Rugged Tales

Wherever my feet may take me…


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Mists and legends

Excited by the promise of the legendary King Arthur’s castle I set off today for Tintagel, despite a lingering stiffness in my legs. Early sunshine quickly gave way to moody clouds that threatened rain, but it stayed dry as I made my slow way to Boscastle harbour.

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Scene of one of the most extreme floods ever recorded in Britain, there is little sign now of the devastation that occurred in 2004. I treated myself to a delicious brunch at the Harbour Light, a 16th century harbour-front building completely rebuilt after the flood destroyed it.

Climbing up out of Boscastle, however, the sea mist rolled in as I made my damp and chilly way round Firebeacon Hill.

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I consoled myself that the swirling mists would add to the mystical atmosphere as I approached my destination. But by the time I’d spent a fruitless hour searching for a campsite that turned out to have closed down, the sun had regained the ascendancy and I finally rounded Barras Nose to see Tintagel Head in sun-drenched glory.

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The sun also drew out tourists in considerable number, and upon drawing closer Tintagel revealed itself to be more Monty Python than Malory, with the 19th century Camelot Castle Hotel a particularly prominent and hideous feature. Having reconciled myself to being in a kind of Arthurian theme park, though, I’m actually quite enjoying it. Full of Granny Wobbly’s homemade ice-cream, and homemade fudge (stuck to each other with a generous coating of cream), and with an ATM, two well-stocked convenience stores, and numerous pubs within an easy walk even on my sore legs, I’m finding the amenities compelling. Cosy in Ye Olde Malthouse, the original 14th century village inn, with a glass of wine and free wifi, I’m more than happy to look past the rather lurid depiction of some round table event or another hanging on the wall next to me.


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Weary legs

It was a slow start today. After yesterday’s exertions, and with an uninspiring drizzle to greet me when I woke, I could cheerfully have stayed in bed until lunchtime! But with 15 miles or so to walk I dragged myself up and hit the trail.

The first obstacle was at Widemouth Bay. After just a few yards struggling through the piles of soft sand in the dunes I was cursing whoever had invented beaches and eager to trade them for a nice firm cliff or two. As is so often the case, I should have been more careful what I wished for…

The sun came out as I strode up Penhalt cliff before tackling a particularly steep descent into the valley at Millook, and then another dip at the Dizzard in increasing heat.

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Atop the cliffs near Cleave I came across a dedicated South West Coast Path bench – only 500 miles to go to Poole. Hopefully some of them will be flatter than today’s!

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Stopping for lunch on the hillside above St Gennys I was horrified to see a tick crawling up my leg. Having had quite enough tick fun in Oklahoma to last me for a while I flicked it away and hastily set off again. After four hours (and five steep valleys) I finally tottered into Crackington Haven: hot, sweaty and very tired. A cold drink partially revived me and I set off to climb back up out of the valley. But when, after having clambered over an inordinate number of stiles in the course of the day, I got stuck in a kissing gate of wholly inadequate proportions for someone with a backpack I came perilously close to a sense of humour failure. But the views back to Crackington Haven, nestling between the cliffs behind a sparkling turquoise sea, were so glorious it was hard to stay grumpy for long.

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Increasingly tired, I dragged myself up the aptly named High Cliff (one of the highest parts of the Path at 223m) believing it to be the last ascent of the day, only to discover a steep descent and the looming bulk of Rusey Cliff hiding behind it. I should have read the map more carefully.

Nonetheles, at long last I made it to my campsite in the hamlet of Pennycrocker – too small even to get a mention on the OS map – and relieved of my backpack I managed to totter the 30 mins each way to the pub at Tresparrett, the nearest available food. Yesterday’s route was reputed to be the toughest but I found today’s harder going, probably because I started it tired. It was barely dark before I fell into bed and to sleep.


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Tough nut

Today’s walk, from Hartland Quay to Bude, is reputed to be the toughest of the whole Coast Path, with 10 river valleys between the cliffs to navigate and a total ascent/descent of over 1,300m. Not content with that challenge I started proceedings a mile from the start in Stoke (the nearest campsite) and planned to end the day at the campsite in Lynstone, a mile further on than Bude.

Although rain was forecast it was another glorious start to the day and I enjoyed a picture postcard view of the church as I left Stoke.

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Once on the Path I had a good view of the cliffs I would have to climb over. From this distance, with the valleys between them obscured, they didn’t look too bad!

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But by the time I’d slithered down my third steep cliff to cross the footbridge over Marshland Water (crossing from Devon into Cornwall at the same time) it did cross my mind to wonder whether I would run out of energy before I ran out of cliffs to be climbed.

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I had a couple of things to distract me from the pain, however. First, the stunning scenery which was unremittingly spectacular. And second, the fact that I was proving unusually exciting for dogs. Two quite large specimens gave up a boisterous game of chasing each other round the beach to come and bark vigorously at me as I climbed down to Duckpool in the Combe Valley. As I made for the toilets there another dog gave voice, startling her owner into remarking “Goodness, I don’t think I’ve ever heard her bark before!”. Perhaps I’ll try a different outfit tomorrow…

On the up side it stayed dry, and it appears I must have got fitter since I started the walk. Where 8.5 miles with 650m of ascent/descent on day one had me almost on my knees, when Bude finally appeared today I had enough energy left to give, I think, a reasonable impression of a hardy hiker rather than an aged crone.

