Stage 34, 30th March: Westward Ho! to Chivenor
A warm, sunny day greeted me with barely a breeze and walking was easy as I rounded the headland via the golf course only stopping out of etiquette for the golfers teeing off. I found myself rarely striding at full pace and both Appledore and Bideford seemed to fly by.
Mike met up with me on his bike in Bideford and kept me company all the way back up the estuary to Instow with full details of Hamilton’s win in the Malaysian Grand Prix earlier that morning. After lunch and a quick change into shorts at Instow, Graham turned up to accompany me for a few miles of a wheelchair accessible section of the Tarka Trail down to Fremlington. It was four of us in all who took to the trail. Mike on his bike, Graham in his chair, Pippa the sprollie dog and me. It was grand to have some company and it felt comfortably familiar to have a dog on the end of a lead, even if it was on my least favourite tarmac surface.
At Fremlington the usual eclectic mix of Sunday afternoon families were out enjoying the sun and Graham’s new p.a. Rilwan met up with us to join the ice cream queue for well-earned cones all round – just vanilla for me.
Skirting Barnstaple I was on my own again and knocking out quick miles walking in the soft grass alongside the path to ease the ever-present pain in the toes of my right foot. I passed a homeless man without shoes trudging wearily up the path towards Chivenor, we exchanged a few jovial words and I would have happily given up my boots if his feet weren’t two sizes bigger than mine. He seemed untroubled by his lack of shoes and I stopped complaining about the pain in my foot which had been niggling away at me since Dorset.
After a quick shower Graham took us all back to Barnstaple for a quick photo at the local hospital for a future SIA periodical. A trip out deep into Exmoor brought a pub meal at a remote inn which could have doubled for The Slaughtered Lamb from American Werewolf in London, though the conversation didn’t fall silent and the darts didn’t stop in mid-air as we entered. A welcome evening of easy conversation ensued, though as ever an early night was welcome.
Stage 35, 31st March: Chivenor to Ilfracombe
An early start, I was out walking by 8:15 for my optional 25 miles to Ilfracombe. Down the estuary, I passed the Marines barracks and the RAF Air Sea Rescue base. I childishly stood for a few minutes and watched with fingers through the weld-mesh fence as the Sea King helicopter took off on a training sortie.
Further out into the estuary the terrain changed to marsh and then scrub and dunes used as a military training area. It was all pretty flat and not overly inspiring on a grey day. My interest and the scenery dramatically improved once I had rounded Croyde and Baggy Point.
A long walk across more than two miles of Woolacombe Sand made me feel a little like Lawrence of Arabia in his opening scene as I gradually approached Snickers and Mike for a quick rendezvous above the dunes backing the beach. My plan was to originally walk to Morte Point, but I felt that was not enough. With two days of serious ascent to come I wanted to give myself a headstart tomorrow so I elected to walk the extra five miles to Ilfracombe and confirmed the end of day rendezvous with Mike before heading off again.
Rounding Morte Point I was expecting rain. I watched rain ahead of me, behind me and to my left but nothing seemed to be on me. A bright flash and a nigh on instantaneous clap of thunder overhead changed everything. Having regained control of my heartbeat, I quickly stowed my trekking pole as I didn’t think a steel pole and high voltage electricity were a good mix. I also made a very quick change into waterproofs.
I had a damp climb or two and the second one felt particularly long before I finally dropped into an Ilfracombe that was running with water. I dropped so fast, I’m sure my ears popped.
Stage 36, 1st April: Ilfracombe to Lynton
Patchy banks of mist rolled off the moors and into the sea as I left Ilfracombe. In celebration of the arrival of April the ‘Verity’ statue by Damien Hirst which stands proudly at the harbour entrance had gained a pair of stripey socks overnight (photo). Whatever one might think of Mr Hurst’s controversial, but undoubtedly clever artwork, the socks did it proud.
