The length of the largely undeveloped, wild and rugged coastline of the AONB, with its intimate, hidden and secretive estuaries and tidal creeks, has been measured at 323kms or 201 miles, and contains 68 beaches, ranging from popular amenity beaches such as Bigbury and Bantham to isolated coves.
Our five estuaries, managed collectively through a dedicated officer employed by the South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, are one of the defining features of the AONB, and for millennia have enabled the movement of people, goods and ideas. Their historic heritage of maritime trading, farming and military activities have left a rich and diverse legacy.
Today they provide a popular setting for such traditional pursuits as sailing, rowing, angling, beach-going, snorkelling, wild swimming, bird watching, walking and hiking, along with more recent leisure activities such as kayaking and paddle boarding. Together they make a significant contribution to the health and well-being of both residents and visitors, and to the viability of the services and businesses in the area.
All are drowned river valleys or rias, formed by the eroding action of rivers carving through the surface geology before flooding to create their present geography towards the end of the last Ice Age.
Each is unique in its own way, from the highly freshwater dominated Dart estuary to the highly seawater dominated Salcombe-Kingsbridge estuary, a classic dendritic-ria with its many finger-like ria-formed creeks, and described by some as a tidal marine inlet. Being ria-formed, both they and the Erme, Yealm and Avon Estuaries, tend to be deep watered and have become important and popular ports and water-based recreation destinations, ranging from the small privately owned Erme estuary that fully drains at low tide to the more cosmopolitan Dart estuary that attracts some of the world’s largest cruise liners.
All five still retain large areas of relatively unspoilt and undeveloped bed, foreshore and shoreline but, with their considerable history of human use and harvesting, none can now be described as being completely natural or unspoilt.
Some have been impacted by a history of mining and port activities. But all are impacted by both the runoff of agriculture, roads and urban drainage within their freshwater catchments and seaborne issues.
The greatest threat comes from the cumulative impacts of unsympathetic development and habitat loss, nutrient, litter and other pollutant runoff, unsustainable and illegal fishing, and wildlife and habitat disturbance.
All too often relatively minor negative occurrences are easily overlooked as individually insignificant, but are grossly amplified by the frequency of their occurrence.
Even so, the five estuaries still supply considerable ‘ecosystem services’ to the local natural beauty and their communities, and several are formally designated and protected in recognition of their rich and diverse natural history.
The estuaries also contain some of Devon’s best known historic and archaeological assets that contribute significantly to their character and economy. These include Scheduled Monuments such as Dartmouth Castle, Bantham Ham and Oldaport; Designated Wrecks such as that at Erme Mouth; and Registered Parks and Gardens such as that at Flete. There are also many ‘Listed Buildings’, from castles like Kingswear to limekilns, boathouses and coastguard cottages, along with many hundreds of undesignated archaeological and historical sites, from submerged prehistoric forests to Second World War defences.
In addition to the large family-friendly sandy beaches at Bantham and Bigbury, other popular beaches include those at East Portlemouth, Hope Cove, Slapton Sands, Torcross and Blackpool Sands, the last of which, like Slapton and Torcross, is anything but sandy.
Such is the importance of our coastline to our economy, Policy DEV24 of the Plymouth & South West Devon Joint Local Plan specifically states that ‘development which would have a detrimental effect on the undeveloped and unspoilt character, appearance or tranquility of the Undeveloped Coast, estuaries, and the Heritage Coast will not be permitted except under exceptional circumstances.’
Unfortunately trying to ensure that Policy is enforced remains a seemingly never-ending struggle.