Rugged Tales

Wherever my feet may take me…


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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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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.


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Exposed

It’s ironic that I should find myself on one of the most exposed campsites of the trip on one of the windiest nights. High on a hill-top above Polperro, the site had panoramic views of the surrounding countryside, but there was not so much as a small bush between my little tent and the howling gale. It was a noisy – and slightly anxious – night, but happily the tent and I emerged unscathed and set off towards Looe.

The hills were starting to get quite steep and I was entertained by the sign at the bottom of one slope. The photo doesn’t do the gradient justice; I would be hugely impressed if anyone could cycle up that incline, even without the steps!

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I arrived in Looe at lunchtime and since this would be my last full day in Cornwall I sought out one last ‘farewell’ pasty. Or, more precisely, two: a prize-winning bacon, cheese and leek (fully deserving of its laurels) and a slightly left-field rhubarb, apple and custard, which I put in my pack for later. Two pasties at one sitting was a bit much even for me.

And I wanted to leave room to check out one last Cornish ice-cream. Treleavens has a sizeable number of outlets across the South West, but are based in Looe. With more awards than any other Cornish ice-cream producer it would be rude to leave the county without sampling their wares, right?! It was very tasty but my enjoyment was marred by my decision to eat it as I walked. I hadn’t realised that the Coast Path out of Looe went up quite such a steep hill. It turns out even the best ice-cream can give you indigestion with enough exertion during its consumption!

The initial ascent out of Looe wasn’t the only thing the guidebook didn’t properly prepare me for. The three miles between Looe and Seaton were a total roller coaster, and I started to doubt whether I’d have the stamina to get to the campsite I was aiming for. Fortunately, although the path subsequently went over a couple of the highest cliffs in the area, it went up and stayed up – unusually for the Coast Path – before dropping down to thd fabulously named Portwrinkle.

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That just left the weather to deal with. It was a cool, grey day and high up on the cliffs I was continually buffeted by the full force of the wind. By Portwrinkle I felt I’d earned the desert pasty! From there it was still another couple of chilly, wind-swept hours, across the MoD training area at Tregantle to Tregonhawke, the last campsite I could find before Plymouth. Although I chose it purely for its location, turned out to be one of my favourite camping spots of the trip. Not a campsite proper so much as a standing permission by a friendly farmer for Coast Path walkers to camp by the side of his fishing lake, it had only a toilet and a drinking water tap by way of facilities. But I was happy to forgo some creature comforts to have such a lovely spot all to myself for the night.

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Paradise regained

‘Here we go again!’ I thought, emerging from my tent to find everything wreathed in fog. Happily, I got a reprieve from having to go out in it by the discovery that there were no laundry facilities at the next two campsites. With an urgent need for clean pants and socks, it was clearly imperative that I do my washing before I left – and drink tea and eat biscuits while I waited! But eventually there were no more chores to do and nothing for it but to start walking.

It looked like it might be brightening up, and I’d not been going 10 minutes before I had to stop and rummage in my pack for my shades and my sunscreen. It felt like an age since I last needed them! And as I walked down the lane away from the campsite a wonderful view opened up across the fields and down to the sea: quintessential English countryside, complete with the tiny Tregaminion church. Who knew that was there?! I started making my way round Gribbin Head, and was quite startled by the views back across the bay to St Austell. There were the massive spoil heaps from the china clay works, the factories and the docks. If I hadn’t have read about them in the guidebook I’d never have suspected their existence yesterday. As it was, they were much more extensive than I’d imagined.

It turned into a glorious sunny day, and though the paths were still muddy and overgrown the fresh breeze, and the late start, had dried out the grass. That alone made it a huge improvement on yesterday and in some places, like the area around the enormous Gribbin Head day tower, the going was refreshingly easy.

