The River Heddon is a river in Devon, in the south of England. Running along the western edges of Exmoor, the river reaches the North Devon coast at Heddon's Mouth. The nearest road access to the beach is at Hunter's Inn, approximately 2 km south of sea-fall. The area was very popular with the Romantic poets, especially William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
The Heddon Valley is renowned for its natural environment, with bridges and stepping stones along the river, meadows, and walks which start from the National Trust shop and information centre which has been in the ownership of the National Trust since 1963.
*** – Hedddon Mouth – ***
The cobbled beach at Heddon's Mouth is approximately 300m wide and is only accessible through footpaths on the National Trust land or via the South West Coast Path. There are remains of a lime kiln on its western edge. The valley immediately landwards of the beach has steep slopes to its east and west, with the hills climbing over 200 m in altitude within 500 m of the river. The remains of a Roman fortlet are visible on the hilltop to the east of Heddon's Mouth.
In previous times it was a popular venue for smugglers, but is now a popular destination for ramblers. In 1885 a Mr E.D. Weedon was awarded the Royal Humane Society’s Bronze Medal for saving the life of Mr T. Groves at the locality. In 1923 a pleasure steamer that had just left Ilfracombe broke its rudder and began to drift out to sea, but was towed to the cove and its 400 passengers safely decanted.
The cove is so isolated that during World War II, a German U-Boat captain was able to allow his men ashore in search of fresh water supplies and relaxation without fear of detection. The Lynton & Barnstaple Railway once ran through part of the valley, halting at the small village of Parracombe.
*** – Exploring – ***
The Heddon Valley, is a deep, lush wooded river valley or 'combe' running down to the sea. Visit the National Trust shop and information centre and make use of their car park and toilets. The Hunter's Inn serves delicious meals and every pint or meal you enjoy directly supports the conservation in the valley, a great way to start your exploration of this part of West Exmoor.
Just a short walk from the Heddon Valley National Trust car park, visiting Heddon's Mouth is a must do. Follow the path alongside the river and enjoy the shade from gnarly sessile oaks, opening out to sheer scree slopes that dominate the skyline. The pebbly beach at Heddon's Mouth is ever changing and dramatic.
If you want to escape the hustle and bustle, Woody Bay is the perfect location. Walk down the steep track to this secluded pebble beach which is towered over by looming cliffs, and listen to the sounds of seabirds. A fantastic place for a wild swim or a quiet family picnic.
Towering sea cliffs and spectacular moorland scenery offering energetic walking and wonderful views over Combe Martin and the Bristol Channel. The miners' paths and old iron ore works at Blackstone Point evoke a long mining history.
Holdstone and Trentishoe Downs.
These apparently unspoilt heathlands have been marked by human activity for millennia. With evidence of Bronze Age huts and cairns, there is also more recent archaeology: Military exercises took place here in the 1940s, and beneath the heather lie the remains of mortar positions, a tank turret and shell casings.
You can see lime kilns at Combe Martin, Woody Bay, Lynmouth, Watersmeet and at Heddon’s Mouth. These are relics of a huge 19th-century industry supplying lime to fertilise the acidic soil of Exmoor. Although limestone was quarried locally around Combe Martin, larger quantities were shipped - together with coal for burning - from South Wales. Most kilns were built on harbour sides or beaches to avoid the need to transport raw materials over land.
When it became cheaper to crush the limestone the kilns were no longer needed and have been unused for over 100 years. The kiln at Heddon’s Mouth was restored in 1982 and a new boulder wall, built in 1991, now protects the kiln from storms and high tides.
*** – History – ***
Find out more about Colonel Benjamin Lake and the Woody Bay Estate Company in a thrilling history of fraud, deception and embezzlement in Victorian Martinhoe.
Colonel Benjamin Greene Lake was an ambitious man with a vision inspired by his era. He was born in 1839 in Orpington, Kent, two years into the reign of Queen Victoria. It was an auspicious time: slavery in the United Kingdom was abolished in 1838; steam railway and iron clad paddle steamers opened up the country and the seas; and there was the beginning of social and political reform.
