Rugged Tales

Wherever my feet may take me…


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I came, I saw, I ran away as fast as I could

My private campsite last night was so lovely and peaceful, and I was so tired after a tough day, that I didn’t wake up until after seven. So much for an early start! And it promised to be another long day. My guidebook suggested spending a night in Plymouth, but since Plymouth isn’t big for camping I decided to try and compress three of the book’s stages into two so I could camp either side of it. Today was the second of those days, and an even greater distance than the first one, but at least I was lucky with the weather. It was still very windy but sunny with it, and much clearer than yesterday. When I first arrived back at the cliff top from my campsite in the valley I was amazed by the view back around the bay, and by how close Rame Head had got under cover of yesterday’s mist and low cloud!

But one thing I didn’t see all morning was Plymouth. By virtue of the shape of the coast, and the routing of the path through some dense woodland, it remained hidden until the last minute before being dramatically unveiled close as if at the conclusion of some giant conjuring trick. I boarded the ferry at Cremyll to close the last part of the distance, and so left Cornwall behind after some 280 miles of coastline.

In addition to being momentous, it was an unusually exciting ferry ride. A Spitfire flying low over the city in loop-the-loops and barrel rolls elicited oohs and ahhs from all the passengers. But arriving at Admiral’s Hard I came down to earth with a bang. After weeks of walking alone on remote cliffs, during which I’d come to view places like St Ives (population ca 12,000) and Penzance (population ca 30, 000) as big centres, Plymouth (population ca 260,000) was a shock to the system.

A huge amount has been done to make the route through the city attractive and interesting, and I enjoyed the redeveloped Royal William Yard, and the Sherlock Holmes quotes set into the pavement of Durnford Street (where Arthur Conan Doyle once lived). But the signage – though striking when I found it – was sporadic, and even the guidebook gave faulty instructions at one point. Thank heavens for Google Maps, or I’d probably still be wandering hopelessly around Millbay Docks!

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As I approached The Hoe the crowds were denser than I expected, even for a sunny summer Saturday. Stopping to read a ‘road closure’ sign I realised I had unwittingly walked into the middle of Armed Forces Day. In hindsight, the Spitfire thing probably should have tipped me off… It looked like a fantastic family day out, and a great way to celebrate the contribution of the many men and women who serve our country. But the noise and the crowds were too great an assault for my senses. When Johnny Vaughan took the microphone and informed the crowd that there would be an opportunity later to meet Justin Bieber, the ear-piercing shriek from a young woman standing next to me (who, frankly, looked a bit old for him) was the final straw. I abandoned my attempt to admire Smeaton’s Tower, and fought my way back to the road.

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I stood in front of the Royal Citadel to get my bearings until I realised that the guns that we’re about to fire a salute were directly over my head. Hastily retreating towards the marina I instead watched a so-many-guns-I-lost-count salute from a ship sailing by. Unfortunately, having an almost no knowledge of the Navy other than that it exists, I can’t tell you what ship it was, or even what type, only that it was very large and grey. If any of my better-informed friends knows then I would be grateful for the instruction! I feel somewhat embarrassed by my ignorance, especially having grown up within 20 miles of Portsmouth, and am resolved to educate myself a little when I get back.

But for today, the boat I was most interested in knowing better was the Mount Batten ferry. A lengthy battle with the crowds in the Barbican to buy so much as an ice-cream had crushed the last of my interest in seeing more of Plymouth today, and my only thought was how to effect the speediest escape. Although I missed out 5 miles of the Plymouth Waterfront Walkway by catching the ferry, I’ve added on that many extra miles in the last few day alone going to and from campsites, and there seems to be no logic I can follow about when a ferry is an established part of the route and when you’re supposed to walk round. I decided the ‘cheat’ was not such a heinous one, under the circumstances.

Even with the shortcut I’ve covered 40 miles in the last two days, and am quite tired as a result. Luckily, the end of the day proved a perfect restorative. At Mount Batten the crowds immediately fell away and from there to Wembury was a peaceful, relaxing walk over generally easy terrain, with some great views back towards the city from a suitably safe distance.

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A sign at Wembury Beach gave the distances to Minehead and Poole. I can’t quite believe that there are ‘only’ 206 miles left to go! But I’m relieved none of them are likely to be as densely populated as today’s.

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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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Rocky road

I woke up around 5am and peeped out of the tent to see what the weather was doing. A fiery red sunrise greeted me, one of the most spectacular I’ve ever seen in the UK. It was beautiful, but perhaps not the sign I was hoping to see! At least the wind had dropped, and by 7:30 I was forced out of the tent as the early morning sun heated it up like an oven.

