North Devon Coast

National Landscape

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Woolacombe & Mortehoe

Derived from the latin word for death, Mortehoe’s grizzly moniker likely refers to the frequent shipwrecks off the local headland, whilst Woolacombe’s anglo-saxon name ‘Wolnecomba’ translates to a rather more nostalgic ‘Wolves Valley’. With strong agricultural roots, the area is now a hotspot for visitors. The local countryside hosts fabulous walking terrain and landscape, fantastic wildlife, golden sands and an area steeped in heritage. Woolacombe is more currently famed for it’s vibrant beach and surf culture, whilst in charming Mortehoe many of the old farms and distinctive local slate buildings remain, alongside a beautiful ancient church and museum. Many visitors seek solitude along the empty, rugged coast.


Only officially separating into two settlements in 1922, Morthoe and Woolacombe owe their existance to farming, and were witness to numerous tragic shipwrecks on the infamous Morte Stone. In Woolacombe, many of the farming cottages and farms, including a roundhouse and a watermill, have been superceded by more modern but equally atmospheric influences in this popular seaside village, which grew dramatically during Victorian times with the arrival of the nearby railway links. The area is now renowned for its expansive sandy shore, but there’s so much more to enjoy than just the beach….

Much of the North Devon Coast has strong historical associations with smuggling, wrecking and shipwrecks. This is evidenced by the names given to many of our coastal coves, particularly in this area; Brandy Cove, Breakneck Point and Damage Cliffs. In its heyday, ‘wrecking’ was a barbaric crime, with teams of wreckers reputedly misplacing lights to lure passing ships on to the rocks before plundering their cargo and leaving the crew to perish.

The furious seas and fiercely jagged rocks off Bull Point and Morte Point provided the perfect hunting ground for the wreckers. Anyone who has ever looked out to sea from these headlands at low tide will have seen the jagged rocks jutting from the seabed. They are known as the Morte slates and if any rocks look as if they are purposely designed to gouge out the hulls of ill-fated ships, it is these.The geology of these rocks is so special they are designated as of regional importance.

Heading north west along the coast you will come to Mortehoe, on the hills behind Morte Point. It’s the smaller, quieter neighbour of Woolacombe and offers some spectacular walking terrain. And what better way to re-energize after a gentle coastal hike than with a cup of tea and a cake in one of the pretty tea rooms? The tapering headland of Morte Point is infamous for its wild beauty and ferocious sea conditions. Its very name (‘Morte’ is Latin for ‘Death’) gives you an idea of the fear that this perilous headland once induced.

The perilous nature of this coast prompted a local petition to make it safer. This eventually led to the construction of Bull Point lighthouse in 1879. You can learn all about it, as well as the rest of Morthoe’s fascinating maritime history, at the Morthoe heritage centre. Look out for the large gun that guards the entrance to the building. It is all that remains of the HMS Weazle, wrecked near Morte Point in 1799, with great loss of life.

St Mary’s Church in Mortehoe is also well worth a visit. The oldest parts of this Anglican church date back to Norman times, whilst the Bell Tower, carved pews and the William de Tracey tomb are medieval. Local legend has it that the De Tracey Tomb was linked to one of the knights who slew Thomas Beckett, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170. However, there is also evidence to suggest that the tomb may be linked to one of the church rectors of the same name.

For a great journey back in time, why not try out the interactive self-guided audio GPS trail around Morte Point, for hire from the Heritage Centre. This takes you on a journey through the eyes of a young girl called Sarah and is about a wrecked ship on Morte Point over 200 years ago.

During the Second World War, much of this coast was used to train the military for the D-Day landings. The coastline’s similarity to Normandy made it perfect. Thousands of troops practiced for the landings on Woolacombe Beach from Baggy Point, as anti-tank gunmen, seaborne artillery and air-to-ground support crews used Morte Point for target practice.

The north end of the dunes behind Woolacombe Beach (known as Woolacombe Warren) was also used as a war training area – a far cry from its previous use as a 9-hole golf course! By the end of the war the dunes were devastated by demolition and invasion training. In the 1970s the northern end of the dunes was fenced off and Marram Grass was planted to try and restore the natural dune habitat. The project was a big success and today the dunes are back to their former glory. Great for a refreshing coastal stroll.

WWII isn’t the only war Woolacombe played a part in. In 1914 at the outset of the Great War, a lookout was placed on Morte Point to keep watch over the Bristol Channel. Can you find the remains of the outpost? The site is still inscribed with the names of those who ‘waited and watched guarding our coasts.’

Nature and Landscape

Make sure you pack your binoculars next time you visit Woolacombe. Seabirds love Morte Point, so don’t be surprised if you see herring gulls, fulmars, shags and cormorants. The rare Dartford Warbler can be spotted here too. You might even catch a glimpse of a Peregrine Falcon as it streaks through the sky. But what’s that crying sound? Don’t worry. That’s just the local Oystercatchers making themselves known. And who doesn’t love seals? These playful fellows like nothing more than sunning themselves on the rocks and making a splash in the waters off Morte Point.

Plants flourish here too. Morte Point is a mosaic of heathland and grassland punctuated by patches of gorse and bracken. Keep your eyes open for a curious plant called Dodder which trails over the gorse bushes like a tangle of red cotton. The plant is totally leafless and unable to make food through photosynthesis. It survives by attaching itself to gorse bushes and feeding on their sap.

Closer to the cliffs on the shallow soils overlying the Morte slates, you will find thriving maritime plants. The beautiful white flowers of scurvy grass carpet the slates in April and are joined by Thrift and Sea Campion soon after. Later in the Summer, the mauve flowers of rare Rock Sea Lavender begin to peep out of the low cliff on the south side of the point. That’s about the same time as magnificent Parasol Mushrooms start to burst out of the ground. Did you know these giant mushrooms can grow as big as a dinner plate?

Special habitats deserve special protection. And it’s no different with Woolacombe and Mortehoe. This area is home to County Wildlife Sites (CWS), and a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Much of the area is also carefully looked after by the National Trust. And the abundant sea habitats are protected by the Devon Wildlife Trust Voluntary Marine Conservation Area.


Walking and Climbing Morte and Bull Point circular walk is a great place to start and also offer the more adventurous the opportunity to negotiate the towering headlands. Just like the walking, the views are breathtaking.

Cycling Join the National Cycle Network Route 27 which follows a stretch of coastpath along Marine Drive toward Putsborough and beyond, or head downhill into Ilfracombe.

Events and attractions

  • Mortehoe Heritage Centre: Find out all you need to know about the area, its history, culture and events taking place locally. (Tel: 01271 870028)
  • Events, walks, talks and even tractor and trailer tours: Run by the National Trust throughout the year. (See links section)
  • Events, Walks and Talks with Coastwise North Devon – opportunity to learn everything you need to know about coastal life. (See links section).
  • North Devon Coast AONB Marathon & Half Marathon, June. Have you got what it takes to go the distance? Find out on this fantastic route as it snakes through some of North Devon’s finest coastal landscape. (See links section).
  • Woolacombe National Sandcastle Competition June. Making a great sandcastle can be very satisfying. But this competition takes things to a whole new level of weird, wonderful and downright remarkable creations.