top of page

Swimming into the sublime

Sophie Pierce, co-author of a new guide to Exmoor and North Devon’s best walks with swims, shares the joy of immersing into the West Country’s wild waters

It is a beautifully hot day and the tide is in at Watermouth Bay, near Ilfracombe. The sea is flat, turquoise and incredibly inviting as we climb down a set of little ancient steps that someone carved into the rock in years past. We plunge into the crystal-clear water and swim out along the rocky walls of the bay, to a little islet called Sexton’s Burrow. There we find a secret lagoon, where we float in the quiet blue stillness.

Experiences like these are why I love swimming in the great outdoors.  Somehow, in the water, I feel as though I’ve crossed over into another, otherworldly dimension.  It is a metaphysical experience: the boundaries of my body seem to dissolve and, released from the pull of gravity, I am weightless, paused in time and space, absorbing the colours, textures and sounds. It is the perfect antidote to the stress and noise of the modern world.  In the summer, with a snorkel, the experience is even more magical, as an alluring underwater world of brightly coloured seaweeds, rocks, anemones, and fish opens up below. And the wonderful thing is that this is all to be experienced in the incredible landscapes of the West Country – no need to go abroad.

There is also the pure joy of exploration, which takes you back to a child-like wonder at finding new places and being lost in the journey. The swim described above is just one of many in my new book, Wild Swimming Walks Exmoor and North Devon, which I’ve written with Matt Newbury. This is our fifth book; we’ve also written guides to Cornwall, Dartmoor, Torbay, and Dorset. We’ve been writing together for over a decade, and have known eachother much longer than that. We first became friends because of our shared interest in outdoor swimming, which back then was still rather a niche activity.  If you were spotted having a dip during the winter months for example, the usual response was “are you mad?”; whereas now it seems everyone’s doing it: visit any local beach at any time of year and you will find a band of Dryrobe-clad enthusiasts taking to the water with gusto and eating large quantities of cake afterwards.  Swimming outdoors is not just a mystical, sensual experience, but is also one where people form strong bonds, and feel a sense of community and togetherness. Matt and I have had many adventures, from the sublime to the ridiculous, researching the guides. We have a little saying: “We do the research so you don’t have to!” We’ve got stuck in bogs, come up against blocked footpaths, and endured challenging British weather. There was one occasion on Dartmoor for example, when we went to check out what, on the map, looked like a fabulous moorland lake. However, when we got there, it turned out to be rather stagnant, with a dead sheep floating in it. We had a similar incident down in West Penwith in Cornwall, when a promising pond turned out to be more of a sticky mud bath.  But all the research trips, even the ones that go wrong, are hugely enjoyable; we love exploring, finding new places, and generally sharing the joy of a grand day out with a life-enhancing swim.

Wild Swimming Walks Exmoor and North Devon, like all our books, contains an introduction with all the fascinating history, stories, geography, geology, and wildlife of the area, as well as practical information about things like local tides and sea conditions.  This coast, for example, has some of the biggest tides in the world; we explain how this affects swim planning. Then there are 28 circular walks, each with bodies of water to swim in, covering a large area of Exmoor and North Devon. Each chapter contains everything you need for your day out: maps, directions, photos and of course useful information including places to stop and eat, public transport, and grid references and locations. Coastal walks range from Hartland in the west, to Heddon’s Mouth in the East. Inland, there are walks with dips along many of our great rivers including the Exe, the Torridge, the Taw, Horner Water, Badgworthy Water, the Culm and the East Lyn.

The landscapes in this part of the world are unbelievably varied.  From the famous hanging waterfalls near Hartland, to the expansive Taw Torridge estuary, to the dappled woods along the River Torridge, and the hogsback cliffs near Combe Martin, there are so many breathtaking places to explore.  And by swimming, as well as walking, the experience is somehow magnified, enlarged, intensified. We wanted to share one of our walks, and have selected the one I describe at the beginning of this article. This is a relatively short one, of around three miles, but it takes in the most stunning views, including one of the most famous in North Devon, the view down to Broadsands from the cliffs. This beach is often dubbed “Little Thailand” because it looks like a scene from somewhere in south-east Asia, with the azure sea forming a beautiful curve, with conical rocks in the foreground and background framing the scene.

