Note: this walk runs along the sea wall, and should not be attempted in stormy weather as waves break over the sea wall, and there is the risk of being swept off.
- Leaving Dawlish Warren Railway Station along Beach Road, turn left to go under the railway arch and into the Dawlish Warren National Nature Reserve. Pick up the footpath at the far end of the car park and walk past the visitor centre, carrying on through the nature reserve until you come to the beach, on your right. On the beach turn right and walk down to the sea wall.
The nature reserve at Dawlish Warren is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, as well as being a Special Area of Conservation and a Ramsar site (a wetland of international importance as a wildfowl habitat). Visitors are welcome to walk in the dunes around the visitors centre, but there is no public access to the golf course, or to the mudflats to the north and west, which are the winter feeding ground for Brent Geese and other birds. Because of roosting birds, visitors are excluded from the area east of Groyne 9 for 2 – 3 hours either side of the high tide between late August and late March. Dogs are not allowed in this area or on the mudflats at any time, and in the dunes area they need to be on a short lead. See the notices in the reserve for more information.
The South West England's most important feeding area for wildfowl and waders, the Exe Estuary has up to 20,000 waterbirds of as many as 20 different species. It is particularly for its large numbers of Black-tailed Godwits and Brent Geese, and its Avocets form one of Britain's largest winter flocks. At high tide up to 8000 wading birds rest at Warren Point. The site also supports over 600 plant species, such as the petalwort, a very rare liverwort, and the rare sand crocus, known unofficially here as the Warren crocus and found in only one other place in the UK.
Other birds to be seen in large numbers in the reserve are thousands of dunlins and oystercatchers, several hundred curlews, as well as ringed and grey plovers, and a few dozen sanderlings, knots and turnstones. Larger species can be seen roosting in flocks along the tideline, while the smaller birds get together on the mud and gravel. Occasionally grey herons and kingfishers can be seen fishing in the area, and sometimes even peregrines. Rare in Britain but increasingly common in this part of the south west, little egrets are sometimes spotted flying through, and in hard weather occasionally a snow bunting is sighted on the beach. A short-eared owl has been seen in the dunes near the point, and reed buntings sing from the central bushes, sometimes accompanied by cirl buntings from nearby farmland.
- Carry on ahead along the sea wall and the cliff-side path, heading towards the headland at Langstone Rock.
The headland, like the cliffs, is formed of red sandstone and breccia (in this case a red sandstone with angular fragments of pale limestone embedded in it). The sandstone of these rocks was laid down in an ancient desert, and the limestone was embedded in the breccia after flash flooding had swept debris across the rocky plains in the Permian period, some 280 million years ago (see the Maidencombe Walk).
- Carry on along the South West Coast Path, walking alongside the railway line to Dawlish Station.
At the far end of the car park are the remains of one of the pumping houses designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel for his ingenious but ill-fated atmospheric railway (see the Teignmouth to Dawlish Railway Walk). The railway was built in 1845-6, and it is said that 2000 men were needed to blast the cliffs, excavate the five tunnels, lay the line and build the sea wall. Brunel had expected the breakwaters to cause sand to accumulate on the beach and prevent the sea from breaking over the sea wall except in gale-force winds, but there were major breaches under the winter of 1872-3, and the water still washes over the wall during particularly high tides or stormy conditions.
- From the station car park continue along the road with the sea to your left, then turn right along Brookdale Terrace, bearing left at the lights to walk along Brunswick Place, where a terrace of fine Regency houses lines the river. For a shorter version of the walk, turn right onto the main road after leaving the station and carry on towards Dawlish Warren, rejoining the main route to pick up the inland stretch of the South West Coast Path at 12.
- At the end of Brunswick Place cross the road by the black swan toilet block and take the path ahead running along the left bank of the brook. Keeping the stream to your right, go under the arch to walk through the Manor Grounds, crossing the little bridge over the mill leat at the end to go along the path to the left of the leat, which will take you to Church Street.
Dawlish is famous for its black swans, still to be seen on the brook, as well as many other species of waterfowl. The swans were brought in from New Zealand in 1906 by Dawlish-born John Nash, who was a frequent visitor although he had emigrated some years before, and the town subsequently adopted the black swan as its emblem. Dawlish takes its name from the Celtic word 'Deawlisc', meaning 'Devil Water'. After heavy rainfall the water streaming into the town is stained red from the disintegration of red rocks uphill, which the superstitious prehistoric folk took to be blood.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the mill leat supplied power for several water wheels in the town, including the former Strand or Torbay Mill, whose buildings and huge water wheel can still be seen in Brunswick Place (where the mill is now a restaurant). The wheel, 30ft in diameter, is a 'pitchback' type – the most common type of waterwheel, where the wheel turns in the direction taken by the used water as it flows away. The brick-built launder (trough) has been restored and the wheel now turns again.
- Turn left into Church Street and go through the gate by the lime tree, following the path through Newhay. Carry on past the millpond and alongside the leat beyond it. Beside the Newhay Falls another leat joins from the Aller Valley. Go through the gate and on to the road ahead.
- Turn right up Aller Hill and walk to Weech Road.
- Turn right on Weech Road.
On your right as you walk down Weech Road, the imposing grey stone house was formerly the vicarage. This was once earmarked as the potential station for a scheme proposing a railway line behind the town, although the line was never constructed. At the bottom of Badlake Hill, (joining Weech Road on your left as you approach the Swan Inn), there are several attractive thatched cottages and the former cider-making farm and malt house. A little way beyond, a Victorian Gothic drinking fountain is set in the corner of a wall, and the grey stone public library, further on again, was originally a soup kitchen. Reaching the High Street, you come to the site of the former Ferris Brewery. Bottling the beers it made from local barley and mineral waters, the brewery used a distinctive marble bottle-stopper still sometimes seen in the town.
- Continue along Old Town Street at the Swan Inn, bearing left along Park Road.
- Carry on along the High Street to the main Exeter Road.
- On the main road turn left.
- Passing Sandy Lane on your left, a small road leads off to the right shortly afterwards, (just before Henty Avenue on the left). Turn right onto this road, and take the footpath to the right a little way on. Picking up the South West Coast Path on the inland side of the railway line, follow it to where it comes out on Beach Road and turn right to return to Dawlish Warren Station.
Dogs are allowed on Dawlish Warren Beach (between groynes 3 and 9) and Dawlish Town Beach (to the left of the viaduct) throughout the year.