- From the car park go through the gate (or cross the stile beside it), to follow the Coast Path along the track running down the length of the peninsula towards the sea. Ignore the path branching off to the right above Nestley Point to stay with your track right down to the lighthouse at Start Point.
Start Point is one of the most exposed peninsulas on the English Coast, running almost a mile into the sea, and the lighthouse has been guiding vessels along the English Channel for over 150 years. A prominent landmark from both directions, it was built in 1836 to the design of James Walker, with a battlemented parapet reflecting the Gothic style of architecture popular at the time. Originally it had two white lights, one of them revolving but the other fixed to mark the hazard of Skerries Bank (which is marked today by a red light). Despite being the first lighthouse fitted with Alan Stevenson's revolutionary dioptric apparatus – a refractive lens that used prismatic rings instead of the traditional silvered mirrors – it was inadequate in fog and in the 1860s a bell was installed.
Visiting here as he walked from London to Land's End in 1855 (see the Beesands and Hallsands Walk), Walter White commented: 'You may descend by the narrow path, protected also by a low white wall, and stride and scramble from rock to rock with but little risk of slipping, so rough are the surfaces with minute shells. A rude steep stair, chipped in the rock, leads down still lower to a little cove and a narrow strip of beach at the foot of the cliffs. It is the landing place for the lighthouse keepers when they go fishing, but can only be used in calm weather.' Today the path to the lighthouse is a little easier to navigate and the building is often open to visitors if the weather is fine. 45-minute tours are run throughout the day. Check the Trinity House website (www.trinityhouse.co.uk) for details or telephone 01803 771802. The tower is 28 metres high, 62 metres above the sea at high water. Its white light flashes 3 times every 15 seconds and can be seen for 25 nautical miles. Its fog signal sounds once every 60 seconds.
- Leaving the lighthouse, retrace your steps up the track for about a quarter of a mile, to the Coast Path fingerpost.
Looking out over Start Bay from here it is very easy to see why the sea has played such a major role in the history of this area. No more than a mile to the north, the original village of Hallsands is sometimes known as 'The Village that Fell into the Sea' after it did just that. The protective shingle barrier along the coastline was substantially depleted towards the end of the nineteenth century, when it was dredged to provide the sand and gravel needed to extend the naval docks at Keyham, on the far side of Plymouth. In 1903 severe gales swept away many of the houses, and the village was evacuated in 1917 when further storms undermined the remaining houses. At the far end of the bay, near the River Dart, the same thing had happened to the fishing village of Strete Undercliffe a couple of centuries earlier, probably in the Great Storm of 1703.
For many generations, the sea had provided a livelihood for villagers along the length of the bay. Although the only commercial fishing that happens here nowadays is for lobsters and crabs, apart from a small amount of line fishing for local restaurants, in the past it was a much bigger industry here. At the end of the 19th-century, before the general decline in stocks of fish, there were dozens of fishing boats working here, catching eel and cod as well as the crabs and lobsters.
The bay was also a key location for smugglers and pirates, and in their earliest days the settlements were built a mile or two inland, and a network of ancient green lanes still links many of them to the shoreline (see the Woodhuish & Mansands Walk). As life became safer along the coast so people began to build houses closer to the sea, which was so important to their way of life.
The line of breakers, or 'white horses', about a mile offshore are caused by Skerries Bank. This bank of sand and rock is no more than six feet below the surface at the lowest tide and in calm conditions, it is a popular spot for small boat fishing. As the tide rises, however, the incoming water is channelled between Skerries Bank and the shore and in rough weather, the speed of the riptide makes for treacherous waters (hence the need for a separate marker on the lighthouse).
- This time take the path to the left, travelling over the rocky spine of the headland. The next section of the path is rough underfoot and runs close to the cliff edge in places, so take care, supervising children and dogs. Turn northwards with the Coast Path at the point to walk to Great Mattiscombe Sand. Steep steps lead down to the beach, and a track heads uphill inland.
- Leaving the beach, take this inland track, following it uphill above the stream, to return to the car park at the start of the walk
Great Mattiscombe was once known as 'More Rope Bay'. According to local legend, a ship was lured to shore by wreckers looking for plunder, and less villainous residents attempted to rescue its unfortunate crew by lowering a rope down the cliffs to the rocks where they were stranded. In vain the survivors called for more rope.
There are a number of rocky outcrops visible on the beach at Great Mattiscombe at low tide, and it is a popular place for bouldering (low-level rock-climbing carried out without ropes). Grey seals can sometimes be seen down on the rocks below the path, too, and in late winter and spring, you may be lucky enough to see one or two white pups with them. In the summer, look out for the fins of the (harmless) basking sharks in the waters beyond the point.
The flowers around the coves attract butterflies, and the species to be seen here include green hairstreaks and clouded yellows. It is a great area for bird-watching too. Listen out for the cirl bunting, making a comeback in South Devon thanks to the efforts of the RSPB and other local landowners. Other spring and summer songbirds include tree sparrows and corn buntings, as well as chiffchaffs, goldcrests and firecrests. Ravens and buzzards wheel over the rocks, and sometimes red-legged partridges can be seen, or a little owl, even in daytime. Winter migrants to be seen here include great northern and black-throated divers, as well as gannets, kittiwakes and auks. Oyster-catchers and curlews scavenge along the tideline, as well sandpipers, grey plovers and redshanks. Occasionally you can see groups of eiders, and in stormy weather flocks of thousands of great black-backed gulls are sometimes seen flying westwards, and a few skuas.