Cycling and birdwatching in the East Devon AONB
Updated: Jan 11
As we launch our Green Traveller's Guide to East Devon, our writer, Paul Miles, spends a few days exploring the Devon section of Route 2, a cycle path linking Dover with St Austell, and enjoys some local food and a spot of birdwatching en route
Cycling through pretty farmland, along the edge of a field where cows graze, on a smooth, car-free cycle path: what more perfect start to a green holiday could there be?
I’m no Wiggins but to my mind a holiday isn’t complete without a bike ride, especially along country lanes by the coast. You smell farmyards, hedgerow flowers and salty tang and feel the sun, wind (and rain). A steep climb is rewarded with a view of rolling hills and sea.
New cycleways are opening across East Devon. One of the newest is a short, two-mile, car-free stretch from Axminster railway station to the village of Kilmington. This is part of the National Cycle Network 2, a long-distance route that will eventually link Kent to Cornwall and is known as the South Coast Cycle route. In East Devon, it links Axminster to Exeter with a stretch of some 30 miles.
I had taken the train to Axminster with my bicycle (no pre-booking required on Southwest trains). Conveniently, I was staying in Kilmington, at a hilltop farm, where beautiful 17th century stone barns have been converted into very comfortable self-catering accommodation: Cranberries Luxury Hideaway.
The owner, Steve Littley, met me at reception. “You won’t need to lock your bike,” he tells me. “Kilmington is the third safest place in the country according to the crime statistics.” Bucolic bliss and practically Utopia too? It was a good start. I just needed a Devon cream tea to round off my afternoon. There wasn’t one in my welcome hamper but there was fresh fruit, bread, tea, coffee, chocolate and biscuits.
I cycled off to nearby Millers Farm Shop for more provisions – local vegetables, fruit, honey, jams, smoked fish, Devon beef and pork (and French produce too, including inexpensive wine).
The next morning, I continued exploring route 2, signposted clearly along the way. I stopped first at the nearby village of Colyton, where the church has an unusual octagonal lantern tower and a group of men called the feeoffees, or ‘trustees’, still wield power granted to their predecessors by Henry VIII. “There have never been any women feeoffees,” a resident informed me, with a sigh, as I asked her about the history of the ‘most rebellious town in Devon’. In Colyton, there’s even a cycle shop that hires out bikes.
Colyton is the terminus for the Seaton tramway, a narrow-gauge tram trundles some three miles between Seaton and Colyton during the holiday season. The tramline follows the Axe estuary and is a good spot from which to view birdlife.
Otherwise, you can cycle to some excellent new hides in a newly formed wetlands nature reserve. Route 2 takes you right past the entrance to the Axe Estuary Wetlands on the outskirts of Seaton, just seven miles or so from Kilmington. Here, I met Fraser Rush, Axe Estuary Wetlands Officer. “This nature reserve was created in 2008 as an East Devon District Council project,” he tells me. “It’s not just to benefit wildlife, but to provide a visitor attraction.” Where once there were fields of cows, there are now lakes and islands, with smart bird hides from which to watch shelducks, curlews and godwits (or learn how to identify them if you don’t already know.) If you’re very lucky, you may even see an otter or two.
A lot of thought has been put into the half-million pound project. “Most bird hides are rectangular with a wooden door and, if you’ve never been in one before, it can be a bit intimidating to enter,” says Fraser. “Everyone’s sitting with their back to you, lined up on a bench, peering out through binoculars, no-one talking,” he smiles and leans away from me with his fancy binoculars, to watch a flock of oyster catchers on an islet. “We made our hides hexagonal, which makes them more sociable, and we deliberately didn’t put doors on them.” Built of wood, they are attractive structures and one even has a sedum roof. Inside there are pictures and descriptions of the various birds you may see and information on the history of the two-mile long Axe estuary. It was an important harbour for Henry VIII’s navy until a pebble bar started to form across the mouth of the river.
We peer out onto the bright water. A kingfisher whistles and flies low and arrow-straight, over the surface. A little grebe dives and disappears.
It was time for a coffee. At The Chine Café on Seaton seafront, I sit in the sun and admire the red Triassic cliffs. In a park on the clifftops, there’s a labyrinth laid out in the grass: a relaxing half-mile walk, for contemplation, within a circle just 60ft across. Like the twists and turns of the labyrinth, my day’s cycling would, via meandering country lanes, be taking me back to where I’d started: Cranberries, where another circular form of relaxation awaited: an outdoor hot-tub.