Route details, maps, pubs, features, local history and folklore for a wide variety of walks focusing primarily on Norfolk and Suffolk

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

South West Coast Path - Yealm Estuary to Avon Estuary

Erme Estuary

A 19.5 mile walk along the South West Coast Path between the Yealm and Estuaries, using additional footpaths to access transport to link each end of the walk.

There are ferries across both the Avon and the Yealm estuaries but this route takes a trail that enables navigation around them using footpaths and lanes. Even so, there is still the Erme estuary to negotiate midway along the coast. There is no ferry here but it can be waded across one hour either side of low tide. This is quite an experience but requires planning with reference to the tide times published for Devonport. There are few other features apart from the stunning scenery along this section of the coast walk until it gets to Bigbury on Sea where Burgh Island sits just off the coast and hosts the renowned Pilchard Inn. The island can be reached on foot at low tide and at other times the inn makes use of a sea tractor to drive visitors across.

Yealmpton to Churchstow Walk - Essential Information

Walk Statistics:

Start point
Yealmpton View in OS Map | View in Google Map
End Point
Churchstow View in OS Map | View in Google Map
Total Walk distance
19.5 miles
Walk difficulty
Moderate - some steep hills near Bigbury-on-Sea


The following maps and services can assist in navigating this route. The links include published hard copy as well as online plots and downloadable GPX route data for importing into navigational software and apps.

Ordnance Survey Explorer Map
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Online Ordnance Survey Route
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Online OpenStreetMap Route
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Online Google Route
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ViewRanger App Route
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GPX data for route (download)

Details of Accommodation used when performing this walk


Parklands Caravan and Camping SiteView in OS Map | View in Google Map
Parklands Caravan and Camping Site, Churchstow nr Kingsbridge. Small friendly site on the A381 about 1 mile from Churchstow village


Details of public transport that is required for the walk

Bus Service
Service Details
Plymouth to Dartmouth via Kingsbridge - At the time of walking the bus service was run by First Group (the 93 service). It has since been transferred to Stagecoach. Use to get the most up-to-date timetables, operator and services

Walk Data

Date of Walk
Walk Time
07:00 to 21:00
Griffmonster, Kat
Weather Conditions
Day started with mist but slowly brightened up. by lunchtime it was bright sunshine and warm

Walk Notes

Without a doubt this days walk was the highlight of our 8 day walking holiday along the South West Coast Path from Exmouth to Plymouth. It was critical that we planned this day correctly in order to cross the Erme estuary which is only achievable one hour either side of low tide. Therefore, we needed to do this on the Tuesday before the tides became too late in the day for us to complete the full walk. In order to get from the Yealm estuary we also needed to allow plenty of time in case there was any hold-ups or obstacles to negotiate. According to the online tide tables, low tide at Devonport was due at 15:20. In theory that would allow us ample time, with a crossing able to be done at 14:20. The route would begin at Yealmpton which we could get to using the early Plymouth bus from Churchstow. From Yealmpton, using lanes and footpaths it is possible to get down to Wadham Beach (approx 4 miles). This would omit Noss Mayo which would have added an extra 6/7 miles and potentially jeopardize our appointment with low tide, therefore a visit to this estuary town had to be sacrificed.

The day began with low cloud and mist which did not hold much promise. However as the day went on the mist slowly started to lift and the day resulted in bright sunny conditions. The initial stage of the walk to Wadham Beach resulted in boots and trousers getting a good soaking from the mist drenched crops that we had to brush past on the footpaths through the fields. This was no real hardship as they soon dried out once we got walking along the clifftops.

The walk through to Mothecombe and the Erme estuary was really pleasant. The hills are a lot more rolling rather than steep inclines that we had experienced on the previous stages and thus the walk was a lot easier going. With the sun breaking through it became a most enjoyable walk through to Meadowsfoot Beach, just before the Erme estuary. This rather delightful and curious little cove is only open to the public on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays although the coast path has unrestricted access. It is a bit of a mystery as to quite how the restriction is enforced as there was nothing preventing us from spending an hour or two on the beach and it was a restricted Tuesday. I did feel like rebelliously loitering for a few minutes just because I could.

The Erme crossing point was signified by a landing stage over Owens Hill, just beyond Meadowsfoot beach. A public notice details the hazards and lists the tide times for the year. The time for this particular day matched the data I had collected from the internet which was comforting to know. The landing stage led down to a small beach, with coastguard cottages at the far end above the beach and a vast estuary which we would need to cross and was currently covered with water that had long waves heading up river. There was well over 2 hours to low tide but all the same it was better to have arrived early in confidence than to arrive late. Up the lane from the landing stage is an old school house that is used as a tea-room with tables and chairs set out on the lawns about it. Unfortunately the tea-room was closed so we spent a couple of hours eating our packed lunch and sunning ourselves in what was now turning out to be a glorious day. At 2pm, as we re-kitted ready to saunter back down to the estuary, the lady who runs the tea-room turned up and started removing the shutters. It wasn't enough to keep us there and we headed down to the water.