As a young man a visit to The Great Exhibition in 1851 at Crystal Palace must have left a lasting impression. The Crimean War, mutinies in India, followed by the Boer War may well have influenced his decision to join Her Majesty’s Auxillary Forces (the 3rd Mdx RV ). He rose to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and although the rank was an honorary one he later styled himself as Colonel Lake.
Under the long-term Liberal government of William Gladstone, and the enduring successful reign of Queen Victoria, Britain was experiencing an unprecedented period of stability allowing for exciting new discoveries and flourishing entrepreneurship. Benjamin Lake became a successful solicitor in a family business, at first with his father and after his death, with his cousin George Edward Lake at Lincoln’s Inn, London.
In his lifetime he would have seen Darwin publish ‘Origin of Species’, electric light installed for domestic use for the first time, Marconi discover radio waves and followed the building of the Suez Canal. He would have been driven by these exciting discoveries of his time to make his own mark on the world.
Following his dream, in 1885 at the age of 46, he purchased the Martinhoe Manor Estate from Sir Nicholas William Throckmorton, Baronet from Warwickshire. Described in the 1870 edition of John Marius Wilson’s Imperial Gazetter of England and Wales as,
“…a parish with a picturesque little Village…Acres 2.549 Real property, £1,186. Pop 219. Houses 44. The manor was originally called Martin’s Hoe or Martin’s Hill; took its name from the family of Martyn, who were anciently its owners; went from them to Mauger St.Albyn, and remained with his descendents till 1422; and thence passed through various hands to Sir R Throckmorton. The living is a rectory in the diocese of Exeter. Value £109.”
Possibly emulating Sir George Newnes grand designs in Lyton and Lynmouth Benjamin Lake had his own ambitious schemes to develop the then named Wooda Bay as an exclusive holiday resort. Three miles west of Lynton and 8 miles east of Combe Martin it seemed to be an excellent location. Commercial paddle steamers were plying their trade along the south-west coast and it had become fashionable to ‘take the air’ at such sea-side resorts as Lynmouth and Ilfracombe.
That all was not well with his financial affairs may have been foreseen from the fact that Lake immediately mortgaged the estate for £25,000 to settle the debt he had incurred by speculating in Kent Coal shares in which he lost £28,000 in 1878. Further financial difficulties were to plague his development plans for the next five years.
He immediately embarked on an ambitious scheme of road building and construction. In 1888-1894 he converted the manor house, known as Wooda Bay, into the Wooda Bay Hotel which is now known as Martinhoe Manor. He planned and built eight houses including a post office and the Glen Hotel and the Stables now known as Woody Bay Hotel and The Coach House. In 1893-5 he built a 16ft wide road from Hunter’s Inn to Wooda Bay over the common to Martinhoe Cross and in 1896 a further new road running past the Glen Hotel to join the cliff road. A further coach road was built running between the bay and Hunter’s Inn.
November 23rd 1894 saw the plans for a grand pier, access and other works to the beach and the bay, posted in the London Gazette.
"To make, construct, and maintain an open pier, causeway, or jetty, to be constructed of piles strongly braced and supported, and with iron stairways…”
It was initially planned to be about 100 yards long with a dog-leg extension and a landing stage but due to financial difficulties he had to settle for a single pier 80 yards long. Construction stated in 1895 but in October a heavy north-west gale sprang up and drove ashore the vessel from which they were driving the piles. The contractors lost their pile-driver and steam engine and went bankrupt. It was eventually completed and officially opened 15th April 1897. However, bad planning meant that inclement weather and low tides prevented the first ships from docking and furthermore the pier was not long enough to cater for landings at low tide.
In 1895 Lady Newnes cut the first sod for the new narrow-gauge steam, Lynton to Barnstaple Railway. Lake agreed to allow the directors of the railway to locate a station at Martinhoe Cross on his land free of charge. In exchange he would be allowed to site a junction at the now renamed Wooda Bay Station for his branch line to access the bay. He also had plans for a cliff railway down to the bay based on the design of the Lynton-Lynmouth verticular railway that runs up the cliffs giving access between the two towns. Woody Bay station was finished and opened on 11th May 1898 along with the Lynton to Barnstaple Railway.
