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The Exe Estuary

Painting and drawing around the Exe Estuary. In this post, there is a selection of my sketches, drawings and paintings from around the Exe Estuary. With some of my favourite spots to go. I have walked, cycled, sailed and kayaked around the Exe Estuary. often with my sketchbook, for many years. However, there are always new things to learn and see. I feel that I have only scratched the surface of what is out there around the Exe Estuary.

Materials Used

These sketches were mostly drawn & painted in a Daler Rowney, Red & Yellow cartridge pad, but for a couple of them, I used a Langton 5 x 7”, ‘Not’ watercolour pad. I also take everywhere with me my Winsor & Newton, watercolour field paint box and a couple of round brushes – sable no.6 & a no.1. I’ve used two pens a Waterproof Fineliner and a Black Brush Pen + a 6B Pencil. The 6B Pencil and Brush Pen I love and couldn’t do without.

Map of the Exe Estuary

Not to scale watercolour map of the Exe Estuary.
The Exe Estuary has inspired a whole host of artists. You can sit somewhere busy or like me, find a quiet spot to sit and paint. You could sit in your car, parked in Imperial Road Car Park, Exmouth. Looking north with the estuary stretching out before you. Even if you go to the same spot often, each time is different. With the changing tides, sun and sky. You can have a vast sweeping horizon or an intimate painting of boats or wildlife. The choice is yours. There is easy access all around the Exe Estuary and a footpath/cycleway that runs all around it.
The Exe Estuary runs north-south from Exmouth to Countess Wear (about 8 miles.) Protected from the full force of the tide by Dawlish Warren. Though the Warren does create a restricted entrance and the current can be very strong here, when the tide is running. With little whirlpools and eddies coming off anything that sticks into the current. The River Exe runs from its source among the hills of Exmoor, Exe Head, near Simonsbath and runs 60 miles to Exmouth.
Watercolour painting with a boat on it's mooring on the Exe Estuary.

Serenity on the Exe

October 1st – This sketch is looking out from Turf Lock, across the estuary to a peaceful boat reflected in the still water. Watercolour & Brushpen ~ A5, Sold “We set out early today for the Exeter Ship Canal, for a small expedition in our canoe to the Turf Lock. A beautiful, peaceful morning and although it’s now October the day is already warming up to be another scorcher, with hardly a whiff of wind. There are few people about at the moment (no doubt there will be more later, at lunchtime when the pub, at the end of the canal, opens) and we drift along looking at the swans, herons and boats. It was very high tide when we reach the estuary and the ‘little fella’ enjoyed himself exploring.”


Topsham used to be a busy port and shipbuilding centre, with many slips along the Exe Estuary. It still retains a strong maritime flavour and is a special place to explore. I love to walk from Topsham Quay along the estuary to The Goat Walk and around to the RSPB hides on the River Clyst. The large Dutch gabled houses dating from the 17th and 18th centuries were built for Sea Captains and merchants. Having their gardens over the road, which run down to the water’s edge.
Watercolour painting looking down the Exe Estuary with a boat in the foreground.
Watercolour sketch looking through the garden gateway at Topsham, through to the Estuary beyond.

Topsham Gateway

June 8th – Watercolour, A5 ~ Sold. “This sketch shows the view through one of the Topsham gardens that lead down to the Exe Estuary, with the lavender in bloom. Strolling along towards the ‘Goat Walk’, stopping to look at all the little beaches along the way.”
Watercolour sketch, Slip on the Exe

Slip on the Exe

January 22nd – Watercolour and brushpen, A5 – Sold. “Cold day at Topsham, with a gentle breeze blowing along the Exe. With the puddles still frozen. This sketch is at low tide looking down the long slip (next to Hannaford’s Quay) and across the river to the reeds and countryside beyond.”
Watercolour painting showing 'Wixel's' a house on the Exe Estuary.


January 22nd – Watercolour, A5 “I love the ‘Mediterranean’ feel to this house I’ve sketched (Wixels), with its Dutch roof, settled in its walled enclosure, on the edge of the estuary. Wixels became a house in the 1920s, before that it was a small collection of warehouses and sheds. When Topsham was still a busy little port. Originally the buildings stored stone, coal and guano – not quite as posh.”


