Rugged Tales

Wherever my feet may take me…


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Silver linings

We stopped last night at Ladram Bay Holiday Park. Although it was voted Hoseasons Best Holiday Park in Britain 2011, when I read that it was one of the largest privately-owned holiday parks in the UK, together with a review praising “some of the best entertainment I’ve ever seen on a campsite” I was tempted to look elsewhere: it’s the not the type of campsite I normally prefer to stay at. But with the Coast Path running right through the bottom of the site the location was too perfect to turn down, especially once I’d negotiated their initial price of £26 down to a much more reasonable £15. And it had wonderful views over the red sandstone stacks in the bay.

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We got up eager to walk but our enthusiasm was quickly drowned by the heavy rain that started around 9:00 am and was forecast to last all day. We put on our coats and went back to Reception to pay for another night. The staff were incredulous: everyone else had come in wanting to check out early, did we really want to extend our stay in such terrible weather?! We explained that it was better than the alternative – and then graciously accepted their sympathy. But if we were going to be rained in it was fortunate we were on a big whistles-and-bells holiday park when it happened. With it’s own launderette, shop, cafe and pub on site we passed the day with only minimal outdoor exposure, although we drew the line at attending the evening entertainment programme (complete with a guest talent spot).

As darkness fell and the rain – finally – slowed to a drizzle, we headed back up the hillside to the tent. After a whole day of torrential rain the grass was disagreeable squelchy underfoot but my lovely two man tent had withstood the deluge without a single leak. It turns out a rainy day is much less miserable when you have a properly waterproof shelter to go back to, and somebody to spend the time with.


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Jurassic Park

Today I was transported back 250 million years. Or at least, so claimed the information board at Orcombe, the start of the Jurassic Coast. After catching the ferry to Exmouth, we successfully dodged one heavy shower through judicious timing of a cooked breakfast, and another while stocking up on snacks. Having bought a new gas canister and posted my one man tent back home (the manufacturers seem confident it can be fixed so I hope that will prove to be the first step on its road to recovery) we were finished in the town and ready for a closer look at England’s first natural World Heritage Site.

It certainly proved educational. I’d barely taken two steps before I learned something new: although it’s known as the Jurassic Coast, the rocks at the Western end actually date from the even older Triassic period. Having studied more chemistry than geology, however, the bit I related to most easily was that the rocks are so red because they have a high iron content. “The cliffs are literally rusting!” the noticeboard excitedly informed me. I also grasped that the Geoneedle, unveiled by HRH The Prince of Wales in 2002 to mark the World Heritage status, was an excellent opportunity for a comedy photo.

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As we walked over the low cliffs to Sandy Bay we had great views back around Babbacombe Bay, and could see numerous heavy showers dotted over the land and the sea, happy we’d been lucky enough to miss them so far. Sandy Bay itself turned out to have the bizarre juxtaposition of a sizable holiday park and the Ministry of Defense firing range at Straight Point. It was quite surreal picking our way through the sea of static caravans to the accompanying crackle of gunfire. Equally unexpected was Budleigh Salterton. I knew almost nothing about it before I arrived there, other than it’s passing mention in a Monty Python sketch. I now also know that the pebbles there originated over 400 million years ago in the place we now call Brittany. Judging by the appearance of the beach today they are proud to be British now.

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The easy, level walk round the marshland of the River Otter estuary was a relaxing way to digest my lunch and offered some fabulous views as the sun got the upper hand for a while.

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And the easy cliff paths over Brandy Head that followed were a world away from the frustrations of yesterday. Although the clouds gathered I escaped with no more than a few drops as I approached the campsite at Ladram Bay. It was a wonderful day, not least because it was so lovely not to be rained on for once, and topped off by a beautiful bright rainbow over the tent as we set up camp. If only all the days could be like this.

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Uninspired

The lake that formed under my sleeping mat, and anything else that I put on the floor of the tent last night, was the worst yet. My groundsheet has given up all pretence at waterproof-ness. My poor tent, new this trip, has been rained on to destruction.

