North Devon Coast

National Landscape

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Braunton and Saunton

Braunton is famous for being the most biodiverse parish in England. Full of history, the Church, town farms and traditional streets in ‘old’ Braunton help tell the story of the village’s farming roots. The strip systems of Braunton’s Great Field dates back to at least medieval times, whilst the picturesque Braunton Marshes are a relatively modern landscape, having been reclaimed from the sea in 1815. Braunton hosts a museum, countryside centre, tourist information centre, gallery and lots of surf shops! Expansive golden sands at Saunton beach are close by and I haven’t even mentioned the Biosphere Reserve and WWII history! Just as well there is a website called Explore Braunton to help out!


Just five miles west of Barnstaple, Braunton is thought to be the largest village in England. The best way to take it all in is with the panoramic views from the top of the Beacon, West Hill. This commanding beacon was once part of a vital communications system that could give warning of seaborne invasions such as the Spanish Armada. The ruins of St Michael’s Chapel, just northeast of the village, are worth visiting too.

From Braunton you can take a step back in time and explore the medieval landscape of the Great Field. Just over the hedge is the significantly younger but no less picturesque Braunton Marshes – a 200 year old reclamation from saltmarshes lying between Braunton and Braunton Burrows . These historic Marshes contain curious looking buildings dotted around the fields. These are called ‘linhays’ to house cattle  following reclamation of the Marshes from the sea. Most are stone and listed, and the most distinctive is the circular linhay on the edge of the inner marsh road, now a Grade II listed building.

Just to the west of Braunton and within the AONB boundary is Saunton. This tiny hamlet is scattered with beautiful houses, a charming little chapel and an ancient manor house known as Saunton Court. Of course, Saunton is also home to the impressive Saunton Sands Hotel. Its distinctive white façade is a local landmark and can be seen from many miles inland. But we all know what Saunton is best known for. It’s big, it’s golden, and it’s lapped by the Atlantic.

Saunton Sands extends for three and a half glorious miles. It really is a special beach – with geological, historical and wildlife interest, full amenities, endless waves and golden sand – there’s something for everyone.

Nature and landscape

Braunton Marsh was a large saltmarsh until the land was drained and reclaimed in 1815. The network of drainage ditches form an important habitat for dragonflies, damselflies, otters, kingfishers, moorhens, herons and swans. And the scattering of rustic barns, known as linhays, are a favourite of the local barn owls.

If you want to see a different side to Saunton Sands, aim for the northern end of the beach, at the base of the cliffs between Saunton Sands Hotel and Downend. Look out for the boulders here too. Do any of them look peculiar? Some have come all the way from Western Scotland, carried here by the huge ice sheets which moved over the country during the last Ice Age. Be careful if exploring, always be aware of slippery rocks incoming tides and cliff falls.

Braunton is said to have the highest biodiversity of any parish in the UK, and is considered to be one of the most designated areas of land in England. It has international recognition as an AONB, recognition as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and is the core of North Devon’s UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Fewer than 600 of these special reserves exist worldwide and ours is the only one in England. It challenges us not only to take good care of our environment, but to enjoy it and get the best social and economic return from it for the beautiful place it is.

Braunton and the surrounding area also hosts a range of SSSIs. This area is home to an exceptional variety of wildlife habitats that provide the perfect conditions for nature to flourish. As you might expect, much of this wildlife can be found on Braunton Burrows, which were named after the large numbers of wild rabbits that were bred here for their meat. Today its forms the core of the Internationally designated UNESCO Biosphere Reserve – a truely special place.

Arts, food and culture

Its beauty has not gone unnoticed in popular culture and Saunton Sands has acquired something of a celebrity status over the years. The beach featured in the video for Robbie Williams’ smash hit, Angels, and Pink Floyd also used it in their film The Wall, and later on the cover art for their 1987 album A Momentary Lapse Of Reason. It even appeared in the 1946 Powell and Pressburger film A Matter of Life and Death.


Visit Braunton Museum and the nearby Countryside Centre, the Elliot Gallery or the historic St Brannock’s church for some quiet reflection. And if you fancy a look back over the history of one of this coastlines most popular hobbies, why not visit The British Museum of Surfing too.

Like many areas of North Devon, Braunton and Saunton has some fabulous walking territory. The undulating dunes of Braunton Burrows are great for an afternoon ramble. And it’s hard not to be bowled over by the views on the AONB’s circular walk, which links Saunton and Croyde Bay by crossing the top of Saunton Down. It’s a fair hike to the top, but you’ll be rewarded with views that are without doubt among the finest in Devon.

For a leisurely cycle on the flat, why not explore the Tarka Trail or Braunton Marshes, and American road by bike.

The AONB have also funded a new website and interactive walks project. Available from the Braunton Countryside centre and Saunton Beach, the Node Exploreres guide you by GPS through a series of local walks with commentary from wildlife and history experts. Perfect for learning a little more about your local area.

Braunton Museum
Braunton Countryside Centre
Museum of British Surfing