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Wild, dangerous – and that's just the locals

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: August 18, 2012

Ayrmer Cove, in the South Hams, is blissfully quiet, thanks to its difficult access – many people choose to arrive by sea kayak rather than scale the path down and back up again

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In American fast-food joints when greedy people like me get asked what trimmings they want with their burgers, the reply is always: "Everything." And that's a bit like ordering up the perfect secret seaside.

Not only do you want the essential ingredients of a small and perfectly formed cove, but you desire plenty of links with swashbuckling yore – you want smugglers' paths and shipwrecks, you need rockpools and wildlife – and you wish for the whole gorgeous romantic shooting match to be served in an area of remote and wonderful scenic beauty.

Allow me to recommend Ayrmer Cove. It is one of the jewels of Devon's South Hams – a small beach set at the end of a lovely valley away from the madding crowd.

Not that far away, mind you. One beach away there's Challaborough at the foot of a mighty caravan park – and one beach east of that there's Bigbury, which, on the one real sunny day this week, was packed to the gunnels.

Even Ayrmer Cove had a dozen people enjoying its secret wonders – although the local National Trust ranger told me that was about the most folk you'd ever see down there on the gravelly sand between the shiny cliffs.

The reason for that is simple – you can only reach this hidden bay on foot, and with a family and all the beach accoutrements, that means a good half-hour walk down, followed, eventually, by the inevitable wearisome climb back up.

Alternatively, you can arrive by sea-kayak – which, I am told, is what more and more people do.

However, given that this is the perfect cove with all the trimmings, I beg of you to put on your walking boots and give Ayrmer a go… To find it, you must first travel to Ringmore, which is a pleasant little village with an excellent pub whose name seems to sum the whole area up in a trice. It's called The Journey's End Inn.

Not quite journey's end; there is just a little bit further to go to reach our secret seaside. You must find the car park which the National Trust has installed especially to service Ayrmer Cove and its surrounding area – and from here a leafy lane wends seawards in an authentic leads-to-secret-beach fashion.

"It's called Smugglers Lane," I was told by trust ranger Emma Reece as we headed off down the romantic byway with one of the charity's countryside team interns, Emma Cary. "Apparently the area was renowned for its smuggling – somehow it was all linked to Burgh Island – they used to smuggle stuff in here and there were wreckers."

I knew about the wrecks – there were an awful lot of them along this coast of high cliffs. According to the writer John Leland, who visited the area in the 16th century: "Two of Philip, King of Castelle's shippes felle to wrack in this haven when he was driven into England by tempeste."

Leland described Ayrmer Cove as: "The mouth where is no haven, lyith full of flattes and periculus rokkes, and no shipe cummeth in tempest hither, but in desperation."

Apparently both wrecks provided locals with a bonanza of booty – which brings me to the sorry fact that they weren't a particularly nice lot around here 300 years ago. How do I know that? Because the female passenger of a boat called the Chantiloupe was washed up alive and well after she was wrecked hereabouts in 1772 and this hapless woman was cruelly done to death.

Miss Burke, as she was called, made the mistake of wearing too much jewellery – and the locals were so keen to relieve her of these fine baubles, they stripped her naked and even pulled off her fingers and ears in their desperation. Having killed poor Miss Burke they buried her in the sand. However, her body was later discovered by a dog and exhumed – and officers of the law were able to establish she had been alive after she'd washed up from the wreck.

One prominent Quaker wrote a long letter in a local newspaper decrying the monstrous goings-on, finishing with the words: "Oh, for shame, for shame. I am really vext that ever my countryman should be guilty of such devilish actions."

Later, Emma told me: "Apparently the Journey's End pub up in the village had a secret room which was somehow linked to the smuggling," which gave me something to think about when I later repaired there for lunch.

But dark deeds on dark nights were far from my mind as we marched down Smuggler's Lane to explore Ayrmer Cove. Steep hills ending in big cliffs flank either side of the cove and earlier this year work was carried out to move the coast path inland. "It was getting quite close to the edge," Emma explained.

She added how important the clifftop areas were for wildlife: "Maritime grassland in general is declining – there's only 5% left nationwide – so the trust is working hard with tenant farmers to encourage species in these areas. We do a lot of grazing, otherwise it scrubs up.

"This time of year there should be lots of butterflies in the grassland, but they had a very poor start because of the weather in spring and early summer, though there is a late flush now.

"This area is particularly good for the cirl bunting – it needs a matrix of habitats because it feeds off grain and also visits the grassland where it feeds off grasshoppers and things. It's a nationally rare species but does particularly well here."

Another speciality of this section of coast is the grayling butterfly. "People often overlook them, but if you see a butterfly sitting on a path with its wings closed along this part of the coast it's quite likely to be a grayling," said the other Emma. "There are also dark green fritillaries – a big orange butterfly –it's quite unusual, but we have them in this area. And because we've recently had warm weather we've had huge clouds of smaller butterflies like the gatekeepers."

We took a turn around the beach and walked to the far westerly end of the cove, where huge cliffs formed of a slate-like rock shone in the sun. Indeed, this ability to "shine" is one of the strange features of the cliffs along this section of coast – stand on Burgh Island and look west on a sunny morning and I guarantee you will be surprised by the way the slab rocks seem to contain their own degree of luminance.

But even more amazing than that are the beautiful formations you can observe at the foot of the cliffs. It's as if layers have been worked by some talented modern artist using a smoothing-grinding tool – but it is, of course, the sea that beats and pounds the rock into scenic submission.

Having enjoyed the cove we decided to walk back to Ringmore along a hilltop route to the east, which meant a near-vertical climb up the coast path, where the fences have been moved from the eroding cliff-edge. High above the cove we came to a rich meadow of flowers, including a wonderful stand of purple betony in which scores of six-spot burnet moths were sporting themselves like there was no tomorrow. Given the next day's heavy rain, there probably wasn't. But on that sunlit morning we were lucky enough to see both these colourful moths and great clouds of butterflies fluttering above all manner of plants, including wild carrot.

Beyond these we came to a hill-top track which took us back inland to the car park. It's a path I shall always know as Reptile Alley. Never have I seen so many lizards – all lounging about on the stone wall in the sunshine. Amazingly, we even spotted a mother escorted by two baby lizards – something which I didn't know happened in the great reptilian world where youngsters tend to pop out of eggs and thereafter fend for themselves.

"This is also a good spot for adders – which people worry about, but they are lovely to see. Obviously you shouldn't approach them," said Emma.

Within a couple of minutes we did indeed spot a big black female adder sunning herself on a stone beside the path.

As we took one last look down at the cove, Emma mused: "If there was a car park directly behind the beach you wouldn't be able to find anywhere to sit down there at this time of the year."

However, the tricky access does tend to mean litter gets left behind. "The advice is always to leave only footprints – take only memories."

And I, for one, have brought home nothing but happy memories of the day I visited Ayrmer Cove.

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