Tuesday 17th February
We couldn’t pass up the chance of a canal walk on a such glorious day! Once again we parked at Countess Wear but this time we went all the way to the Turf Hotel at the estuary end of the canal. It was cold today, but without ice and the sun was warm on our backs.
The towpath was very busy – what do you expect on a sunny day in half-term? - and we were relieved to get to the point where the cycle track splits off and we could walk in peace.
The Exminster Marshes, maintained by the RSPB as a reserve, stretch out to the west. The cycle track runs below the towpath and I don’t think the cyclists have much of a view. How many would have noticed this brilliant tree stump as they sped along?
We’d remembered the binoculars, and soon identified a flock of widgeon and four shoveler in one of the flooded areas, though too far away for a decent photo. A bit further on we saw some brent geese (the dark-bellied form). The Exe estuary is one of their key wintering grounds. They will be off to the Russian Arctic soon to breed.
Just as we were getting hungry we caught a glimpse of the pub’s roof above the reeds. There is a large mooring above the lock, mostly yachts laid up for the winter, but with a few more unusual boats too;
The pub is lockside, with extensive gardens stretching between the lock and the estuary. It re-opened last weekend after its winter closure, though only at lunchtime till the days are longer. There is an access road for deliveries and employees’ cars but the closest public road access is almost a mile away, so it’s not worth their while to open for the winter months.
It’s hugely popular with walkers, cyclists and birdwatchers, and boaters (the sailor kind) too in the summer. You’d need a pretty shallow draught to use the lock at low tide.
Turf Hotel is dog-friendly, and we could have stayed inside by the wood-burner, but went outside into the sunshine. The beer is good and the menu, though not enormous, is interesting and we had excellent toasties. This was the view from our table.
We joined the birdwatchers before we left to check out the birds feeding along the channels in the estuary. The picture below shows the view across the Exe to Exton, with the Scots Pines of Woodbury Beacon and the beechwoods of Woodbury Castle on the skyline. In the foreground are the remains of a wooden boat which has lain there rotting for years.
With the geese we spotted two avocet and several godwit, bar-tailed we were told by those who knew (bar-tailed godwit beaks curve slightly upwards whereas the black-tailed have straight bills). Lots of gulls too, but I’m not very good at identifying gulls especially at this distance. The photo below shows a Stuart Line Avocet Cruise rounding a channel marker buoy. These popular cruises, complete with on-board experts, run from Exmouth for people to see the birds wintering on the estuary. We went on one a couple of years ago and saw the large flocks of avocet for which the estuary is known as well as many other birds and a seal. The church on the skyline is at Lympstone.
On our way back the geese, which had come down to the estuary while we were at the pub, started to return to the marshes. First in skeins
and then a huge loose flock, maybe 500 strong, was overhead, and circled round us and back to the river. A stunning sight.
We decided to walk back to the car on the other side of the canal and crossed at the only fixed bridge (if you don’t count the motorway). If we had come at the weekend (and if it had not been low tide) we could have taken the ferry across the river to Topsham.
On the river side of the canal you walk beside the reedbeds which spread along the marshes by the river. Unfortunately the roar from the M5 in the distance drowns out the soft soughing of the wind in the reeds.
The M5 crosses the canal then strides northwards across the reedbeds – it reminded us a bit of the Wolverhampton level under the northern end of the M5.
At least on this side of the canal there are very few bikes and you get a much better view of the river bridge at Countess Wear! Close to us on the river, though not close enough to photograph, we spotted a male red-breasted merganser, the smart diving duck with the punk hairdo.
We’re planning this year’s cruising now. We’re hoping to go north this year – we’ve visited Chester and Ellesmere Port on the Shroppie but haven’t made it to the end of the T&M before. We haven’t decided whether to go for the Leeds and Liverpool or the Standedge tunnel!