Earlier on today I came across some copy I’d written for a travelogue which never got finished. It was written in 1997 about a week I spent walking along the South West Way coast path and despite some interest from a publisher it never got taken any further.
Reading it now iot makes me cringe in places as I’ve over egged the cake regarding certain descriptions but I think it’s an interesting read.
I’ll dig out the photos at some point and add them to the mix. 🙂
Watermouth Castle to Hele Bay: Getting Stung!
Despite being awoken by the glare of car headlamps flooding the tent sometime after 1:30am, I did in fact sleep pretty well during the night. The grass before me now glistened in the early morning dew on what was another fine, sunny morning. It was refreshingly cool with the salty smell of the sea in the air and as I sat in the doorway of my tent, I just couldn’t help but smile. My whole being was engulfed by a glorious state of relaxed lethargy, a feeling that modern life only allows us in criminally small doses.
In order to celebrate this rare, guiltless, opportunity to be bone idle, I decided to eat in bulk. What ensued was a prolonged, flatulence building breakfast that included lukewarm baked beans, sausages and vast quantities of painfully weak tea. This was followed by a second course of a cheese and onion roll, crisps and a battered wagon wheel, items provisionally reserved as lunchtime snacks.
Whilst picking my teeth for the last, lingering remnants of sausage meat and prawn cocktail crisps, I gazed over the tightly spaced contours of my OS map. Clearly, the landscape was going to ask me to up my metabolic rate somewhat but before worrying about any ascents, I wanted to look around a bit at sea-level. Once packed up and out of the campsite gates, I walked along the A399 for a few yards before taking a right into Watermouth Bay, an attractive little inlet, filled with boats, dinghies and pleasure craft of all kinds, but not with water. As per usual, the tide was out and I was beginning to wonder if the sea was avoiding me. I’d been walking for the best part of a week now and was unable to recall seeing the tide in once. With my best investigative journalist hat on, I made enquiries with a couple of holidaymakers standing close by, resplendent in casuals straight from the Freeman’s catalogue.
“Please forgive me for asking such a daft question, but does the tide actually come in, in this part of the South-West?”
“It was in on Wednesday, I believe”, said the man not batting an eye-lid. “Apart from that, I’m not sure.”
This was absurd. I was actually being taken seriously. The thought of high tides only happening on a sporadic basis dependent on whim, was just too weird a concept to comprehend. Imagine turning up for a weeks sailing to find a message pinned to your boat that says: ‘The sea will be off the beach until further notice. Please call again later’. It was just madness!
Tempting as it was to hang around for a couple of days for the tides next visit, I couldn’t really justify it. My speed was already comparable with that of an aged tortoise with feet coated in treacle so with renewed vigor, I located the path again and began what was to become the first of many climbs that day. On nearing the summit, I turned 180 degrees and was treated to a fine view across the shimmering waters of the recently visited Watermouth Bay, Combe Martin Bay and to the Great Hangman beyond. It truly was a beautiful setting and there was a quietness that relaxed me completely. There was not a sole to be seen and I felt as if I had the path to myself.
I rounded Samson’s Bay and Rillage Point before making a sharp climb up through the long grass towards a picnic spot overlooking Hele Bay. Between me and it was a forest of nettles and brambles so dense that the path was almost totally obscured. My legs were exposed so it was clear, or to be more precise, should have been clear, that there was not an earthly chance of walking the next 100 yards without getting stung or scratched by either nettle or thorn. The sensible thing to do would have been to slip my waterproof trousers on for the couple of minutes it would take me to get to the other side. Do I really need to explain what happened next?
Once at the top, I sat down on the grass and gently winced. The traditional cure for nettle stings is rubbing dock leaves on the affected area but this was not an available option so I took to pouring water over the sores. This achieved nothing other than reducing the amount of liquid I was carrying. About a litre of water was wasted for what was in effect about a quarter of a second’s relief. To top it all off, I could also feel my scalp slowing cooking and turning a nice crimson red.
Suitably peeved, I made my way down into the village of Hele itself doing my best impression yet of a jaywalker. I was honked at on more than one occasion so I was glad to get away from the traffic once I’d arrived at the bottom of the hill.
Hele was first referred to as ‘Hela’ in the Doomsday Book of 1086. North Devon has a proliferation of place names that end with the letter ‘a’ and in this case, it’s a derivative of the Saxon word ‘healh’ or heale’ meaning ‘sheltered valley’. Our ancestors clearly knew what they were talking about as the village nestles rather nicely in just such a spot. This was all very well but it still didn’t tell me how on earth Hele should be pronounced. Is it ‘Hell-a’, ‘Hell-ee’ or should I just say ‘Hello’? My personal preference was to drop the ‘e’ altogether and opt for plain old ‘Hell’. This is because I secretly liked the idea of telling friends and family exciting stories of my voyage to Hell and back and it actually being rather pleasant. I was so taken with this proposition that I ended all research into the name there. I was happy in my ignorance.
