The Cairn is an area of woodland and unimproved
grassland on the southern outskirts of Ilfracombe, which takes its name
from the rocky outcrop at the summit. Cairn Top stands approximately 520ft
above sea level – well worth the climb for the extensive views –
to the north across the town to the Bristol Channel and Wales, to the
east beyond Combe Martin to Great and Little Hangman and down Slade Valley
to the south west. To the southern end of the Cairn, the top of Baileys
Cleave gives a panoramic view to the north and east, which many people
think the best in Ilfracombe.
The woodlands are a haven for wildlife and for
those seeking a few hours peace and tranquillity wandering through the
maze of paths.
Depending on the time of year, you may see carpets
of bluebells, early purple or common spotted orchids or even lesser butterfly
orchids – over the years, 250 flowering plants have been recorded.
Many types of fungi including some stunning bracket fungi are often seen,
along with abundant lichens, which thrive in the clean air.
The bird life is prolific, you could see greater
spotted woodpeckers feeding their young, jays, tawny owls which often
fly in the mornings, blue tits, great tits and long tailed tits, blackcaps,
gold crests and many more.
Foxes, badgers, small mammals, toads, slowworms,
grass snakes, adders and hundreds of varieties of insects, moths and butterflies
make their home on the Cairn and can be glimpsed by the lucky visitor.
To reach The Cairn from the town centre, go up
Station Road and park by the Pall Europe factory, then walk along the
cycle path and you will find the Cairn on the left hand side. It is also
possible to park by the Round House if you turn left through Foreland
View just before Pall Europe and follow the unmade road at the end. The
footpath to the right, past the walls of the Round House and through the
kissing gate will take you onto the Cairn. Information boards with helpful
maps are to be found here and further down the cycle path. Leaflets with
a map of the Cairn are also available from The Tourist Information Office.
Folklore and History
In 1795 or thereabouts, a Jewish peddler was reportedly
murdered on Cairn Top for the contents of his box. At this time, the area
was rough pastureland - it would be another hundred years before the glorious
woodlands we see today were planted for the enjoyment of the local community
and summer visitors.
Folklore has it that the ghost of the peddler
was seen to haunt the hillside in the form of a white rabbit. Maybe it
had less to eat once the trees were planted or maybe as the Ilfracombe
Gazette reported in 1903 ‘Many years ago, an old lady named Betty
Gammon found the skull of this restless Israelite, and buried it, thus
laying the ghost for ever’. Betty Gammon was already a local celebrity
when, in 1750, she called on the good women of Ilfracombe to line the
cliffs displaying their red petticoats to frighten the French fleet into
thinking them to be a regiment of soldiers defending the town.
Folklore also tells of a headless ghost wandering
the fields at Mullacott, just a short distance away, so maybe the poor
peddler was extending the search for his head. It’s said that an
old man claimed to have opened the gates for him on many occasions.
Then again, Peter Underwood, President of the
Ghost Club Society, in his book Ghosts of North Devon, tells us that on
a holiday to Ilfracombe and knowing nothing of the Jewish Peddler legend.
he and his wife caught a glimpse one sunny afternoon of a stooping and
untidy middle-aged man on Cairn Top. He was carrying a battered suitcase
in one hand and what looked like half a dozen small saucepans strung together
in the other. He passed out of sight behind a tall bush and when the Underwoods
looked for him, he was nowhere to be found.
With or without its ghosts, the Cairn is a prime
example of ‘what the Victorians did for us’. In 1893 the Ilfracombe
Local Board agreed to spend the sum of £25 to lay out paths and
seats on Cairn Top which they had leased from a Mr. E, Woodhouse Veale
for three years. If Mr. Veale should agree to extend the lease, the area
would be planted with trees. In 1899, Ilfracombe Urban Council made application
to the Local Government Board for a loan to purchase the land and the
Cairn was purchased for the sum of £950 plus £21 auction fees,
£10 agents commission and £9 for sundry expenses.
The work continued over many years, more paths
were cut, seats put in and trees planted. A shelter was built below Cairn
Top where refreshments were served to the numerous visitors who enjoyed
strolling in the Cairn Pleasure Grounds and admiring the views from summit.
The years have taken their toll on these early 20th Century works. Sparks
from steam trains on the Ilfracombe to Barnstaple line which ran along
the western side damaged the pine plantation there and freak storms in
1981/2 brought down over a hundred trees to the east. In July 1995, a
severe gorse fire on Cairn Top burned down the flagpole along with many
bushes and trees.
Maintenance fell into the hands of voluntary
groups, firstly under the auspices of Devon Wildlife Trust with a group
working under the guidance of their dedicated leader, Joan Robertson,
and a few years after her death, Cairn Conservation Carers took up the
challenge with the support of North Devon District Council.
The Cairn today no longer has a refreshment hut
or a man climbing to the summit every day to raise the flag but it is
still a beautiful and peaceful haven with an abundance of wildlife, perfect
for an afternoon stroll or a picnic.
The Old Railway
The resurfaced trackbed of the Old Railway which
runs past the western slopes of the Cairn, now forms the first part of
the National Cycleway Network Route 27. Quiet and traffic free, the track
is ideal for both cyclists and walkers to enjoy the peace of the countryside.
The Slade Reservoirs just over a mile from the start of the track look
idyllic in the sunshine with the surrounding trees reflected in the water.
The railway was built in the early 1870’s
by the South Western Railway Company to connect Barnstaple with Ilfracombe.
A number of lives were lost overcoming the engineering problems, not least
the 1 in 36 gradient to Morte Station and the need to blast through solid
rock. The single line and station (sited where the Pall Europe factory
now stands) was opened in 1874. 1887 brought Great Western through trains
and in 1888 the line was doubled. At its peak in 1939, there were 18 down
and 16 up trains daily with 24 each way on Saturdays. The last steam rain
in 1964 and the track was singled again in 1967. The line was closed in
1970 and dismantled by 1975 but a few relics remain – a gas lamp,
platelayers huts, signal post etc. The upline tunnel remains open for
walkers and cyclists to pass through with down being given over to colonies
of bats which now include the rare Greater Horseshoe.
After closure the track bed to Lee Bridge was
taken into the reserve for nature and managed to maximise the biodiversity
of the various habitats either side. The many wildflowers, including expanding
colonies of cowslips, orchids and betony attract numerous butterflies
and other insects which in turn attract a great variety of birdlife.
In 2004 a permissive path, off the Old Railway
was opened between the higher and lower Slade Reservoirs where with luck
you many glimpse a kingfisher, roe deer taking a drink or an otter