South West Coast Path – Gara Rock to Mill Bay
14th April 2019
Walking the South West Coast Path from Gara Rock to Mill Bay is an easy out and back walk along the clifftops of south Devon. The path literally runs right below the Gara Rock Hotel, and on this final day of my escape to Gara Rock, I turned right at the sign and headed west to Mill Bay.
As with my previous day’s walk, this route can also be done as a circular walk, either starting from Salcombe itself – by taking the ferry across the estuary – or from Mill Bay or Gara Rock. There’s a National Trust car park at Mill Bay and a public car park just above the Gara Rock Hotel and Restaurant.
The circular walk is about 3 ½ miles (just under 5km); out and back along the coast is a bit longer, about 4 ½ miles.
You can download this map and find a description of the path on the South West Coast Path website, though the walk is pretty straightforward and well signposted.
Coast path to Mill Bay
The coastal path to Mill Bay is a very easy walk, with really only one steep bit. Though the path is narrow and rocky in a few places, most of the walking is along a gentle track that meanders through the gorse.
The coastline is really beautiful here, with the cliffs tumbling straight into the surf.
You wander along the clifftops, the English Channel sparkling in the sunshine below. I didn’t see even one other person during my entire walk and I revelled in the silence, just the sound of the birds as they swooped and dove amongst the rocks, and the waves gently sloshing against the rocks. It was so incredibly peaceful.
These West Country cliffs are too steep and rocky for ploughing, so historically they’ve been used as grazing land for livestock. However, this practice has declined over the last century and the cliffs have become overgrown with scrub brush and Common Gorse.
This bright yellow, spiky gorse is a fixture of our British wild landscapes, flowering from January to June. The Western Gorse species is also found here and flowers in the late summer.
Just past Leek Cove the path rounds Limebury Point towards Mill Bay and you walk high above the Salcombe Estuary.
Above Mill Bay the path splits, one side heading up towards the edge of Rickman Common. Tenant farmers graze their cattle or blackface sheep here but I didn’t see any on this particular day.
The other path heads into a small wood. If I’d had a full day instead of only a half day I would have gone on from here to the ferry crossing for Salcombe or South Sands, or perhaps done the entire ferry route to enjoy the opposite shore from the water.
Instead, I turned around just above Mill Bay and stopped to eat my lunch at a bench that looks out over the estuary.
RNLI Lifeboats and the Salcombe Disaster of 1916
For those of you outside the UK, RNLI is the ‘Royal National Lifeboat Institution’ and is the largest charity that saves lives at sea. Since the early 1800s, volunteers provide a 24-hour rescue service in the UK and Ireland, as well as seasonal beach lifeguards and a Flood Rescue Team.
There’s a memorial to the Salcombe Lifeboat Disaster of 1916 here, one of the worst lifeboat disasters in the history of the RNLI. Thirteen crew members lost their lives when their boat was capsized by a massive wave and thrown onto the notorious Salcombe Bar. Only 2 crew survived.
In 2016, on the centenary of the disaster, 2 memorial stones were erected on either side of Salcombe Bar.
It’s so utterly peaceful and beautiful here that it’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for these men.
Fifteen men set out at dawn in a furious southwesterly gale in aid of a ship that had gone aground near Prawle Point. The real tragedy is that the lifeboat wasn’t even needed. Before they got there, but after they’d been called out, the crew of the stranded ship were saved by the Prawle Rocket Company – a volunteer lifesaving company so-called because they brought shipwreck survivors safely to shore using rocket lines (devices developed in the early 19th century for throwing lines to remote positions and deployed specifically to rescue sailors from stranded ships). In those days of course there weren’t the communications we have today; once the RNLI boat set out, there was no way to recall them.
I saw an old photograph of this RNLI lifeboat and it essentially looks like a very large rowing boat, 7 oars a side with a coxswain. I simply can’t imagine taking to the seas in a boat like that in such a gale. Really quite a testament to the volunteer RNLI lifeboat crews.
Back to Gara Rock
The return walk was just as beautiful as the walk out. One of the things I really like about doing out and back walks is that even though you’re retracing your steps, it’s a completely different experience in the reverse direction. How often do we stop and look back at where we’ve come? Most of the time we look forward, to where we’re going. Yet sometimes, what’s behind us is as surprising and interesting as what lies ahead. On my outward trip I’d been looking mostly at the cliffs and out towards the sea. But on my return walk I paid much more attention to the higher hills and fields.
The field systems here are ancient, and some are thought to date back to the Bronze Age, between 1900 and 1200 BC.
Traces of an Iron Age settlement with round houses and a stock enclosure have also been found.
Finally, the lookout tower at Gara Rock comes into sight. This hut was originally part of the coastguard station, and there are dramatic views of this section of the coastline.
From here, it’s a steep but short walk up to the car park and the long drive home to London.
Be sure to see more photos in my Mill Bay Photo Album