I set off early to take advantage of the good weather while it lasted, and a dramatic change in the terrain was immediately apparent. The blue slate I’d grown used to over the last few days gave way to granite, and the path grew more rugged and rocky as a result. The section from St Ives to Pendeen is reputed to be one of the more difficult ones on the path, but it was a different kind of difficult to the tough sections I’ve walked so far. Previous sections were tough because of the amount of ascent and descent; this one was tricky because of the terrain. It was not the sort of path you could take your eyes off and, having grown used to loping along smooth cliff-top trails looking at the view, I nearly came a cropper a few times. After one particularly narrow squeak in which I very nearly got a close-up view of the rocks, I decided to pretend I was in the Lake District. I got on much better after that.

There was lots to look at. Some of the rocks had been arranged into an ‘ancient’ stone circle, complete with a local legend involving morris dancing and a virgin, for the edification of guests staying at Trevalgan Holiday Farm. And swathes of wildflowers covered the cliffs including an incredible number of deep pink foxgloves: I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many together.

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The ratio of rocks to mud on the path increased, as did the size of the rocks, and by the time I reached Porthzennor Cove I was scrambling rather than walking. I don’t want to exaggerate the difficulty – unencumbered it wouldn’t have been much of a challenge – but with my big pack on it was significantly harder to keep my balance!

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Safely through the trickiest bit I climbed back up onto the cliff tops and headed along past Gurnard’s Head, where I surprised Jillian eating her lunch on a stone stile. As we walked along together she pointed out the profusion of common spotted orchids growing by the path: it’s not at all common to see such large numbers of them growing together like that. I’d noticed pale flowers in amongst the grass but without Jillian’s keen eye for a flower I hadn’t realized they were orchids.

The path became a little less rocky as we progressed, but a new hazard began to appear: disused mine shafts. One was so close to the path you could have tripped on a rock and fallen right into it through the flimsy fence. In this Health an Safety era it’s amazing it hasn’t been capped.

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Jim was waiting for Jillian at Pendeen Watch and helpfully warned me off visiting the underwhelming ice-cream van parked there. I said goodbye to them and walked a little more of the path before heading into Pendeen to get an ice-cream from the shop there, and to camp at the North Inn. A tip from the Stuart I’d met in St Ives, it was perfect: good flat grass, toilets and lovely hot showers for £5 a night.

After a tough day I was happy to walk no farther than the bar for my dinner. This stage was only about 14 miles but felt far longer, and it used a raft of stabilisation muscles that had been enjoying a nice rest until now! It’s a long day tomorrow so I hope a good night’s sleep will restore me.


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Dampened spirits

This being the UK, the good weather couldn’t last forever. In fact I’ve probably been living on borrowed time for at least the last two days.

Today started well enough as I walked alongside the River Gannel and up onto the cliff overlooking Crantock Beach. But by mid-morning there was no denying a coat was required. With some brighter sky still left up ahead I optimistically hoped the shower would quickly blow over. An hour of heavy rain later, with my boots full of damp sand from clambering over soft sand dunes, it was impossible to resist the siren call of an early lunch at the warm, dry St Pirans Inn in Holywell. One jacket potato and two coffees later the weather looked as if it was easing off. I repacked my rucksack and took my boots to the beer garden door to try and get the sand out. But before I’d even finished the first one it was throwing it down again. There was only one thing for it: dessert. Looking at the menu it struck me that I’ve walked in the south west for some 16 days now without eating a single cream tea, a sacrilege that ought to be remedied immediately.

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It is amazing how long you can string out a cream tea, through slow eating and judicious topping up of the tea pot, given sufficient incentive. Contemplating the resumption of my battle with the sand dunes as I watched the rain bounce off the picnic tables was a more than sufficient motivator. And it was a great cream tea I was happy to savour, though it now occurs to me to wonder if I can find a better one anywhere…

After 3 hours hiding in the pub, the rain finally stopped and I headed off again, hoping the worst of the weather was past. The path skirted Penhale Army Training Area and as a consequence bristled with danger signs. The warnings against picking up unexploded ordnance, or straying into the training area were par for the course and the notices of disused mine shafts not unexpected. But the sternest warnings and strongest fences were reserved for what appeared to be a kind of electrified art installation. Presumably it has some military purpose but I have no idea what? Answers on a postcard…

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After a pleasantly dry 45 minutes, however, the heavens opened again. Stuart (another walker, doing the Coast Path a week or two a year, that I’d bumped into a few minutes before) and I zipped our coats up and made our soggy way down the cliffs and along Perran Beach to Perranporth. Even there we weren’t safe, with more signs warning against strong currents and falling rocks. Today was by a mile the most hazardous – as well as the wettest – stretch of the Coast Path so far!