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I packed it away, happy it would be the last time I’d be sleeping in it for a while. My boyfriend Rob was on his way to join me in the evening, and bringing my original two man tent with him – a double cause for celebration! But first there was the small matter of some walking to be done…

Having bailed out at Babbacombe yesterday and caught the bus the last part of the way to Shaldon, the first order of business was to get the bus back again. Embarked on a linear route it felt a bit weird to backtrack and walk down the same hill I’d walked up yesterday. But once I got back to the path it was immediately a different experience. I popped out above Oddicombe Beach, now bathed in sunshine, to enjoy a good view of the dramatic red 5,000 tonne rock fall that closed half the beach in 2010. The cliffs in this area seem particularly prone to collapsing, and the Coast Path is consequently diverted inland numerous times to avoid landslips and unstable edges. Added to the ins and outs and ups and downs already required by the wavy edge of this part of the coast, it made for a particularly frustrating morning.

Adding to the frustration of the roundabout route was the lack of views, which made me feel as if the effort of the walking wasn’t fully rewarded. Above Watcombe the path ran through mature woods: pleasant enough but I really could have been almost anywhere. The most distinctive thing was the sound of someone in the distance performing a bad cover version of Amy Winehouse’s ‘Back to Black’.

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It was increasingly a soundtrack to match my mood as I struggled along. After an hour and a half I finally reached Maidencombe, a paltry two and a half miles from where I’d started. It felt like I’d done twice that distance and I seriously considered stopping at the pub there for a restorative lunch. But then I saw a sign: ‘Shaldon 3.5km’. Having seen one earlier stating Torquay was 10km in the other direction I was mildly curious as to why someone had suddenly decided to mark distances in kilometres, in defiance of both UK convention and the custom and practice of the preceding 500 miles of the Coast Path. But I also saw an end to my ordeal in…hang on a sec…3.5 divided by 1.6…well, call it just over 2 miles. Even on difficult terrain two miles couldn’t possibly take more than an hour to walk, right? Ignoring all the lessons on time and distance that I’d learned that morning I set off gaily towards Shaldon, self-congratulatory thoughts about my mathematical prowess pushing my earlier frustrations aside.

They didn’t take long to push back in. The ups and downs became steeper and longer until after 50 minutes, at the top of a particularly arduous climb, I saw a signpost. I made my way up to it, confidently expecting it would tell me Shaldon was right round the next corner. When I saw it said ‘Shaldon 1.5 miles’ I could hardly believe it. I didn’t want to believe it. That was, without doubt, the longest, most exhausting half a mile of my life! As the other side of the sign said ‘Maidencombe 1.5 miles’ I had to wonder if the sign on which I based my decision to press on had actually said 3.5 miles, not 3.5 km? I wasn’t going to go back and check, but I’ll swear it didn’t. Perhaps the first sign had just been wrong? Only the other day I’d been laughing with another walker about how unreliable the distances were on the Coast Path signs. Today, the humour in the situation entirely eluded me, and when I caught sight of the next steep descent and ascent ahead I could have sat down where I was and cried. Since that wouldn’t bring me any closer to my lunch, however, I settled on a plan of walking and cursing the sign-maker instead. Muttering under my breath I stomped through that valley, and the next. I didn’t think at this point it was possible for me to be any grumpier, but when I realised that by diligently following the signs I’d slithered miserably over the muddy paths on three sides of a steeply sloping field while a much better path ran straight across the top I cursed not just the Coast Path sign-makers, but the route designer and the person who’d had the idea of creating the whole stupid trail in the first place. On the up side, it’s lucky I was on my own: it’s possible that in the course of my cursing I used some quite rude words. I finally made it to Shaldon having taken three hours to cover what I guess was about 5 miles. Mr Dillon wasn’t kidding when he wrote in his guidebook that “…the Coast Path between Torquay and Shaldon…involves a lot of time and effort.”. I found it an uninspiring section, walked just to say I’d walked it.

Happily, once in Shaldon, things started to look up. When I arrived last night, wet and tired, I hadn’t been in the mood to explore but Shaldon turned out to be a lovely village. I pottered around a little then bought some lunch and returned to the beach to eat it. The ferry I needed was just departing but I decided that, since it continually shuttles back and forth, I’d take advantage of the benches in the ferry shelter to eat my food and catch the next one. It was a lucky call. No sooner had the ferry – the oldest working ferry boat in England – pushed off than a heavy shower poured down on the passengers huddled unprotected in the open craft. My laziness in not running for it had been handsomely rewarded!

