Walking and sketching along the Otter Estuary and coast path. This is one of my favourite walks in the area. Over the years I have sat and sketched several different views along the route. During this time of ‘lockdown’, this is my attempt to describe and illustrate this beautiful short walk.

So if you have time, join me for a gentle, virtual stroll along the coast path. From ‘the White Bridge’ along the Otter Estuary, around the coast heading eastwards to Brandy Head.

A little sketch map

A watercolour map of the Otter Estuary walk
“We are on the outskirts of Budleigh Salterton. Turning off the B3178, we drive along the straight, narrow country lane that leads to Pynes Farm Shop. As we drive over the ‘White Bridge’ we are on the lookout for a place to park – hopefully in one of the laybys on the right. By the reed beds.
Once out of the car we can smell the scent of the sea, being brought to us by a playful breeze blowing up the Otter Estuary. The estuary just at the moment is obscured from us by the tall reeds, gently moving in the wind. If we are lucky we might catch a glimpse of a Reed Warbler or Bunting going about its business.
Watercolour sketch of Reed Beds
Pulling on our boots, locking the car and swinging on our rucksacks, which is stashed full of essentials – a flask of tea, sandwiches, binoculars and a sketching kit. I don’t think it is going to rain, so haven’t worried about packing coats today.
Pen sketch of a stile on the Coast Path.

Onto the Coast Path

We are swiftly through the stile and following the coast path. On our left a mature Horse Chestnut stands, slowly getting ready for Autumn and its bounty of ‘Conkers’.

We are following the meandering footpath as it runs along the field margin. With views of the Estuary only glimpsed at the moment, through the trees on our right.
In the field, silhouetted against the sky, ploughing has already started. Gulls are spiralling around the newly turned soil, swooping and following in the tractors wake.

Pen sketch of a tractor ploughing.
Dropping into a small combe we are surrounded by Blackthorn and cross the muddy stream by a bridge. ‘Bridge’ is a grand word for it, more of a plank with a handrail, but it gets us across dry-shod, so all is well. Emerging from the combe, it’s a short, steep pull up to the next field. Here the line of Scots Pines start – for which this side of the estuary is famous. They will stay with us now until we reach the mouth of the river.

Bird Hide

On our right, a small path heads through the trees and leads down to a large bird hide. As we enter the hide it is cool & dark until we open the wooden slit shutters.
Now, at last, we can look at the Estuary properly.
From this wide-sweeping viewpoint, the main river channel is below us. It’s running through the tidal marshland, which is breaking up into small, bright green islands. On the far side of the river Otter, there is a small group of Canada Geese, dozing in the sun. A Curlew walks slowly along. Further downstream a Cormorant ‘drys’ its wings, standing on a log, protruding from the water. And a Heron is quietly fishing. Let’s stop here for a minute, take out our flask. Pour a cup of tea and unobtrusively watch the comings and goings of the birds below us.
Watercolour sketch of Canada Geese sitting ion a grassy bank.
Canada Geese dozing in the sun.

The Winding Path

After our cuppa, we close up the hide, head back through the trees and continue our path southwards. The path now is very sandy in places. When my son was younger we used to carry a bucket & spade with us on this walk. So that he could stop, do a little digging and play.
Watercolour and pen sketch the 'Winding Path'
Watercolour sketch looking through the Scots Pines to the Otter Estuary beyond.
The Estuary is widening, the pines are thinning out and we can look out at Budleigh Salterton’s pebble spit running across the mouth of the Otter. Leaving only a small gap for the river to escape through – the river turns and follows the spit as the water searches for the sea. It is hard, now, to imagine the estuary without its spit of pebbles. Only in our mind’s eye does Walter Raleigh sail upriver, to find his anchorage at East Budleigh!

Walking on, the pines fail and we see the roof of a submerged pillbox in the grasses, nettles and ferns. This is now, a little bat sanctuary and access is denied to us. However, just by it, a steep little path leads down to a small pebbly beach which is opposite the end of Budleigh Salterton’s spit. Here the River Otter rushes past us with people gathering on the end of the spit to watch it, swim and throw in pebbles. Isn’t this what life is all about? I’m sure Tom Sawyer would agree.

