Devon Perspectives

Peppercombe

A steep path down a picturesque wooded valley leads to the sea and spectacular views of the rugged North Devon coastline

Looking north-east from Peppercombe shingle beach

Peppercombe Valley

The meadow at the end of the path down the Peppercombe valley from Horns Cross

The winding path down the densely wooded Peppercombe Valley is approached from Horns Cross on the A39 between Bideford and Clovelly. Pass through the gate with a National Trust sign on it beyond the Coach and Horses car park and you soon find yourself in a tranquil woodland setting with no sound bar the occasional birdsong and the burbling of the stream that runs down the valley beside the path. Not far down the hill on the left-hand side is the quaint looking Bridge Cottage with its archetypal thatched roof, one of two Peppercombe properties available for holiday lets from the Landmark Trust. After the best part of a mile the track levels out and the wood gives way to a meadow with the second Landmark property Castle Bungalow at the far end. Follow the right-hand path seawards from here and you shortly join the North Devon section of the South West Coast Path from which there is access to a pebbly beach; to the east of this access point the stream ends its journey to the sea in a waterfall.

waterfall on Peppercombe beach

The valley was part of the Portledge Estate until it was purchased by the National Trust in 1988 from the Pine-Coffin family, owners of land in the area since Norman times when William the Conqueror gifted the manor of Alwington to Sir Richard Coffyn.

The impressive cliffs at Peppercombe are carved from red Triassic stonenote1, and afford vantage points from which to view the grand sweep of the coastline to the east and the westward arc to Hartland Point; look out to sea on a clear day and the isle of Lundy is visible on the horizon.

There are two Peppercombe cliffs that Polwhele draws to our attention in his History of Devonshire:

The cliffs adjoining the sea are remarkably high, craggy, and romantic. The highest bears the marks of, and is supposed to have been, an ancient fortress: and still retains the name of Peppercombe Castle. Another, not far distant from Peppercombe Castle, is noted for a remarkable accident which happened there about half a century ago, which is thus: Some of the ancient family of Giffard, and others, on a party of pleasure, having seated themselves on the top of this cliff, which commands an extensive view of the sea, one of the Giffards (a young man) sitting carelessly near the brink, and turning himself about hastily, fell backward over the precipice, upwards of one hundred and thirty feet perpendicular, and the floor at bottom covered with craggy rocks and large stones, yet received no manner of hurt: since which this place has borne the name of Giffard's Jump. [Polwhele[1], Volume 3, p420]

The next two sections provide some more information about these.

Peppercombe Castle

View of Peppercombe Castle and Castle Bungalow
Peppercombe Castle plaque

The top of the near-perpendicular section of cliff in the photo above is the site of Peppercombe Castle. This was once an Iron Age promontory hillfort. The South West Coast Path rises steeply here, passing through the castle site, but there is little to see of the original fortifications apart from some wall fragments hidden beneath the vegetation. A name plaque giving the grid reference is fixed to a thick horizontal wooden pole guarding the cliff edge. The effort of the ascent is rewarded by the magnificent bird's eye view of the coast from Portledge beach across Bideford Bay and beyond (pictured below) This vista is revealed through a gap to the right of the pole.

North Devon coastline seen from Peppercombe Castle

The latticed windowed Castle Bungalow, painted in the cream and brown colours recalling the livery of the old Great Western Railway, is seen in the picture above. This prefabricated dwelling was transported to the site and erected in 1923 by Boulton and Paul of Norwich, suppliers of ready-made "Residences, Bungalows and Cottages". The bungalow was sited beside what remained of the faux Peppercombe Castle, a much grander building with a tennis court, dubbed by the Landmark Trust 'a castellated seaside residence' and seen below in a postcard from 1906; by 1909 it had been abandoned after coastal erosion had rendered it unsafe and I presume it collapsed or was knocked down soon after.