Sophie Pierce is the co-author, with Matt Newbury, of Wild Swimming Walks Exmoor & North Devon, which is available from Wild Things Publishing (RRP £14.99) Readers can receive 25% off and free P&P with coupon code DRIFT24.

Watermouth and Broadsands Circular

Ashort but at times challenging walk to one of the most photographed beaches in Devon, with adventurous swims around two tiny tidal islands. Take swim shoes to protect your feet; the walk is best done around high tide.

The walk starts in Watermouth Harbour (1), an attractive U-shaped bay flanked either side by long arms of rock. It forms a perfect pool for swimmers when the tide is in. Philip Gosse described it in his 1853 book A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast as “a very romantic creek, being walled in as it were by high precipitous rocks, especially at the very mouth, one side of which is formed by a conical hill, gay with blooming furze.”

The walk is best done two hours either side of high water for optimum swimming, although you can get in at all states of the tide; you just have more options at high. You can swim straight from the harbour, but we prefer to walk along to the end of the northern arm of the cove, near its mouth. The route takes you past an unusual building called the Round Tower, about which very little is known. Historic England says it is “probably a look-out associated with Watermouth Castle”, a 19th-century country house just behind the harbour. On old maps it is marked as a ‘pleasure house’, so we prefer to think it was built by the castle owners as an upmarket beach hut where they could take tea (or something stronger) and warm up after an invigorating dip.

At the end of the headland, just past the Round Tower, a small fishermen’s path on the left (2) leads through blackthorn bushes down to the shore, where there is an old set of steps carved into the rocks. At high water, you can swim directly off these steps. It’s the perfect launching point for an adventurous swim around the islet of Sexton’s Burrow at the mouth of the harbour, the ‘conical hill’ mentioned by Gosse. Of course, it goes without saying that you need calm, still conditions, as there are a lot of rocks; do not attempt this route in surf and swell.

From the steps, turn right, swimming towards the open sea. On the right, you’ll soon pass a channel between the islet and the shore. Keep going and bear right around the seaward side of Sexton’s Burrow, where you will soon find a really beautiful lagoon you can swim into on your right. At this point you have two options: you can either swim to the inner end of the lagoon and get out on the rocks to clamber to the channel on the other side, or you can swim back out of the lagoon and carry on around Sexton’s Burrow and then bear right into the channel. Either way, once in the channel you can swim back to the steps. This makes a wonderful mini-adventure, with the satisfaction you get from swimming around an island, however small! On a calm day, with a still sea, it is an absolutely beautiful experience, as the cliffs tower above you and the sea teems with seaweed and fish below.

If you don’t fancy the circuit around the islet, it is still really good fun to swim into the channel that separates it from the mainland (and which empties out at low tide). Or for another challenge, you could swim across to the beach on the other side.

Today, pretty much the only activity you’ll see in the harbour is boating, but in the past it was busy with both fishermen and smugglers. Rumour has it that there used to be a smugglers’ tunnel leading inland from the beach, which has since been blocked up. In Victorian times, fishermen would string nets across the harbour to catch grey mullet, with reports of two hundredweight of fish being taken on one tide alone. Now it is purely a place of recreation.

After your swim, retrace your steps back to the harbour. In the distance, you will see the fairytale vision of Watermouth Castle, which overlooks the sea. With its crenellations and turrets, it gives a romantic feel to this very pretty part of the coast. It was built in 1825 in the Gothic style by the Basset family, who owned it and the nearby village of Berrynarbor for well over a century. It is now a theme park and tourist attraction which, at the time of writing, had just been sold for the first time in nearly 50 years. The new owners, the Escapade Group, plan to keep it as a holiday resort.

The walk continues for a very short distance on the main road before turning off to the left (3), and ascending through a campsite. If you walk to the seaward edge of the field, you will be rewarded with superb views both up and down the coast, and to the left, you will see the main campsite complex. There is a set of caves which used to be a public attraction; in Victorian times people would pay a few pence to go and visit them. Sadly this is no longer possible, unless you take a boat into the cove or are staying at the campsite.

