Walk 174: Watersmeet Trail (North Devon)

The ‘Needs to Know’

Distance: 6.7 miles (10.8km)

Time to walk: This is a walk for wandering, stopping to take pictures, maybe have a paddle & a definite stop at the wonderful cafe. Needless to say it took us 4 hours!!

Difficulty: Initially hard pavements until leaving the village when the path turns into a loose, & at times narrow track. There are some steep drops towards the river at times so be careful with young children & dogs. The return route follows a higher, steeper, track. Some surfaces are uneven. There are no stiles

Parking: We parked in the large pay & display car park past the harbour on the Esplanade

Public toilets: Several in Lynmouth & at the cafe halfway through the walk

Map of the route:

This is just one of those walks that you have to do if you’re visiting the North Devon area. Starting in beautiful Lynmouth, you’ll follow a dramatic river gorge, passing through ancient woodland to arrive at Watersmeet & a former fishing lodge, now a National Trust cafe & information centre

Indeed this whole area is owned & maintained by the National Trust. It’s also seen a major disaster…on the 15th & 16th of August 1952, a storm of tropical intensity broke over south-west England, depositing 9 inches of rain within 24 hours on the already saturated soil of Exmoor. Debris-laden floodwaters cascaded down the northern escarpment of the moor, converging upon the village of Lynmouth, in particular, in the upper West Lyn valley. Fallen trees & other debris formed a dam, which in due course gave way, sending a huge wave of water & debris down the river. A guest at the Lyndale Hotel described the night to the Sunday Express:

“From seven o’clock last night the waters rose rapidly and at nine o’clock it was just like an avalanche coming through our hotel, bringing down boulders from the hills and breaking down walls, doors and windows. Within half an hour the guests had evacuated the ground floor. In another ten minutes the second floor was covered, and then we made for the top floor where we spent the night.”

Overnight, more than 100 buildings were destroyed or seriously damaged along with 28 of the 31 bridges, & 38 cars were washed out to sea. In total, 34 people died, with a further 420 made homeless. The sea wall & Rhenish Tower survived the main flood, but were seriously undermined. The tower collapsed into the river the next day, causing a temporary flood

A conspiracy theory has spread that the flood was caused by secret cloud seeding experiments carried out by the Royal Air Force (RAF) between 1949 & 1952

The theory was fuelled by a 2001 BBC Radio 4 documentary, which suggested that the events of 1952 were connected to Project Cumulus. The programme alleged that “the infamous Lynmouth flood disaster came only days after RAF rain-making experiments over southern England”, & that secret experiments were causing heavy rainfall

Ready to go & explore this amazing valley?

Let’s Walk!

1. Our walk starts in Lynmouth outside the National Park Centre on the Esplanade. The Centre is open 7 days a week & is excellent. It also includes the Tourist Office & many of the local walk leaflets are donation only…

Look at the statue opposite known as ‘The Walker’. It was unveiled by BBC Countryfile’s John Craven in May 2017 & marks the hub of several of Exmoor’s long-distance walking trails…

These are The Tarka Trail; The Two Moors Trail; The Coleridge Way; & The South West Coastal Path

3. Walk along the Esplanade passing the Rhenish Tower, which was built around 1832 by General Rawdon. He had built imitation look-out towers on the Rhine in Germany…

It was built following the belief that saltwater bathing was good for the health, something that the Victorians were into. Over the road is the Bath Hotel which was part of the complex as the sea water was stored in a tank on the top of the tower & then pumped across. The tower you see today is a replica as the original was swept away in the Flood of 1952

4. Continue along the river towards the valley. You can really imagine how the water poured down here during the flood…

Across the road’s the ‘Flood Memorial Hall’

5. Have a walk out onto the pedestrian bridge to see the wonderful stone arched bridge ahead. The valley we’re walking up is straight ahead & is called the ‘Glen Lyn Gorge’ which is one of the deepest in Britain

