First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
The seaside village of Beer was looking particularly good this sunny afternoon from our viewpoint on Beer Head cliffs. The houses huddled close behind their pebbly beach, set between cliffs spectacularly coloured in red, grey and white. Beyond the cove a yellow strand led off east toward the long line of Chesil Beach and the low wedge of the Isle of Portland, blue and misty in sea haze.
Its isolated position and handy nearby caves made Beer a natural haven for smugglers. King of them all was Jack Rattenbury, the ‘Rob Roy of the West’. What a rollercoaster life he enjoyed in the early years of the 19th century. Jack was captured again and again, by the French, by the Spanish, by the excisemen and the press gang. Somehow he managed to return like a bad penny to his native harbour at Beer; usually richer and never the wiser.
We followed the path over the coastal pastures of South Common, past a gaunt old signal tower and steeply downhill to the pebbly beach at Branscombe Mouth.
Just inland, the village of Branscombe curled along its road towards the fortress-like tower of St Winifred’s Church. In the cool interior we found a beautifully carved Elizabethan west gallery, and on the wall nearby a painting made perhaps a hundred years earlier.
Only one of the Seven Deadly Sins depicted has survived – Lust, portrayed by a man with flowing hair under a green cap, and a woman in décolleté with a saucy pillbox hat. Gazing amorously at one another, they seem quite undeterred by the spear being rammed through their midriffs by a half obliterated devil.
A fluffy cat came to help us with our picnic on the bench outside. Then we climbed a steep path up the bank opposite, through woods scented with wild garlic, to reach the coast path and a steep descent to Branscombe Mouth once more.
In March 1790 a mighty landslip caused Hooken Cliff, just east of Branscombe Mouth, to crash seaward. The homeward path led through the undercliff created by the slip, a tremendously lush, ferny ‘lost world’ where whitethroats and thrushes sang their evening melodies among spires and towers of rock.
The cliff faces over our heads were banded in brilliant white chalk, dusky red mudstone and greensand. Looking back from the top of the climb we had a last glimpse of the westward coast, the sea sparkling in late sun, the cliffs marching away in red sandstone slopes to be lost in the evening sea fog along the distant shores of Tor Bay.
How hard is it? 6 miles; strenuous; many steep steps, some unguarded cliff edges.
Start: Cliff Top car park, Common Hill, Beer, EX12 3AQ (OS ref SY 227888)
Getting there: Bus 899 (Sidmouth-Seaton), Mon-Sat
Road – Beer is on B3174 (signed off A3052, Lyme Regis-Sidford)
Walk (OS Explorer 115, 116): Left up road. In 400m fork left (224887, ‘Bridleway’). Follow Coast Path to Branscombe Mouth. Many steps down East Cliff. At foot of West Cliff, right (207881, ‘Branscombe Village’) to Branscombe. Left at road (198887) to church (196885). Left through churchyard, down to cross stile on south boundary (yellow arrow). Steeply up steps to Coast Path (196882). Left to Branscombe Mouth. Up first field of East Cliff; keep ahead at fingerpost (210881, ‘Coast Path Beer’) between chalets and on through undercliff (narrow path, slippery in places, unguarded edges, many steps). In 1 mile climb to clifftop path (222880); right to car park.
Lunch: Smugglers Kitchen, Fore St, Beer EX12 3JF (01297-22104, thesmugglerskitchen.co.uk)
Accommodation: Bay View, Fore St, Beer EX12 3EE (01297-20489, bayviewguesthousebeer.com)