High Tide, Green Grass (and Blister): South West Coast Path – Day 33

Bigbury to Salcombe

30,000 steps and one estuary (ferry)

What a contrast!

I wake up and look out of the window to see blue sky and glistening sea, corrugated with rolling breakers.

The first task today is to get the ferry across the Avon to Bantham. There seems to be some uncertainty about the timing of this service, but it looks safe to rely on it operating 10-11, so I’m up and out in time to walk the half mile down to the bank of the Avon, arriving at the appointed spot for ten. There is already a group of adults and children there.

I’m learning that every South Hams river estuary has its own ferry etiquette. I’d read that here you needed to shout “ferry!”, to attract the ferryman. As a reserved Englishman, I wasn’t looking forward to this. But a sign says you just need to wave across the river. One of the people there said they’d already done that.

We wait a while, anxiously scanning the far bank for signs of movement. At last, a flat-fronted motorboat appears from the ranks of moored craft, and edges out into the river. The driver waves. We wave back. He waves some more. The boat heads downstream, conspicuously not heading our way.

“He’s telling us to go down there,” a woman says. Parents gather up their children and we all head off down the beach, trying to anticipate where the ferryman wants us to gather. I’m wondering whether there are too many people, and resigning myself to letting the families go first. They were after all here before me. (But are they walking all the way to Salcombe? I bet not.)

I round a bend in the river, to find the boatman has positioned himself five metres off shore, holding steady against the current. One of the dads is asking him about the price, looking disappointed that the four pounds a head appears to apply to the children. He looks unattracted at the prospect of paying thirty pounds just to cross the river to discover there’s no cafe on the Bantham side.

I call to the ferryman:

“Do we have to wade out to you?”
“No point me coming in until I know if anyone’s getting on.”
“I definitely am.”

With that, he edges in to shore and I scramble aboard. Off we go, just me and the ferryman, watched from the bank by disappointed children.

It’s a breezy morning, but the sun is strong. I realize that I have not prepared for good weather. Luckily, Bantham has a shop and I buy some sun screen and head out onto the coast. The sky is clear, with wisps of cloud. The wind is ridiculously strong – blowing off the sea with enough force to push air back into my throat when I exhale seaward.

Mouth of the Avon, looking towards Burgh Island

Today’s walking turns out to be straightforward. The route to South Milton is easy, along grass-topped cliffs. I briefly intersect again with Holidaymaker Devon, passing a long line of cars outside a car park.

At a nature reserve, I cross an attractive wooden footbridge, and pass a crowded beach.

The distinctive arched rock off the coast at Thurlestone is a constant companion for the next hour as I work my way round the bay.

Hope Cove

I briefly think I’ve lost the Path, when I find myself on an inland road, but a sign partly-hidden by bushes nudges me back towards the sea. I settle into a classic Coast Path rhythm, and miles go by without incident. I am soon at Hope Cove, where the beaches are full of families, undaunted by the wind, which chases waves and beach furniture up the beach and laughs at windbreaks.

I sit on the harbour wall with a coffee and grow nostalgic over happy memories of windsurfing here many years ago with friends who I haven’t seen in a long time. More recent memories of the day my son threw up in the car here are less cheery.

It’s too early for lunch, so I press on. But after Hope Cove there are no obvious places to stop for refreshment, so I settle again into a trance-like rhythm and keep going along the cliff tops between Bolt Tail and Bolt Head. The big toe on my left foot checks in with me as I walk, to inform me that it is working on a blister, which it hopes to complete during the afternoon.

I stop on a rocky outcrop high on The Warren, with a fine view inland. I apply a plaster to my burgeoning blister and have lunch – two cereal bars and some water. After a rest, I carry on.

Monument to Homer Simpson

The Path is rough and stony in places, mostly level with the occasional sweat-inducing climb, flanked by gorse bushes and ferns. Inland is a sharp rise and fall of dramatic downs, pierced by odd-shaped rock formations. Out to sea are the usual coastal cliffs tumbling into foaming white water near the shore, and a glorious panorama of sea and sky stretching beyond.

