The English Riviera – The South Devon Coastline from Plymouth to Exmouth

In this article, I cover the coastline between Plymouth and Exmouth, which makes up the majority of the coast in South Devon. The coastline between Exmouth and the Dorset border is part of the Jurassic Coast – I cover this in another article.

Like the vast majority of the coastline in south west England, the coastline between Plymouth and Exmouth is characterised by cliffs, secluded coves, numerous sandy beaches and several estuarine inlets [1]. The beautiful and scenic South Devon landscape have caused this stretch of coastline to be dubbed the ‘English Riviera’. However, there are also several notable port towns, including Plymouth – which is larger than any other town in both Devon and Cornwall.

It is notable that the South Devon cliffs tend to be less high, less rugged and distinctively more gently sloping than their North Devon Counterparts. There are also more sandy beaches in south Devon than in north Devon. Therefore, it is no surprise that south Devon is often a more popular choice for tourists than the county’s northern coastline. Examples of these beaches are Bantham Beach and South Milton Sands; both of these located just west of the port town of Salcombe, and are rather shallow and sandy, with the former beach being backed by a row of sand dunes [2]. However, there is a south Devon beach that is more intriguing than these beaches, called Slapton Sands, which is located eastwards of Salcombe. At 8km (5 miles) long, although this is a more shingle-based beach, it is still a rather pleasant shoreline [3]. However, this beach is also known for Slapton Ley, a freshwater lagoon 2.5km (1.5 miles) long that is located behind Slapton Sands. Not only is this of tourist significance due to the unusual existence of lagoons in Britain, but also because the lake and its immediate surroundings serve as a large wildlife haven that contains many rare animal species [4].

The coastline takes a less rugged appearance, sometimes consisting of sea cliffs, but at other times consisting of hill slopes which roll down into the sea. There are many estuarine inlets at which rivers enter the sea; however, it is interesting that the estuaries appear rather big compared to the size of the river that flows into them. This is rather common across much of the British coastline, but it is particularly noticeable in south Devon. For example, the Kingsbridge Estuary is around half a kilometre wide at its mouth, and is around 8km (5 miles) long, but is fed by several small rivers and various streams. The reason behind this estuary’s size is not due to the river water volume, but instead due to the sea rising up and flooding an existing valley that formed at times when the sea level was much lower. The Kingsbridge Estuary is a feature known as a ‘ria’, or flooded valley, and is a common site along south Devon, as well as various parts of the British coastline [5]. Other rias are found at the mouth of the River Yealm, River Dart, River Teign and the River Exe. Although the River Tamar that divides Devon and Cornwall at this coastline is larger than the other rivers, the Tamar estuary, which provides a harbour to Plymouth, is also a flooded valley.

Although the cliffs on this side of Devon are markedly less dramatic than on the north Devon coastline, south Devon still offers some degree of coastal ruggedness. There are numerous headlands along the coastline; one of the most notable examples of this is Start Point just east of Salcombe, which contains a lighthouse nestled on top of the headland. Berry Head, next to the port town of Brixham, is another headland of a similar nature [6]. It is fair to say that the south Devon coastline has a bit of something for everyone – cliffs, headlands, coves, beaches and nature reserves – which probably suggests a lot as to why south Devon is so popular with tourists, both domestically, and even internationally.

South Devon also has many port and resort towns. While some are rather large towns, in particular Plymouth, Paignton and Torquay, there are also several smaller port towns that can be rather picturesque. Salcombe is a port town typical of south Devon – it consists of buildings, painted in beautiful light pastel colours, that spread from the top of a hill down to the waterfront. A town once renowned for its shipbuilding port, this has in more recent times been replaced with tourism and pleasure sailing. Teignmouth is another town which is popular with tourists. This popular resort has quite a lot of history associated with it – settlements are recorded as having existed here, and in the surrounding area, since at least 970AD [7]. Today, it contains many things associated with the typical British seaside town – an amusement arcade, fun fair rides, and an esplanade containing cafes, fish-and-chip shops and many hotels.

Although the larger towns may not at first appear to be as picturesque, there is definitely more than first meets the eye. Plymouth, close to the Devon-Cornwall border, has a very interesting naval history – it has a large British Navy base that has helped to defend Britain from other navies on various past occasions. Torquay and Paignton, two medium-sized towns that merge to form a larger conurbation, also serve as a popular tourist destination. It is also worth mentioning the town of Exmouth – the most easterly point of coastline covered in this article, Exmouth lies to the east of the River Exe estuary. This port town not only contains many of the typical British seaside attractions, such as amusement arcades and a promenade, but also marks the most westerly point of the Jurassic Coast. This is a stretch of coastline which is interesting not only for its beautiful scenic landscape, but also for its archaeological importance. The Jurassic Coast is covered in another article.




[1] https://www.visitsouthdevon.co.uk/beaches

[2] https://banthamestate.co.uk/beach

[3] https://www.southdevonaonb.org.uk/explore-start-bay/slapton-sands/

[4] https://www.devonbirds.org/birdwatching/places_to_go/slapton_ley

[5] https://www.southdevonaonb.org.uk/estuaries-management-plan/salcombe-kingsbridge-estuary/

[6] https://www.countryside-trust.org.uk/explore/berry-head/

[7] https://www.britannica.com/place/Teignmouth









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