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Once across the River Teign the good mood brought on by the twin pleasures of lunch and a lucky escape was further boosted by a delicious ice cream as I strolled along the promenade at Teignmouth. I was happy to tolerate the First Great Western trains thundering along beside me in return for the flat, easy path Brunel’s South Devon Railway sea wall created. The herring gulls had found their own use for the structure: I passed Dawlish to the clatter of mussel shells falling onto the concrete from a height, and the subsequent squabbling of the birds over the results of their handiwork. By the time I arrived at Dawlish Warren to be reunited with my boyfriend and my other tent, all was right with the world again. And with the start of the Jurassic Coast just after Exmouth tomorrow I went to sleep feeling optimistic that what’s ahead would make up for what was immediately behind.


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Urban jungle

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!

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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.

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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.

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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.


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Wildlife encounters

At 8am on 6th July I set out to walk the 19 or so miles to Brixham. This evening, I finally arrived. The weather was so bad yesterday I decided to take another day off, the only snag being that the hotel where I’d taken shelter was fully booked. As check-out time approached all hope of a late cancellation seemed gone. Not particularly keen to return to my tent on such a wet, miserable day I prepared to try and find somewhere else, but with minutes to spare I was granted a reprieve. The gentleman who had booked my exact room rang and cancelled. I felt like Christmas had come early! I stopped packing, made myself a cup of tea, and settled down with a good book.

Much as I like camping, I was increasingly seduced by the benefits of an indoor life. Dry and warm, surrounded by a cloud of fast wifi with a plug to charge my phone up whenever I liked and just a few feet of carpet to traverse if I needed the toilet, my little hotel room had many benefits compared to the wet, muddy fields that have become my typical residence. It cost me a small struggle to give up all these comforts, even when I got up this morning to a glorious sunny day. I hung out at the hotel until the last possible moment to get the maximum enjoyment from all it’s delights, before shouldering my pack and heading back onto the Coast Path.

Stepping outside the door I was amazed to find the hotel had a sea view! Thinking about it, I suppose that shouldn’t have come as such a surprise: Stoke Fleming is right on the Coast Path and the hotel not very far inland. But there’d been absolutely no hint of the view for the 48 hours I’d been there. The outdoor pool, which hadn’t interested me before, now looked enticing and as I pictured a relaxing day reclining on one of it’s sun loungers I felt my resolve weakening. But I stayed strong and walked resolutely out of the grounds.

The route initially followed the road, but as I made for the turn off to the cliff path at Little Dartmouth carpark a couple coming up behind me cautioned against it. They’d been warned in turn by a group in wellies who had just emerged from that stretch of path with tales of calf-high mud. In walking boots, they said, it would be impassable. Thanking them for the tip I set off towards Dartmouth Castle by an alternative route along the ridge line, badged as the ‘Diamond Jubilee Way’. And if that was the ‘good’ path I’m glad I didn’t try the other one! It was extremely muddy, and though it would have been an easy stroll in good conditions the thick slippery mud and deep path-wide puddles made for slow going this morning.

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It got even worse when the path ran down to a dip in a cow field. I struggled to keep my feet in the quagmire born of numerous hooves trampling in the pooled rainwater, and began to wonder whether walking to Brixham would be possible in these conditions. What if it was all like this? I couldn’t be more than a mile or so away from the hotel. Maybe I should go back there and wait another day or two for the paths to dry out and… I ruthlessly stopped that line of thinking and, regaining a drier bit of path, set off again for Dartmouth.

Having already been there on the bus I had the unusual sensation of walking into a town and knowing where things were. Quickly picking up some lunch and a couple of other supplies I ate my food on a sunny bench on the Esplanade before catching the ferry across to Kingswear. Now the fun started: a 10 mile stretch to Brixham reputed to be pretty tough. But as with the last ‘tough’ stretch I really enjoyed it. The unspoiled scenery and peace of a relatively inaccessible section more than compensated for the extra effort of the ascents and descents.

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But the highlight of the day was the wildlife. I saw a big grey seal swimming along near Froward Point. There are only about 30 or so off the South Devon coast even around September, the peak seal time, so I felt fortunate to see one. I was also lucky to see Peregrine falcons on the cliffs at Pudcombe Cove (through the telescope of a lovely man who was watching then there) and, later, circling high on the thermals over the cliffs.

And despite my fears, the paths weren’t too bad on the whole. I guess steep sided valleys drain quite well! There were a few muddy patches, and a few places where steams had burst their banks and were running down the adjacent paths or spreading out to form mini-marshes to paddle through. But the only really sticky moment came at Mansands Beach. The National Trust helpfully suggested a two and a half mile detour to avoid possible deep water crossing the steam on the beach as a result of the recent heavy rain. For a horrible moment I thought it was going to be the Erme all over again! Fortunately, this steam came up to your thighs only if you were a young child, and had chosen an injudicious place to cross! Too lazy to take my boots off, I managed to jump across one of the narrower points.