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My guidebook said that today’s route ‘can be tiring in wet and windy weather’. Having now done it I can confirm that it’s pretty tiring even in close to ideal conditions! But I’m pleased to have cracked the toughest nut, and optimistic now for my chances of staying the course.


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Four seasons in one day

This being the UK, hot weather of course cannot last. After a fine start, by 8am the clouds were rolling in and the breeze noticeably freshening. After walking in the heat for the last two days I was keener than usual to see some cooler weather arrive. As we rounded Windberry Point, looking back towards Blackchurch Rock, I was rather enjoying the clouds and cool wind – pleasantly soothing for the heat rash on my hands and the slight sunburn on my forearms.

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But when heavy rain set in it quickly became less fun, and we ate our lunch huddled beneath a ‘sun’ umbrella at the refreshment kiosk at Hartland Point – the only shelter for miles around. The weather was so filthy, potentially making the six steep ascents and descents ahead of us horribly slippery, that we seriously considered getting a taxi! But spurred on by a promising little patch of blue sky opening up, we decided to press on.

It turned out to be the right call. The clouds broke up, the sun started to filter through and the final cliffs were not as bad as I’d feared.

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By the time I said goodbye to Claire, full of delicious pub food at The Hartland Quay hotel, it had turned into a glorious evening.

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Bathed in the golden evening sunshine, the path ahead looks inviting, but tomorrow’s walk is reputed to be one of the toughest days of the whole walk. Fingers crossed…


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Feeling the heat

After exploring the coast round Barnstaple from every conceivable angle, today I struck out for pastures new, joined for the weekend by my friend Claire. An improbably long walk around the golf course from Appledore to Westward Ho! set the tone for the day: much longer and more arduous than we had expected. Fortunately, although not as quaint as Appledore, Westward Ho! had all the amenities essential in a seaside resort, including rows of colourful beach huts and a Hockings ice-cream van. Topped with an almost equal quantity of clotted cream, I felt sure this Devon speciality would power me up any number of cliffs!

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Fortunate, then, that we had eaten some as Claire and I clambered up cliff and down gully in the boiling heat. At least there was a fresh sea breeze to help cool us down now that we were back on the coast after my inland foray to Barnstaple.

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After a mercifully flat(ish) section along shady Hobby Drive we arrived in Clovelly for dinner – even quainter and more picturesque than Appledore.

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Picking our way down the steep cobbled High Street was hard enough: climbing back up to the campsite at Higher Clovelly after such a long day was even harder. We pitched our tents in the gathering dusk, trying (with limited success) to dodge the midges, and dozed off listening to the band playing old favourites at a wedding reception across the road. I would probably have slept through Armageddon after such a tiring day!


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A long way round

I thought yesterday that the Coast Path was a circuitous way to end up five miles from where I started, but today I walked 20 miles to end up within sight yesterday’s lunch stop! My longest walk of the trip so far took me round two estuaries: from Chivenor into Barnstaple and back the other side of the River Taw then down to East-the-Water, across the River Torridge to Bideford, and back up again.

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I ended the day in Appledore, which I glimpsed yesterday through drifting sea mists from Crow Point (at the southern tip of Braunton Burrows). Approaching Instow today I got a clearer view of Appledore to the left and Crow Point to the right and realised that if I hadn’t been so prescriptive about my mode of transport I could have swim across in a fraction of the time!

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My route today mostly followed the Tarka Trail cycle path along old railway track beds – always easy to navigate, sometimes boring, and occasionally alarming as cyclists streaked past without warning. At least there were no hills to contend with. Some of the cuttings even offered a little shade for which I was very grateful as the weather had suddenly turned hot. At around 30 degrees by one forecast, it was only the breeze and the odd patches of shade that kept me going.

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When I reached it, Appledore provided my most enjoyable evening to date, chatting with a couple of groups of people from the village in a wonderfully friendly pub on the harbour front as the high tide lapped against the sea wall and the tropical heat of the day gave way to a balmy peach sunset. Maybe I’ll give up all this walking and just relax here for a bit…


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Circumlocutions

Waking up this morning in Croyde village I was just 5 miles or so from my destination of Braunton – if I could go by the direct route. Via the Coast Path, and adding in a mile to get back to it from the village, two miles round Baggy Point (which I bypassed yesterday as it was getting late) and another mile detouring back into the village again when I realised there were no other shops) it was more like 15.

Despite being shrouded in a morning sea fog, the path round Baggy Point was a dramatic walk I’m glad I didn’t miss.

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My detour back to Croyde village also had it’s compensations: an unconventional but delicious breakfast of luxury Devon ice-cream from one of the shops that was closed when I arrived last night and hadn’t yet opened when I left this morning. Between the ice-cream, the beautiful views, the friendly people and a perfect beach, I’d be happy to go back and spend more time in Croyde.