Giffard's Jump

Ordnance Survey map centred at Giffard's Jump

Since there appears to be no plaque designating it, the precise location of Giffard's Jump is hard to establish. Fortunately it is marked on the Ordnance Survey map which positions it close to the South West Coast Path, on the Peppercombe side of where the finer pebbles and sand of Portledge Beach give way to the larger stones and rocks of Peppercombe Beach which is where the photo below was taken. The cliffs have been subject to extensive erosion here over the years, so the alleged incident may have taken place at a spot that has since been washed away by the sea.

Looking down from what may be Giffard's Jump

Hardinge F Giffard, a descendant of the eponymous Giffard published a paper in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association[3] in 1902 drawing on family tradition both aural and written to set the record straight concerning the circumstances surrounding this incident. Polwhele had suggested that it took place around 1740, whereas Hardinge says it happened much earlier on October 28th 1537 during the reign of King Henry VIII. This was the day on which Thomas Giffard, heir to the extensive Halsbury estates, married Margaret Monk.

Assuming, therefore, that the family tradition is substantially true, it is possible to fix this as the exact date when this remarkable accident occurred, for it will be remembered that, according to the tradition, the bridal party, after the wedding, repaired to the place - probably the nearest point at which the sea could be reached - which was afterwards to be known as "Giffard's Jump." This part of the story is not at all improbable, for it was no uncommon custom in former days, before the advent of the modern honeymoon, to celebrate a wedding by organising a party of pleasure of the nature of a picnic after the ceremony had been performed. The tradition receives further corroboration from the fact that "Giffard's Jump" is only three and a half miles distant from Halsbury, and is even nearer to Parkham Church, where the marriage is supposed to have been solemnised. Unfortunately the Parkham parish registers afford no assistance on this point, as they commence the year after the wedding took place. [Harding F Giffard, p653]

The family tradition regarding this incident was encapsulated in a long and flowery poem written in 1791 by Sir A Hardinge Giffard that is quoted in full in the paper. I have reproduced the last 22 verses out of the 34 below (which should be read downwards). 'Lord Arthur' in the poem refers to Arthur Plantagenet, 1st Viscount Lisle. The bride Margaret Monk was the sister of Thomas Monk, who married Arthur Plantagenet's daughter.


  • 'Come forth, my love' the bridegroom said,
  • 'Come look upon the Severn Sea,
  • Yon cliff that proudly lifts his head
  • Shall be a seat for you and me'.

  • In sportive mood the cliff they gained,
  • The raptured pair the waters view'd,
  • And o'er the edge their sight they strained
  • To mark the wild waves fierce and rude.

  • And still to trace the rocky beach,
  • Mocking her husband's anxious eye,
  • The giddy Margaret forth would stretch,
  • And still another look would try.

  • To lure her from this dangerous spot
  • He turns to point each neighbouring scene -
  • 'And look, my love, where Portledge Court
  • Smiles lovely o'er the level green.

  • 'And westward, dear, direct thine eyes
  • Where pendent like a sea-bird's nest
  • In quiet calm Clovelly lies
  • Reposing on the cliff's high breast.

  • 'See Hartland closing round the bay,
  • Glamorgan's shadowy mountains view,
  • And Lundy, braving ocean's sway
  • And Dunster's heights of distant blue.

  • 'Refrain, my dearest love, refrain,
  • Nor wildly tempt this dreadful height;
  • While o'er this giddy brink you strain,
  • The shock may blind your dazzled sight.'

  • Her footing fails - his powerful hand
  • Saves her - but for a sight of woe,
  • He sees her just securely stand,
  • And he himself is hurled below.

  • Oh, bear away that wretched bride
  • A dismal road to Halsbury Hall,
  • This morning saw her in her pride
  • And noontide sees her reft of all.

  • Lord Arthur is a wretched man
  • To see that pale and lifeless child
  • Who, when this dismal day began,
  • In joy and health and beauty smiled.

  • And far and near he sends for aid
  • To every Leech of healing skill,
  • And well are his commands obeyed,
  • And soon that mourning hall they fill.

  • But as each remedy applied
  • Recalls her back to sense and life
  • 'Tis but to tell that wretched bride
  • That she no longer is a wife.

  • And now a murmur rises round,
  • His voice - his own loved voice - she hears;
  • She rushes to the well-known sound
  • And bathes him in her joyful tears.

