Heritage of the Exe Estuary

Climate for change?

Eight centuries of favourable climate came to an end in about 1300 AD, with a series of wet seasons, floods and poor harvests – highlighted by an excavated corn drying oven in a medieval farmstead at Exwell Barton. This general pattern lasted until 1850, although there were occasional spells of better weather.

The summer of 1832 was particularly long, hot and very dry. sadly this year was also notable for a significant outbreak of cholera in the county, arising in Exeter (via Plymouth) and transported via polluted water supplies. Devon was second only to London in terms of death rates, impacted by it’s maritime links, where infected sailors would come ashore and inadvertently spread the disease to the general population.

The Great Devon Mystery

The winter of 1885 was hard, with deep snow and enough frost to freeze the Exe. Curiously, on the night of 8 February, strange cloven hoof tracks were left continuously for over 100 miles, through the towns of Woodbury, Lympstone, Topsham and across the river as far as Totnes. The tracks were unusual, going over walls and roofs, through hedgerows and haystacks, and down paths. Although many theories as to what animal (or animals) caused the tracks have been put forward over the years, this remains a great Devon mystery.

Land reclamation

Many low lying areas around the estuary used to be coastal marsh before they were drained for farming, including land in the Lower Clyst Valley.

A significant area of land was also reclaimed from the sea around Powderham in the 12th and 13th centuries; prior to this tides would have run inland to the rising ground on which Powderham Castle now stands. The res sandstone cliffs through which the main road is now cut were part of the coastline.

During the 18th and 19th centuries land reclamation was almost a continuous process, especially between the River Kenn and Exminster, where up to 500 hectares could have been involved. It was during this time that land was reclaimed to build railways along the embankments of both sides of the estuary, providing important economic and social links. Best records suggest that the reclamation of marshland to form Imperial Recreation Ground in Exmouth happened sometime between 1933-1951.


The Exeter – Exmouth railway opened on 1 May 1861, with ten thousand people travelling in the first five days. The line was originally single track, but by the First World War it was necessary to construct a double line track because of the number of commuters.

As traffic declined the track became single again in 1973. The railway embankment now acts as a sea wall, cutting off the tide from low-lying areas where saltmarsh used to be, which were traditionally used for sheep grazing.

The first station building in Exmouth was converted from two houses, and was used until 1897 when a purpose-built terminal replaced it. in 1926 a new and attractive terminal building similar in design to London Waterloo was constructed with a handsome clock. In its heydey 225,000 were issued per year, and 400,000 collected, in addition to around 1,000 season tickets. In 1978 British Rail made the decision to demolish the fine station terminal building, later replacing it with the structure we see today.

In 1903 a branch line from Exmouth to Budleigh Salterton was constructed enabling connection to Sidmouth Junction to pick up the Waterloo line to London. As part of the Beeching rationalisation of the railways, this branch line was closed in May 1967 and all the facilities at Exmouth Station closed, apart from the booking office and hall.

Meanwhile on the west side of the estuary, the Brunel-engineered South Devon Railway was originally created between Exeter and Teignmouth in 1846, which involved land reclamation at Powderham Marshes and Starcross. The route eventually linked to Plymouth in 1849 and briefly operated as an atmospheric railway – where trains are propelled by air pressure – between 1847 and 1848. Taken over by the Great Western Railway in 1876 this much loved section of the south Devon route provides important economic and social linkages with the rest of Devon, Cornwall and beyond.

Unfortunately the four mile section of track between Dawlish Warren and Teignmouth hasĀ  The sea washing over a train travelling on the coastal trainlinealways been vulnerable to the impacts of bad weather, and has experienced regular landslides, breaches and seawater incursions, most notably in 1852, 1855, 1859, 1929 and of course 2014.


The storms freshest in our mind are probably those that hit the UK in January and February 2014, breaching many of our sea defences, and causing several homes and businesses in the estuary to flood. However the shape of the estuary has long been influenced by stormy weather at sea.

In 1817 a violent storm washed five acres of the Warren away, sadly killing many rabbits. In 1824 another storm caused the sea to completely breach the land at Dawlish, and to inundate the lower part of Exmouth, in addition to flooding and damaging several houses in Starcross. 14 years later around a quarter of Dawlish Warren was washed away by a storm, and several sea defences were breached again in Exminster, Exmouth, Dawlish Warren and Starcross following a great storm in 1838.

In 1869 severe gales and high tides once again devastated the coast, and around 300 yards of rail track were washed away east of Dawlish (in comparison about a third of this length was impacted by the February 2014 storms). The Warren was seriously breached, and sand filled the oyster beds, and choked the breeding stock. It was estimated that 28,000 oysters were destroyed.

In the 20th century, the period between 1937 – 1946 proved devastating for Dawlish Warren in particular. From 1937 – 1939 a series of storms and high tides removed most of the bungalows that were sited on the Warren; flattening the end of the spit and detaching it from the main body, so that it’s previous shape existed only at low tide. Further stormy weather in the 1960’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s both exacerbated the existing damage and caused further damage to the Warren.

Following the turn of the century a severe south easterly storm in 2004 had a significant impact on Exmouth. The town’s hard sea defences experienced a lot of damage, which eventually led to the failure and subsequent subsidence of a section of the town’s sea wall. The beach was also lowered as an effect of this storm, decreasing it’s effectiveness as a coastal defence. In 2012 another combination of high spring tides and stormy seas washed away several metres of sand from the central part of the spit, exposing the gabions that hold the dunes in place.