It is – I have to admit – glorious, although I am yet again suffering from third day syndrome, where the scenic beauty becomes commonplace. I know I’ll miss if when I’m back in London, but right now I just keep plodding.

I enter again the walker’s trance that is so common, particularly in the afternoons of these walks. By three, I am rounding Bolt Head, and after a gruelling climb up Sharp Tor, I stop for another rest.

Kingsbridge Estuary and Salcombe

To the north, I have a sumptuous view of the mouth of the Kingsbridge Estuary, with Salcombe clinging to the steep west side.

I’m soon in Salcombe, the end of this leg of my journey. It’s a beautiful evening, with a very high tide flooding the estuary with silver.

I calculate I’ve now walked around 450 miles of the Path since I left Minehead, in April 2016. It’s taking longer than I expected.

 

 

 

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Rain and Estuaries: South West Coast Path – Day 32


Wembury to Bigbury

30,000 steps and two estuaries crossed (one by ferry, one waded)

The weather forecast lets me down. It’s completely accurate.

I wake up at six. Outside, it sounds like someone has aimed a hose at the house. There’s been heavy rain in the night, and it continues, driven on strong winds from the south.

This is the day that has dominated planning for this trip. There are two estuaries to be crossed. The first, early in the day, is the Yealm, which has a small ferry. I need to get that between 10 and 12.

After that, I have to make rapid progress to cover the eight miles to the Erme, so that I’m there for low tide (around 1pm), when the guide book assures me the estuary can be safely waded. Miss that slot, and it’s an eight mile detour inland. As the ever-cheerful Book puts it:

“Be sure to plan this day’s walk carefully to avoid being stranded, or having to make long detours inland.”

At breakfast, I phone the ferryman, to check whether the Yealm ferry will be operating, given the dreadful conditions.

“Unfortunately, yes,” he says.

I set off, fully togged up in cagoule and over trousers. On the headland, making my way to the Yealm River, the wind drives rain up the hillside from the sea, sweeping it across the Path in curtains. The sky is blurry and grey. Water drips from my nose.

In places the Path has become a stream, I follow it past a few cottages and down some wooden steps to the slipway. I reach the steps for the ferry and shelter for ten minutes, waiting for a sign of Bill, the happy ferryman. Across the water, I see a man row a boat out to a moored dinghy. On board, he picks up a bucket and begins bailing copious amounts of water out of the boat. This goes on for some time.

At last, he starts the engine and comes over to pick me up. Bill tells me he’s been doing the job 27 years, and has never had to bail out so much water in the morning! I tell him 27 years makes him a feature of the coast path, and I ask if he minds me taking his picture.

Bill the Ferryman

From the Ferry, I walk along the road into Noss Mayo, where every building surface is dripping and the streets run with water. I head uphill and inland, cutting through woods and along roads back toward the coast.

For the next mile, a high hedge protects me from the full force of the wind driving sheets of rain in from the sea. When I pass the occasional gap in the hedge, its like stepping in front of a fan in a shower.

I find the Path and head east, on a part stony, part grassy track between low, wind-stunted shrubs. I may be imagining it, but the conditions appear to improve slightly. It’s now possible to distinguish the grey sky from the grey sea.

The wind draws an interesting variety of sounds from the landscape around me – a whistle from barbed wire on the fence; wind-driven rain through tree branches sounds like a distant waterfall; a constant surge of white water on rocks below.

I pass a ruined lookout, and the Path plunges down a precipitous and rather slippery incline. I’m grateful for my stick for preventing me skidding out of control.

A few more ascents and descents, as the Path follows a grassy line along the brow of the hills. The rain has now eased, although the sky is still blurred and not much is visible out to sea. Down onto and across a small beach, and I take a wrong turn and find myself having to scramble on hands and kness through wet bushes to recover the Path. At last, half an hour before low tide, I reach the Erme mouth.