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From there it was a an easy walk round Berry Head and into Brixham – at last! And just time for one last encounter with the wildlife before bed: picking off two small ticks that had attached themselves to my leg. Eeughhh!


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Birthday presents

It was my birthday today! But it didn’t get off to the best of starts. I woke up tired and a little grumpy after a terrible, night’s sleep. Some little creature(s) left over 50 bites across the small of my back while I was walking yesterday – an unwelcome early birthday present – and they itched infernally.

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Uncomfortable as it was to put on my backpack, I manned up and set off around 8am since the forecast was for light rain to move in late afternoon. As I passed Strete I met a man from the village walking his dog, who told me he thought the rain would hold off. I liked his optimism and happily shared it – right up until it started to rain heavily as I approached Stoke Fleming half an hour later. I took shelter under a tree, hoping it was just a shower: after 15 minutes standing there, however, I got bored. Deciding to push on into the village and find a cafe to wait it out I dug out my coat and headed into the deluge.

It turned out my tent is not the only thing that’s sprung a leak. In the 10 minutes it took to walk through the downpour to the village shop then onto the Stoke Lodge hotel, my shoulders, back and chest were soaked. I drowned my sorrows in a full English while I dried off. Two hours later it was still pouring, and I noticed the Met Office forecast had been updated to heavy rain most of the day and all night. Presumably someone had looked up from the computer models and out of the window! I decided to take my sister and brother-in-law up on their excellent suggestion of a hotel room for the night as a birthday present and, being already in a nice hotel, checked in there and then.

The good thing about having such a small tent is that it’s easily dried even in the confines of a hotel bedroom. With my damp belongings spread over every available surface I borrowed a golf umbrella from the hotel and caught the bus to Dartmouth in search of waterproofer for my coat. Mission accomplished, there was just time for a quick cream tea by way of a birthday cake while I waited for the return bus. When the plate arrived I was startled by the size of the Dart Cafe’s scone; it was probably the largest I’ve ever seen in my life! But I felt a small qualm: my researches so far had suggested that smaller scones generally prove the best. But you can’t judge a book by its cover, and the mega-scone turned out to be excellent: tasty and crumbly without being dry. While not quite enough to knock the current leaders from their perch it was definitely a cream tea I was glad to have eaten.

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Back at the hotel I spent the afternoon washing and reproofing my coat. While Andy Murray fought for a place in the Wimbledon final I battled in my en suite. As the manufacturers had suggested when I phoned them in distress after my soaking this morning, I washed my coat in normal non-bio laundry detergent, then in Nikwax Techwash, and finally Nikwax reproofer, all with copious rinsing in between. Then I did it all again for my tent footprint, figuring I might as well give it a try while I was at it.

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It was a long and arduous process. By the time Andy and I had triumphed I’m not sure which of us was tireder! I can see why people invented washing machines. It seemed an ideal moment to restore the bath to its rightful function and get into it myself for a long, hot soak. After walking some 470 miles of the Coast Path I’d almost forgotten what it’s like not to have slightly stiff legs and slightly smelly feet; neither condition being readily cured by a quick shower, however much soap you use. But after the bath I was as good as new. I even blow dried my hair!

Emerging from the bathroom I caught the tail end of the news. The Met Office had revised their forecast again and issued a red weather warning – the first ever – for heavy rain in the South West, with the area affected almost directly centred on where I am. With widespread flooding expected the Environment Agency was apparently touring campsites to warn people. Excited as I was to be in the area on this momentous occasion I was very happy not to be experiencing it from the increasingly limited shelter of my tent. After a three course birthday dinner in the hotel restaurant – a nice change from all the instant mash and pub grub I’ve been eating lately – I curled up in my warm, dry bed, reflecting that it’s much nicer listening to the rain pouring down from inside.


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Running up that hill

Today’s stage was an enormous 19.5 miles, not counting the mile and a half to get back to Salcombe from the campsite and another mile or so to get to the campsite at the other end. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to walk quite so far in a day with all my gear, but I figured I’d give it a try and see how it went.