Watercolour sketch of Budleigh's Pebble Spit.
Pen sketch of Budleigh's Pebble Bar.
To left and right of our little beach, the river has eroded the soft sandstone cliffs into statuesque shapes and little caves. The rocks show the different river heights by the rings of pebbles and sand left on them.

Back on the Coast Path

and we are heading eastwards now, on the cliffs proper. Take care not to get to close to the edge though, as the cliffs are only made of sandstone (from the Triassic era) and are very crumbly. Indeed in places cracks can be seen running through the grass close by. From here we can see that the little ‘hill’ (as seen from Budleigh Salterton) at the end of this headland is nothing but a ‘facade’. In a few years, it will have dropped into the sea. Leaving a completely different profile to the headland.

The coast path here is scattered with wildflowers. Ox-eye Daisy, Knapweed and carpets of delightful Thrift.

Charcoal sketch of a group of Oxeye Daisy's
There is a little pull up the hill to reach Black Head. From here we can look back westwards to Budleigh with the red Devon cliffs beyond and the rising West Down Beacon. The sea looks lovely, glittering under the sun, with the shadows of clouds upon it. Around the cliffs of Black Head, gulls have found small ledges to nest on. The birds sit on their lofty terraces, raising their chicks and doing their best to ignore us.

The going is easy now and although the sun is warming us, there is still the pleasant sea breeze to stop us from overheating. For much of the walk along the cliffs, we are accompanied by Skylarks singing overhead – beautiful!

Pencil and watercolour sketch of the World War 2, Observation Post on Brandy Head.

Brandy Head

We are closing now on Brandy Head, so-called because of the smuggling that used to be carried out here. Though today it is dominated by the derelict building of the WW2 Observation Hut. The Gunnery research range started here in July 1940. The observation hut has a viewing balcony looking seawards and thick blast walls at the rear. The Exeter based Gunnery Research Unit, attached to Number 10 Group RAF, used the hut to observe different aircraft. These included Typhoons, Hurricanes and Spitfires. These would fly seawards from Exeter to test their weapons, aiming at flag targets and steel structures placed out in the bay. Later an armour-plated target was placed in the fields behind the hut. It is said that local Otterton boys would sneak across the fields at night to hide under the hedges and watch the aircraft firing their weapons. Probably not an entirely safe practice!

From this headland, you can see further on, eastwards along the southern coast to Ladram Bay, Sidmouth and the Dorset coast beyond.
At this point, you could do a longer ’round trip’ by walking further on following the footpath inland to Otterton and from there back to the car. However, today we are here to see the sea and are happy to retrace our steps.

Watercolour sketch looking west along the South Devon coast path, to Black Head.
Let’s also now, stop and eat those sandwiches, looking westwards, with the coast path running back along the undulating cliffs.”

The Sketches

‘Reed Beds’, watercolour ~ A5,

‘Stile to the coast path’, sketching pen ~ A5,

‘Speed the Plough’, sketching pen & brush pen ~ A5,

‘Snoozing Canada Geese’, watercolour ~ A5,

‘The winding path’, watercolour, Indian ink with brush ~ A4,

‘Through the trees to the Otter’, watercolour ~ A5,

‘Budleigh Spit’, watercolour & pen ~ A4,

‘Budleigh Salterton’s Spit’, sketching pen ~ A5,

‘Statuesque rock shapes at the mouth of the Otter’, watercolour ~ A5,

‘Oxeye Daisy’s’, charcoal ~ A3,

‘Brandy Head Observation Hut’, acrylic + Gesso on watercolour paper & 6B pencil ~ A4,

‘Looking back at Black Head’, watercolour ~ A5.

My usual sketching pad is a smooth cartridge paper, either ‘Daler Rowney’ or ‘Winsor & Newton’. For walking, I often take an A5 size sketchbook, as this fits easily into my rucksack.
For more thoughts on sketching check out my sketching tips post.

© Copyright Nick Watton.
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