Exmouth with two miles of sandy beach. The Estuary beach, Shelly beach and the Gut being particularly good for the artist at low tide. With moored boats high and dry and the sky reflected in the pools of seawater. There are also lots of watersports here with Dinghy’s being launched and brightly coloured Kitesurfers going past.
Watercolour painting looking across the Exe Estuary with reflections in the low tide pools.

Exmouth Reflections

December 17th – Watercolour, A5 “Down on the ‘Bull Hill Bank’ just off Exmouth in the middle of the Exe Estuary. It’s obviously low tide. There are several fishermen, dog walkers, people working on boats and a cockler walking about. Sounds more crowded than it is – plenty of space here for us all to spread out. The sun is low and reflecting on the river and pools left by the retreating tide. I love the wave shapes that the pools make.”
Watercolour sketch looking out across Exmouth's Shelly Beach at low tide, with boats standing high and dry.

Summers End

September 15th – Watercolour, A6 “The tide is out at Exmouth on the Exe Estuary and the boats are high and dry. Lovely warm end of summer today.”
Pen and watercolour sketch of Exmouth Kites

Beach Life

April 21st – Watercolour and brushpen, A5 “Kite Flyers on Exmouth beach. Sunny day, with a slightly chilly wind, not many people about though.”
Watercolour looking out across Exmouth Estuary Beach.

Across Cockle Sands

April 1st – Watercolour, A5 “A better day today, weather-wise, could this be spring? Parked sketching out of the car looking north, across Cockle Sands. Low(ish) tide.”
Watercolour painting looking out across the Exe Estuary from Exmouth, with trees on an embankment.

Flood Tide

July 13th – Watercolour, A5 – Sold “Grey showery day, parked up again at the Estuary beach at Exmouth. In the distance, there was a large group of people out on the sands – end of term school class?”

Around the Turf Lock Hotel

The Exeter Ship Canal runs for 5 miles from Exeter Canal Basin to Turf Lock on the western side of the River Exe. Its origins date back to 1566. At its southern end, where it has its entrance onto the estuary, is the Turf Lock Hotel. A lovely seasonal pub to stop for food and a beer. The canal is used by walkers, cyclists, kayakers and a few boats heading to Exeter Quay.
Black and white pen drawing of an abandoned barge stern on the Exe Estuary.


March 26th – Pen, A5. “Parked at Kenton, walked over the hill to Powderham and along the Exe Estuary to the splendid ‘Turf Lock’ Pub. There is a mist over the estuary which is slowly being burnt off, but at the moment you can’t see very far. We are sat with a half, in the beer garden. I am sketching the rudder of one of several boats that have been abandoned here and left to slowly disappear into the estuary mud. This boat was a flat bottomed river barge.”
Pen and watercolour sketch showing the Turf Lock and Hotel on the River Exe.

Turf Lock Hotel

December 14th – Pen and watercolour, A5. “Sketching from the levee on the west side of the estuary, looking towards the Turf Lock Hotel. We had tea from our flask, as the ‘Turf’s’ winter opening hours are not so good if you fancy an ale. (They’re not open until February and we might have been wearied by the wait!) Another cold, clear, sunny day with a hard frost. We also saw lots of birds – Heron, Buzzard, Cormorant, Lapwing and Dunlin amongst others.”
Watercolour painting looking down the River Exe from Turf Lock.

Down the Exe from Turf’

February 14th – Watercolour with some brush pen in the foreground, A5 – Sold. “To me this sketch makes it look rather lonely, but there were lots of other people about, birdwatchers, walkers and people working on the hotel, getting it ready for opening in the spring.”
Watercolour and pen drawing, showing the levee on the west side of the Exe Estuary going off into the distance, on it's zigzag route.

On the Levee

November 12th – Pen and watercolour, A5 – Sold. “Strolled the west side of the estuary, between Powderham and the ‘Turf’. It was warm with the sun out, with all the different birds calling. Lots of geese arrived and I never tire of hearing the Oystercatchers. We sat at this point as the little ones needed a snack – just time for a quick sketch.”