But for now it was time to press on and make my way along the back of Braunton Burrows. A military training area, I was braced for a degree of risk but it came from an unexpected quarter. Lucky the fog had burnt off by then!

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Once the adrenaline had faded, the rest of the day was spent in an unexceptional, flat walk around the River Caen estuary and past the south edge of Braunton.

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The only excitement was the discovery of a Tesco superstore as I skirted the town. Not normally a cause for celebration, but it’s definitely opened up more possibilities for my tea tonight.


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Hat trick

Having already caught the bus to and from Combe Martin from Ilfracombe, today marked my third – and hopefully final – time in the town for this trip. It was, however, more interesting on foot than on the bus. Ilfracombe still has a working quay and I saw the boats coming in and piles of lobster pots stacked up ready as I walked past. Ilfracombe is actually part of the reason I decided to walk the Coast Path. In 2009 I spent a couple of days there and walked up from my B&B to the top of the cliffs. I passed a marker for the Coast Path and would have liked to walk a section of it there and then, but various factors (chief amongst them being the far from summery August weather) made it impossible. As I walked up out of the town today I passed the spot where I stood nearly 3 years ago and first thought it would be fun to walk the Coast Path. And, so far, it is.

Ilfracombe had new sights to offer amongst the familiar. Stopping for breakfast on the High Street I saw the largest number of dogs being walked by a single person I have ever seen.

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I assumed the human in charge must be a professional dog walker but, overhearing some other tourists’ query, it turned out they are all his own ‘large family’!

Ilfracombe also furnished me with one of my best lunches of the trip so far: a fabulous mackerel salad from the fishmongers on the harbour. And the cliffs above Pensport Rock provided a fantastic backdrop to eat it.

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For much of the day I walked above beaches covered in jagged black spikes where seams of slate met the sea.

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During one attempt to get a photo of myself with dramatic scenery behind my iPhone fell off just such a slate outcrop. Fortunately, it seems none the worse for wear and I spent the rest of the day grateful that I’d invested in the waterproof, dust proof, drop proof case that at the time seemed indulgently expensive!

But the day ended on the gentler terrain of Woolacombe Sand. Surfers were even more plentiful here than dogs in Ilfracombe, and the sand had that perfect firm but springy quality that made it a joy to walk on. Strolling by the crashing pale blue waves on what must be one of the most perfect beaches in England, this has been one of my favourite days do far. I know it’s only day five, but this one will take some beating.

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On the road again

Or more precisely, on the train, then another train, then a third train followed by two different busses. I had thought my difficulty getting home from Combe Martin was due to the absence of a Sunday bus service and the rail engineering works round Basingstoke, but getting back again was a challenge even on a week day.

After all that there wasn’t much time for walking: I managed only a modest 4.5 miles to Hele, where it turned out I missed the Olympic torch by just a day.

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But there were plenty of other sights to see, including the beautiful harbour at Watermouth, with the Little Hangman and Great Hangman (that I climbed over on my last walking day) rising up to the left behind.

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I stopped for the night at Hele Valley Holiday Park – possibly the most expensive campsite of my life! Despite having a miniature tent and no car (let alone a requirement for hard standing or an electricity hookup) the smartly dressed receptionist quoted me £16 for one night, though discounted it to £12 as I was on my own. The contrast to my recent Asian trip – where you could usually get a double room with air con and an en suite bathroom for that money – was striking! But it was beautifully kept and I managed to get a nice quiet pitch by a little stream. Not quite as picturesque as the first one but as good a place as any to test out my new tent…

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On top of the world

Or at least, the highest point on the South West Coast Path – the summit of Great Hangman (318 m).

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The last ascent of a tiring day, there were times when I thought hanging might have been preferable! But fortunately the steepest, slipperiest sections were at the bottom where the path climbs out of a deep gully at Sherrycombe while the top was a gently rounded done and much easier on my weary legs. Although none of the hills on the Coast Path are particularly high in themselves it’s the number of them to be tackled each day that makes it challenging and I was certainly feeling the accumulated effects by the time I tottered into camp!

The signage also reached a new high today. The sign makers seemed to have given up on distances – probably for the best! – or indeed much other information at this junction near Woody Bay.

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It turned out there was some information on the other side, but it wasn’t much more helpful!

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But although it was tiring, it was absolutely worth it – on day 3 the path delivered everything I’d hoped for when I decided to walk it. Glorious sunshine lighting the spectacular views of rugged cliffs plunging to a sparkling turquoise sea – the view of Castle Rock as I headed out of Lynton was just one example.

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I finished the day in Combe Martin, and will be leaving the walk here for a while as I have a job interview on Monday. Wish me luck!

While I’m a little frustrated to take a break so soon it’ll be a good opportunity to refine my gear and let a worsening blister on my right heel get better. Having walked all the Exmoor coastline it’s a neat place to pause, and I plan to be back soon…