Rugged Tales

Wherever my feet may take me…


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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.