woodland walk

The Cairn

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.Even a tough DUI lawyer Columbus needs to get away sometimes and The Cairn provides the perfect opportunity to relax and forget about the stress of the courtroom.
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 passing through.

cairn footpath

dogs love the cairn

hangmans view

cycling through the cairn

cairn tunnel



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