- Start in the centre of Torcross, with your back to the Start Bay Stores. Cross the road and turn left, continuing alongside the road to join the permissive path to Stokenham, which also carries on beside the road. Leave the road at the Stokeley Barton Farm Shop entrance and follow the path to the caravan site beyond.
The largest natural lake in south-west England, Slapton Ley is separated from the sea by just a narrow shingle bar, and yet it is entirely freshwater. It is surrounded by reedbeds, marshes and woodland habitats and is a National Nature Reserve. Its 214 hectares is managed by the Field Studies Council in partnership with Natural England, as well as the owners, Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust, and the South Hams District Council.
Look out for wildflowers on the shingle ridge during the summer, including the yellow horned-poppy and the tall spikes of blue and purple vipers bugloss. The shoreline of the lake is also the only place in Britain where you can find strapwort, whose straggly leaf stems grow in ground-hugging rosettes tipped with tiny white flowers. 250 species of lichen grow here, and an astonishing 2000 different species of fungi, including 29 which have been described as new to science. Other residents of the reserve include badgers, otters, dormice and bats.
It is also a bird-spotter's paradise. The rare Cetti's warbler can be heard all year round, and it is an important staging post for wintering and passage birds including swallows, as well as being home to an abundance of wildfowl and waterbirds. Flocks of up to 1000 of the little black coots can be seen on the open water here, as well as mute swans and mallards. During the winter months, the Lower Ley is home to several hundred ducks, chiefly diving ducks, and flocks of stocky little pochards and larger black and white tufted ducks can be seen in flocks of over 100. Small groups of black and white goldeneye and small stiff-tailed ruddy ducks are sometimes to be found, and dabbling ducks include wigeon and teal. Other occasional visitors are the long-tailed duck and the goosander, a large diving duck with a “sawbill” beak for catching fish. Keep your eyes open for an elegant great crested grebe or a black-necked grebe, as well as eiders, common scoters and great northern divers.
- Turn left along the drive, towards the entrance, bearing right to continue straight ahead past the reception and facilities block. Passing the water point at the far end, cross the lane to carry on along the path ahead and through the field beyond, towards the church tower. Carry on through the church car park and into Stokenham village.
There was a church in Stokenham as early as the twelfth century, but the present building dates from the fifteenth and was refurbished in the nineteenth century.
- Opposite the Church House Inn, turn left to the main road. Turn right along the verge, crossing the road immediately to take the minor lane opposite which bears off to the left. Follow this lane uphill for a short distance, bearing right by an old barn to follow the public byway uphill along a green lane. After this levels out it reaches a junction of surfaced lanes.
- Turn left here, forking left a little way beyond. After the entrance to Mattiscombe Farm, you come to a junction with a narrow lane on the left and a public footpath on the right.
- Go through the gate onto the footpath and cross the field. Keep the woodland to your right and walk to a metal kissing gate at the top. At the surfaced drive turn left and then bear right, almost immediately, along a path that leads into trees.
- Emerging from the trees at a stile into a field, walk along the left-hand boundary to another stile. Crossing this, carry on downhill along the left side of the next large field, dropping to the gate in the bottom left-hand corner of the field. Bear right after the gate and then left almost straight away, keeping the farm building to your right. Carry on down the track to take the right hand of two gates ahead, into a green lane. Cross the stream and climb with the path to a wide track leading into Beeson.
This is part of the estate belonging to Widdicombe House, to the east but not visible from the path. Said to have once belonged to eighteenth-century explorer Captain Cook, during the Second World War the house was General Eisenhower's HQ and the base for Allied troops training here for D-Day (see below). In the grounds to the west is an ancient granite cross, thought to have once been sited at the crossroads linking the paths to various hamlets around Widdicombe.
The green lane is part of an extensive network of ancient routes through the South Hams, some of them dating back to the Bronze Age, 4000 years ago (see the Woodhuish & Mansands Walk).
- At the first junction in the village turn left, downhill, and follow the lane round to the right. At the next junction turn left, following the road downhill, to the right and then to the left.
- At the sharp right-hand turn by a metal gate, after the double bend, bear left to a stile. Cross this to follow the right-hand boundary down towards the sea. Crossing two more stiles and then the green ahead, carry on to the track beside the boulders.
- Turn left onto the South West Coast Path, carrying on along the track and following it inland to the left, as it becomes a footpath beside some cottages. The path descends as it heads back towards the sea and crosses a field before finally dropping down some steps and under a tunnel, onto the end of the beach at Torcross.
At the southern end of Slapton Ley is a Sherman tank, raised from the sea and set up here as a memorial to the 749 US servicemen killed here during the ill-fated Exercise Tiger in 1944. The previous year the British Government had evacuated some 3000 villagers from Start Bay to enable Allied troops to rehearse the landings for the planned D-Day invasion of Normandy. The area was chosen for its similarity to Utah Beach in France, also a lake divided from the sea by a strip of land and a gravel beach, and the exercise lasted from 22 – 30 April. It took place in Tor Bay as well as Start Bay, with 30,000 troops, supported by the Royal Navy, preparing for their landing on nine large tank-landing ships (LSTs). Two destroyers patrolled the entrance to Lyme Bay, along with three motor torpedo boats and two motor gunboats, and another patrol of motor torpedo boats was watching the Cherbourg area, where German E-boats were based.
On the evening of 27th April 1944, a convoy of eight LSTs headed for Brixham, under the escort of HMS Azela. A group of nine German E-Boats was leaving Cherbourg at the same time on a routine reconnaissance mission into the Lyme Bay area. They happened upon the convoy of LSTs and opened fire. The torpedoes hit the ships before there was time to launch the lifeboats, trapping hundreds of soldiers and sailors below decks who went down with the ships. Some were able to dive into the sea but they either drowned or died of hypothermia. All told, 946 men were killed during Exercise Tiger.
- Turn left to return to the start of the walk.