- From Scabbacombe car park go through the gate to take the green lane downhill, signed ‘Scabbacombe Sands Link to Coast Path’. In the field follow the left-hand boundary to come out on the South West Coast Path above Scabbacombe Sands. Detour right to visit the beach.
- On the Coast Path turn left, climbing steeply over the cliffs to walk high above Long Sands for about a mile before dropping gently downhill to Man Sands.
The coastguard cottages above Man Sands were built by Napoleonic prisoners of war at the beginning of the nineteenth century. After the French Revolution towards the end of the previous century, Napoleon's armies had invaded and conquered much of Europe, triggering a series of conflicts as a number of different coalitions between the other European nations sought to prevent the spread of French power. French prisoners-of-war were put to good use in various ways around England, building Dartmoor Prison as well as many smaller constructions like these cottages.
The coastguard service was originally set up to prevent smuggling, which was widespread along this coast in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Coastguard Service Act 1856 stated that the aims of the service were 'to provide for the defence of the coasts of the realm, the more ready manning of the Royal Navy in the event of war or emergency, and the protection of the revenue'. It was not until 1911 that the Admiralty Coastguard Instructions ordered that 'at places where Coastguardsmen are stationed, such Coastguardsmen are to render every possible assistance to the local life-saving services as far as is compatible with their proper duties.'
Down on the beach, the prisoners-of-war also built the boathouse and the lime kiln. The latter is one of many dotted around the south-west coast and was designed to burn limestone and coal together to make lime, which was used as an agricultural fertiliser.
- Ignoring Woodhuish Lane on your left, (unless you wish to avoid the possibility of wet feet ahead), carry on across the shingle bar dividing the lagoon from the sea to the footpath beyond it. Turn left onto the path to head up Mansands Lane, rising gently above the lagoon and the stream that feeds it.
When the seawall was being built in 1986, workers discovered the grave of a young man thought to have been the victim of a shipwreck in an earlier century. In the middle of the nineteenth century the Reverend Hawker of Morwenstow, on the North Cornwall coast, instigated the practice of giving the victims of shipwrecks a decent Christian burial, but before this, their bodies were either left on the shoreline or buried somewhere just above it.
The pastureland behind the beach was reclaimed from the sea, and in 1985 steel gabions were erected in front of it to protect it from rising sea levels. In 2004, however, the National Trust (who own the land) decided to remove these wire baskets of rocks and let the sea flow inland, re-establishing the wetlands which had been drained in the first place to create the farmland. The resultant environment is one of the country's fastest-changing habitats as a result. In 2007 severe gales breached the shingle barrier dividing the lagoon from the sea, changing the mix of saltwater from the sea and freshwater from the river, and the wildlife on the lagoon altered as a result.
Recent bird visitors include waterbirds such as tufted ducks, coots and moorhens, as well as long-beaked shoreline scavengers like sandpipers, oystercatchers and ringed plovers. Swallows, house martins and sand martins dart at high speeds over the water's surface in pursuit of insects. The moist soil around the lagoon is equally good for plant life, and flowers to be seen in the area include early purple orchid, the tiny white star-like flowers of greater stitchwort and the big open heads of the oxeye daisy. Look out, too, for the tall stands of prickly teasel, once used for teasing out the strands of woven fabric. On the cliffs above Scabbacombe Sands there is a colony of fulmars, gull-like birds who live out on the open ocean but come back to the coast to breed, and in Woodhuish Farm, above, the organic and traditional methods of farming have encouraged the return of barn owls and greater horseshoe bats.
- At the top turn left onto Mill Lane, descending to the stream at the bottom. Crossing the footbridge ignore the footpath that climbs the hill to your left, instead continuing ahead along the lane as it follows the stream to meet Penhill Lane as it arrives from the right.
These lanes are part of an extensive and complex network of ancient green lanes, some of which date back to the Bronze Age, 4000 years ago. Until the coastline came under the protection of the coastguard service, frequent raids by pirates made it unsafe to live too close to the shore, and so settlements grew up a mile or two inland. The sea was an important part of everyday life, though, and for thousands of years farmers and fishermen, as well as smugglers, made frequent journeys to and from the shoreline along these very lanes.
In 2002 South Hams District Council launched an initiative to restore its 191 such green lanes, which together cover a staggering 300km. By 2005 it had raised £26,000, with 62 local businesses contributing to the scheme, enabling the council to tackle more than half the lanes, repairing erosion damage, laying hedges and conserving hedgebanks and setting up links to nearby towns and villages. Because these lanes are traffic-free and only lightly maintained they too are a haven for plants, birds and other wildlife.
- Turn sharply left here, crossing the stream and turning sharp left again to head uphill to Woodhuish Lane.
- At the top turn right and follow the road back to the car park at the start of the walk.