It’s clear that I’ve got the tide right. But I haven’t factored in the heavy rain overnight and through the morning. Instead of the tiny trickle I’ve seen in photos, the river is about fifty metres wide, flowing quite swiftly in the middle. And it’s a dark brown colour, looking like it’s washed a large proportion of the peat out of the hills of Dartmoor upstream.

I wonder how the Erme got its name. I can imagine one of my weary predecessors coming upon a similar scene and enquring of a local:

“Where’s the ferry?”
“No ferry.”
“How am I supposed to get across that?”
“Wade it.”
“Erm…?”

I take the precuation of faffing about long enough removing boots and socks that I have time to watch a couple of other people cross before me. They make it okay, although the water reaches to their groins, and at times they appear to be struggling against the flow. I tell myself I’m probably taller than they are.

I sling my boots round my neck, roll up my trousers, and wade in. In mid- channel the current is quite forceful, and I am grateful for the stick to brace myself and retain my balance.

But I reach the other side without mishap.

I climb the Path out of the valley, onto the headland, where I rest and eat my lunch. I’m in a sheltered, grassy spot, and after all that Fording excitement, I fall asleep for a few minutes, lulled by the sound of waves below and the wind sighing above my head.

I awaken refreshed and ready to go, not least because it is not raining.

The rest of the day’s walk is uneventful, if a little more arduous than I’d prefer. I have overlooked the sentence in the Book, which says the Coast Path beyond Erme:

“features a series of steep ascents and descents on the way to Bigbury, enjoying some of the best cliff scenery on the south Devon coast.”

The scenery is indeed fine, but I could do without quite so many of those ascents.

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Zen, and Poole Receding: South West Coast Path – Day 31

Plymouth to Wembury

25,000 steps

“There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen”

– Lenin

I leave the house at 6.15. The powder blue sky is flecked with pink and gold cloud. The streets are empty. At the station, I rub sanitizer on my hands, put on my mask, and join a few other similarly disguised passengers. In the carriage, it’s as if we’re strangers wondering if we’re going to the same fancy-dress party, but too shy to ask.

Paddington Station is as empty at 7.30 on a workday as it was the Sunday night I got the sleeper to Penzance; the staff in their high-vis jackets outnumber passengers. When the train boards, I go through the barriers with one other person, and take a seat in an empty carriage. The train manager comes on the intercom with an instruction to sit only in window seats, and not to sit directly in front of or behind anyone else.

This is how we live now, in this strange plague summer.

On the train to Plymouth, I reflect on what has happened since I stepped off the Cremyll ferry to end the previous leg of the Path, in April last year. A year of political turmoil, and then – just as I was planning to return to the Path this spring – the world turned upside down by Covid-19: the whole country locked in our houses for months, appearing on our doorsteps once a week to clap for hospital staff; schools closed; exams cancelled, the economy shut down with businesses going bust daily; tens of thousands of people dead before their time.

And a bizarre new ‘normality’, in which keeping our distance from one another, avoiding touching things in public, have become instinctive.

Plymouth – Naval War Monument

Here’s my simple hope: that whatever upheavals the wider world faces, the Coast Path abides. I will be able to pick up where I left off 16 months ago, and slip back into a simpler mode. The weather forecast certainly offers a return to classical values, especially tomorrow, with the prospect of high winds and heavy rain.

In Plymouth, I walk through the city centre to the Barbican, and straight on to the ferry to Mount Batten. There’s a pleasing symmetry to leaving Plymouth on a ferry just as I arrived from Cornwall last year.

Off the ferry, I am at last reunited with the Path, which shows how much it’s missed me: after a dry summer of remorseless heat, I am on the Path two minutes when the rain begins, and in five minutes more I am soaked.