From the landing stage, in the distance, we caught sight of a party of teenagers being led by guides, hand in hand across the estuary which was now mostly sand. That was a pleasing sight because it meant the crossing was possible. They were too far off to clearly establish the crossing point and as we made our way to the beach and removed boots and socks the teenagers were running across the sand to where the sea was lapping at the estuary. It was with a feeling of excitement as we stepped across the firm sand, sculpted into ripples with pools of water held in its depressions. Further into the estuary the rivers extent became clearer, a wide torrent of water snaking down to the sea. The ground turned to pebbles as we neared the river which soon made the soles of our feet sore. And then, there we were, face to face with this coursing river. After momentarily gazing into its depths I gingerly stepped out into its depths. The force of the current was so strong that it was difficult to keep balance and I soon nervously returned to the side to seek a more suitable crossing point. Remembering the blogs I had sought reference to prior to the expedition, there was mention of easier crossings up stream. Alas, upon investigation, although the flow was a lot less severe, it was consequently much deeper and certainly not crossable by wading. Eventually, as we stood surveying our predicament, a girl on horseback waded through the water and gave clear indication as to where we should cross, which was not far off from where I had originally tested the waters. Without further ado we made our way to where she had indicated. The current was flowing fast. I slowly edged out into the water. Soon it was up to my knees. The force of the current was strong but with care I could slowly pace each step, get my balance then attempt the next step.

It was scary.

It was exciting.

It was challenging.

It was a little nerve wracking.

It was painful on the feet.

It was awesome.

Slowly, we edged our way across that river, hand in hand, step by step. Eventually the waters started to shallow and we stepped with a little more confidence across the final yards to the other side. What an utter feeling of elation this was to reach dry ground. It really did make you feel alive. Truly awe-inspiring. An experience and adventure that I will certainly not forget.

A group of middle-aged folk who had been standing by the landing stage walked up and greeted us - they had been watching our every move and offered us their congratulations on completing the feat and admiration that it was certainly something they would never conceive in doing. I have to admit, I had expected a gentle stream to cross but this was undoubtedly a river. For those contemplating making this crossing, my advice is to line up the landing stages either side of the estuary and just walk a straight line between them. You cannot imagine doing this unless you actually go and do it yourself, and it is such a great feeling once you complete it. I would guess that leaving the crossing to low tide may well reduce the current in the river. Without a doubt the most memorable highlight of the entire walk.

As we headed off back up the cliffs another couple of hikers were gingerly contemplating the crossing in a similar position wo where we had crossed. One had dropped his backpack on the sand and was nervously edging out into the river, testing the viability.

The path through to Bigbury was a little more strenuous with some steep ascents and descents. Along much of this distance, Burgh Island could be seen getting ever closer. There was a couple of very steep hills to negotiate in order to get down to Challaborough and from here it was a stroll into Bigbury-on-Sea. Along this stage we got talking to a chap walking his dogs. He owned holiday property at Aveton Gifford and was down for the week. He offered us a lift back up to Chruchstow, then warned us against going over to the Pilchard Inn on Burgh island as it was expensive and commercialized. He then enthused over a pub he had found in the locality which in his own words 'sold the best Carling I've ever tasted'. Not wishing to argue, I accepted his words but in my opinion something like Carling should be the same where-ever you drink it as it is just mass-produced keg beer. Ale on the other hand is individual and its taste varies according to its origins. I would gladly seek out a renowned pub in search of a local ale but could not engage in the idea of visiting a pub purely on its merit for mass-produced lager. We turned down his offer of a lift as that would be cheating ourselves, and despite his advice, we did want to pay the Pilchard Inn a visit. We wouldn't be passing this way again and it would be plainly stupid to pass up on a visit just because of a one persons opinion.

The tide was still out when as we walked out to Burgh Island, The Pilchard Inn a clear landmark. It did seem strange seeing a beach either side of us as we walked. I have to admit that I am so glad we ignored the chaps advise as The Pilchard Inn was well worth the visit. Full of intrigue and personality as an ancient pub should be. The barman dutifully poured us both a pint of Pilchard Ale, no more expensive than any other pub around the area and we sat there in awe of the place, taking in the scenes. If you get the chance then don't pass it up.

From Bigbury-on-Sea there is the Avon Estuary Walk up to Aveton Gifford but part of this is along a tidal road and not wanting to chance this we used a route that took the lanes to Bigbury village, Easton then followed the Estuary Walk along the dubiously named Drunkards Hill to Aveton Gifford. Yes I had had a couple of pints but I wouldn't consider my demeanour as 'drunkard'! From here it was a tedious walk along the main road to Churchstow which I really do not recommend. This is a busy road with no pavement or verge to walk along, but unfortunately there is no direct alternative.

As an aside, a week later a small tsunami hit this area. The BBC reported it with a video clip of the 3ft tsunami travelling up the Yealm. I was glad this didn't hit as we crossed the Erme!

Erme Estuary low Tide
Erme Estuary low Tide


From Yealmpton there are lanes and footpaths to link up with the South West Coast Path, as is the case at the other end between Bigbury and the main Road at Aveton Gifford. The coastal section is along the South West Coast Path.

