This easy walk along the picturesque estuary of the River Exe has a huge amount to offer. You can visit nearby medieval Powderham Castle, which is open to visitors from late March–October (excluding Saturdays) and you can see the oldest ship canal in the country. There are usually boat trips to watch rare avocets here in February, and a ferry ride at the end of the outward route takes you to the historic port of Topsham. An important port since Roman times, it prospered greatly when shipping could no longer reach Exeter, and its eventful history has been based largely on shipbuilding and smuggling. Today, conversely, the estuary is used mainly by commercial and pleasure craft, and by thousands of birds who return each year to feed on the mudflats.
The first English lock canal
The original canal was begun in 1566, and ran from Exeter to Matford Brook. It was extended to Topsham in 1675, and then to The Turf, enabling trade vessels of over 300 tons to reach Exeter again (the estuary had silted up during the 14th century). In 1827 the Exeter to Topsham Canal was deepened and extended a further 2 miles (3.2km) to the Turf Lock, giving it a total length of 5.25 miles (8.4km). The original wooden lock gates can be seen beside the canal. Weighing 15 tons, these were opened and closed by hand-operated winches, requiring enormous strength; they needed constant repair, and were replaced every 50 years. The gates currently in use are made of steel and electronically operated. Commercial use of the canal started to decrease after the arrival of the railway to Exeter in 1844.
St Clement’s Church, the largely 13th-century red sandstone building at the walk start (note that on Sunday mornings parking is reserved for churchgoers, so you will need to park on the laneside), is situated on the Powderham Estate, the historic family home of the Earls of Devon. The original house dates back to the late 14th century when it was the home of Sir Philip Courtenay. Extensive damage caused during the Civil War was followed by a comprehensive programme of restoration in the 18th and 19th centuries. Both house and park are open to the public, and Powderham Country Store, on the A379 near the main entrance, has a cafe, food shop, garden shop and gifts.
Walk down the lane past the church towards the river. After a few paces turn left to join the Exe Valley Way/Exe Estuary Trail (the latter a 26-mile/42km walking/cycling route around the estuary). Follow the path to cross the Exeter–Newton Abbot railway line by a footbridge.
Turn left to walk upriver; there are superb views across the broad estuary to (from left to right) Topsham, Exton, the Royal Marine Commandos Training Centre, Lympstone and Exmouth.
Continue and, within 20 minutes, pass through a gate to reach the outlet of the Exeter Ship Canal at the Turf Lock, with The Turf beyond. The building which now houses the pub was probably built to accommodate visiting boat crews and their horses, which hauled the barges up to Exeter.
Don’t go over the lock gates but keep straight on up the canal, passing through a small white gate. This stretch is beautiful, with bulrushes and water lilies lining the banks, and is popular with canoeists. Cyclists are directed along the lane parallel to the canal. For a change of scene catch the White Heather launch (which operates from The Turf to the Double Locks, further up the canal, weekends and school holidays Easter to end September).
Pass through another small white gate, with a parking area below left. The River Exe, beyond the canal, narrows as you walk upstream, and the buildings of Topsham come into view across the water. Reach Topsham Lock (built in 1832) via another white gate.
Turn right across the bridge to reach the Topsham ferry slipway. The ferry runs every day except Tuesday, 1 April–September 9:30am–5:30pm and at weekends and bank holidays October–March, 10am–5pm, but is always dependent on tide and weather. Hail the ferryman if he’s not waiting for you. Cross the river and have a drink at the Passage House Inn and, if you have time, take a look round Topsham.
From Topsham Lock retrace the outward route back to your car. (The walk can be extended via the Exminster Marshes RSPB Nature Reserve. Facing upstream at Topsham Lock turn left, away from the canal, and pass into the reserve through a gate by a noticeboard. The footpath ahead leads to a lane, which continues towards the railway. Just before the railway turn left and cross the marshes via a series of footbridges, regaining the tow path near The Turf Lock. Note that this route may be impassable after wet weather.)
Level tow paths
River estuary and salt marsh; extensive mudflats at low tide
Keep on lead near wildfowl and livestock; be aware of bicycles
AA Leisure Map 22 Exeter, Sidmouth & Torbay
By St Clement's Church, Powderham (donation)
By the fire station in Topsham
Walking in safety
Read our tips to look after yourself and the environment when following this walk.
Also in the area
About the area
With magnificent coastlines, two historic cities and the world-famous Dartmoor National Park, Devon sums up all that is best about the British landscape. For centuries it has been a fashionable and much loved holiday destination – especially south Devon’s glorious English Riviera.
Close to the English Riviera lies Dartmoor, one of the south-west’s most spectacular landscapes. The National Park, which contains Dartmoor, covers 365 square miles and includes many fascinating geological features – isolated granite tors and two summits exceeding 2,000 feet among them.
Not surprisingly, in Dartmoor the walking opportunities are enormous. Cycling in the two National Parks is also extremely popular and there is a good choice of off-road routes taking you to the heart of Dartmoor and Exmoor. Devon’s towns and cities offer stimulating alternatives to the rigours of the countryside.