Rugged Tales

Wherever my feet may take me…


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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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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.