On reaching the road cross straight over & continue through the car park…

6. Walk ahead & then cross the white footbridge…

Have a glimpse from the bridge back towards the town – this is simply a stunning area & we were so lucky with the weather as there had just been a huge thunderstorm

17. Continue along the other side of the East Lyn river…there’s some very nice benches to spend a while along here

Look across the river to see a green space. This was where the hamlet of Middleham once stood

On this spot was a group of cottages which was washed away completely in the flood The gardens are kept by volunteers as a memorial to all lost

18. It’s time now to leave behind the wider, harder surfaces & start to enter the valley proper on smaller less even tracks…

…& pass the Woodside Bridge, which was renovated in 2020

19. Here you’ll find the signs that officially welcome you to Watersmeet…

We can imagine, at popular times this footpath could get very busy…

But there’s plenty of places to sit beside the river & be in your own world. And also so many photo opportunities!

20. The path arrives at a junction, with a branch that diverts off to the left. Ignore this path as it’s the one we’ll be returning on, & continue straight ahead, following the ‘Watersmeet Riverside Walk’ waymarker…

Shortly the path arrives at another bridge. Cross this & now follow the one on the other side of the river

21. We mentioned at the start that the path climbs & falls a lot on this walk & here there are steps…just be careful of the steep drops down to the river

Take a moment to look at the vegetation around you. The gorge most definitely has its own climate & in some places is very much like a rain forest. Indeed it’s home to some quite rare plants…the Irish Spurge grows in only one other place in the UK

22. Pass another wooden bridge & look for a marker & a bottle embedded in the rock on the right…

In 1911 the Attree brothers opened a mineral water bottling factory along here & the water was gathered from the small spring that exits through the rock here. It closed at the start of World War II

The water was marketed as having a ‘natural sparkle & contained the laxative salts magnesium & sodium sulphate’. Apparently it was also said to be “radio active”!

The factory was washed away in the flood & what you see before you today is the remains of a fire place & mantlepiece

23. The great thing about following this river is that one minute it’s rushing through narrow gaps & falls & the next it becomes wide & flows slowly through sun-lit glens…

Walk past some private houses. You’ll be able to see them from the return path, high up in the trees

Once again the river becomes more turbulent with several waterfalls…

24. Keep on the same path, there’s only a quarter of a mile to go now…

…past a beautiful, high bridge

25. Shortly across the river to your left, through the trees, you’ll see the magnificent Watersmeet House. Take the left path (where the people in the picture below are standing) down to the bridge…

…crossing over it & admiring the waterfall to your right

26. Welcome to the wonderful Watersmeet House & it’s time to sit in the garden for some refreshments. The property is owned by the National Trust & was built as a fishing lodge, but is today used as an information centre, tea room & shop

The house dates from approximately 1832 & was built for Rev Walter Stevenson Halliday. Here the East Lyn River & Hoar Oak Water join together, hence ‘Watersmeet’

Sitting at our table we suddenly realised how many robins there were in the garden…& one of them was extremely cheeky!

27. If the weather’s good it’s extremely hard to drag yourself away from this beautiful spot to continue the walk, but you must

The route back follows the opposite of the river, much higher up through the trees. So turn right out of the garden & keep the river on your left as you start to climb up the track…

…ignoring the road coming in from the left

28. Be prepared now for some climbing as the track continues to rise through the trees. You’ll realise how high you’re climbing when you look down to the river in the bottom of the gorge. Again be careful as there are some steep drops. Don’t forget to look out for the houses you passed on the outward journey

There’s some cracking stone walls along here & it reminded us of the ‘Coffin Route’ near Grasmere & Rydal

29. Eventually the path descends to meet another. This is the junction we saw on our outward route so turn right…

And now it’s simply a case of retracing your steps all the way back into Lynton & the start of this walk

So that’s it & wow!….we’d forgotten how beautiful this place is. It’s also a place that you’ll want to visit at different times of the year, when there’s different amounts of water coming down the gorge.

It’s magical so, if you’re in the North Devon area…

Go Walk!