Case Study Site 10 – Exmouth and Exe Estuary

Case Study Site 10 – Exmouth and Exe Estuary

1.         Location

The study site comprises that section of the Exe Estuary from Topsham in the north to Exmouth in the south (the succeeding case study covers the Dawlish Warren to Teignmouth frontage). 

2.         Why was the Case Study Site selected?

The study site, an estuary on the South Devon coast, provides a contrasting physical environment to the predominantly cliffed frontages that have been selected as case studies along most of the Dorset and South Devon coasts.  The estuary contains a range of sites of heritage and archaeological interest, and has also been a very popular subject for artists particularly since the late eighteenth centuries (Marjoram & Jones, 20141).

3.         Summary of the Geology, Geomorphology & Coastal Processes

The Exe Estuary lies within sandstone, limestone, mudstone and shale formations of the Permian Period.  The evolution of the estuary resulted from both an erosional period during the Quaternary (from approximately ten million years ago) and sea level rise after the last Ice Age, which resulted in the drowning of the river valley and the formation of the estuary into which it has evolved today. 

4.         Risks to Heritage Assets along the Case Study Frontage

The principal risk along the Exe estuary is from flooding, despite extensive coastal defences including seawalls, groynes, rock revetments and beach management measures.  The pressure on coastal defences is likely to increase as a result of sea level rise and more unsettled weather patterns over the next century.  The ‘Exe Estuary Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Strategy’ (Environment Agency, 20132) has recommended a number of proposals to include improvement of tidal flood defences over the next decades, in particular with the aims of reducing overtopping of seawalls during storm events (Figures 6-8). 

The Exe estuary and the settlements bordering it contain a rich heritage ranging from the Grade I Listed Powderham Castle on the western side of the estuary, to the numerous elegant buildings located within the Conservation Area of Exmouth.  Other heritage interest includes the possible site of Exmouth Castle (MDV10649), the Artillery Fort between Star Cross and Exmouth (MDV9801) and relics of a limekiln on the Maer at Exmouth (MDV18738).

5.         How can historical Imagery inform heritage risk management?

There are numerous artworks depicting the Exe estuary, which allow changes in conditions along its length to be compared over the last two and a half centuries (Figures 10.1-10.4).  As part of the ‘Living with Coastal Change’ (LICCO) project ( a component of the project entitled ‘Painting a picture of change around the Exe Estuary coast’ involved gathering together those artworks from the late eighteenth century onwards that portrayed the estuary and activities along its banks through history – see Figure 10.5 (Marjoram and Jones, 20141).  This component represents a good example of the practical use of such historical images in support of estuary planning and management.

6.         Key Issues – What can be learnt from this site?

The artworks show that there is a rich history of images painted along the banks of estuaries, and that these can inform us of changing conditions brought about as a result of both natural and anthropogenic influences since the late eighteenth century.  Such images can support the development of flood risk management strategies by allowing an understanding of past conditions, including during periods of flooding.  They can give an indication of the past and potential vulnerabilities of heritage sites to flood risk and support the planning of sustainable solutions for their future preservation. 

Figure 10.1: ‘A View of the Exe from Exwell Looking Towards Topsham’ by Francis Towne, 1779. Watercolour.  The writer Richard Warner in his ‘A Walk Through Some of the Western Counties of England’ in 1800 said “this estuary, sprinkled with shipping, enclosed between hills, which are ornamented with groves and mansions, castles and cities, present at full tide, and under a calm sky, the picture of an Italian Lake” (Warner, 18003).

Image Courtesy of John Spink.

Figure 10.2: This aquatint engraving by William Daniell RA was completed in 1825 near the end of his eleven year ‘Voyage Round Great Britain’ (Daniell & Ayton, 1814-18254).  Some lodging houses were being built on the high ground known as The Beacon.

Figure 10.3: David Addey retraced Daniell’s voyage and, in 1988, travelled to Exmouth where he painted this watercolour.  This view, like Daniell’s, is taken from Orcombe Point and shows Holy Trinity Church and the row of houses on The Beacon.

Image Courtesy of David Addey.

Figure 10.4: The prolific watercolourist Alfred Robert Quinton painted this view of the red sandstone cliffline and coastal path looking across the mouth of the Exe Estuary in 1915.

Image Courtesy of J. Salmon Limited of Sevenoaks.

Figure 10.5: Application of art to inform estuary management – the Interreg IVA ‘LICCO’ Project. 

The assistance of Stephanie Clark, Exe Estuary Officer, is gratefully acknowledged (  Exe Estuary Press (Issue 36).  Exe Estuary Management Partnership. 

Figure 10.6: This photograph, taken in 1915, shows the view of Exmouth and the estuary from Beacon Hill.  The elegant villas and Esplanade remain as a prominent architectural feature of the town today.

Coastal and flood defences help to protect the town frontage from erosion and flooding (Figure 10.7).  However, the requirements are being reassessed through an erosion and flood risk management strategy.  Damage caused during the severe storms of December 2013/January 2014 have highlighted the need for possible further improvements.

Figure 10.8: A view across the estuary mouth showing the extensive beach and Dawlish Warren beyond.

7.         References

  1. Marjoram, J. & Jones, H., 2014. ‘Artists in Exmouth before 1910’. Report for the EU Interreg IVA ‘LICCO’ project.
  2. Environment Agency, 2013. ‘Exe Estuary Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Strategy’.…exe-estuary-flood-and-coastal-erosion-risk-management-strategy…risk-management-strategy.
  3. Warner, R., 1800. ‘A Walk Through Some of the Western Counties of England’. Page 197.
  4. Daniell, W. & Ayton, R., 1814-1825.  ‘A Voyage Round Great Britain’. Longman & Co.