From Yealmpton take the B3156 south and continue to the Gala Cross crossroads - these are just country lanes. Take the left turn and just after the next cross road there is a footpath on the right. The footpath leads across a couple of fields then heads down to some woods, where it crosses a stream and heads up a steep hill through the trees then diagonally through further fields to a road. Turn right and then take the immediate left and follow this lane. Where this branches keep to the left up past Liswell Manor House and Lambside Cottages. At the junction turn left and follow the lane round to the road. Turn right and follow the road until it a track on the left leads down to the Coast Path.

The Coast Path is well waymarked with the National Trail acorns through to the Erme Estuary. Cross the estuary by lining up the landing stages and making a straight line between these. On the other side continue on the well marked Coast Path. The route is fully detailed in the The South West Coast Path: Falmouth to Exmouth National Trail Guide but it is difficult to get lost.

From Bigbury-on-Sea take the B3392 out of the village. Where the road turns a sharp right, continue straight on down the lane the heads down the hill. This leads into Bigbury village. Continue through Bigbury, past the Royal Oak pub and take the next right that leads round past the church. At the junction, turn left then next right into Easton. Follow the road down the steep hill and just past the bend in the road a marker post points up Drunkards Hill on the right. The marker also displays the Avon Estuary Walk markers which now need to be followed through to Aveton Gifford. Along the lane a footpath will take you off on the right across the meadows. Head down to the left hand side of a finger of trees and a style brings the path out onto a little lane. Turn right and follow the lane up to the main A379 road. Unfortunately from here one needs to keep to this busy road through to Churchstow, although if walking further afield there is the Avon Estuary Walk down the opposite side of the estuary.

The Pilchard Inn Burgh Island
The Pilchard Inn Burgh Island


The Pilchard Inn, Burgh Island View in OS Map | View in Google Map

Image of pub
The Pilchard Inn, Burgh Island

A charming 14th century smuggler's pub on the north side of Burgh Island looking back at Bigbury-on-Sea. Offers its own ale, brewed by St Austell's and a variety of food. It is currently owned and operated as part of the adjoining hotel.

The Inn is reputed to be haunted by the ghost of Tom Crocker, a renowned smuggler who used the Inn as his base in the 16th century. Two caves on the far side of the island, only reachable by sea, are said to be where he hid his booty. Legend has it that the outline of Tom Crocker and the Excise man who shot him were carved on either side of the pub fireplace, though these are now not recognisable. On the anniversary of his death on 14th August it is said that he rattles the doors and causes general mischief as walking across the island in search of his hidden booty.


The Pilchard Inn did not disappoint. Their own Pilchard Ale (brewed by St Austells) was very refreshing.

The Royal Oak, Bigbury View in OS Map | View in Google Map

Image of pub

This was a family run pub with a restaurant and en-suite rooms. St Austells ales on offer and Devon meats and Plymouth fish feature on the traditional and un-fussy menus. Unfortunately the pub has now closed and is due to be turned into three houses.


Quiet but it was early evening.

Church House Inn, Churchstow, Kingsbridge View in OS Map | View in Google Map

Image of pub
Churchstow, Kingsbridge

An historic Inn dating from the 13th century which began life as a Benedictine’s monks Rest Home belonging to Buckfast Abbey. The building was subsequently used to house the masons working on building of the local church, hence the name of the pub. It is now a grade 2 listed building owned by the St Austells brewery. Very popular and renowned for its excellent carvery which are served from Wednesdays to Sundays. Note that as of 2018 this pub does not appear to offer carveries.


Friendly St Austells Inn offering Cornish Rattler cider together with Tribute, Proper Job and Dartmoor Best Bitter. Having heard so much about Rattler we had to give it a go. Strong stuff at 6% but very tasty and nothing like the national commercial brands. This was washed down with a Dartmoor Best Bitter!

Meadowsfoot Beach
Meadowsfoot Beach


Burgh IslandView in OS Map | View in Google Map

Burgh Island is a tidal island originally said to have been known as St Michaels Island before later being named as both Burr Island and Borough Island. It is said that a monastery was established upon the island although there are no remains, the only buildings being the Art Deco Burgh Island Hotel, three private houses and the Pilchard Inn, run by the hotel.


Erme EstuaryView in OS Map | View in Google Map

Bordered by Kingston to the east and Mothecombe and Holbeton to the west, the estuary is owned by The Flete Estate with access subject to conditions. With its sandy beaches and variety of birdlife as well as the area being a Site of Special Scientific Interest, it has become a secluded holiday spot.

Erme Estuary 3 hours before low tide - this is where we would be walking across
Erme Estuary 3 hours before low tide - this is where we would be walking across


Below are a selection of images taken from from the photo album for this walk. Feel free to browse through these or click on an image to view a larger version in the Gallery.

Summary of Document Changes

Last Updated: 2018-11-20

2011-07-12 : initial publication
2018-11-20 : resolve broken links and general updates


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