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Discover North Devon’s hidden coastline

PUBLISHED: 10:41 29 October 2014 | UPDATED: 10:41 29 October 2014

Smoothlands at Hartland

Smoothlands at Hartland

Archant

The beautiful beaches of North Devon are well known but very few people ever get to see some hard-to-reach parts of the remote and rugged Exmoor coast, writes CATHERINE COURTENAY

The hidden coast of North Devon The hidden coast of North Devon

It may be a surprise to learn that there’s an area of Devon’s landscape so remote and inaccessible it’s only been seen by a handful of people. Thousands visit the North Devon coast every year, perhaps to saunter around one of the villages, relax or surf on a big sandy beach, or to walk sections of the South West Coast Path. But some of the area’s most impressive sights, including waterfalls, sea caves and shipwrecks, are hidden from sight, in locations well beyond reach of the casual visitor.

For more than half a century, two men individually have been exploring, photographing and recording North Devon’s cliffs and shoreline. Whether dangling from a rope attached to a cliff face, or paddling about 2ft above the water surface in a kayak, they’ve spent many hours and days quietly investigating this area, parts of which have been seen by fewer people than Mount Everest.

Kester and his wife Elizabeth Webb were among the first people to fully traverse the shoreline from Combe Martin across to Minehead in Somerset, an area that includes the tallest marine cliffs in England and a waterfall as high as Niagara. They wrote about this remarkable exploration, which took place over a 40 year period, in their book The Hidden Edge of Exmoor, which was published by their friend, the geographer and academic, Peter Keene.

At the same time the Webbs were exploring the Hidden Edge, Peter, who was brought up in Westward Ho!, had been doing his own investigation of the North West coastline of Devon, amassing a wealth of materials and recollections. He’d published some of his landscape studies as educational pamphlets, but he’s now published his first book, The North-West Devon Coast, A Celebration of Cliffs and Seashore from the Hartland Peninsula to the Taw-Torridge Estuary.

Exploring by kayakExploring by kayak

Taken together, Peter and the Webbs’ books offer a fascinating insight into the high cliff scenery of the North Devon coast.

Opening The Hidden Edge of Exmoor is like diving into a extraordinary family album. Photos of Kester and Liz with their children and friends clambering over rocks, picnicking in sea caves or hanging off sheer cliff faces appear alongside detailed descriptions of the cliff and shoreline. Fellow pioneering explorers of this treacherous coastline also feature and fit seamlessly into this very personal story of discovery. Blending geography, history and anecdote with many stunning photographs and original drawings, the book is a unique insight into the geology of Exmoor and an adventure story wrapped up in one.

It was an invitation from Kester to take a ride in a light aircraft over the coastline that gave Peter the nudge he needed to write his book. An avid kayaker, all his coastal forays had been water based. Flying over the cliffs in a small plane was a revelation: “From low over the Atlantic and from a clear sky, the sun bathed the cliffs in a soft, evening light. Unused to private flights in small aircraft, the flight was a moving experience for me. On a coast I thought I knew so well, the different perspective made this a stunning voyage of discovery.”

The photographs he took that day form the basis of his book. Every stretch of the coastline is recorded and Peter’s scientific knowledge reveals the incredible geographical history of its dramatic rock formations. But at the same time, there’s a wealth of smaller details, with historical facts appearing alongside poems, anecdotes and recollections of his own north Devon childhood. We experience the coast through the kayaker’s eyes. It all makes for a compelling read.

Both books are factual, scientific records, but it’s this personal touch, the stories weaved into them and the passion and dedication it took to explore this coastline, that makes them so unique. Neither the books nor the explorations behind them are formed from a whim. This is the result of something far deeper - a relationship with a special landscape that has given these authors an insight only decades of devotion could achieve.

The Hidden Edge of Exmoor by David Kester Webb and Elizabeth Webb and The North-West Devon Coast - A Celebration of Cliffs and Seashore from the Hartland Peninsula to the Taw Torridge Estuary, are published by Thematic Trails at £12 and £15 respectively and can be ordered online at thematic-trails.org

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