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Arriving in Perranporth heralded an exciting milestone. At 201.5 miles from the start, passing it makes this the longest walk I’ve ever done, topping the 200 mile Coast to Coast that I completed last year. Just another 428.5 miles to go…

Walking along Perran Beach in the pouring rain I’d been all set to stop at Perranporth, but by the time we arrived the rain had eased off and (as it had been such a short day) I decided to press on towards St Agnes as I’d originally planned. This final stage, over rugged cliffs and past disused mine workings, was my favourite part of the day. And it was lucky I arrived at the campsite in good spirits. Having deliberately picked a campsite with tumble driers earlier in the day I had the twin blow of discovering a) that more of my stuff than I realised – including the bottom of my sleeping bag – had got wet and b) that the tumble drier could only be operated with a token available from the (absent) warden. It looks like my stuff is going to have to stay wet a little longer. But looking at the forecast for the next day or two, damp clothes are the least of my worries. I’ll see what conditions the morning brings, but it may be time to work on a contingency plan…


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Weary legs

It was a slow start today. After yesterday’s exertions, and with an uninspiring drizzle to greet me when I woke, I could cheerfully have stayed in bed until lunchtime! But with 15 miles or so to walk I dragged myself up and hit the trail.

The first obstacle was at Widemouth Bay. After just a few yards struggling through the piles of soft sand in the dunes I was cursing whoever had invented beaches and eager to trade them for a nice firm cliff or two. As is so often the case, I should have been more careful what I wished for…

The sun came out as I strode up Penhalt cliff before tackling a particularly steep descent into the valley at Millook, and then another dip at the Dizzard in increasing heat.

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Atop the cliffs near Cleave I came across a dedicated South West Coast Path bench – only 500 miles to go to Poole. Hopefully some of them will be flatter than today’s!

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Stopping for lunch on the hillside above St Gennys I was horrified to see a tick crawling up my leg. Having had quite enough tick fun in Oklahoma to last me for a while I flicked it away and hastily set off again. After four hours (and five steep valleys) I finally tottered into Crackington Haven: hot, sweaty and very tired. A cold drink partially revived me and I set off to climb back up out of the valley. But when, after having clambered over an inordinate number of stiles in the course of the day, I got stuck in a kissing gate of wholly inadequate proportions for someone with a backpack I came perilously close to a sense of humour failure. But the views back to Crackington Haven, nestling between the cliffs behind a sparkling turquoise sea, were so glorious it was hard to stay grumpy for long.

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Increasingly tired, I dragged myself up the aptly named High Cliff (one of the highest parts of the Path at 223m) believing it to be the last ascent of the day, only to discover a steep descent and the looming bulk of Rusey Cliff hiding behind it. I should have read the map more carefully.

Nonetheles, at long last I made it to my campsite in the hamlet of Pennycrocker – too small even to get a mention on the OS map – and relieved of my backpack I managed to totter the 30 mins each way to the pub at Tresparrett, the nearest available food. Yesterday’s route was reputed to be the toughest but I found today’s harder going, probably because I started it tired. It was barely dark before I fell into bed and to sleep.


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Circumlocutions

Waking up this morning in Croyde village I was just 5 miles or so from my destination of Braunton – if I could go by the direct route. Via the Coast Path, and adding in a mile to get back to it from the village, two miles round Baggy Point (which I bypassed yesterday as it was getting late) and another mile detouring back into the village again when I realised there were no other shops) it was more like 15.

Despite being shrouded in a morning sea fog, the path round Baggy Point was a dramatic walk I’m glad I didn’t miss.

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My detour back to Croyde village also had it’s compensations: an unconventional but delicious breakfast of luxury Devon ice-cream from one of the shops that was closed when I arrived last night and hadn’t yet opened when I left this morning. Between the ice-cream, the beautiful views, the friendly people and a perfect beach, I’d be happy to go back and spend more time in Croyde.

But for now it was time to press on and make my way along the back of Braunton Burrows. A military training area, I was braced for a degree of risk but it came from an unexpected quarter. Lucky the fog had burnt off by then!

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Once the adrenaline had faded, the rest of the day was spent in an unexceptional, flat walk around the River Caen estuary and past the south edge of Braunton.

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The only excitement was the discovery of a Tesco superstore as I skirted the town. Not normally a cause for celebration, but it’s definitely opened up more possibilities for my tea tonight.


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On the road again

Or more precisely, on the train, then another train, then a third train followed by two different busses. I had thought my difficulty getting home from Combe Martin was due to the absence of a Sunday bus service and the rail engineering works round Basingstoke, but getting back again was a challenge even on a week day.

After all that there wasn’t much time for walking: I managed only a modest 4.5 miles to Hele, where it turned out I missed the Olympic torch by just a day.

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But there were plenty of other sights to see, including the beautiful harbour at Watermouth, with the Little Hangman and Great Hangman (that I climbed over on my last walking day) rising up to the left behind.

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I stopped for the night at Hele Valley Holiday Park – possibly the most expensive campsite of my life! Despite having a miniature tent and no car (let alone a requirement for hard standing or an electricity hookup) the smartly dressed receptionist quoted me £16 for one night, though discounted it to £12 as I was on my own. The contrast to my recent Asian trip – where you could usually get a double room with air con and an en suite bathroom for that money – was striking! But it was beautifully kept and I managed to get a nice quiet pitch by a little stream. Not quite as picturesque as the first one but as good a place as any to test out my new tent…

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