As you ascend through the camping field, the coast path bears right. Keep a look out for a spectacular viewpoint at the top, with a bench so you can relax and take it in. It looks down over Broadsands Beach, our next swim spot, called by some the ‘Is it really in England?’ beach, and by others ‘Little Thailand’. When the sun is shining (and even when it’s not), it could be a scene in Vietnam or some other part of south-east Asia: the sea is a wonderful shade of green and forms a beautiful curve against the beach, with conical rocks in both the foreground and the distance framing the scene. You’ll be itching to get down there, but there’s a bit more walking to do first. You follow the route for a short way along the coast path, before starting the steep descent to Broadsands (5). There are over 200 steps down, but the views of the sea through the trees are magical. Once down on the beach, you’ll want to rest and then swim, and there is a veritable maze of caves and channels to explore.

On the right-hand side is Hamator Rock, which becomes an island at high tide, and you can swim right around it via the channel that separates it from the main shoreline. It is also fun to swim south-east along the coast towards Combe Martin, from where there are wonderful views across to Wild Pear Beach on the other side of the bay. In the other direction, on the left-hand side of the beach, there are numerous caves that you can swim or climb up to, depending on the state of the tide. It really is an enchanting place.

Less enchanting is the climb back up to the coast path. The steps are steep, and you will feel every single one. It was while we were about halfway up that we decided this would be our last wild swimming walks guide. This climb was the last straw!

Once at the top, retrace your steps for a short distance, but do not return to the coast path (unless you want to go back the way you came). Instead, follow the route downhill along a wide driveway. This used to be the old coast road, but in the 1920s it became badly eroded and fell out of use. You pass a campsite called Napps, which occupies an area which was once extensively quarried, for limestone in particular. In the early 1900s some miners broke into a natural pothole, which they discovered led into an extensive system of caves and tunnels, containing large clusters of rare aragonite crystal stalactites. Although mining stopped in 1912, specimens from the cave were sold to visiting tourists for some years after.

You reach the main coast road and turn right, passing the Sawmills pub (6). This building operated as a sawmill until 1933, and the waterwheel was used to supply electricity to nearby Watermouth Castle. It is now a handy place for a pitstop if you feel in need of refreshment. The walk continues down the road and back to the harbour, where you can have a last swim if you wish.

Information and Directions

Distance: 3 miles

Time: 3 hours

MAP: OS Explorer 139 Bideford, Ilfracombe & Barnstaple.

Start and end point: car park at Watermouth Harbour (SS 555 481, EX34 9SJ, What3Words: else.hologram.shift).

Public transport: The 301 bus between Combe Martin, Ilfracombe and Barnstaple calls at Watermouth Bay.

Swimming: Sexton’s Burrow (SS 551 484) and Broadsands Beach (SS 563 478), both best at high tide.

Refreshments: Storm in a Teacup  is a lovely café on a boat in Watermouth Cove, which does particularly good cheese scones (07846 496069, EX34 9SJ). The Sawmills Inn/Freehouse is conveniently situated towards the end of the walk and serves pub grub like burgers and nachos (01271 883388, EX34 9SJ).

Easier access: At high water Watermouth Harbour is directly accessible from the car park. Unfortunately, Broadsands is only accessible via a long, steep staircase with over 200 steps.

Nearby swim spots: Combe Martin is a fun place for a dip, and Wild Pear Beach to the east of Combe Martin is a stunning, unspoilt bay only accessible on foot, with a very steep final descent.

From Watermouth Harbour, looking at the sea, bear right across a footbridge over a stream, following the path as it turns left along the northern arm of the cove. Pass the Round Tower and continue until you reach the end and are looking over a channel to the islet of Sexton’s Burrow. Turn around and look back.

0.4 miles

You will see a small path off to the right. Scramble down onto the rocks, from which you can climb down to the water or the beach (depending on the state of the tide). Stop here for a swim around Sexton’s Burrow, then retrace your steps to the harbour and walk up the road out of the harbour and through a gate to the main road.

0.5 miles

At the road, turn left, then shortly after the campsite entrance, left again on a footpath crossing a bridge over a river. Follow the path into the campsite and then bear right uphill. At the top, on the left, look for a great viewpoint down to Broadsands.

0.4 miles

You reach a gate in a wall. Turn left here.

0.1 miles

Turn left down a path with a sign saying ‘Broadsands Beach’. Follow the steep steps all the way down to the beach. After a swim, take the steps back to the top and retrace your steps to point 4. Do not turn right through the gate (unless you want to go back as you came and avoid walking on the road) but carry on straight ahead, following the lane down the hill to the main road.

0.7 miles

At the main road, turn right and follow the path alongside the road all the way back to point 3 and down to the harbour.

0.7 miles


bottom of page