Crossing a heathland habitat

By Contributed in Local People

Norman Maudsley writes: Seventeen Newton Abbot ramblers met at Woodbury Castle car park for a 10.5-mile walk around the area.

We were sharing the car park with a large group of Royal Marines dressed in full fatigues, presumably on a mapping exercise. It was a pleasure to see the Marines were a good mixture of males and females.

Woodbury Common is a regular training ground for the Marines based at the Commando Training Centre at Lympstone by the River Exe.

Today’s voluntary leader Rose welcomed all the walkers and gave a brief description of the route.

Moving off we first made our way to cut across the area known as Woodbury Castle, an Iron Age fort situated on the highest point of the common, standing 607ft above sea level.

The area is known for the Battle of Woodbury Common that took place on August 4, 1549, and was part of the Prayer Book Rebellion.

The castle had a higher inner section which would have housed the living quarters and stores, surrounded by a deep ditch with an outer higher ring. It is now covered in trees.

The position of the castle would have given clear views all the way over the River Exe and across over Lyme Bay.

Leaving the castle behind for now we headed for Woodbury Common, an area of predominantly heathland, bordered to the south by the towns of Exmouth and Budleigh Salterton. We enjoyed fine views over the Haldon Hills and eastwards to the Otter Valley.

Moving on to Aylesbury Common our route took us through a fascinating environment, known for its awe-inspiring array of heathland plants and animals. From the tiny carnivorous sundew, to the basking adder, to the nightjar in the dusk of a summer’s evening and snipe in the frost-rimmed bogs it is said there is wildlife to spot every day of the year.

This wonderful wildlife survives in an ancient, man-made landscape, studded with Bronze and Iron Age earthworks.

Heathland like this at Aylesbury is now more rare than rainforest, yet in the past it was common. Over thousands of years heathland has been created by man through agricultural use. During that time, many plants and animals adapted to live on heathland.

We walked along part of the East Devon Pebblebeds Heaths, a unique place in Britain which the EU has classified as a Special Protected Area.

Among the amazing wildlife that can be found are birds such as the Dartford warblers who stay all year round. Visitors who are just here for the summer are nightjars, willow warblers and tree pipits, and residents whose numbers swell in the spring are yellowhammers, stonechats and linnets.

The area is also home to 23 species of dragonfly and damselfly and more than 30 species of butterfly.

We enjoyed our morning coffee stop among all the life that we are oblivious to as we chat on our walk.

Going back many millennia, the area was a wide river fed by melt-water from receding glaciers, creating the pebble-beds and sand we were today passing over.

These pebble heaths are one of the largest in Europe, created during the Triassic Period more than 200 million years ago. Much later in 1930 they were made accessible to the public for ‘air and exercise’, by Lord Clinton. We have much to thank the Clifton family for their charitable generosity.

Passing through woodland the group paused while crossing a wooden bridge to take the above photo for prosperity.

The day’s walk took the group through footpaths and tracks, including Joney’s Cross, from where we could enjoy views to the south, east and west.

To the south our view reached the World Heritage Jurassic Coast.

To the east is the village of Newton Poppleford that derives its name from the pebbles or ‘popples’ collected from the heath for the construction of buildings.

Up to now we had not passed by much habitation, but suddenly we stumbled across a stone cottage with a tidy garden and the owner busying himself keeping on top of the work involved. Not very exciting you may think, but what was fascinating was his mobile gardening tool store where he had a tool for every job close to hand, worthy of a photograph which I have attached for interest.

As we travelled west, we felt like we were entering a war zone as the Marines’ map reading must have come to an end and small arms weapon practice opened up within woodland on the edge of the heathland.

Soon the domed shape of Woodbury Castle below its cap of woodland came into view, our penultimate destination before we arrived back at our cars.

With thanks to Rose for a splendid day’s walking in a fascinating area, the walkers headed back to their respective homes, with myself, Steve Pit and Mike Shead calling for our usual light refreshments to finish off the day.

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