A Visit to the Hangman

About this route

The North Devon Coast is characterised by high cliffs and deep valleys, or combes. Combe Martin, a long, narrow village which straggles for some two miles up one of these coastal combes, and the sinisterly named Great Hangman, at 318m or 1,044 feet one of the highest points on the Devon coast, with one of the most wide-ranging views. The high point and the combe are linked by a length of the South West Coast Path, which here is also followed by the Tarka Trail, which traces the journey by Tarka the Otter in the book of that name. The return part of the walk follows that path, while the outward leg uses historic inland lanes. Not surprisingly, since the walk has to get to the top of Great Hangman from sea level, this is a walk which perhaps should best be attempted by the relatively fit. Although not the whole 1,044 feet is climbed in one length, there is a long, steady climb of 200m or 650 feet which has to be tackled. Although not exceptionally steep, it is somewhat unrelenting, although the views from Great Hangman are worth it.

Getting Around

The walk begins and ends in Combe Martin, which has regular bus connections from Barnstaple and Ilfracombe.

Combe Martin has all facilities; there are no facilities on the higher length of the route.
Three stiles and a climb to a high point of 318m/1,044 feet with three steeper sections of 200m/650 feet, 45m/150 feet and 40m/130 feet.
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Interesting information

Although much of Combe Martin was developed in Victorian times, it has much older origins and has some fascinating history. Its name comes from the combe, or narrow valley, in which it is situated, plus the name of the medieval lord of the manor. In its time it has been important for mining, especially of silver and lead, as a port and for the quarrying of limestone. The Kiln Car Park here at the start got its name from a lime kiln which stood here to burn the limestone quarried locally, which was then spread over the local fields as a fertiliser.

The shelter of the little bay made Combe Martin an important port in times past, when roads were too poor to be used for transporting goods very far. In medieval times Combe Martin would supply a ship for royal military expeditions if required.

At the top the route crosses the watershed between two combes, leaving the relatively small Crackalands combe to enter the combe in which Combe Martin sits.

Park Lane gets its name from the hill rising to the right, which in medieval times was a deer park. The park was fenced for the exclusive use of the lord of the manor.

Across the valley to the hill slopes on the opposite side of Combe Martin. You will notice that some of the fields are long narrow strips running down the slope. Their origin probably lies in a system of common open fields which once occupied the slopes. These became divided into strips owned by individuals but, whereas in most other places these strips were themselves consolidated into fields, here this never happened and they became fossilised in the landscape. During the 19th and early 20th century they were especially used for growing strawberries.

Combe Martin has a claim to be the longest village in the country – the steep and narrow nature of the valley made development up the sides very difficult so it grew along the valley bottom.

The origins of the church are 13th century, but much dates from the 15th, including the distinctive tower. Notice the gargoyles on the side of the tower. As in so many coastal settlements, the church was a little way inland, to avoid being easy prey for raiders from the sea. It is now conveniently situated half way along the linear village.

Combe Martin has many of these sunken lanes. They may well originate as access ways to and from the many mines, mostly silver and lead, which used to surround the village. A number of them also go parallel to the narrow strip fields, and they may well have been used for access to these. Some of the lanes are very deeply cut into the surrounding land.

The hedges on both sides are quite high, but gates give good views over the valley down to the right. On the left are the narrow ends of some of the strips.

This is Silver Mines Farm, on the site of Knap Down Mine, one of the many mines that were found around Combe Martin. Just beyond is the ivy covered remains of the mine chimney. Silver and lead mining began in the 1200s and was a royal monopoly. Edward I brought miners down from Derbyshire to work the mines. Mining continued on and off through the 1300s to the 1500s, and then again in the 1800s. This was the last working mine, abandoned in 1875. Elsewhere around Combe Martin there were numerous other silver and lead mines and some iron, copper and manganese was also mined.

The route has just climbed 200m/650 feet from the village street, so if you are hot and tired, that is excusable.

This is a superb atmospheric location with tremendous views all around. Notable to the right is the prominent height of Holdstone Down, said by those who follow such matters to be an important centre of ley lines. Behind are views over Combe Martin’s valley and on to the edge of Exmoor. The only sounds are likely to be the song of skylarks and the bleating of sheep.

At 318m/1,044 feet this is one of the highest points on the entire 630 miles of the South West Coast Path. Views east along the Exmoor coast show the “hogsback” cliffs so characteristic of this coast. Inland can be seen a wide sweep of North Devon and Exmoor. Ahead, to the west, is the prominent pointed summit of Little Hangman with the bay at Combe Martin beyond. There are various theories relating to the origin of Great Hangman’s name. There is some sketchy evidence that gallows formerly stood here [or possibly on Little Hangman], while some say the name derives from an earlier Celtic name “an men”, meaning the rock.

In the late 18th and early 19th century iron ore was mined here and shipped to South Wales from Combe Martin. This path is not only part of the South West Coast Path but also the Tarka Trail. The book mentions Tarka reaching the beach on his route from Exmoor to the Torridge estuary; following his lost mate and cub, he picked up their scent here.

Photo showing the north Devon coastal cliffs above the sea at Great Hangman
Great Hangman

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