Rugged Tales

Wherever my feet may take me…


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Slip slidin’ away

My boots aren’t the only thing slipping and sliding after all the heavy rain. The geology of the cliffs on this part of the coast makes them particularly unstable and prone to landslips. We had already walked through Hooken Undercliff, the result of an 18th century landslide, on our way into Beer yesterday. Barely a mile further on from last night’s campsite we came upon a more recent landslip to the west of Seaton. The day before, a section of the Old Beer Road had dropped by a metre after the cliff in front of it slid down to the beach.

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The road has been closed to vehicles indefinitely and the Coast Path is apparently being diverted. At the time we passed, however, the signs had not yet been put up and the only diversion we were aware of was to the pavement on the other side of the street. We shared it with a host of equally clueless and/or curious bystanders, all gazing with eager interest at the chasm in the Tarmac, until it occurred to me that where one bit of cliff had gone some more might follow. We hurried down to the safety of the town and it’s solid promenade – at sea level by design.

But the majority of today’s walk was based around another historic landslip: the Axemouth – Lyme Regis Undercliffs. Now an 800 acre National Nature Reserve, the Undercliffs were formed when around 8 million tons of soil and rock slid down the cliffs on Christmas Eve 1839. Originally farmland – the crop of wheat and turnips that had been planted before the slip were harvested in celebration the following summer! – the area is now dense woodland, and extremely muddy. A lady we met in Beer, who holidays in the area for several weeks each year, told us it normally took her two and a half hours to walk to Lyme from Seaton. After negotiating countless steps and picking our way over tree roots in the thick slippery mud it took us nearer four. But it could have been worse. We passed numerous trees that had fallen over the pathway, presumably victims of the recent wind and rain. The sawdust from their removal was still fresh on the path; if we’d come past a few days ago we might have had some additional obstacles to our progress.

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Keeping our balance in the mud while carrying large backpacks was exhausting – and not wholly successful. Surprisingly, given that I’m generally acknowledged to be the clumsy member of the party, it was Rob who slipped on the steps, possibly because he’d chosen a less than ideal moment to take off his sunglasses. As he put down his hand to break his fall the glasses he was holding were caught in the action and it looked at first as though they’d been critically injured. But fortunately, after a good wash and some minor repairs, both the sunglasses and Rob emerged from the accident perfectly functional, if a little more scratched than before.

It was a relief to reach Lyme Regis and the bliss of a metalled road. But the landslips weren’t finished with us yet. On leaving the town the Coast Path has been extensively diverted to avoid a whole series of them.

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But having seen what’s happened at Seaton this week I was just as happy to be camped a mile or two inland, just to be on the safe side!

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Feet of clay

The weather this summer may not be good for hiking but it seems to be just the thing if you’re a slug. At the campsite in Shaldon I had to remove three or four small grey ones from my Crocs every time I wanted to get out of the tent. At Ladram Bay, the big black kind were more common, and we removed a number of them from all around the tent before setting off for Seaton.

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It was a tough start to the day with the path over High Peak to Sidmouth the worst yet. It ran through a woodland that had recently been logged and the passage of the heavy machinery over the sodden ground, followed by another day of heavy rain yesterday, had destroyed it. We both had near misses, almost standing on ground that wasn’t as firm as it looked, until eventually the inevitable happened and Rob sank into mud right over the top of his boots. Luckily he had the drawcord round his trouser cuffs tightened so they acted like gaiters, but when we finally came out onto more solid ground, having taken 45 minutes to pick our way through half a mile of quagmire, Rob was more skeptical than ever about hiking as an enjoyable leisure pursuit!

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Fortunately that was the worst of the terrain behind us, but after so much rain more paths were muddy than not. We climbed up and down the cliffs accumulating a colourful collection of different muds on our boots as the surface rocks switched between the deep red Otter Sandstone and Mercia Mudstone, and the creamy white chalk and Upper Greensand. At least my latest toy – the Jurassic Coast iPhone app – allowed me to revel in a new-found geological prowess as I slithered along! But in spite of the condition of the paths it was an enjoyable walk, and with the consumption of a tactical cream tea and the help of a fortuitously placed tree, we dodged the heaviest rain showers and stayed pretty much dry all day.

As we made our way round the delightfully named Beer Head, we had great views back over Hooken Undercliff, formed by an enormous landslip in 1790, under the stormy sky.

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And although my allergy to yeast prevented me indulging in a pint once we arrived in the village of Beer itself, I’m happy to report that the Anchor Inn had an excellent selection of alternative beverages (including specialty gins, single malts and a variety of wines) to refresh us after a very muddy, hilly walk.


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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!