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North Devon AONB National Mapping Programme project

The North Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) coastline covers approximately 171 square kilometres, stretching from Cornwall to Exmoor National Park. This National Mapping Programme (NMP) project was designed to define, characterise and analyse the historic environment of the AONB. The results from the project will help to improve understanding and inform decisions regarding strategic planning, management and preservation of the historic environment.

Colour aerial photograph showing the sea and estuary with cultivated fields heading off into the distance
Aerial photograph looking east across the Taw Estuary taken on 23-JUL-2004 (NMR 23597/18). © Historic England

The North Devon AONB NMP project began in December 2011 and was completed in February 2013. The aims were to map, interpret and record all archaeological features (earthworks, cropmarks and structures) visible on aerial photographs within the AONB. This included a small buffer zone incorporating significant adjacent archaeological landscapes. The area has international designation as a Biosphere Reserve, and the survey results help to inform landscape-scale land management projects. The results of the survey are recorded in the Devon Historic Environment Record database (HER) and Geographic Information System (GIS), with details of the project highlighted on specific web pages.

The North Devon coast is known for its distinctive landscape features, such as the vast dune system of Braunton Burrows and the Pebble Ridge at Northam. The Taw/Torridge estuary cuts through the AONB and inland for some nine kilometres to Barnstaple, marking the limit of the project area.


Further inland, the project area is rural in nature. Much of the current settlement pattern and landscape character, including the distinctive Devon hedgebanks and lanes, probably originated in the early medieval period. The rare survival of open strip-field farming at Braunton Great Field formed a particular focus of interest. Former field boundaries of medieval or post-medieval date were the single most numerous monument type recorded during the survey. This reflects changing agricultural practices over the centuries. At Peppercombe, in Alwington Parish, the survey recorded extensive but previously unknown earthwork remains of strip fields.

A black and white vertical aerial photograph beside NMP mapping of field systems around Gilscott
Comparison of NMP mapping of field systems around Gilscott with a photograph taken on 19-APR-1946 (RAF/3G/TUD/UK/158 V 5035). Historic England RAF photography; Mapping © Historic England; © Crown Copyright and database right 2013. Ordnance Survey 100019783.

Intertidal remains

Intertidal remains of various structures have been recorded in the low-lying Taw/Torridge estuary, some of which may be medieval in origin. A substantial fish trap named 'Horsey Weir' is intermittently visible on aerial photographs, with different sections exposed or obscured by the shifting sands from year to year.

Black and white aerial photograph showing sea and beach with a
Possible medieval fish trap off Horsey Island photographed by the RAF on 10 August 1960. Very little of this structure is now visible. (RAF/543/1017 PSFO-0131). © Historic England RAF photography

The Second World War

Wartime brought significant changes to the North Devon Coast with anti-invasion defences restricting movement around low-lying areas. Upright posts formed a chequerboard pattern of anti-invasion obstacles at Croyde Sand, probably similar to those that are still occasionally visible on the beach at Woolacombe. On Northam Burrows anti-glider obstructions, barbed wire and minefields visible on aerial photography must have interfered with play on England's oldest golf course.

Close up section from black and white vertical aerial photograph showing a number of square and round structures
Mock-up German anti-aircraft battery at Braunton Burrows photographed by the RAF on 30-OCT-1945. The site replicated the German battery at St Martin de Varreville behind Utah Beach in Normandy.  (RAF 106G/UK957 4023) © Historic England (NMR) RAF photography

The area's resemblance to the coast of Normandy resulted in it becoming a focus for military training in advance of D-Day. The U.S. Army established an Assault Training Centre for Operation Overlord, covering a large area of the coast around Woolacombe. This remained operational between September 1943 and April 1944. Many thousands of US troops arrived to be trained in North Devon; the survey located a high number of previously known elements of this training landscape as well as previously unrecorded. These included a mock-up German anti-aircraft battery on Braunton Burrows and replica anti-invasion 'Czech Hedgehogs' or 'Horned Scullys' at Broadsands. The removal or relocation of defensive features after the war is traceable, but it is likely that many remains are buried within the sands.

Low level oblique black and white aerial photograph showing a beach with numerous cross-shaped obstructions in the water
Mockup ‘Czech Hedgehog’ anti-invasion defences at Broadsands photographed by the RAF 09-MAY-1945. (RAF/106G/LA 267 FPO-0011). Historic England RAF photography.
North Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty NMP Project: A National Mapping Programme Report

North Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty NMP Project: A National Mapping Programme Report

Published 10 April 2014

A report on the aerial survey of the North Devon AONB. A National Mapping Programme project (6083)

The images used on this page are copyright Historic England unless specified otherwise. For further details of any photographs or other images and for copies of these, or the plans and reports related to the project, please contact the Historic England Archive.

For further information on a project or any other aspect of the work of the Remote Sensing Team please contact us via email using the link below.

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