After an uninspiring walk along the A381 to get to the campsite last night I went back by the route recommended by the farmer’s wife instead. A vast improvement, it wound down the side of the hill and along the edge of the estuary: a relaxing and picturesque start to the day. The ferry ride across to East Portlemouth and the subsequent woodland path round Mill Bay carried on in the same vein, but if I was going to get to Stoke Fleming by evening I needed to keep up the pace. There was so much to see, however, I didn’t feel like hurrying past it all.

The rugged path to Prawle Point was similar to the walk I’d enjoyed so much yesterday, and the scenery was just as fabulous.

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Then I had lunch at Kate Bush’s house. Or at least, on a cliff-side bench with a view of her house. Although it may not have been Kate Bush’s house at all; I only have the opinion of a local guy I’d bumped into earlier on the path on that point. Still though, it was a good spot for lunch with a good view of Start Point as well as possibly-Kate-Bush’s-house.

Start Point, when I reached it, was one of my highlights of the whole Coast Path so far. The anticipation began with a sign about a mile beforehand asking walkers to “Please exercise extreme care when using this section of the coast path.” What could be ahead??! It turned out to be a relatively narrow unfenced ledge, which wasn’t especially dangerous in the dry, calm conditions today but I can see could be risky in bad weather. The headland itself – one of the longest in Britain – made a dramatic sight as I approached it: a spiny ridge dropping down into the sea.

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And as the path went up and over the ridge-line, suddenly revealing the wide expanse of Start Bay, the glorious unexpected vista took my breath away. Start Bay is an ever-changing coastline, it’s particular geology channeling the energy of winter storms in such a way as to continually change the contours of the shore. Human activities interact with these natural processes, of course, sometimes with catastrophic consequences. I walked past the ruined village of Hallsands, almost entirely destroyed by a storm in 1917 after decades of shingle dredging eroded the beach that protected it. The last remnants of the village clinging to the base of the cliff are a poignant reminder of the tragedy, for which the villagers were never properly compensated.

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Sobered, and a bit tired, I arrived at the village of Torcross where a board on the sea-front advertised ‘The Best Cream Teas’. Clearly, that was a challenge I could not ignore! And the Sea Breeze cafe’s claim was no idle boast. de Wynns in Falmouth have met their match, though I’d be hard pressed to say which was the winner. I will have to declare it a tie until I can sample them both again…

Reenergised by such top notch refreshments it was an easy, relaxing walk to the other end of Slapton Ley, the largest natural lake in the West Country. With just five miles left to Stoke Fleming I started to think I’d actually be able to do it, and phoned ahead to book the campsite. Lucky I did: their field was flooded by all the recent rain and they weren’t taking anyone. No problem – the map showed another campsite at Strete a couple of miles closer. I googled for their phone number, just to check, and in the process discovered it was in fact naturist campsite. I entertained the idea for a moment: as Arnold Bax is reputed to have said, you should try everything once in life except incest and morris dancing. But I decided it was too cold. So I found myself staying in Slapton – my emergency fall back location if I didn’t think I’d go the distance – after all. But with a lovely pitch with a sea view, my laundry done and a belly full of homemade chicken and ham pie from The Queen’s Arms I can think of many worse places to be stranded for the night.


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Transformation

Thick fog, more rain. They’d forecast a drier day today but there was no sign of it when I got up. Since the ferry across the River Avon from Cockleridge to Bantham didn’t start running until 10 there was time for one last cup of tea with Rachel before slithering down a very muddy, steep field to catch it. Or, more precisely, to yell for it. This ferry doesn’t have one of those wooden sign boards that you open up to show you want to cross. Instead, you apparently yell and wave and generally make a spectacle of yourself until the ferryman notices you. Lingering over my tea (and who wouldn’t prolong a cosy tea and a lovely chat in the face of a wet, muddy walk ahead?) I got to Cockeridge Ham a bit later than I planned, and delayed myself further by stopping to chat to another walker (a young guy rough camping by the estuary). By the time I got to the ferry point two other walkers had done the hard part for me. Glenda and Val have walked most of the Coast Path in stages over a number of years, while saving the killer North Devon section for last. I met them yesterday when they arrived in the cafe – drenched – after bravely walking as planned.

And it looked as though another drenching might be on the cards. We huddled miserably in the little boat as the rain grew heavier, and even the ferryman looked fed up – persuaded by the ‘brightening up’ story he didn’t even have a coat on!