I traverse a wide grassy path towards Jennycliff, and plunge into coastal woods, lush, green and dripping. As I get comprehensively wet, I comfort myself with the thought that you only get to live in a green and pleasant land if you can stand a little rain.

In and around Plymouth, military history is everywhere. The Tower at Mount Batten was apparently built by a William Batten, in the 17th century, preparing for possible war with the Dutch.

Mount Batten Tower – Still Unconquered by the Dutch

More reminders of Plymouth’s heritage follow, as the Path winds past Staddon Heights fortifications, and on over Bovisand Fort. In the harbour, there’s a small naval ship. Above the Path, a radar boom rotates on top of a coastguard station.

East of Mount Batten, someone has gone to town with the waymarkers – monolithic Coast Path signs appear on large on blocks of stone. A sign shows 175 miles to Poole, which feels faintly depressing.

Through gaps in the trees, sumptuous views of Plymouth Sound open up, and across to Plymouth itself. Further away, the eastern edge of Cornwall reminds me it’s taken me over a year to walk from there to here. At this rate, those 175 miles to Poole might outlast me.

The rain dies away, and the day warms up. The sun draws steam from the muddy path. The air is thick and humid. Sub-tropical vegetation crowds the Path, so that I have to crouch in places to get through.

At Bovisand Bay, I eat the sandwich I’ve carried from Plymouth. I lie down for a few minutes, the early start catching up with me. I close my eyes and enjoy the sound of waves, and children playing, and seabirds..

Great Mew Stone
(Not Gull Rock, amazingly)

Onward, into the afternoon, and the Path draws my attention to the impact of Covid-enforced idleness on my tiring leg muscles, even though the route is gentle.

I settle into the old rhythm: it’s notable how quickly everything slips away. We kid ourselves that the world is frantic and crowded and noisy, and we need to run to keep up. But you don’t need to walk far out on the Coast Path to find yourself alone with the wind and the waves, with no phone signal. The things you worried about yesterday are suddenly less important.

My newly-rediscovered Zen is not even punctured when I see another sign, telling me that Poole is now 206 miles away. While I’ve been walking four miles, Poole has moved eleven miles firther on. In 2020, everything is normal.

It’s still only mid-afternoon when I round Wembury Point and see the village church a mile distant. This last mile is a gentle stroll along the grassy track that follows the curve of the bay. At Wembury Beach, I enjoy a cup of tea, sitting on the sand.

The weather forecast for tomorrow is vile. So I go for a swim to round off today.

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Goodbye Cornwall: South West Coast Path – Day 30

Portwrinkle to Plymouth

34,000 steps

Sunny again.

Maybe I should be surprised, but in fact I’ve done the research, and I know that there is less rain on the Atlantic coast of Cornwall at this time of year than in July.

(Mind you, I’ve had holidays in Cornwall in July, and it’s not hard to be dryer than those.)

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George Clooney and Overplanning: South West Coast Path – Day 29

Polperro to Portwrinkle

28,000 steps

Polperro

If you had to design a classic quaint Cornish fishing village – maybe for a Hollywood movie, featuring a world-weary George Clooney rediscovering his soul, surrounded by grizzled old salts mending nets, and falling for a perky divorced barmaid – Polperro would be it.

It has narrow streets, with buildings crammed together at odd angles, and looking like they were assembled from leftover bits of earlier towns. It has a proper working harbour, admirably uncommercialised compared with other Cornish ‘fishing villages’.

But I don’t linger. I never do. The Path awaits. It feels like I might need to come back some other time, to take a proper look at all the places I marched through.

The book promises an easy start, but it doesn’t feel like it at first. A brisk climb out of Polperro and I’m up on the cliffs. I soon reach a fork in the Path. A handwritten sign reads, “Coast Path reopened”, and points to the right. I go that way.

Ten minutes later, I pass a couple with a dog. The man says, “Are you confident you can get through this way now?”