Hele Bay to Ilfracombe: Getting Burnt!
Ahead of me now was the looming hulk of Hillsborough; not as high as the Great Hangman, but still impressive in British coastal terms at 447 feet. From the opposite side of the bay it didn’t look too threatening a climb but from its footings it looked horrendous. The coastal path zigzagged its way skywards in a fashion similar to that of Alpine roads that we’ve all seen in 60’s films such as ‘The Italian Job’. The gradient was certainly easier than a direct ascent but it meant that I had to walk more than four times the distance.
About half way up the path was blocked by a couple of young lovers taking a breather. By their side were three rather fearsome looking Alsatians who were looking me up and down as potential snack material. My feet appeared to be of particular interest which was not a wise move judging by the smell they emitted when I took my boots off each night. After five days of walking, I could only describe the odour as a mixture of Brie, garlic and industrial lubricating oil. Definitely not to be sniffed at.
The dogs weren’t particularly chatty so I made conversation with their owners about our respective plans for the week. Judging by their intermittent, not for my ears, whispers and giggles, I don’t believe for one moment I was getting the whole story of their holiday at all. Maybe they were on their way to a different kind of dog show where it was saucy owners who literally displayed themselves, instead of their pets, hoping to win a prize. I sensed something a little sleazy in their behaviour suggesting that, if I wasn’t careful, I would be asked to join them for some ‘special times’ together. It’s true that a good traveller’s tale needs a liberal amount of sexual content but it certainly wasn’t going involve this pair in the company of the canine trilogy – they just dribbled too much – and I’m not talking about the dogs either.
We continued our climb up to the summit of Hillsborough and were treated to a fine view over the resort of Ilfracombe. My companions decided that they would take a time out at this point so I said my good-byes and cracked on. It was quite a speedy trot down into the town and I was even able to pinpoint my arrival time in Ilfracombe harbour to within sixty seconds.
The narrow streets were awash with tourists who seemed to prefer a potter round the shops rather than a paddle in the sea. I wasn’t particularly keen to do either as an unquenchable thirst was in the process of engulfing me. A mug of tea was the order I wanted to make but I needed a cafe to place it in. I walked a little further and was immediately attracted to a particularly ‘greasy spoon’ that was emitting the wonderful sound and smell of sizzling bacon. I hastily rushed inside.
Making it through the doorway was not a problem. Getting to a table and sitting down was not so simple. Not to put to fine a point on it, I wrecked havoc in there in the same way I had at Taunton bus station. By the time I’d got five yards into the building, I’d bumped into the owner and knocked over two chairs by which time everyone was looking round to see what was causing the commotion. I turned the colour of an embarrassed beetroot with sunstroke and cowered in the corner hoping that no one would notice me. Not an easy task when you consider that my rucksack needed a seat of its own.
To soak up the tea I made a side order of a bacon sandwich liberally drenched in tomato sauce. This appeared only briefly. It had long since vanished by the time the waitress had got back to her counter but the four cups of tea from my pot for one took the best part of three quarters of an hour to finish. When the time to get going arrived, I peeled myself and my sweat stained T-shirt off the plastic bucket seat and headed towards the till to pay. This time I was able to complete the transaction and leave without further incident.
Once I’d stepped outside the cafe I could really feel the heat and Ilfracombe itself was really making the most of the warmth by lying back and soaking up the sun. Walking through the town, I came to the promenade where a curious octagonal shaped building was situated. This turned out to be the tourist information centre, which reminded me that I had sort out my accommodation for the evening.
Inside there were three queues waiting to be served and typically, I found myself to be in the slowest moving one. To add to the frustration, I had to stand there legs crossed, desperate for the loo as the four teas were by now keen to leave my bladder via the nearest available exit.
When I finally got to meet a tourist information official, a very personable lady of indeterminate age with a genuine fixed smile I asked, “What accommodation do you have for one man and his tent?”
This was as about as vague an instruction as you could wish to find, so to give her something to go on, I proceeded to randomly point to an area on the Devon map displayed on the counter.
“Well, at Mortehoe you have North Morte Farm, but there’s little likelihood of a level pitch. You could try Damage Barton though – it’s a caravan club site.”
I thanked her for her time and took the scrap of paper with the details to the phone box outside. A caravan club site wasn’t really me and after all, I was missing that most vital of ingredients at such a location – a caravan – so I settled on North Morte Farm at Mortehoe. A few minutes and a phone call later I was booked in.
Ilfracombe to Mortehoe: Getting Saucy!
From Ilfracombe, the South West Way passes through the harbour area, Wilders Mouth Beach before losing itself in the town. The official path makes its way up towards Flat Point or you can take National Trust Torrs Walk path, which is nearer to the coast. At that particular moment it didn’t look likely that I was on either as I was busily making my way through what was obviously a prosperous residential area. It was a clear day but the dense, surrounding woodland meant that I couldn’t see any further than Mr. Richardson’s Jaguar XJ6. I felt so out of place it was untrue which wasn’t helped by the twitching of curtains and an aged gentleman erratically hosing me instead of his lawn. I was prime neighbourhood watch fodder for sure so my pace quickened to avoid the further humiliation being shot at by a retired army general. Then, a flashy all terrain vehicle came racing by spitting up the gravel. I’m relieved to say that this was not an attempt to chase me away from their property but merely the reckless usage of vehicle barely a fortnight off the production line.