Hunter’s Inn, situated in the Heddon Valley, was originally a thatched farm cottage on the Martinhoe Estate. It became a meeting place for local people and ale was served there from the eighteenth century by the Berry family, who were the original tenants. Sadly in 1895 it was almost entirely destroyed by fire. Not to be deterred Benjamin Lake decided to lay the foundations for a grand new Inn that same year. It was designed to look like a fashionable Swiss Chalet due to the district of Lynton and Lynmouth being known as ‘Little Switzerland’.
Colonel Lake continued pouring money into the area in an effort to see his dream become a reality. This included a small golf-course, opened in 1894, at Martinhoe Common, and a bathing pool on the beach at Woody Bay. His standing in the local community grew and he became chairman of the Law Society and a Devon Justice of the Peace. However, as it transpired, it wasn’t all his own money.
On Tuesday 22nd January 1901 he appeared before the magistrate court at the Old Bailey in London. Denying any knowledge of the misuse of funds he blamed everything on his cousin’s book-keeping, saying that any irregularities for which he had been responsible had been done at his cousin’s request, and that he only found out about the full extent of the fraud upon his cousin’s death in Berlin in 1899.
It seems, from some sources, that controversy even surrounds his cousin’s death. George kept a mistress in a £3000 per annum establishment and was entangled with another lady. Even though a coffin and paperwork were flown back to England people were said to have seen him alive and well several years later. This claim, however, did not stop an official investigation by the Treasury and an indictment containing no fewer than seventeen charges.
The jury were only asked to give their verdict on four cases, and in three out of the four the verdict was ‘Guilty’. Benjamin Lake was forced into bankruptcy with debts of over £170,000, a great deal of money. On the day Queen Victoria died 1901 he was sentenced to twelve years ‘penal servitude’ for using his client’s savings. The Judge, Mr Justice Wills, likened the case to that of Jabez Balfour, another late Victorian swindler and and in summing up the case showed little mercy.
“Only a few years ago Mr.Benjamin Lake had been President of the Incorporated Law Society, and chairman of the Disciplinary Committee which investigates charges of alleged malpractice by solicitors and was a man of wide business experience, and especially versed in finance. Mr Lake’s punishment is severe, but it is not out of proportion to the far-reaching nature of his offence. His has not only cheated and ruined many of his clients, but he has, in the words of the Times, “done more than any living person to diffuse a sense of distrust and suspicion injurious to a profession in the members of which we must repose confidence.”
At the end of the trial, Benjamin Lake’s last words were;
“My Lord, I may, before I pass from the dock, thank you for the infinite pains you have taken. Those who may know my daily life know how far it is from possible for me to commit such offences. If I have been guilty, as your Lordship is bound to presume, your sentence is a light one.”
Jabez Balfour who also served time in Portland Prison described it in his memoirs as “a heart-breaking, soul-enslaving, brain-destroying, hell upon earth".
Benjamin Lake served eight years of his sentence before obtaining an early release in July 1906 due to ill health. He died of general atheroma, influenza and apoplexy (stroke) coma on 22nd June in 1909 at his son’s home of Woodfield Lodge in Streatham, at 70 years of age.
So what happened to his grand designs? Any prospect of further intensive developments around Martinhoe sadly died with him. Wooda Bay estates including some 1930 acres, Wooda Bay Station Hotel, Hunter’s Inn and various other property and plots of land in and around Woody Bay were auctioned in 1900. Squire Charles Frederick Bailey bought the first nine lots including the Wooda Bay Hotel for £6500 along with the Wooda Bay Building Estate. A local brewery Starkey Knight and Ford purchased the Station Hotel and surrounding farmland which they put out to lease including the Wooda Bay Golf Links.
The pier was severely damaged by a storm in 1899, followed by another one year later. It has been suggested that the locals ‘helped it on its way’ as it was never repaired and the remains were demolished for scrap by them in 1902. It is rumoured that the good pitch pine recovered from the pier can be found in refurbishments to local houses. The foundations and access can still be seen on the shoreline today and local fishermen and visitors alike practise their sport from the pier base at low tide.