A lovely little spot, with a car park and rail station. Here there is a small harbour, beautiful Italianate clock tower and cottages that back onto the beach. These cottages and their passageways are protected by metal flood gates, which are closed at very high tides. At low tide, there is a pleasant walk south along the estuary to Courtland’s slip.
Watercolour sketch looking out of Lympstone Harbour, with a boat and crane.
Early morning cycle, in the sun, taking in part of the Exe Estuary trail. Stopped at Lympstone’s little harbour. 6B Pencil, watercolour & Pink Pigs Sketchbook
Pen and watercolour sketch on the Exe Estuary, with a little stream heading through the mud and a weather vane standing by the side.

South Westerly

September 20th – Watercolour and brushpen, A5 – Sold. “Walking around the little harbour at Lympstone. It’s low tide, with a south-westerly breeze blowing and it’s rather a grey day.”
Pen and watercolour sketch showing the washing being hung up on the beach at Lympstone, on the Exe Estuary

Washing Day

October 30th – Watercolour & Brushpen ~ A5 “Hanging out the washing at Lympstone ~ on the beach. The little cottages fronting the estuary don’t have gardens, so all their washing lines are on the beach. With all their ‘smalls’ for everyone to see.”


Cockwood is a small village on the west side of the Exe Estuary. Set around a small tidal harbour, which boats must reach via a low bridge under the railway line. I find sitting sketching on the north side to be best, as a road without a pavement runs around the rest of the harbour. However, you can also sit in one of the two pubs beer gardens.
Pen sketch of two boats 'waiting' on the mud in Cockwood Harbour.


August 21st – Pen, A5 “Sat on the Harbour wall of Cockwood, with a gentle breeze blowing across me. Here are two of the boats moored up on the edge of the harbour. Waiting for the tide and perhaps a little attention?”


The Exe Estuary is a Special Protection Area and SSSI, supporting a wealth of habits for wildlife. The RSPB has two Nature Reserves beside the estuary, near Topsham at Bowling Green Marshes. The other at Exminster Marshes. There are a lot of wading birds that feed on the estuary mudflats at low tide, searching for lugworm etc. The birds then roost around the periphery of the estuary at high tide. Many migratory birds overwinter here. Including Avocets, Curlew, Lapwing and Brent Geese. The, once rare, Avocet are here now in their hundreds. (I remember being very excited the first time I saw one here!)

Watercolour painting of a Gull standing on a buoy.

Gull on a buoy

February 22nd – Watercolour, A5 ~ Sold. “High tide at Topsham ~ all very quiet in the early morning mist. I can’t see to the other side of the Exe Estuary, but the water is very calm & flat with beautiful reflections. This ‘Little Gull’ stands waiting on a buoy.”
Watercolour sketch of a Cormorant, Just Sitting About

Just sitting about

March 9th – Pen with watercolour washes ~ A5. “Cormorant sitting on a river marker.”
Watercolour sketch of Oystercatchers sitting waiting for the tide to turn.

Waiting for low tide

January 12th – Watercolour ~ A5. “Up early and headed down to the estuary, as the high tide would be pushing the wading birds to the edge of the foreshore. This little sketch shows the Oystercatchers standing in a group waiting. With their beaks tucked along their backs, for the tide to turn. So they can once more head out into the estuary mud, in search of their food.”

Exe Estuary Visitor Code Be Safe:

Be aware of the dangers from rising tides, soft mud, cliff edges and strong currents. Prevent litter: Bin litter or take it home with you. Observe estuary bylaws & warning signs: Check signage and don’t block access points. Avoid disturbing wildlife: Keep dogs under control and watch wildlife from a distance, especially birds gathering at high water.


Watercolour painting of the sun setting over the Exe Estuary.

Sunset over the Exe

June 14th – Watercolour, A5 “Walking along the eastern shoreline, all is quiet except for the birds calling at the edge of the tide. Sitting sketching as the sun goes down. Later a Heron is wading past me intent on searching for fish in the shallows.”

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