Rainfall devastates sections of coast path
Record-breaking rainfall in the Westcountry has caused the worst series of landslides in more than a decade, according to experts.
This has left a trail of devastation along the South West Coast Path, which is now littered with closures and facing damage to its reputation as a £300 million-a-year tourist attraction.
Heavy rain has forced the closure of seven separate sections of the route in Devon and Cornwall leaving local authorities facing repair bills into the tens of thousands of pounds at a time of falling funding.
Campaigners say the full 630-mile route from Minehead to Poole – which is ranked among the world's greatest walks by travel guide Lonely Planet, may not fully reopen until the summer.
Geologists have warned ramblers to beware over the festive period as the combination of rain soaked ground and stormy seas could make paths susceptible to further slides.
Mark Owen, South West Coast Path trail officer, said the damage would take many months to repair after the worst slippages since 2001.
"The coastal path is a vital part of region's tourism and generates upwards of £300 million each year," he added.
"If you have lots of inland diversions it detracts from the quality and reputation of what is a world-class route.
"This 'last mile' between the land and sea is a major draw for people coming down to retire and businesses to relocate – we can't afford to let it slide."
Record-breaking levels of spring rain and a wetter than average winter has combined with stormy seas to weaken cliff faces.
The Exeter-based Met Office said April and May in Devon and Cornwall was the wettest for a century and winter was shaping up to be well above average.
In summer, a young woman was trapped and killed under a massive rockfall on the Jurassic coast near Lyme Regis.
At the weekend part of the coastal path in south east Cornwall was closed for the next six months because of a landslip at Whitsand Bay.
Dr Robin Shail, a senior lecturer in geology at Exeter University, said there had been "a shedload" of landslides up and down the region, though most of them relatively small.
He claimed wave erosion was a factor but said the build-up of ground water had permeated fractures within rock, "acting like a hydraulic pump" to force the material apart.
"The amount of landslides has been the greatest in the past ten years," he added.
"And what has been absolutely critical is the day after day of rain – whereas normally in winter two to three days of rain will be followed by a dry period.
"That is why we have seen more landslides – prolonged periods of heavy rain will mean more of the same.
"The predictions are for more intense rainfall and stormy sea conditions.
"It is imperative that people going for coastal walks over Christmas and New Year understand there is an ongoing natural process – it is always a good idea to give cliffs a wide berth, especially if you see stuff on the beach."
Damage was severe enough to force closure of the coastal path at Crock Point, near Woody Bay, Exmoor and Jenncliff to Bovisand, at Plymouth.
In Cornwall, Porthallow, on the Lizard, Kenidjack Valley, near Cape Cornwall and the Talland Bay to Looe section were shut.
Wembury Point to Wembury Beach in Devon closed briefly and Thurlestone to Hope Cove remains closed.
A temporary diversion has been put in place after the slip near Tregonhawke in Whitsand Bay.
The land is owned by the Mount Edgcumbe House and Country Park, whose management is overseen by Plymouth City Council and Cornwall Council jointly.
Surveyors said the area may stabilise but if not the route may have to be permanently diverted. Graham Smith, chairman of the South Devon and Dorset Coastal Authority Group, said the coastal path was "part of the psyche" in the South West.
He said recent weeks had been "the most active period" for years, adding that funding for defences had been maintained but needed to be allocated, based on "priority".