I expected today’s walk to be a chore rather than a pleasure. The expansion of Torquay, Paignton and Brixham until they fused into the Torbay conurbation has created the largest urban area to walk through after Plymouth. With its origins as seaside resorts, the development now covers almost the entire Torbay coastline. Resigned to my fate I left the campsite in Brixham and made my way to the harbour, home to a sizeable statue of William of Orange (later King William III, who landed near there in 1688) and a replica of the Golden Hind. I’m still not totally clear what connection the ship has with Brixham (and there is another, more famous, replica in London) but it certainly made a fine sight – and a fine tourist attraction – moored in the heart of the town. What struck me most was the size; it seemed far too small to provide a home for over 70 men, let alone for circumnavigating the globe!
With a lot of miles to cover I wasn’t tempted aboard, but a little further round the harbour a much greater temptation lay in wait.
Many walkers apparently catch a bus from Brixham to Torquay to miss out the urban sprawl, and for just £1 (or £2 return – the cheapest ferry fare yet) here was the chance to cruise around by boat. What a bargain! And how nice it would be to be spared such a long stretch of pavement pounding! As I walked passed the ticket booth the boat was just preparing to leave, with shouts of “Any more for Torquay?”. An answering “Yes!”, a few steps, and Torbay would be effortlessly behind me. For a few glorious seconds I saw an alternative, much more appealing, day ahead in my mind’s eye. But I recalled the tinge of contempt with which Mr Paddy Dillon, author of the South West Coast Path guidebook, recorded the practice of bus-catching past Paignton and Torquay which, in his view, “hardly warrant total avoidance.” I decided to keep an open mind and give Torbay a chance.
At first the walk was quite pleasant, past a couple of pretty coves and through some woodland. The signage was terrible and I went a little astray but a local man walking past pointed me in the right direction and, as he was going the same way, we walked along together to Broadsands. But from there it started to go downhill. Numerous flights of concrete steps climbed up and down between static caravans and the railway line: not the most edifying scenery. But it was exciting to see the Dartmouth Steam Railway train pulling out above the beach huts at Goodrington Sands. I’d already glimpsed the train, which runs between Kingswear and Paignton, from the Esplanade in Dartmouth and (having a clandestine fondness for trains) it was great to get a better view.
But with that the fun was over. The rest of Torbay proved to be largely what I expected: beach huts and amusement arcades, strips of hotels and fast food kiosks, deck chairs and windbreaks for hire, and shops selling bats and balls and buckets and spades. I sat on the sea wall eating some chips and fending off a covetous herring gull, wondering how long I had before the gathering clouds produced their rain. It was the quintessential British summer holiday experience, and it reminded me of all the reasons I normally avoid seaside resorts. At least the indifferent weather meant it wasn’t too crowded.
I traipsed on through Torquay. When I saw this morning that Brixham had styled itself ‘the gem of Torbay’ I was sceptical, but having walked all the way round I think they’re right. Though I wouldn’t put it in the top 10 places I’ve passed through on this walk, it was by far the nicest part of Torbay. If I had to do it again, I’d take the ferry!
I was relieved to get to the end of the Torquay seafront and made my way up onto the headland. Finally, the development subsided and the scenery started to improve. Sadly, the weather didn’t. The showers became longer, and heavier, and closer together, until there was no denying it was just pouring with rain. Mr Dillon suggests you can walk all the way to Shaldon from Brixham but I no longer wanted to. I walked up to the road to catch the bus.
It was lucky I did. Refusing to pay £21 for the Coast View holiday park at Shaldon I’d not been able to find a campsite any closer than Dawlish. But at the bus stop I got chatting to Chris and Richard, equally damp hikers who turned out to have their motor home parked at a lovely farm campsite on the other side of Shaldon that would let me pitch for a tenner. We caught the bus together, and they kindly helped me find the shops in the village before showing me the way to the site. Tired and miserable after another soaking, they perked me up with a cup of tea as I pitched my tent in the rain, then even more kindly gave me a leftover mincemeat wrap, half a bottle of white wine and the loan of a little glass to bolster my supper. Huddled – yet again – in a damp tent on a miserable evening, the kindness of strangers is what’s keeping me going on an increasingly wet, exhausting and frustrating journey.