Bunhenge to English Riviera: South West Coast Path – Day 36 (and a half)

40,000 steps (27,000 + 13,000)

One estuary (ferry)

I’ve done my prep, and failed to identify any pub lunch opportunities ahead, so I stock up on food at a bakery near the harbour. They have cheese rolls and – just as in Salcombe – humungous Chelsea buns. The woman serving eyes me curiously.

“Are you sure you can eat all that?”

“I’m not sure I can even carry it,” I say. “But I’m going to give it a try.”

Dartmouth, viewed from the ferry

The ferry is waiting for me, and within minutes I’m in Kingswear.

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Drowned Tanks and Dead Pop Stars: South West Coast Path – Day 35

25,000 steps

An easier day, with frankly not much to write about – I’ve planned a shorter trek and the Path is more than usually docile.

It’s a pin-sharp cold morning, flooded with spring sunshine. The Church House Inn has been a lovely place to stay, and I am cheered by the breakfast room stuffed with daffodils.

I leave Stokenham and retrace my steps to the coast, picking up the Path at Torcross. I must admit, the day’s walk ahead of me looks a little uninteresting – a long straight trek along the shingle bank to Strete, and then some dodging back and forth along a road. Some way short of the challenging glories of north Cornwall. But my blisters and Achilles tendon aren’t complaining.

The Exercise Tiger memorial at Torcross

Torcross has an unusual monument: a US Army Sherman tank with a story to tell. The village was evacuated during the War, and taken over by thousands of allied soldiers, who used the area to practice for the Normandy landings. Two months before D-Day, on 28 April 1944, a tragic incident happened during full-scale rehearsals for the June landings – Exercise Tiger. Numerous soldiers were killed in ’friendly fire’ incidents, and German torpedo boats from Cherbourg intercepted and attacked a convoy of ships travelling from Portland to Slapton Sands. Over 1,000 lives were lost over the course of the operation. The tank was retrieved from the sea bed years later.

The first hour out of Torcross is an easy walk along a path parallel to the road. Inland of the path is a long stretch of water – Lower Ley. It looks innocuous but is apparently Devon’s largest natural lake, formed thousands of years ago when the sea threw up the shingle bar around Start Bay. It’s a national nature reserve. The guide book claims all sort of wildlife can be spotted here, including otters and herons. I see one swan, far off.

The Day’s Work Lies Ahead

After an hour, I stop for a brief rest on the beach. I remove my hat and gloves. When I set off again, the cold north east wind soon persuades me to put them back on.

Past the northern end of the Ley, the Path cuts inland from the beach and takes me up a strenuous series of steps, through the village of Strete. I’d hoped for a coffee stop here, but there’s no cafe. The Kings Arms has a sign boasting of the ’best views in south Devon.’ And coffee. But the pub seems to be in the grips of redecoration.

I press on towards Blackpool Sands, the Path cutting off the road and winding down through open fields and a couple of narrow, wooded valleys.

I eventually get my coffee at the beach cafe on Blackpool Sands, where I also wolf down the pastry I snaffled at breakfast.

Despite the cold, several families are at the beach. None actually on the sand or in the water.

After my break at the beach, the Path veers tediously inland along roads, presumably owing to uncooperative coastal landowners.

I reach Stoke Fleming and stop for lunch in the delightful Green Dragon Inn. In his book about the Path, Overend Watts recalled a memorably drunken evening here in May 2003. Six or seven pints; incoherent, pissed conversations about guitar players; and still Overend, in his typical Pooterish style, faithfully recorded the price he paid for his Moroccan Chicken and rice. And complained about the church bell keeping him awake in the night.

I have carrot and coriander soup, and just the one pint of beer. I’m way less rock ’n’ roll than Overend.

Peter Overend Watts, back in the day

I think back to meeting Overend’s friend Mark three years ago: the south Cornwall Tom Cruise. This prompts a delicious fantasy: for a few moments I imagine this quiet village pub hosting Overend and the rest of Mott in their pomp. to picture what that was like, check out this video (Overend is the one in the preposterous platforms boots, with the bass guitar sponsored by Birds Eye.)

The Path out of Stoke Fleming follows the road for a while, and then dives down again toward the coast. It winds pedantically back and forth on a sinuous route following the contours of the shoreline, approaching and then entering the mouth of the Dart estuary. On the far side, the headland behind Kingswear promises me a demanding start to tomorrow

Just when I think I’m almost at Dartmouth, the Path takes a treacherous (but admittedly scenic) detour, plunging off-road and zig-zagging around a wooded cove. This involves at least a hundred rough steps down and a similar number back up, as the Path clings to the curving cliff.

Eventually, the Path takes me to Dartmouth Castle, where I linger for a while. The castle has been here a long time, what with Dartmouth’s rich nautical and military history – the town was the departure point for two crusades in the 12th century, and was attacked and sacked during the Hundred Years War. It has 14th century ruins, a 15th century gun tower, a Victorian Battery, and a mid-19th century building that’s now a tea room. Which is where I stop for coffee and cake. I know how to rough it.

I continue along a road that takes me up the estuary and into Dartmouth.

I’ve never been here before, but I like it – an attractive town laid out largely on medieval and Elizabethan streetscapes, with numerous well-preserved buildings, some as much as six hundred years old. All tumbling down the hillside above the Dart estuary.

There’s a railway station building, now a restaurant, but Dartmouth has never had a railway. The station was built when a line was constructed from Paignton to the Dart estuary. There were plans for a bridge, which never came to fruition. The line instead ran to Kingsbridge, across the river, with three ferries linking the two towns.

Kingswear clings to the hillside facing Dartmouth, a cascade of sailboats and multi-coloured houses. That’s where I resume walking tomorrow.

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Back on the Wily, Windy Moors: South West Coast Path – Day 34

28,000 steps

One estuary crossing (ferry)

The View from the Salcombe Ferry

I started walking the South West Coast Path in April 2016. It’s been quite a few years. We’ve had three prime ministers; the UK (eventually) left the European Union after a drawn-out political process that resembled a national nervous breakdown; Donald Trump became President of the US (and still seems to think he is); for two years; the world has been turned upside down by a global pandemic (which has killed 160,000 people in the UK alone, still lingers, and has changed our lives forever). My mum died. And now we have a brutal war in Europe that is like throwback to the 1940s.

I however am nowhere near completing this bloody Path. I know it’s the longest trail in England. I knew it would take a while. But really.

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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.”

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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