Seaside postcard: Dawlish
A trip to the South Devon coast brightens the soul, especially when the sun's out, it's not too cold and an ice cream shop is open. Which is why I hopped on a train from Exeter down to Dawlish - it's only ten minutes if you get the right one - and enjoyed the panoramic views across the Exe estuary. At Dawlish Warren a sand spit stretches out across the mouth of the river, home to a nature reserve, a popular beach and a golf course, plus somewhere to buy chips and beer. It's here that the railway breaks through a gap in the sandstone bluff and curves right, running along the sea wall at the foot of the cliffs and exposing itself to the vagaries of the English Channel. This wave-hugging track continues for the next mile to Dawlish, where there's a seafront station, before plunging onwards in similar style (and through a succession of tunnels) to Teignmouth. I fail to understand why anyone would choose to sit on the right hand side of the train.
Dawlish had already risen from fishing village to minor seaside resort before the railway came, with Jane Austen the most well-known early holidaymaker. But it was Isambard Kingdom Brunel's decision to route the Exeter to Plymouth line around the coast, rather than across more challenging moorland terrain inland, which brought the town to prominence. Initially the line was run as an 'atmospheric railway', powered by air pressure, but this proved susceptible to all sorts of mechanical failure and lasted barely a year before steam took over instead. But stormy seas were always the main hazard hereabouts, sometimes splashing the trains as they sped by, and in 2014 wiping out 40 metres of wall and ballast, disrupting travel to the southwest for two whole months.
The station's westbound platform is the most interesting, maritime-wise, with planks protruding out above the sea wall, and seagulls perching in the timber supports beneath. There's even a short section adjacent to the canopy where the boards stretch further back, allowing a longitudinal view of what you've just been standing on. A footbridge crosses to the station entrance on the eastbound, but if you have heavy luggage (and are accompanied by the stationmaster) you can cross the tracks rather than haul everything over the top. Immediately adjacent to the station exit is a diner called Geronimos, which is as quaintly Native American retro as you'd hope, and then you're straight out into Dawlish proper.
The resort is unusual in that you can't reach the beach without crossing the railway, either by footbridge (of which there are three) or by ducking under a very short viaduct where the Dawlish Water enters the sea. I didn't see much of a beach when I visited, but there is allegedly a lengthy strip of sand at low tide rather than simply waves lapping at a wall. Never mind, the walk along the wall is plenty interesting enough as it is.
Head east and before long you reach the section that tumbled into the sea, the dividing line between old and new wall clearly visible, immediately adjacent to a single row of houses risking it all at the foot of the cliff. Every several minutes a train rushes by, more usually passing through Dawlish station than stopping, so you're likely to come right up close to an Inter City 125 or some lesser loco as you proceed. Indeed the stone wall between path and railway is unusually low, and would be no problem whatsoever to scramble over, hence a red sign warns of the £1000 fine which awaits those who trespass against it. A popular constitutional is to continue all the way to Dawlish Warren, but I didn't have the time.
I did, however, walk west along the wall, which was noticeably wavier than the east. This runs for a few hundred metres from the station before meeting the foot of a lofty headland, as does the railway, except this promptly burrows inside. On foot it's possible to walk round the foot of the red sandstone cliffs, past beach huts and a burnt-out ice cream kiosk, to Coryton's Cove on the far side. Here you can watch trains plunge into their next tunnel, but not the next three immediately beyond, each named after local landowners when the railway was built. But better to climb the zigzag path to the top of the outcrop, named Lea Mount where a sloping public garden offers panoramic views of the coast. There's Dawlish spread out below, and the railway snaking along the coast, maybe even a tiny train... and best get here before the leaves come out, I reckon.
And what of Dawlish itself? It's charming, I'm pleased to report, especially the central landscaped strip. The local river was ornamentalised in early 19th century, sandwiched by greenspace called The Lawn, and overlooked by a Regency street called The Strand. This, rather than the High Street, has the best of the shops, while the river is draped with fairy lights for enchanting after-dark illumination. Watch out for the famous black swans, originally introduced from Western Australia and now the town's proud emblem. There are currently eleven a-swimming somewhere, and according to the latest egg count three chicks on the way.
Which just left me the ice cream to source. I was tempted into Gay's Creamery on the western bank by a windowful of goodies and its promise of 'old fashioned Devonshire ice cream", not to mention Scrumpy, Gifts, Pasties and Cakes. I was so very not disappointed. Not only was the ice cream thick, vanilla-y and lush, in portions verging on the over-generous, but for an extra 20p I got a thick layer of gloopy Devon cream spooned over the top. My arteries will no doubt complain at some point, but blimey, that put scuzzy London ice cream vans in the shade. I confess I'm not sure how holidaymakers ever spent a week in Dawlish, even cream-loving train aficionados, but I'm chuffed I decided to drop by.