I was woken in the night when a cold splash of water landed on my arm. Battered by the elements week after week my poor little tent has sprung a leak. I went out in the rain to reposition the fly sheet but it didn’t help. Back inside, I spent a good portion of the night peering anxiously up at the two wet spots with my head torch until I managed to position a Kleenex under the worst drip and get back to sleep. By the morning the rain had stopped and I set off on schedule, despite my tiredness and the forecast fog and drizzle. I wanted to get the tide-critical fording of the River Erme behind me. But knowing what I know now I would have stayed in bed, however leaky the roof over it. By the time I’d walked back to the Coast Path from the village the drizzle had turned to light rain, and in another half an hour it was pouring. By the time I reached Erme Mouth I was soaking wet – and I hadn’t even started the wading part!
I made my way across the expanse of flat sand towards the river, took off my boots and paddled into the water. It was cold! And deep. I’d read that normally, if timed correctly, the water shouldn’t come above the knees, and I’d successfully timed my arrival at the crossing point to within a few minutes of low water. But as I made my way into the stream the water got deeper and deeper until I was pulling up even my quite short shorts, and the rush of water was so powerful I struggled to keep my feet. I started to feel a little scared and wondered if I ought to turn back, but then what? I’d already established that the other options for getting round the river weren’t great. When I saw a couple walking their dogs on the far shore I called out – several times to be heard over the distance, the wind and the rain – to ask if I was in the right place. They confirmed I was and stayed to see me safely over, calling out encouragements. Grateful for their reassuring presence I inched my way across, adopting an inelegant wide-legged waddle that probably looked ridiculous but which I figured would give me the best chance of staying upright. To my relief, the worst was over. The water started to get shallower and I finally got to the other side. It had probably taken no more than five or ten minutes to get across but it felt like half an hour.
I had the depressing feeling I’d been a bit of a wimp about the whole river fording thing. But as I started to put my sodden boots and socks back on, thanking the couple for their moral support, another dog-walker came by. “Can you believe the state of it?” she said, gesturing at the river. “It’s never this high in July!” The consensus seemed to be that the heavy rain over Dartmoor last night – and all the last month, come to that – had changed the river from it’s normal placid summer state to a much deeper torrent. At least it wasn’t just me!
Bidding goodbye to the dog walkers I headed up onto the cliffs for the next challenge: the roller coaster path to Bigbury-on-Sea. Although reputed to be a tough stretch the steep ascents and descents over the high cliffs were not as bad as I’d expected. Finding the path in the thick fog that clung to the cliff tops, however, was almost impossible. The only other creatures out there were the sheep and for the second time today I wondered whether it was wise to continue.
But I pressed on and was doing better until I came to climb the final hill. What looked like a firm, grippy dirt surface turned out to be a particularly slippery mud, and an inarticulate squawk of alarm escaped me when my front foot suddenly slid several feet back down the steep slope while I scrabbled to regain traction. I felt my pack pulling me off balance and for a moment I thought a face first fall into the mud was a certainty. But by a stroke of luck I managed to get one foot onto the scrubby grass and arrest my slide, ending with my legs sprawled in opposite directions, balanced on my left hand in a sort of bizarre triangular sideways press-up position.
I’d had enough walking.
Although it was only 2pm I abandoned my plan to catch the ferry across to Bantham for another five mile stretch and headed straight to the nearest campsite, wet and cold but most of all frustrated that all I’d seen of ‘some of the best cliff scenery on the South Devon coast’ was a few tantalizing glimpses through breaks in the fog.
I pitched my tent in the most sheltered spot I could find, between the toilet block, a high hedge and a caravan, apologising to the couple in it for picking a spot so close to them in a nearly empty field. As it turned out I couldn’t have been luckier than to have pitched next to Rachael and Martin, my fairy godparents for the evening. Not only understanding about where I’d put my tent, they invited me into their cosy caravan for tea, chocolate biscuits and – later – several large whiskies, dried all my soaking clothes on their radiator, charged my phone, let me cook the food I’d bought for dinner on their cooker, and left their car unlocked so I’d have somewhere to go in the night if my tent leak got too bad. It’s testament to the warmth of their hospitality that the wonderful evening I spent chatting with them eclipsed all the trials of the morning. I was as lucky with the people I met today as I was unlucky with the weather.