A little later I found the path again but not until after a liberal amount of head scratching and searching for bearings on my OS map. This was ridiculous because what better bearing can you have than the sea. As long as the map was aligned correctly with the Bristol Channel to the right, I was certain to be heading in the right direction.
To shield my eyes from the brightness of the early afternoon sun I reached for my shades but to my dismay, they were missing. The last time I remembered having them was in the cafe in Ilfracombe but I was certainly not prepared to go back for them now, no matter how appealing another bacon sandwich would’ve been. The sun was still pretty much behind me at this point but as the day wore on, it made its way round into eyeshot. I rectified the situation by putting my cap on at a jaunty angle which achieved its goal of keeping the sun out of my eyes, but it did have the unwanted side-effect of making me look pretty stupid.
I arrived in Lee in mid afternoon and decided to take yet another break at ‘The Smugglers Cove’, a clichéd name of a pub if ever I’ve heard one, and a popular haunt with locals and tourists alike. The coast path from here winds its way up the road towards Higher Warcombe and when looking back across the bay you get a totally different perspective on the village. It’s a geologist’s paradise. From this angle Lee appeared to be on the periphery of huge granite teeth marks in the rock and the beach itself needed a hundred foot wooden pathway out to the waters edge. With the aid of a pneumatic drill you could literally build a castle on this beach. A sand castle however, was completely out of the question.
After about a couple of hundred yards, the road levels out and on a sharp left hand bend the coast path diverts off to the right. I though continued along the tarmac inland towards Mortehoe taking another path down to some crop fields in a valley. At the bottom, I encountered a young couple leathered from head to foot, with crash helmets in hand. By their furrowed expressions it wasn’t difficult to tell that they were upset about something and by the way they were kicking around in the undergrowth it looked as if they’d lost their motorbike. There certainly wasn’t one to be seen close by anyway.
Truth be told, Mortehoe isn’t really a place to live it up in. Not a place for Saturday night high jinks at all really. It’s a place for a nice quiet drink in a pub and as that was all that was on offer it’s just as well. Mortehoe would be described in a brochure as a village of contrasts that mixed the old with the new. To me, it was a pleasant little village with two bloody great camp sites at one end, with a light sprinkling of battleship grey painted council houses. It did rather spoil the effect I have to say.
There were three or four pubs in the village, which were all doing a fairly brisk trade judging by the number of people standing outside. I chose ‘The Chichester Arms’ for my evenings entertainment.
Once I had a beer in hand, I went and sat down to update the diary for the day. My table was tucked away behind a large wooden beam, close to the pool table, which was getting constant use in an intense Mortehoe versus the Rest of the World contest. After about an hour, a girl in her mid-twenties arrived at the bar, ordered herself a drink and sat and watched the slaughter going on, on the pool table. At one point, I noticed her looking over in my direction giving me a smile. I returned the gesture with a nod, which coincided the two local lads making a move for the door, probably in search of more victims at the next pub. The pool table was empty. The girl was alone. Do I go over and talk to her? Heck, what have I got to lose – only my dignity.
I got up from seat in my coolest Bryan Ferry impersonation possible and confidently and strode over to the bar…our eyes met and…Jesus, the light was poorer in the pub than I thought! It wasn’t until I was close up that I noticed the array of rings and trinkets that pierced her face. Three in each ear, two in the left eyebrow and one through the right nostril. Oh well, there’s no going back now…
It wasn’t what you would readily call scintillating conversation. I tried to give ourselves a breather by challenging her to game of pool which I freely admit to wanting over with as quickly as possible so I could my excuses and leave – I was by now, in no mood for post-match analysis. Unfortunately, the anxiety of the situation affected my game and hers to, as neither of us could pot a ball. More stifled conversation followed before she accidentally potted the black off five cushions, which enabled us both to make a hasty exit.
In the pleasant, evening twilight I made my way back to the tent. On the approaches to the campsite there is a hotel, which has a large window that allowed me to look in on what was presumably their ‘Party Night’. It was a rather comical scene of a poor middle-aged D.J. trying to whip four octogenarians into frenzy by getting them to dance to ‘Tie a yellow ribbon around the old oak tree’. Medical teams were standing by in case their pacemakers couldn’t stand it.
I was in my sleeping bag a little before 10:00pm with the aim of getting some much needed kip. I needn’t have bothered as my semi-level pitch was on a busy and noisy thoroughfare for campers so whenever a car came by, it was like the Edison lighthouse was shining through my tent. Exasperated, I listened to the radio for a while before drifting off into an uneasy sleep….