From Teignmouth there’s a coast path heading east from the town beach, heading towards Dawlish. I have a cream cheese sandwich, a banana, and a bottle of water in my rucksack, and off I go. I’ve been writing non-stop for 2 days and I need a break. I need to stretch my limbs and get some air.
The sea is amazingly calm today. Amazing, given how fierce I know it can be. But today there’s hardly any wind and the seagulls are wondering what to do with themselves, apart from the usual scavenging.
I’ve seen this beach a thousand times from the windows of the train that hurtles past it, just a few metres beyond the sea wall. Brunel thought it would be a great idea to put his western railway here, between the crumbling cliffs and the sea.
The beach is long, straight, red sanded from the sandstone. We’ll come back to that in a minute.
About a mile out of Teignmouth town centre there’s this section of cliff covered in netting and elaborate high-tech sensors. I’m assuming - I’m hoping - that this is an early warning system. If the sensors detect movement, they automatically set the signals on the rail line below in such a way that trains moving on it stop, or move quickly out of the way, to avoid being landslipped upon. I hope so, anyway.
You have to divert inland a bit, while the train goes through a set of short tunnels. I’d love to explore the cliffs beneath me from sea level, in a kayak, on a gentle day like this one. But for now I don’t have a kayak and I’m walking, so I say hello to some cows and they ignore me.
As you descend on the other side of this hill covered in cows, you come through a series of spectacular cuts deep into the rock. This is New Red Sandstone, it’s the bedrock for miles around. It’s soft and crumbly and when you see it up close, it’s incredible to think that anyone decided to build a railway on it. Let alone through it.
This stuff is 250 million years old, give or take, and was laid down when this bit of Devon was a desert, much nearer to the equator. These cliffs used to be dunes.
Now you’re heading down into Dawlish, a cute seaside town with its seaside aspect destroyed by Brunel’s brutal efficiency. The rail line sits where a promenade would be in most other towns. The beach is a narrow strip hugging the westbound platform. Bed and breakfasts look out over high speed intercity connections to Bristol and the Midlands one way, and to Paignton, Plymouth and Penzance the other way.
That crumbling cliff back in Teignmouth, covered in sensors? Network Rail wants to make the line more resilient there, by building out into the sea, and moving the railway line further away from the cliffs. Some locals are dead against it, fearing the total desctruction of the beach. All along this walk there are protest posters attached to railings and lampposts.
I can see their point of view - it would be tragic to build on a beautiful bit of beach. But I can see the other side too. Devon and Cornwall are far enough away from the rest of the country that reliable, high-speed train connections are a necessity. Short of building an entirely new line, HS2-style, across some other bit of land, re-building and improving this one is the only option.
Just by Dawlish there’s a small beach called Coryton that I suspect is mainly just used by locals.
The red cliffs loom over it on each side. The railway barges past it at the back. The waves lap on the sand, and I have a chance to dip my hot feet and eat my cream cheese sandwich.
Filed under: walks
(27 June 2019)