North Devon Coast

National Landscape

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Combe Martin

Combe Martin might seem a curious name. But the Combe part, at least, is easy to explain and derives from the Old English word ‘cumb’ which means ‘valley’. The Martin of the village name refers to the more common ‘Martin of Tours’ who was given ownership of the village by William the Conqueror.

Combe Martin is famed for its main street. At over two miles long it is the longest of any village in the country. As the village prospered it was easier and quicker to continue to build down in the narrow valley rather than excavating the steep slopes that surround the village. The area’s rather challenging terrain was a key reason that Combe Martin was accessible mainly by sea until only relatively recently. Not just for fishing vessels, large trading vessels and even major paddle steamers visited Combe Martin.  Today, Combe Martin’s linear form makes it a doddle to explore the village’s best pubs, cafés, shops and beach;  perfect for a weekend wander.

One of the areas oldest and most striking historical feature dominates the landscape – its ancient hedgerows. In particular, visitors to Combe Martin will find it hard not to spot the distinctive hedge patterns of ancient field systems which dominate the south facing slope of the village. Under the open-field system, a typical village would have three or sometimes four fields around it and a piece of common land that everyone could use. Each villager had thin strips of land in each field, which meant everyone had a piece of good land and a piece of bad land. Here hedgerows mark old divisions between the strips and the curved shape results from the turning of the ox drawn plough.

The special geology of the area and in particular its limestone outcrops mean that the area is scattered with numerous lime-kilns dating from around the 17th century onward. These stone structures used the local limestone to produce lime – used to improve the fertility of the soil. Many of these are found inland, and were fuelled with local timber from the abundant woodlands. This is unlike most of the lime kilns in the North Devon Coast AONB which are found on the coast and were fuelled by coal from South Wales.

Combe Martin’s original fortunes seem to have been rooted in growing and processing of hemp and flax for sail cloth and rope (linked to its strong sea-faring heritage), and in the production of wool cloth (see the Resources section for more info). These old industries were later overshadowed by mining for silver and lead and by the seventeenth century mining was flourishing. The village built a reputation for silverware of unparalleled quality, and production was stepped up during the reign of Elizabeth I. A fine cup of silver from Faye’s Mine at Combe Martin would later be melted down to create three tankards. Today, those tankards are still used at Mansion House, seat of the Mayor of London.

If you venture along the coast you can still see remains of the silver and lead mines that were so important to Combe Martin’s development. The most apparent is a shaft in the cliff edge visible from the beach at low tide.  Along the hillslope other remains can be seen including the ivy clad chimney which is all that remains of the engine house. In recent years residents have excavated an area around Christmas Cottage near the church and found a remarkable cache of finds related to the old smelting house.

The stunning church of St Peter Ad Vincula is a major landmark and key to the heritage of the village. A lottery grant is helping to clean up some rare medieval painting of saints and apostles. The church is running a programme of heritage days. Join one of these and you can learn more about these fantastic paintings and get the chance to climb the tower for a totally new perspective on the landscape.

Just to the west of Combe Martin is Berrynarbor, five times winner of the Best Kept Village Award. Berrynarbor gets its name from William Nerbert de Beri, who was Lord of the Manor in 1196. This pretty farming village is characterised by traditional cob and thatch cottages and is also home to St. Peter’s, a pretty church which dates back to the twelfth century. It has one of the first community shops in the area, drop in for a cup of tea and chat to the volunteers who serve you. The villagers here have a great sense of humour and on close inspection you can find flower pot men hanging from trees or climbing up drainpipes.

Landscape and Nature

The geology here with its mixture of outcrops of old Devonian limestone (quite rare in North Devon) combined with the more typical acid shales and sandstones give rise to some interesting plant communities. In June and July parts of the steep sloping grassland above Combe Martin beach can be seen carpeted in common spotted orchids, betony and clumps of ling heather interspersed with the scrambling, pale mauve flowers of wood vetch, one of our most beautiful native and scarce vetches. Later on flowers of lime loving plants such as carline thistle and yellow-wort are visible under some small hanging, rare Whitebeam trees. The cliffs on the west side are home to a colony of nesting fulmars and these small members of the albatross family can be seen flying in and out with their stiff wings held at 180 degrees.

The whole area is dotted with small, intimate beaches. Broad Strand surely has to be one of the best. Climb down the 222 steps below wooded cliffs, accessed from the old coast road near Napps Camp site to this sheltered beauty and you will be rewarded with a beach that is simply stunning.

The Coastal footpath winds around the headland at Watermouth with stunning views of the harbour and a chance to view some of the yachts at closer quarters there is something of interest for everyone. Especially exciting is that in the summer months the headland is one of the best places to watch porpoises, so don’t forget your binoculars.

Slightly away from the coast, the inland areas support all sorts of spectacular species and habitats. Variations in soil conditions have resulted in a mosaic of different woodland communities, each with its own selection of flora and fauna. Agricultural areas also provide valuable wildlife habitats and in the summer months are bustling with birds and butterflies, including the rare Pearl Bordered Fritillary.

No surprise then that this area is protected by a selection of conservation schemes. Berrynarbor and Combe Martin both host CWS (County Wildlife Sites).

Eastward, Combe Martin straddles the boundary between Exmoor National Park and the AONB. This means you benefit from two protected landscapes side by side and our coastal area benefits from the team of organisations working together to make sure our coastline is used mindfully and developed sustainably.

Westward, between Combe Martin and Ilfracombe, the Hele, Samson’s and Combe Martin Bays SSSI recognises the area’s special coastal geology. The sheer variety of types of stone that are exposed, along with their faults and folds, make the whole site nationally significant. Several different types of stone from these bays are the ‘type specimens’ of the rock: the subject of the first scientific description of that particular kind of stone – marking the name of the site down in history.

Combe Martin HEAP (Historic Environment Action Plan) – Glossary & Appendices
Combe Martin Museum
St Peter Ad Vincula
Silver Mines