Military boots and careful management keep this beautiful area a green haven
One of Britain’s most environmentally-diverse parishes is Braunton, North Devon, with its famous burrows. Writer and countryman Tony Evans describes the landscape.
The Braunton Burrows, the 2,400 acre core of North Devon's biosphere reserve recently described in two WMN articles by Martin Hesp, is a unique part of the North Devon coastal scene; a fascinating area that I have traversed many times during more than sixty years. This constantly shifting wind-driven dune system has been carved into hills of varying heights, and low lying pans, or slacks, as they are known.
The Burrows were once the realm of countless thousands of rabbits before myxomatosis devastated the huge population in the 1950s; the offspring of those that survived perform an important role by cropping the coarse grass and sapling seedlings, allowing a diverse array of wild flowers, some extremely rare, to flourish.
Doctor F. R. Elliston Wright, the local Braunton GP, was also an internationally renowned authority on the flora and fauna of the Burrows. He wrote and illustrated a book – Braunton a Few Nature Notes (1926, revised 1932) – which describes the fascinating and diverse nature of the Braunton Burrows and adjacent marshes.
Reviewing the book in the Western Morning News at the time, the writer Henry Williamson wrote: "…I have also heard it said that every species of British wild flowers grow on the Santon [Braunton] Burrows – that wide and beautiful region of sandhills bound by marram grasses, of mossy hillocks and level plains, and dykes and marshes, which lies, with its low ragged outline, a ruddy-purple in the Atlantic sunsets, between Taw and Torridge estuary and the hills sloping up to Exmoor… To me personally, the Few Nature Notes are of the greatest interest, its author, Dr F. R. Elliston Wright."
To Henry Williamson, the Burrows were a place of solitude: "this tract of sandhills, this Arabian desert in miniature made beautiful by the Atlantic, had always been for me a place of the spirit of aloneness…" he wrote.
Martin Hesp made mention of the army whose troops use the Burrows for training, their vehicles actually benefiting this fragile area. The public, except on rare occasions, are nevertheless allowed access, but during the Second World War, when I was a young lad, the Saunton Sands and the three-mile-long dune system that forms a backdrop to the beach was closed to civilians due to training by British and American troops, thousands of young men preparing for the deadly D-Day assault on the Normandy beaches in June 1944.
Today evidence of their presence can be seen in huge concrete landing craft, one of which carries a commemorative plaque, built a mile from the sea, by US army engineers for the purpose of training in embarking and disembarking men and their vehicles. In the fore-dunes shattered remains of pill-boxes and bunkers of concrete and steel, destroyed during training, stand sentinel among the grasses and wild flowers.
They form symbolic memorials to the many servicemen who trained on Saunton Sands and the Burrows, who fought, and where so many died on the beaches of Normandy.