I was until you asked me that. I view the Path ahead with new suspicion, wondering who might want to send unsuspecting walkers down a dead-end, so close to April Fools.

I don’t need to worry. I pass two sections of fencing, now half-cleared. I don’t tumble over an eroded cliff-edge. I never work out why the Path was diverted in the first place.

The morning is sunny again, but with more of a haze, and a stronger breeze than before. But I’m still happily in shorts and tee shirt. The clocks went forward in the night – into British Summer Time – robbing me of an hour’s rest.

I soon reach Looe, with its quirky banjo pier.

A coast path sign points across the river, but there’s no ferry, so I continue on into town to the bridge. I stop for coffee.

Looe

East Looe is probably a couple of notches above West Looe on the Cuteometer. But it’s close, and I make only a superficial investigation.

I continue, climbing out of Looe for an easy walk across a flat headland to Mellendreath, a small beachy cove, which is palpably readying itself for the coming summer season – people sit outside the ugly beach cafe, and walk round in flip-flops. The easier terrain allows my blister to check in with me, to let me know it’s comfortable under the new plaster, and it will be keeping me company during the miles ahead.

Out of Mellendreath, the Path cuts inland through woods, and then onto a road past the Monkey Sanctuary (disappointingly closed for winter – don’t they know it’s now British Summer Time?). I pass a cottage and hear loud music coming from inside. It’s ‘Knights in White Satin’, and for a moment it’s easy to believe I’ve slipped back into the 1970s.

The Path emerges out onto grassy headland.

The further coasts, ahead and behind, have disappeared into the haze, sea and sky merging into a wall of silvery-white.

It’s a long stretch in the morning. Once again, I’ve overplanned it – leaving myself to race along, trying to go a little too fast.

I’ve now done nearly thirty days of the coast path. I really should have learned:  the route can be arduous; it’s more challenging than the gentle downland around London; the path rises and falls frequently; and it’s best taken slowly and enjoyed.

I reach Seaton for lunch, having done two-thirds of the day’s walk in the morning. The consolation is that I am meeting two special old friends.

We have lunch in the busy beach cafe, and then Pete joins me for the afternoon stroll into Portwrinkle, a splendid clifftop walk, with relatively few climbs, but lots of coastal beauty.

Walking with someone else makes this stretch a completely different experience. Especially being accompanied by a dog: she quickly finds a sheep skeleton that I probably would have missed.

It’s also a revelation walking with someone who’s more of a countryman. It turns out the white blossom I couldn’t identify is growing on Blackthorn. Who knew.

It’s a lovely interlude. We say goodbye at Portwrinkle, and I have a weary dinner alone. Feeling like I’ve probably had enough Coast Path.

Again.

For a while.

 

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Wild Garlic and Lots of Steps: South West Coast Path – Day 28

Charlestown to Polperro

34,000 steps

If you are looking down while you are walking it is better to walk uphill – the ground is nearer.

– Gertrude Stein

Under a cloudless sky, with air tasting fresh and smelling of the sea, with me already wearing shorts, I set off on what the guide book promises will be an easy start to the (long) day.

2019-03-30 08.58.11

Charlestown Harbour

Out of Charlestown, the first mile or so takes me past holiday homes and hotels, along a tame headland, to Carlyon Bay.

2019-03-30 09.09.07I pass a coastwatch tower, inside which I notice a watcher faithfully watching the sea, despite it being like a sun-dappled sheet of frosted glass, and as dangerous in appearance as a rice pudding.

There is however a solitary sailboat off the coast, so I guess someone should keep an eye on it. 2019-03-30 09.24.04-2

The Path here is too domesticated and tame for my taste. Well short of past wild glories. I spend too long skirting a golf course.

Then the china clay works at Par loom into view and the Path veers inland, taking another precipitous plunge below former standards.