As with many settlements on this part of the Devon coast, from the west Ilfracombe is invisible. Yet from the east it is very picturesque and tucks in neatly into the cliffs. I was glad that I had done the extra mileage yesterday as the first few miles today were tough with lots of ups and downs. I hadn’t slept well for worrying about home, so I felt a bit leaden footed.
Watermouth was cast with an eerie bank of mist as I approached but as I walked on by it melted away to reveal a pretty inlet dotted with a miscellany of moored boats idling in shelter out of season.
Combe Martin marks the start of the Exmoor National Park and I climb steeply out of the town over Little Hangman and up onto Great Hangman (the highest point on the SW Coast Path). Atop Great Hangman I am joined for lunch by Jill, and her collie Misty from the Yorkshire Dales. Misty shares my lunch as Jill and I look over to Wales trying to identify distant landmarks.
Walking very high over the cliff tops with two steep stream lined valleys to cross, this part of the coast is one of my favourites to date. The path narrows and winds, hugging the cliff face before turning tightly around pinnacled headlands to dip inland through gorse tunnels and skirt waterfalls cleaving into tight sheltered inlets. It would have made a great Lord of the Rings scene and I felt that the movie makers missed a few tricks by not looking a little harder for filming locations in the UK.
Stage 37, 2nd April: Lynton to Minehead
I started the day sporting my full waterproofs expecting a morning of rain. I climbed out of Lynton up Butter Hill and after a quick downpour, I trusted my judgement that the sky was brightening enough to remove the clammy extra layer. This was probably the most interesting part of my day.
After Butter Hill I entered mile upon mile of pre-spring woodland perched high up on the cliffs with barely a sight of the sea. It was becoming dull, dull, dull. Ducking inland now and then to cross the odd stream, dull, dull dull.
Deep in the woods, I met up with Mike Davis who had just started his SW Coast Path walk and was sporting a much bigger pack than me. He too is doing his walk for charity and his just giving site can be found here www.justgiving.com/630MileYomp Which neatly reminds me that I need to start getting a bit more active on the fundraising now that I have nearly completed the SW Coast Path. Donations have passed the £1,000 mark with little effort from me but I now know that every donation is also proving to be quite significant to me in terms of personal motivation. So if anyone reading this wants to help motivate me, you know what to do.
After meeting Mike, I also met an Aussie girl who had also just started the SW Coast Path, having taken a year out to travel the UK. She reminded me of my daughter and was probably of a similar age (18 or 19). On her own, I thought of her vulnerability and how I would worry if my daughter was doing the same thing. But with the people I had met so far, she’s more than safe and is at far worse danger crossing a road in London.
I think I was spoilt yesterday because after the woods I dropped into Porlock Weir for a walk around marshes on a grey day….hmmm thrilling. A steep climb up Bossington Hill followed but the grassy slope wasn’t a patch on yesterday’s cliff huggers and the path across the barren heathland at the top was….errr dull. At this point my left foot started to hurt, mirroring the pain in my right foot which has been nagging at me since February. Also the acorn signs I had been so diligently following seemed much less clear in Somerset than in Devon and I found myself heading significantly off track. I threw a tantrum, swore out loud….a lot, angrily bounced my trekking stick down the track and sat down on the heather to grumble and adjust my boots. The man walking his dog behind me hesitated before walking past reassuringly trying to tell me that he often has days like that. Though a tad embarrassed, he cheered me up.
Minehead – da daaaaaa! And South West Coast Path – DONE!
An end to a beginning maybe?
If I may be allowed to be a grumpy old git for a moment. Can I offer a quick criticism of the SW Coast Path signs. Please, please put them up in the correct order! It is thoroughly confusing and demotivating to come across a sign to Exemouth saying 3 miles only to be followed by the next sign saying it is 4 miles and the next saying it is 3.5 – I learnt to only use the distance information as very approximate rough guides after a while as it happened on many occasions….doh!
CUMULATIVE MILES / ASCENT: 694 Miles / 146,800 Feet