A Sudden Escape

Sometimes it is good to plan and sometimes it is good to be spontaneous. I certainly have proved the latter in the past few days by surprising my family when announcing that I thought I would spend a couple of days away in Sidmouth. “When are you thinking of coming down?” my sister had asked. “Now,” was my response, “can you provide a bed?” I arrived a few hours later.

Sidmouth, a small, Regency resort on the south coast of Devon lies about 170 miles to the south-west of the Cotswolds. Devon, along with Somerset and Cornwall, are three English counties collectively known as “The West Country” and a prime tourist destination. A long peninsula reaching out into the Atlantic Ocean, it has many spectacular cliffs and sandy beaches and these, combined with a benign climate, make it the place where many Brits go for their summer holidays. Inland, it is a country of traditional farming, fast-flowing streams and open moorland and remains one of the few areas where it is possible to roam freely without too many restrictions. It is also home to several National Parks and long-distance footpaths.

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Sidmouth came to prominence during the 1800s when in 1819 the Duke of Kent came to stay with his young child, Victoria. During this stay he died yet despite this inauspicious start the small fishing village became a fashionable place to visit. Later, after Victoria ascended the throne, she gifted to the church a memorial window which in recent times has been restored, partly funded by a further gift by our present Queen. Much of old Sidmouth is now a conservation area and buildings along the Esplanade, the seafront road, are classic examples of those built during this time.

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The Esplanade

Like many coastal towns, Sidmouth is at the mercy of winter storms and with no natural sheltered harbour to protect it, when the sea batters the town it suffers, although not as badly as might be expected. However, it is the exposed sandstone cliffs that bare the brunt of these storms. Erosion is a real and constant threat and the red cliffs of Salcombe Hill are constantly crumbling. A number of houses are at serious risk of collapse in the forthcoming years. The cliffs form part of the Jurassic Coast, a World Heritage Site, renowned for its rock formations and fossils.

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Not there for much longer…

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Modern fossils!

Away from the crumbling cliff, there are two beaches. The Town Beach is of pebbles, reinstated after a 1990s storm washed it away. It is now protected by manmade rocky outcrops. At the far end of town is Jacob’s Ladder beach, so-named after the series of zig-zag wooden steps that lead down to it from the clifftop. This beach is a combination of sand and shingle. Both beaches are popular in the summer when the water is warmer; now, in February, the sea looks less inviting.

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Jacob’s Ladder Beach in midsummer

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The Town Beach in February

The mild, coastal climate protects many semi-tender plants which further inland would suffer damage from frosts. Connaught Gardens, a public space that date from the 1820s, are a riot of colour during the summer months and each year a number of private gardens also open to the public under the National Gardens Scheme.  Although these can be lovely, for me the jewel in Sidmouth’s crown is the area of natural parkland known as The Byes. A 2km green corridor that follows the course of the Sid river, it has a good path network, some outstanding trees as well as wildflower meadows. It is a good place to spot wild birds such as kingfishers and dippers. Popular with residents, it seems less well-known to visitors.

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The Connaught Gardens in midsummer

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The Byes

During the first week of August, at the height of the tourist season, the Sidmouth Folk Festival takes place. First held in 1955, it attracts some of the top names in the country. Apart from the listed acts, others sit around the seafront playing and busking, greatly adding to the atmosphere. When it all proves too much, there is always the opportunity to sit on a deckchair and take a nap in the summer sun.

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Fiddling on the beach

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A Walk Along the River Otter: part 1

The River Otter although not long in length – barely 20 miles from its source in the Blackdown Hills to the sea – is rich in wildlife. Mostly flowing through Devon, in Britain’s West Country, it rises just over the border in the county of Somerset. Passing through rich and fertile farmland it enters the English Channel at Budleigh Salterton where its estuary is protected from the sea by a large pebble bank. It is here that this walk begins.
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The mudflats, reedbeds and adjoining fields are all part of a relatively small nature reserve, backed by the town on one side and high red sandstone cliffs to the other. The whole area forms part of a World Heritage site for it is part of the English coastline known as the Jurassic Coast, famous for its rock formations, clear water and abundant fossils. The underlying stone of the Otter valley holds one of the most important aquifers in England supplying drinking water to 200,000 people (source: Wikipedia, where else do we go for this sort of infortmation?!).
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The birdlife, especially at this time of year as migration takes place, is spectacular. In my excitement in trying out my new telephoto lens, I forgot to take general views of the coastline and town. However, as tourism plays such an important part of the Devon economy, it is easy to visit and stay locally – it is well worth adding to your ‘places to visit’ list.
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There is no public access to the mudflats which means that the birds are relatively undisturbed. However, there are good footpaths along the edges and also hides, where it is possible to view the wildlife with the aid of good binoculars or camera. The Little Egret, below, was a rare visitor to England until very recently. Now, although still not often seen, they are more frequent and breed here. We have even had them occasionally visit us in the secret valley. The Canada Goose also was once a rare escapee from wildfowl collections – now they are seen everywhere and are one of our commonest geese.
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Glossy Ibis are an extreme rarity and thirteen had arrived here earlier a few days ago. If they were about they remained hidden from view. Strutting about – and unaware of how comical they look when away from water were a pair of Bar-tailed Godwits. These birds breed in Scandinavia and the Arctic and thousands pass through Britain on the migration back south with a few staying all year round but never breeding. Despite their numbers they are easily missed so being able to photograph this one was a real treat!
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Of all the birds to be seen that day, none were so plentiful yet so beautiful as this Mediterranean Gull. Or, at least, that is what I think it is. Living as I do, as far inland as is possible in the British Isles, my seabird identification skills are not as good as they might be. No matter, it had a grace unlike the majority of the gull family, yet I don’t think it was a tern. I wait to be corrected.
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