The Cairn Pleasure Ground & Old Railway is an historic woodland and grassland area of about 15 acres on the southern outskirts of Ilfracombe with a variety of paths winding their way through the site. Cairn Top stands approximately 520ft above sea level – well worth the climb for the extensive views – to the north across the town to the Bristol Channel and Wales, to the east beyond Combe Martin to Great and Little Hangman and down Slade Valley to the south west. To the southern end of the Cairn, the top of Baileys Cleave gives a panoramic view to the north and east, which many people think the best in Ilfracombe.
Depending on the time of year, you may see carpets of bluebells, early purple or common spotted orchids or even lesser butterfly orchids – over the years 250 flowering plants have been recorded. Many types of fungi including some stunning bracket fungi are often seen, along with abundant lichens, which thrive in the clean air. The bird life is prolific, you could see greater spotted woodpeckers feeding their young, jays, tawny owls which often fly in the mornings, blue tits, great tits and long tailed tits, blackcaps, gold crests and many more. Foxes, badgers, small mammals, toads, slowworms, grass snakes, adders and hundreds of varieties of insects, moths and butterflies make their home on the Cairn and can be glimpsed by the lucky visitor. In January they undertake their annual bird box survey and they run regular free Bat Walk and Bug Hunt weekends.
In 2001 the Cairn Conservation Carers group was formed with two main aims (1) To improve the biodiversity and (2) To improve and maintain the numerous paths, create new ones and rediscover some original ones. They continue with the conservation works clearing bramble, bracken etc in specific areas in order to provide improved habitats for wildflowers, birds and butterflies while leaving some areas of bracken untouched, as these provide habitats for some butterflies and birds and provide shelter for small mammals.
The Old Railway
The resurfaced track bed of the Old Railway which runs past the western slopes of the Cairn now forms the first part of the National Cycleway Network Route 27. Quiet and traffic free, the track is ideal for both cyclists and walkers to enjoy the peace of the countryside. The Slade Reservoirs just over a mile from the start of the track look idyllic in the sunshine with the surrounding trees reflected in the water.
The railway was built in the early 1870's by the South Western Railway Company to connect Barnstaple with Ilfracombe. A number of lives were lost overcoming the engineering problems, not least the 1 in 36 gradient to Morte Station and the need to blast through solid rock. The single line and station (sited where the Pall Europe factory now stands) was opened in 1874. 1887 brought Great Western through trains and in 1888 the line was doubled. At its peak in 1939 there were 18 down and 16 up trains daily with 24 each way on Saturdays. The last steam train ran in 1964 and the track was singled again in 1967. The line closed in 1970 and was dismantled by 1975 but a few relics remain – a gas lamp, platelayer's huts, signal post etc. The upline tunnel remains open for walkers and cyclists to pass through with down being given over to colonies of bats which now include the rare Greater Horseshoe.
After closure the track bed to Lee Bridge was taken into the reserve and managed to maximise the biodiversity of the various habitats either side. The many wildflowers, including expanding colonies of cowslips, orchids and betony attract numerous butterflies and other insects which in turn attract a great variety of birdlife. In 2004 a path off the Old Railway was opened between the higher and lower Slade Reservoirs, where with luck you may glimpse a kingfisher, roe deer taking a drink or an otter passing through.
To reach The Cairn & Old Railway Track from the town centre, go up Station Road and park by the Pall Europe factory, then walk along the cycle path and you will find the Cairn on the left hand side. The Cairn is not suitable for wheelchairs or prams but the railway line is. A free car park is available near to Mortehoe.