  • 'Oh, where and how, my dearest best,
  • Restored to me and love and life;
  • What angel could that fate arrest
  • Sought by thy wretched, reckless wife?'

  • 'My humblest grateful thanks,' he said,
  • 'To the All-merciful are due,
  • Whose arm has snatched me from the dead,
  • Restored to life and love and you.'

  • 'For He, without Whose Will, no hair
  • Is idly from our temples shed,
  • Even as I fell in middle air
  • The means of safety round me spread.

  • 'Twas where of old a ragged oak,
  • That half-way down the cliff had grown
  • Forth from a crevice in the rock
  • Its old and tangled roots had thrown.

  • With wild convulsive grasp my hands
  • Upon that tangled root I flung,
  • And pendent o'er the stony strand,
  • In momentary safety hung.

  • A jutting stone, a gadding briar,
  • Were aids upon my perilous way,
  • (Small are the aids that we require
  • When love and life the prize display,)

  • And soon to many a wondering friend,
  • Lamenting my untimely doom,
  • Did I the lower cliff ascend
  • And hasten to this happy home.'

  • He ceased, and well you may suppose
  • The gratitude that Margaret felt,
  • When in that evening's happy close,
  • To pour her fervent thanks she knelt.

  • Ages have pass'd and names are gone,
  • But living still in local lore -
  • Right well the Giffard's Leap is known
  • To those who tread that rocky shore.
A distant view of Lundy from Peppercombe Beach

I'm not sure that the coast of Glamorgan, Portledge Court(usually Manor), or any part of Dunster could ever be seen from Giffard's Jump. Let's just call it poetic license. Lundy can most certainly be seen from there as shown alongside.

Returning to the question of the precise location of Giffard's Jump, Hardinge F Giffard suggests in his paper that the drop was less precipitous at that time (1902).

...having regard to the former great height of the cliff, which, however, even within my memory, has been so greatly reduced in size by the action of the sea as to render a fall therefrom unattended with fatal results scarcely remarkable. [Hardinge F Giffard, p652]

Today the height of the cliff seems even greater that in Polwhele's time, and there is no level ground in the vicinity where a picnic could conceivably be held, suggesting that erosion of the cliff has continued apace.

Peppercombe Lear

Peppercombe Lear

From the 16th Century lime became the principal means of increasing soil fertility in Devon, and many limekilns were built along the North Devon coast including one at the head of the beach in Peppercombe. The kilns were used to yield lime from limestone imported by sea from South Wales.

So extensive is the use of lime as a manure in Devonshire, that not only are prodigious quantities raised from the limestone and marble rocks in various parts of the county, but there are at least twenty kilns between Weare Giffard and the mouth of Bideford harbour, for the purposes of burning lime imported from Wales, and three or four more scattered round the bay. There is indeed scarcely an inlet or creek, either on the northern or southern coast of the county, that is not supplied with a lime-kiln; and when the stone is not found in the vicinity, vessels are employed to convey it from the lime-rock districts. [Moore[2], p538]

The Peppercombe limekiln has been washed away by the sea long ago, but what does remain is the rectangular channel carved out of the rocky beach to provide better access for the ships bringing in the limestone. The picture above shows this artificial inlet which goes by the name of Peppercombe Lear, lear being a west-country dialect word for such a channel.

notes

1.
Such formations are more precisely referred to as Permo-Triassic red beds. See Gayer, R. A. and Cornford, The Portledge-Peppercombe Permian outlier. Proceedings of the Ussher Society, 8, 15-18, 1992 for a more detailed geological analysis of this stretch of coastline. [return]

bibliography

1.
A History of Devonshire in 3 volumes by Richard Polwhele, London, 1793-1806; facsimile reprint Kohler & Coombes, Dorking, 1977. [return]
2.
The History of Devonshire by Thomas Moore, London, 1829. [return]
3.
Giffard's Jump by Hardinge F Giffard, Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association, Volume 34 p648, Plymouth, 1902. [return]

acknowledgements

1.
The photo of the waterfall on Peppercombe Beach is reproduced from the WikiMedia Commons under a Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 license.
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