Rugged Tales

Wherever my feet may take me…


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A perfect ending

As my journey drew to a close I met another hiker just setting out to walk the entire Coast Path in the opposite direction.  He did it last year, he told me, and enjoyed it so much he was back to do it again in the opposite direction. I couldn’t help expressing my surprise, and may even have included the phrase ‘glutton for punishment’, but he was confident I’d feel the same way.  “Not right away, of course, but give it a month or two. You’ll see.” he added, with a sage nod. Standing there on my sore feet, legs stiff and aching from yesterday’s exertions – not to mention those of the preceding 620 miles – I was more interested in finishing than in starting again, and the end was getting closer by the minute.

A few easy miles and a low hill brought us to Swanage beach, crowded with families excited that summer had finally started

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We joined the happy throng with my sister, brother in law and their two children. It was a lovely reintroduction to home life after so long on the road: eating a picnic lunch, chatting with my family, jumping over the waves with my niece and watching my baby nephew discover that sand is fun in your fingers but not in your mouth. I could have sat there all afternoon but there was the small matter of the last six miles to attend to.  Brushing the sand off my feet, I put my boots back on for the final time and headed back to the Path.

It was a perfect summer day, and as I climbed up to the top of Ballard Down I was grateful for the breeze to offset the heat of the sun and the walk up. Two paragliders launched as I approached the top, and wheeling low above my head in the thermals of the cliff we waved to each other as they glided by.  A little further and I rounded The Foreland, my final headland, Old Harry rocks shining bright white in the late afternoon sun.

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But my gaze was drawn the other way: to my first glimpse of South Haven Point, the end of the Path. I walked on to Studland and catching sight of a board outside the Manor House Hotel advertising Dorset cream teas in their stunning gardens overlooking Studland Bay it was as if fate had brought us together. I was in! But a quick call to check they were still serving revealed that, while they were open, they had sold out of scones and clotted cream after an unusually busy day. I was crushed! I walked on around Studland Bay, contemplating an ice-cream instead to console me, and there were plenty of kiosks: but my heart wasn’t in it.

When the National Trust cafe at Knoll Beach hove into view a flicker of hope was rekindled. I approached the door, hardly daring to look inside for fear of another blow: but yes!  There were scones!  I scanned the menu board, and there it was: “Dorset cream tea – Large (2 scones) £4.95”. Relief flooded through me; to have finished the walk without a final cream tea would have been to have left things somehow incomplete. The cream tea itself was not the best I’ve ever eaten: after a long, hot day the scones had become a little dry, and the queue to get them was tedious. But sitting in the sun on the back of the beach, just two miles from the end of the Coast Path, it was still an entrant in the cream tea challenge that will always have a special place in my heart.

Back on the trail, licking the jam off my fingers, I found the sands of Studland Bay were an altogether calmer affair than the happy chaos of Swanage Beach. Boules seemed to be the amusement of choice – I counted three separate games within 50 yards of leaving the cafe.  As I moved further away from the car park the crowds thinned still more until it was just me with the oystercatchers and stints probing the sand at the waves’ edge.  Oh, and some naked people.

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Studland Beach, it turns out, is a popular spot for naturists.  “If you’d been here a minute or two earlier I’d have posed by that sign for you,” called out a man pulling on his shirt a few metres away.  I told him I thought that was above and beyond the call of duty, but it was very kind of him to offer.  We parted on a less bold note – an agreement that it had been a really beautiful day – and in fact I couldn’t think of a better end to the walk.  As the tide went out a wide, firm, flat expanse of sand was left beneath the clear blue sky. It couldn’t have been better for walking. Rounding the final corner I felt I could go on for ever, or at least, until I got hungry again. I was almost sorry to reach the monument marking the end.  I couldn’t quite believe that, just like that, it was all over. The struggles, the frustrations, the appalling weather and the terrible conditions of the last weeks melted away under the hot sun of a perfect English summer day.  I looked at the sign pointing back towards Minehead.  Maybe….

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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!