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I didn’t expect it would remain so, however; the seven mile section from Polruan to Polperro was reputed to be particularly tough. I fortified myself with a pasty in Fowey, admiring the unusual knitted decorations all around the harbour railings as I ate, then caught the ferry across to Polruan to run the gauntlet…

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It was fantastic fun! It’s true there were more, and steeper, ascents and descents than on previous stages, but it was still nowhere near as tough as the roller-coaster cliffs on the North coast. The paths were mostly clearer and drier, and the terrain much more open so the spectacular scenery was in view most of the time.

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It was a world away from the thankless trudges through a sodden overgrown strip between a high hedge on the seaward side and a farmer’s field on the other that have characterised the last few days. As I strode along the remote paths, drinking in the views I remembered why I wanted to walk the Coast Path – and fervently hoped the worst of those ‘jungle paths’ are behind me now.


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Maslow’s hierarchy

A mile into today’s walk I reached Porthallow – 315 miles from Minehead and the half way point of the Coast Path. Described by the Falmouth Packet, when a new Coast Path monument was unveiled in 2009, as an ‘enormous psychological moment’ for those walking the whole path, I’d been eagerly anticipating this important milestone. When the moment came, however, I forgot all about it.

Looking back I attribute this to Maslow’s hierarchy. I had spent the night at the Porthkerris dive centre, which has a pleasant, quiet camping field at the top of a cliff….and showers and toilets at the bottom. Faced with a 15 minute round trip down and then back up a very steep road to use the facilities, and with a long day ahead, I decided it would be more efficient to just start walking along the path. In 20 minutes or so I would reach Porthallow and could use the public conveniences there instead. By the time I arrived in the village my desire to find those facilities, and relief in succeeding, totally eclipsed any thought of the half-way point!

With that over, my focus moved up the hierarchy a little, but only to the practicalities of the day’s walk. From Nare Point I had a good view of the two inlets I needed to cross by ferry – Gillan Harbour (on the left of the photo) and Helford River (on the right) – to get to Falmouth.

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The Helford ferry details I already had from their website but the Gillan Harbour service had only a phone number. Deciding 8:30am wasn’t too early to call, I enjoyed a second wave of relief before I left Porthallow when the gentleman I spoke to confirmed the Gillan ferry would be running from 9:00. I set off happily and it was only after another hour of tricky, muddy, overgrown paths when I was safely on his little boat that I remembered about the halfway marker. By that point I wasn’t going back for it!

After another hour or so if walking I arrived at Helford, opened the sign to show it’s orange innards to the world, and settled back to wait for the ferry to arrive.

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Twenty minutes later it did, requiring a conscious effort on my part to relax on the quayside when both my London conditioning and my desire to get to Falmouth before the shops shut made me chafe at the delay. Even after all these weeks I still find myself surprised – though ultimately pleased – by the slower pace of life.

But I wasn’t pleased today! With the next major shopping opportunity not until St Austell (four or five days away) and my need for supplies acute, I pressed ahead and made excellent time, hitting Swanpool Beach on the outskirts of Falmouth just after 2pm. Even with some frustrating backtracking after discovering the nearest campsite to the path had been sold for a housing development, I had time left over after my errands were run. What better way to spend it than sampling the cream tea in de Wynn’s famous tea shop?

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Not a lot I would hazard: my Falmouth cream tea has leapt in at the top of the charts. Light tasty scones with a mushy jam that was mostly strawberries and tea served in an old-fashioned rose-patterned tea service, it was as charmingly presented as it was delicious. The traditional tea room ambience came complete with a soundtrack of crooners, and its location provided a fabulous view over the harbour. Add in a team effort from two waitresses, the lady – a regular – at the table behind, and a couple at the table next to me with a copy of Falmouth’s tourist transport guide, all helping me work out where the number 500 bus back to the campsite would leave from, and it was undoubtedly my best all-round cream tea experience so far. As another storm moves in and I’m huddled in my tent with my little burner struggling to heat my dinner in a strong wind and heavy rain, it’s good to have the memory of it to help cheer me up!