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Once in Bantham I thought I’d go for a coffee with Val and Glenda rather than stay out in the rain and we headed into the village. But by the time we’d established that the pub wasn’t open yet and the shop had no cakes the rain had stopped and I decided to press on after all, having roughly twice as far to go as them.

As I negotiated the muddy paths round the edge of Thurlestone golf course I caught up to the young chap I’d met before and we walked along together for a bit. It turned out his name was also Chris, and he was also walking the Coast Path in stages over several years. But where Glenda and Val favoured a relaxed pace with plenty of coffee breaks and delicious lunches in good restaurants (I think they may be onto something…), Chris was aiming to walk from Plymouth to Poole (some 220 miles) in 10 days. After being so comprehensively rained on since he started this leg though, he was wondering if he shouldn’t have come in September instead.

But as we approached Hope Cove it did seem that there was cause for optimism. The brightness in the sky was starting to approach squinting levels and we agreed our waterproofs were becoming uncomfortably hot. We parted company in the village – Chris for a cigarette and me to forage for lunch – and when we bumped into each other later we were almost unrecognisable. T-shirts and sunglasses had replaced top-to-toe waterproofs and enthusiastic gesturing at the beauty of the landscape had been substituted for grousing about the unseasonable weather. We were not the only thing transformed. As we rounded Bolt Tail some spectacular cliff scenery opened up, set off to perfection by the blue sky above and the deeper blue sea below. In the sun, it was like another planet.

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At Soar Mill Cove I said goodbye to Chris and strolled on happily along the cliff tops. The stretch from Bolt Tail to Salcombe was one of the most fun walks I’ve done on this trip so far, and I particularly enjoyed working my way round the rocky ledge at the base of Sharp Tor.

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The recent bad weather has certainly given me a new appreciation of the good days, and not even a direct hit from a seagull could dent my mood as I pottered round Salcombe with an ice-cream shopping for dinner. Sitting outside my tent in the evening sun to eat it, looking out on a fabulous view of the Kingsbridge Estuary, I could hardly remember that the day had started out in fog and rain. With a long day ahead tomorrow I really hope the weather holds.


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Déjà vu

Another rainy day, another tea shop… With it forecast to rain hard all day through the fog – a forecast that certainly seemed accurate when I woke up – there didn’t seem much point in walking. I fell back on my alternative, bad-weather activity: eating. There is only one tea shop in Bigbury-on-Sea, the Bay View Bistro and Cafe, so it was lucky for me that it’s a friendly place with good food, and quiet enough that I could keep a table all day. At least I had a good view of Burgh Island to look at through the sheeting rain.

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Home to an exclusive Art Deco hotel where Agatha Christie famously stayed, and subsequently used as a setting for a couple of her books, the hotel was used as a location for the TV adaptation of one of them (the Poirot story Evil Under the Sun). The hotel also runs a pub on the island, The Pilchard Inn, and as I sat in the cafe more adventurous patrons, who’d been across to island, told tales of the log fire there. It sounded good, but as they had also returned soaking wet from the walk back I decided to stay where I was.

I watched the tide finish going out over the sand bar that connects the island to the mainland, turn, and come back in again, in that time consuming:
1. A pot of tea
2. Fish and chips (really excellent)
3. A coffee and a slice of Millionaire’s shortbread (both very good)
4. A large cream tea (rather disappointing – lucky I ate all the other things!).

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As the tide cut off the island from the mainland the bizarre-looking ‘sea tractor‘ started up to ferry passengers back and forth during the high tide. I quite fancied a ride in it, but it didn’t look to offer much more protection from the rain than I would have had by walking.

When the downpour finally paused – for the first time since about 11am – it was well after 5:00 and I thought I should use the time to get back up the hill to the campsite. Moving slowly from the weight of all that food, the rain started up again before I was half way back, and when I reached my tent I found a small puddle (perhaps 3″x1″) had formed on the floor. Fortunately, it was in the place I’d expected given last night’s drips and my sleeping bag and other gear had stayed dry but I still felt a bit depressed as I mopped it up. Poor tent! Poor me!

Fortunately, my lovely neighbors Rachael and Martin came to my rescue again. They chastised me roundly for bringing them whiskey to replace what we’d drunk yesterday, insisted I stay and help drink the new bottle, and invited me to join them for dinner (the tastiest meal of the day). After a fun evening setting the world to rights with them things didn’t seem so bad.


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River deep, mountain high

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.