Seaton to Beer Head and Branscombe Beach
In the latest edition of our My Favourite Run series, Advnture consultant editor Pat Kinsella describes a mixed-terrain route in East Devon, which traces a sensational section of the South West Coast Path along the World Heritage–listed Jurassic Coast, taking in history, beaches and beautiful views.
- Start/finish: Seaton, Devon
- Distance: 7 miles / 11km
- Elevation gain: 750ft / 229m
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Duration: 1.5 hours
The run starts and finishes in the East Devon town of Seaton, near the mouth of the River Axe on the Jurassic Coast. There is plenty of parking along the seafront and in the town itself, where there are several cafes and pubs for post-adventure refreshments.
The route starts by going along the Esplanade, where you will pass rows of brightly coloured beach huts in the summer. At the Hideaway Café, continue straight down the steps and run along the pebble beach with the region’s signature crumbly red cliffs on your right. (If there is a particularly high tide you will have to divert inland here, following signage for the South West Coast Path, but most of the time the beach in runable.)
The beach comes to an end at Seaton Hole, site of an ancient fault line, where a dramatic event many millennia ago twisted the earth’s surface in such a way that, uniquely, rocks from three geological eras (the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous) are now all on display side by side.
As you run the first mile, from the ruby red shoreside of Seaton (comprised of rock from the Triassic period, when England was a landlocked place positioned over the equator and covered in desert) to the white chalky cliffs of Beer Head, which were formed from the calcium of sea creatures in the Cretaceous period when the country was completely underwater, you have effectively run through 185 million years of geological activity.
Turn right and follow the path up to the ice cream shop, and then turn left to ascend Beer Hill – a brutally steep climb that will leave you with a thirst for a real beer. Ignore a turning left and continue to the top, before descending into the fantastic fishing village of Beer. Turn left, run past the Church and the Dolphin pub to the Anchor Inn, which is positioned overlooking the beach and bay.
Tempting as it might be to stop for a brew with a view, our route turns right and climbs Common Lane. At a junction, ignore the turning left and continue going up the lane, with Beer Head Caravan Park on your left. Go through a gate and run through clifftop fields along a grassy ridge with the sea to your left. Run past a brilliantly redeveloped coastal lookout station (now a holiday house), close to the historic site of a gun emplacement in Napoleonic times, and continue to a gate.
Pass through and carefully descend the steep steps to Branscombe Beach, passing a WWII pillbox on your left. This big beautiful beach was the site of a major modern shipwreck in 2007, when the massive merchant ship the MSC Napoli came to grief here. The ship’s enormous anchor is still on display by the Sea Shanty bar and restaurant.
Turning left, you can either run along the pebbly beach for the first section (which is tough but rewards with proximity to a lovely and little used section of seaside), or follow the South West Coast Path, which here traces a serpentine route along the bottom of the cliff from the holiday chalets at Branscombe Mouth.
If you run along the beach, you will need to turn inland and join the South West Coast Path at the Under Hooken. Here the trail twists through trees and takes you past secret caves with entrances hidden high on the cliff face, which were once used by local smugglers to store contraband. Soon your own language might turn salty, as the route climbs the notorious Stairway to Heaven, a savagely steep section with steps. The views towards the top will steal away any remaining breath you might have left in your lungs, though, making it all worthwhile.
Turn left at the top and run back into Beer along the cliff tops. Continue straight past the Anchor this time, to climb a small hill and follow the South West Coast Path around East Ebb, enjoying views right along the Jurassic Coast to Portland. Descend back to the ice cream parlour above Seaton Hole, where you can either go right and then return to Seaton along the beach, or go left (as shown on the map), before turning right along a path through woods and then right again along Beer Road, and right once more to reach the town via Cliff Field Gardens.
Seaton to Beer Head and Branscombe Beach and back: why I love it
This route takes in a really varied stretch of the South West Coast Path, passing through woods, scampering along cliff top lanes and crunching across pebble beaches, which all feel totally different underfoot when you’re running.
The sea is almost ever present in your view. The restless water never looks the same on any two days, and there is always the possibility it will deliver a surprise such as a seal or dolphin sighting. And, if you overheat, you can always jump in for a quick dip towards the end.
The paths are full of happy memories from previous walks and runs with family and friends, including my two daughters at various stages of their lives. And this is also part of the route of the Grizzly, my brilliant local running race, which I have run every edition of since moving to this part of the world nine years ago.
Every event delivers completely different conditions, but the most memorable year was 2018, when the Beast from the East covered the whole headland in deep snow the night before the race – making it feel like we were running in Norway rather than along the seaside in East Devon.
One of the most poignant sections of the route is the bit along the wild expanse of Branscombe Beach where Grizzly organisers always build a driftwood ‘Memory Tree’. Here runners who have lost someone over the previous year (or more) pause for a second to tie a ribbon on the tree, and the spot now always makes me think of my Mum.
Highlight: the Under Hooken
Hidden away beneath the towering chalk cliffs of Branscombe and Beer Head runs a section of the South West Coast Path that wends and writhes through coastal woodlands. Aside from the crash of the waves smashing into the beach on your right, this stretch of the route is always quiet, and it has an otherworldly feel to it.
Whenever I run along this path my imagination is transported back to a time when local smugglers used it to ferry contraband to secret tunnels in the cliffs, which led to the nearby catacombs of Beer Caves. Among the characters active here in the 18th and 19th centuries was the infamous Jack Rattenbury, who was known as the Rob Roy of the West and wrote a book about his illegal exploits in 1837.
My Favourite Run Collection
To view the other runs in the My Favourite Run series on komoot, click on the Collection below...
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Author of Caving, Canyoning, Coasteering…, a recently released book about all kinds of outdoor adventures around Britain, Pat has spent 20 years pursuing stories involving boots, bikes, boats, beers and bruises. En route he’s canoed Canada’s Yukon River, climbed Mont Blanc and Kilimanjaro, skied and mountain biked through the Norwegian Alps, run an ultra across the roof of Mauritius, and set short-lived records for trail-running Australia’s highest peaks and New Zealand’s Great Walks. He’s authored walking guides to Devon and Dorset, and once wrote a whole book about Toilets for Lonely Planet. Follow Pat’s escapades on Strava here and instagram here.