Devon’s best walks: The Exeter Green Circle routes
PUBLISHED: 12:58 11 January 2019 | UPDATED: 16:59 02 November 2020
Exploring the open spaces of the city and its environs on the Exeter Green Circle walk, with SIMONE STANBROOK-BYRNE
Something that has always struck me about the city of Exeter is how very rural it can feel: in the hazy past, when I spent my days ensconced in one of its public offices, I recall nearly being mown down by a tractor one lunch time as I nipped across Paris Street.
Muddy wellies are not unknown in the High Street and often, when you turn a corner on a built-up road, there ahead are enticing glimpses of the city’s surrounding countryside. This sense of nearby green places helps to keep us sane.
The Exeter Green Circle is an established and well-signed route that makes the most of some of the city’s best leafy areas that juxtapose the busy bits. From muddy field paths to pavements, where history rubs shoulders with the hurrying modern day, the route is varied and full of interest.
It felt like rather an omission that I had never explored the Green Circle. New Year seemed a good time to put that right.
It’s a freezing cold morning, the grass still white with frost as I head through Mincinglake Valley Park. I am not alone. Deeply popular with dog walkers, I have to stop almost before I start to make friends with a delightful Patterdale puppy. Tiny and buzzing, his owner tells me it takes a long time to get anywhere; everyone wants to play with him.
Catkins adorn the naked winter branches of trees against a deep blue sky and snowdrops peep through last year’s fallen leaves. Everywhere there are signs of spring, making what feels like a sub-zero morning seem just a bit warmer.
Mincinglake is a remarkable area, part of it having once been a landfill site. Its name, I read, means ‘nun’s stream’, after the former inhabitants of nearby St Katherine’s Priory who dammed the stream more than 600 years ago to provide power for their mill and fish for their Fridays.
Amorous woodpigeons, who seem to have got their seasons muddled, call across the park and a bright-eyed grey squirrel eyes me from a fence. The repeated notes of a song thrush waft from the leafless tree canopy.
Following the route anti-clockwise brings me round the northern section and along Belvidere Road, a tucked-away residential area from which there are glorious views.
A short way along is the entrance to Belvidere Meadows Nature Reserve, where a well-placed bench overlooking the expanse of the valley is being made use of by a robin. It’s worth pausing here for a while before rejoining the route and continuing down into university land, an area much-changed and developed in recent years.
Continuing into some bustling bits of Exeter brings me down to the Iron Bridge and beyond that to St Bartholomew’s Cemetery with its arresting catacombs. These were built in the 19th century, designed to appeal to wealthy people who wished to protect their remains from grave robbers, but very few availed themselves of the opportunity. During the swine flu scare of 2009 there was some thought that they might be brought back into temporary use if Exeter succumbed.
As you walk this section the lofty steeple of St Michael’s Church is very obvious and its resident peregrines may put in an appearance.
I pause for a while on the elegant bridge, watching the well-full River Exe and keeping an eye open for birds. Beyond here it’s a flat stroll across playing fields before arriving in Exwick.
The route goes past Exwick Cemetery, and although this isn’t part of the Green Circle it is a rather beautiful place, despite its inevitable sadness; a place rich with wildlife, particularly in its secluded ‘green burial’ area.
Beyond here the walk climbs to enter Barley Valley Nature Reserve where I slither across the grass to take in the views from the high bench.
Fabulous. Below me the merry sound of released school children wafts up the hill. Rejoining the path, I slither some more as I enter amongst the trees, but it’s worth it as this is another delightful stretch of walking before joining the Alphinbrook section.
Climbing ancient Hambeer Lane away from Little Johns Cross, the views open up and through the hedge to the left I glimpse a fabulous cityscape with views to the Cathedral.
To the right a vast countryside view overlooks distant busy roads where life rushes in and out of the city. It’s muddy underfoot from passing horses.
This section goes through the old village of Alphinbrook, now thoroughly joined to Exeter, before passing through Marsh Barton to arrive at the canal, its towpath ever-popular with walkers and cyclists.
Turn right here for the Double Locks pub, but don’t overdo it as you still have a way to go.
Beyond the Riverside Valley Park Topsham Road is loud, busy and best-negotiated via one of the pedestrian crossings. As soon as I enter the Ludwell Valley Park it’s easy to forget how close I am to the bustle.
The first area of the park I walk through is dedicated to a remarkable woman, Ivy Johns, who worked for tireless decades for her local community and was instrumental in securing the designation of Ludwell as one of Exeter’s Valley Parks. It is an appealing memorial. Following the path past the playground I wonder at the strange structure ahead and soon discover it to be the most sculptural picnic table I’ve ever seen.
Continuing along roads beyond Ludwell I reach the final stretch, entering Hamlin Lane Playing Fields where I am stopped in my tracks by a beautiful blue-eyed cat from one of the nearby houses. I am now heading back into the Mincinglake section of the Circle.
Following the sun-splashed stream along the edge of the many marked-out sports pitches brings me to a set of stepping stones beneath a big oak, where the tattered remnants of former tree swings dangle above the inevitable debris of youthful revellers. Gulls in winter plumage wander the pitches and a train passes on its way to nearby Polsloe Bridge Station.
Beyond the playing fields the walk negotiates roads, ducks under the railway and eventually re-enters Mincinglake Valley Park.
The frost has gone. The shadows point the other way and early-morning dog walkers are back for a later stroll. I head back to my car, feeling that I know Exeter substantially better than I did this morning. I now just need to do it the other way round!
Ordnance Survey maps are available from all good booksellers and outdoor stores or visit our online shop www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/al
Route information and access: There any many access points to the Exeter Green Circle walk, throughout its 12 plus miles. A pack of very comprehensive leaflets, detailing each of the walk’s five sections, is available from the Exeter Visitor Centre, Dix’s Field, Exeter, EX1 1GF. Telephone 01392 265700. (visitexeter.com)
This information can also be downloaded from: exeter.gov.uk (leisure-and-culture/walking-in-exeter/exeter-green-circle-walks)
Devon Nature Walks: If you wish to explore the wealth of wildlife encountered on walks near Exeter, I would recommend joining a walk led by professional naturalist Nigel Pinhorn of Devon Nature Walks: 01392 211247
Public transport: The city is well-served by buses and trains. If you are only walking a section of the route local buses can take you back to your start point
Map: Each leaflet shows a drawn map of the section. The OS map covering Exeter is OS Explorer 114 Exeter and the Exe Valley 1:25 000
Terrain: Parkland paths, tracks, field paths, some pavements. Some sections are likely to be muddy as, although some paths are surfaced, some are not
Distance: Just over 12 miles (19.5km) for the whole route, but you can easily do shorter sections, piecing the whole together over several walks
Dog friendliness: Good, but the route comes close to busy roads, so a lead is essential
Child friendliness: Several playgrounds will be encountered en route
Exertion: Easy-moderate and occasionally steep
Refreshments and comfort stops: Many options in Exeter, though you may need to venture off route. You will also encounter small convenience stores along the way
Simone Stanbrook-Byrne and James Clancy have written a selection of West Country guides including: Favourite Walks in Devon, Circular Walks in the South Hams, Circular Walks in East Devon, Circular Walks in Central Devon, Circular Walks in North Devon/Exmoor, A Dozen Dramatic Walks in Devon, Town Walks in Devon. culmvalleypublishing.co.uk/01392 881513