• Start: Car park, Marine Parade, Instow (SS472303)
  • End: Car park, Marine Parade, Instow (SS472303)
  • Country: England
  • County: Devon
  • Type: Country
  • Nearest pub:
  • Ordnance Survey: OS Explorer 139 or Landranger 180 or Harvey’s South West Coast Path 1
  • Difficulty: Medium
Google Map


As you ramble along the seafront and around the environs of Instow, Robert Hesketh guides you to a Saxon village and a Listed railway signal box

Although short and gentle, this walk has plenty of interest and some great views across the Taw/Torridge estuary to Appledore and Braunton Burrows. We begin by following Instows sandy beach, before cutting inland to visit Instow Town, the historic heart of the village. The return is by the former railway line (now the Tarka Trail) and its restored signal box.

Enjoying a delightful position and a family-friendly beach, Instow developed as a Victorian seaside resort. It benefited greatly from being on the railway, which was extended from Barnstaple to Bideford via Fremington and Instow in 1855 and brought many visitors. Passenger services continued until 1965 and ball clay freight until its closure in 1982.

Happily, the disused railway from Barnstaple to Bideford via Instow became part of the Tarka Trail. The Trail was developed into a 290km (181-mile) walking trail linking Dartmoor and North Devon, with more than 48km (30 miles) of Trail between Braunton and Meeth also open to cyclists.

The Tarka Trail is named from Tarka the Otter, Henry Williamsons shrewd and unsentimental novel of the life and death of a wild otter, which he set in North Devon and wrote in the 1920s whilst living across the estuary in Georgeham, near Croyde. Based on Williamsons acute observation and knowledge of wildlife, Tarka was the most popular book he ever wrote and was praised by several famous writers of the day, including Thomas Hardy, John Galsworthy and TE Lawrence. Near the end of his life, Williamson accepted an offer from David Cobham to film Tarka in North Devon. Ironically, the author died in 1977 whilst the final scenes of Tarkas fatal struggle with Deadlock, the leader of the otterhound pack, were being filmed on Instow beach.

Although Victorian Instow was built around the beach, the village, a mile away, had existed since at least Saxon times. Devons early coastal communities, such as Mortehoe and Townstal (the pre-medieval part of Dartmouth), were built in sheltered places and well back from the sea to avoid the attentions of seaborne raiders, especially Vikings. Instow, established around the church of St John, was no exception to this settlement pattern. Indeed, the church dedication gave this small village its name. Recorded in the 1086 Domesday Book as Johannesto meaning Johns Stow (holy place) the name mutated to its present form over several centuries.

1 From the signed car park on Instows Marine Parade, turn right. After 75m, leave the pavement at the beach kiosk and follow the top edge of the beach. Continue along the beach, leaving Instow behind you and keeping the dunes on your right to the navigation light.

If the tide is high, you may be obliged to short cut right from the navigation light across MOD property to the Tarka Trail and turn left along it to reach point 2. Otherwise, continue on the Coast Path. Keep the sea wall on your left until you reach a Coast Path sign on a tall post by steps. Go up the steps and turn left only 30m ahead onto a signed public footpath. The path divides 100m ahead. Fork right to the tarred track the Tarka Trail.

2Cross the Tarka Trail and continue ahead on the signed Public Footpath through a metal gate and a stile. Keeping the hedge on your right, cross a field. Enter an enclosed track, lined with hedges thick with summer flowers and September blackberries.

3 Cross the B3233 carefully. Follow the narrow lane ahead past houses to a T-junction at Instow Town. Turn right. Walk past the school and the stump of a long-disused windmill on the hill above. Built of stone and possibly dating from the 17th century, the windmill may also have served as a guide to shipping. Follow the lane down to the church. This has a raised circular graveyard, indicating the church sites Celtic foundation. The oldest part of the church is the Norman font, whilst parts of the chancel date from around 1300. Inside is a list of rectors to 1260, a typically Devonian screen and a wagon roof in the north aisle with carved bosses.

4After visiting the church, continue downhill signed Instow and past the Barton. Cross the road carefully. Take the signed Public Footpath opposite and slightly to your right. Continue ahead with MOD property on your left to the Tarka Trail.

5 Turn left onto the Tarka Trail. Remembering to watch out for cyclists, follow the Trail for 1km (3/4 mile) to Instow signal box. A Grade II Listed building, the signal box dates from 1872. Preserved with its levers, a short section of relaid track and a working signal, it is the only all-equipped railway signal box in the South West that is also a Listed building. It is open on selected Sunday afternoons (check on 01237 476769). Finally, turn right and follow Marine Parade back to the car park.



Car park, Marine Parade, Instow (SS472303)

Distance: 5km (3 miles)

Time: 1 hours

Terrain: Beach, footpaths, cycle/walkway and quiet lanes; mainly level, one gentle ascent

Maps: OS Explorer 139 or Landranger 180 or Harveys South West Coast Path 1

Refreshments: Pub and caf in Instow

Public transport:

Frequent services on Barnstaple/Bideford route. Details:, 0871 200 2233

For more walks in this area see Shortish Walks in North Devon, North Devon Pub Walks and Really Short Walks, North Devon, all by Robert Hesketh (Bossiney Books, 2009, 2009 and 2010).

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