Rugged Tales

Wherever my feet may take me…


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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!