2019-03-30 09.47.14

There’s a long walk between the railway line and the clay works, hemmed in by mesh fences on both sides. This is followed by a tedious road walk through Par.

It’s not coastal. It’s not even a path. The walking is – I admit – far from strenuous, which I’m not against in principle. But there’s surely a balance to be struck. I tramp through a ghost town of a caravan park, and down the east side of Par Sands to pick up the Path again. This is more like it.

There’s even a swan in the sea. Not something you see every day. 2019-03-30 10.52.37-2

After half an hour’s gentle stroll, I make a steep descent into Polkerris, which has an impressive curved harbour wall, and a pub on the beach. A good place to while away an afternoon. Or a week.

Distracted, I lose my way, and what I think is a short steep track up to the Path turns out to be a long steep road up to another road. I follow this road parallel to the coast, and pick up some footpath signs, turning inland through a smelly farmyard and across a defective footbridge.

Suddenly, I’m on a different Path – the Saints’ Way, which goes inland to Fowey. What I hate above all is having to retrace my steps, so I go with it, hiking a couple of miles of uneventful field paths to reach the outskirts of Fowey, where a banal stretch of road walking takes me down a sequence of hills, past an eccentric bus shelter, and into the riverside town.

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Fowey Bus Shelter

I’d liked to linger, but the Polruan Ferry is in, and I walk straight on board.

The ferry ride is too brief, serving up delicious views of the estuary.

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Fowey from the ferry

In Polruan, I have lunch in the harbourside Lugger Inn, before heading off again. The guide book has promised me that the cliff path from Polruan to Polperro is “quite difficult”, with “lots of ascents and descents”, and obviously I can’t wait to get at it.

After  a long climb up what must be Cornwall’s steepest high street, I leave Polruan and quickly settle into the afternoon’s rhythm.

2019-03-30 16.13.33Sure enough, the Path climbs and descends a succession of coastal headlands, hugging the cliff edge. None of the ascents is as dramatic as the peaks scaled earlier, in north Cornwall, for example. But there’s a lot of them, and they don’t let up all afternoon.

After an hour, I stop for a drink and a foot-check. A blister has checked in on one toe. I apply a plaster and move on.

Call me a philistine, but there’s a saturation point with all this natural beauty. Halfway through this trip on the Path, and I’m becoming immune to it.

Another heartbreakingly beautiful scene of coastal cliffs above a sapphire sea? Okay.

Yet another hidden cove with empty, sun-kissed sand, washed by crystalline waves?

Shrug.

2019-03-30 14.27.03

I get to musing once again about my ignorance of nature. What are those purple flowers with five petals? What do you call that white blossom growing all over the prickly hedgerows?

And then there are the birds. What’s that bird that chirps like a CD sticking in the player? Or the one with the slippery, fluid song – like a guitar solo on an early Steely Dan album?

2019-03-30 15.21.38

I know I’ve thought about this before, my lack of knowledge of the natural world. And – in the six months since I was last on the Path – I suppose I could have done some research. But I’ve been busy, all right?

I guess I’ll never know. Does that matter?

It’s a long six miles to Polperro. Two hours out of Polruan, I persuade myself it must be only an hour to Polperro. I make the rookie error of starting to anticipate what I’ll do when I get there: boots off; cup of tea; maybe a beer; shower and clean clothes.

Then I see a sign suggesting I’m barely half way. I struggle on.

I should have known what the afternoon would be like from the description in the guide book. Here’s a sample:

“Climb steeply…Climb almost 120 steps…then walk down 60 steps on a slope of gorse. Cross a footbridge over a stream, then climb 170 steps on another slope of gorse. Walk over the top…a descent uses 160 steps, then the path continues along the rugged coast…”

2019-03-30 16.37.54At last, at long bloody last, the Path has mercy, and plunges into bushes, on a stretch lined with pungent wild garlic.

And, as I round yet another headland, Polperro springs out from wherever it’s been hiding and is finally there at my feet.

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