Rugged Tales

Wherever my feet may take me…


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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.