A walk along the Sea Wall at Dawlish.
I must have made the journey along the Dawlish Sea Wall hundreds of times on the train and it’s one of the most scenic rail routes in the UK. The railway follows the coastline and hugs the sea from Teignmouth to Powerham as the train races along. I used to love it when you could open the train window and feel the spray from the sea on your face as you enjoyed the journey. However, I have only walked along the actual Sea Wall, which is a narrow footpath between the Railway line and sea itself on a couple of occasions. Once was back in 2008 during a holiday at the Camping Coaches at Dawlish Warren and again late last December.
The Marine Tavern
Monday 30th December 2019 was a beautiful sunny winters day and I had planned to walk the sea wall with my old friend Tiffany (hey, less of the old!) We caught the train to Dawlish and the first port of call was the Marine Tavern (less than a 5 minute walk from the station). Well, it was almost lunchtime and an army does n’t march on an empty stomach (not that we were waging war or marching for that matter!) However, the Marine Tavern is a cracking boozer. It is situated on the sea front and overlooks the railway line. So has a good mix of holiday makers, train spotters, and locals (I felt quite at home!). The pub itself has a lot of railway related photos on the walls and has 4 real ales (mainly local to Devon/Cornwall). It was was such a lovely sunny day that we decided to sit outside and I enjoyed a few pints of Otter Ale, whilst we watched the trains go by and had a good old natter!
Dawlish is located at the outlet of a small river, Dawlish Water and is situated on the coast overlooking the English Channel. It’s a popular destination for holiday makers and is famous for it’s black swans (Cygnus atratus) which were introduced from Western Australia. The name Dawlish derives from a Welsh river name meaning black stream. Also a Roman translation of “Dolfisc” meaning dark river. It was first recorded in 1044 as Dofisc … as time passed it became “Doflisc, Dovles, Dovelish, Dawlisshe and finally Dawlish”.
Tiffany gives us some insight into the Dawlish Geology …
Most people enjoy the sea views while walking along the Dawlish coastline, but if you look inland, you’ll see a 250 million year-old desert. The cliffs along the coastline display a story of a shifting sand dunes and flash flood rivers. Stop a minute and look at the cliffs (but never cross the tracks or climb the cliff). You can see two distinct types of rocks. One is smooth with sweeping lines. These are the ancient sand dunes, the lines preserving slight differences in the way the wind blew the sand across the desert. The other type of rock is a jumble of broken rock. This broken rock is not the rounded pebbles of gentle streams and rivers. It is evidence of flash floods, where far off storms caused torrential downpours, the water thundering across the desert, scouring deep canyons, ripping up and smashing rocks, cutting across the dunes, and eventually losing speed and dumping their load of smashed rocks. In one glance you can see endless winds blowing the sand across the desert, and sudden, destructive flash floods.
When these rocks were formed, in the Permian age, Britain was part of a massive continent called Pangea. The desert they formed in covered the whole of the UK – the same rocks, together called New Red Sandstone, are found in Scotland and central England too. The red color of the rock comes from oxidization of iron-rich components; another clue that this rock formed on land, not in the ocean. This vibrant colour makes a beautiful building stone, as a trip to Exeter’s castle and Royal Albert Museum will show. The characteristic rich red-brown earth of Devon fields is derived from the iron from long-gone red sandstone that leached into the older, underlying Devonian age rocks from which the soil is formed. Look out for pink sheep!
While the sea wall (which is made of a marine rock called limestone) protects the railway, it also protects the cliffs behind it from destruction by the sea, though that means that there’s no new local sand for the beach from cliff erosion. As the beach diminishes, the wall bears the brunt of the sea. I wonder what this area would look like if it wasn’t for the railway.
References: https://www.geolsoc.org.uk/GeositesDawlish and http://www.southampton.ac.uk/~imw/Teignmouth-Dawlish.htm
After lunch, we decided to head off towards Dawlish Warren, which is about two miles following the railway line along the coastline. It’s flat and easy going and was quite popular with dog walkers and locals. It was interesting to walk along the new section of sea wall that was rebuilt following the destructive storms during 2014, when the sea wall was breached and washed away, leaving the railway line dangling in mid air! This section of the sea wall is often breached by storms and there has been numerous discussions over the years about diverting the railway inland but it has never got beyond discussions. It took Network Rail engineers just eight weeks, 300 engineers and 6,000 tonnes of concrete to replace the wall, quite a remarkable achievement! On the day of our walk, there were no storms to worry about, it was a beautiful sunny day as we looked out to sea and watched the trains speed past us. The railway curves away at Langstone Rock and the footpath continues to follow the coast towards The Spit at Dawlish Warren. The sand spit is situated at the mouth of the river Exe and is a stopping off point for migrating birds. Depending up the time of year you can see Brent Geese, Curlew, Oyster Catchers, Terns and many other species. I don’t actually recall, seeing anything unusual on the day of our visit, just various gulls. The sand dunes are a great place to relax and enjoy the views of the sea and Exmouth. There’s also toilets, a shop and a cafe available should you require them! It was soon time to retrace our steps back along the sea wall to Dawlish, before having fish and chips and heading back on the train.
Dawlish Warren Station has some very quirky accommodation available, should you wish to have a holiday with a difference. The old Goods Yard adjacent to the station has 8 Ex British Rail Camping Coaches available for holiday lets. These coaches have been on site since 1982 and have sleeping accommodation for 6 people, complete bathroom, living room and kitchens. I have stayed in one of them, named “Gloucester” back in April 2009 and it was a fun holiday. Although I have to say it was a bit cold during the night and the overnight sleeper train rumbling past in the early hours did tend to wake me up, but it was a great experience and I’d certainly stay there again.
There have been camping coaches on site at Dawlish Warren since 1935. The Great Western Railway used to have a camping coach available for staff to use. By 1955 there were 9 coaches on the current site and these were replaced in 1982 by the current coaches (1950s and 1960’s MK1 coaches that were refurbished originally at Swindon Works). Back in 2016 the site announced it was closing and it was looking like the coaches would be broken up on site, as there is not the road access to recover them and the rail link to the site was severed many moons ago. However, they were purchased by Brunel Camping Coaches in 2016 and have been updated and continue to provide quirky holidays at Dawlish Warren.