompassing The Golden Coast: Morte Point, Baggy Point and Hartland Point. Y

Beach: you can drop down onto Woolacombe beach at any time, you’re only ever 100m away.

Pitstop: the tiny but excellent Porthole Cafe, has a great viewpoint looking over the bay, serves up stuffed croissant, homemade cake and vegan feast boxes, so a real crowd pleaser.

Want to get the insider intel on secret beaches and walks around Devon?

Book yourself on a guided walk with Jon of Peaks & Trails . He takes walkers all over the country but has a page specially devoted to the best bits of Devon, or he will take you to a place of your choosing – a hard-to-find beach or mysterious to on Dartmoor. Just bring your boots and he will do the rest! Prices start at £30pp, kids under 16 go free.


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