Neither the branch railway line nor the cliff railway were ever built. Furthermore, despite a Royal visit to Woody Bay station in 1905 when Princess Christian and Princess Victoria left the train to take a drive in the countryside, the Lynton-Barnstaple Railway itself could not compete with the improving road transport and closed after only 37 years in 1935. The station was purchased in 1995 by the Lynton-Barnstaple Railway Trust and Woody Bay Station opened for visitors in 2004.
The Hunter’s Inn was not completed until 1906 and when horses gave way to motor-vehicles drew an increasing number of visits from day-trippers in charabanc outings, reaching its peak in the 1970’s. It is today a successful business serving visitors, guests and locals all year round.
Some might say that divine justice was served in the end. History saw misappropriated public funds used to privately develop the area, but in 1965 it entered into public use when the estate was sold to the National Trust. Today thousands of visitors every year unknowingly enjoy the legacy that Benjamin Lake left behind when they walk the carriageway, visit the beach at Woody Bay, take a lunch at Hunter’s Inn or enjoy a ride in a steam train at Woody Bay Station. Perhaps a few of them might be inspired by his vision or find wisdom in this cautionary tale.
*** – Visiting – ***
Discover some of the great walks around Heddon Valley. From short trails to enjoy with the family to longer hikes along the North Devon coast, there's something for everyone. There are even paths suitable for all-terrain pushchairs and trampers. Dogs are welcome throughout Heddon Valley and in the Hunter's Inn too, there is even doggie ice cream available in the shop.
The Pantry. The pantry is open every weekend serving take away hot drinks, cakes and ice creams. In line with government guidance, you're required to wear a face covering in most enclosed spaces, unless exempt. Please bring one with you.
*** – Gentle walk to Heddon's Mouth – ***
A gentle stroll through ancient woodland alongside the River Heddon, to where it meets the sea between some of England's highest cliffs. Designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest, the Heddon Valley is home to a variety of wildlife including otters and the rare high brown fritillary butterfly. You'll also find a restored 19th-century lime kiln on the beach, and a traditional country inn at the end of the walk in the local 'Swiss style'. The walk is classified as Easy, it is two miles long and should take about one hour. It is dog friendly. This route is fully accessible. There are two all-terrain mobility scooters, or ‘Trampers’, available to hire in the Heddon Valley.
Start: National Trust gift shop.
*** – Heddon Valley to Woody Bay Walk – ***
A varied walk that follows an historic 19th century carriageway and a section of the South West Coast Path along some of the highest and most dramatic cliffs in England. The views along the coast and across to Wales are breathtaking. Along the way you will pass a Roman Fortlet and walk through ancient sessile oak woodlands. In the spring and summer the cliffs are alive with a variety of sea birds. The walk is classified as Challenging, it is six miles long and should take between two and a half and three hours. It is dog friendly. This route is fully accessible. There are two all-terrain mobility scooters, or ‘Trampers’, available to hire in the Heddon Valley.
Start: National Trust gift shop.
*** – Heddon Valley coast walk – ***
This short but challenging walk takes you along some of the highest and most spectacular sea cliffs in England and is a must-do for butterfly lovers and photographers, as well as a great dog walk. The path climbs steeply upwards across scree slopes to Peter's Rock where there are far-reaching views across to Wales. Further along there are spectacular views along the coast to Great and Little Hangman and Lundy Island. Parts of this walk offer habitat to the rare High Brown fritillary butterfly, as well as to more common Dark Green and Silver-washed fritillaries. There are wildflowers in abundance in spring and in August the cliffs are blanketed in purple heather. The walk is classified as Challenging, it is 3.5 miles long and should take about one and a half hours to complete. It is dog friendly.
Start: National Trust Gift shop.
*** – Facilities – ***
Location : Heddon Valley, Near Parracombe, Barnstaple, Devon, EX31 4PY
Transport: Barnstaple (National Rail) then bus 17 miles. Bus Routes : 309 and 310. Regular service from Barnstaple to Lynton (passing close Barnstaple train station), alight just north of Parracombe, then 2 miles.
Opening Times : Dawn to Dusk.
Tickets : Free.
Tel: 01598 763402