Minehead to Porlock (24,000 steps)
Monday morning, 7.30. I leave the house with my pack and my stick. I am making an early start because you can never be sure how long it will take to cross London to Paddington at this time.
The sun is out, the sky at least half blue. The air, even in SE13, smells fresh and full of possibility. So far, the signs are good. I walk a few paces along the road, heading for Brockley station. At once, a cloud covers the sun and somewhere a dog howls. A sly pain announces itself in my knee, promising further bulletins as the miles pass.
Maybe a little early to be sure about those signs.
At Paddington station (which I reach an hour early, of course), the ebb and flow of passengers is satisfyingly flowing in to London and towards days at desks. I am taking the ebb, out of town and west to Taunton.
The train journey gives me time to catch up with the news. The big story remains the fallout from the leaked ‘Panama Papers’, which have given the prime minister an uncomfortable week, with revelations that his multi-millionaire stockbroker father had assets in an offshore fund. On Monday, the PM’s spokesperson batted away questions, saying that it was a ‘private matter’. So private did it prove to be, that by Saturday Cameron had published an accountant’s summary of his tax details since 2010. Even that has not removed his anxious face from the front pages.
As my train passes Reading and heads into the countryside, I bet the PM would prefer to be plodding off alone into Exmoor, like me. Rather than fulfilling his appointment at the Parliamentary despatch box.
As the train passes through west Berkshire, the sky becomes overcast. Trees on a distant ridge are fuzzy with mist, as if dry ice from a distant rock concert has drifted over. The fields look wet and muddy. I’m glad I put dubbin on my boots. And I begin to suspect the PM will be happy enough in the dry environs of Westminster.
It is raining and cold at Taunton, where I catch the bus to Minehead. Luckily the rain has ceased by the time I leave the bus and walk along the seafront to pick up the path. The start of the coast path is marked by this stylish monument. (It’s a pair of hands holding a map.)
From the map statue, I walk through the harbour and alongside a shingle beach, with wooded slopes above me to my left, Minehead already lost in the gloom behind me.
The path then seems to forget the ‘coast’ part of its name and darts cheekily uphill, seemingly into the heart of Exmoor. Soon I am surrounded by mist, trudging across the top of the moor. The sound of the sea is like the murmur of a distant A road below me, and then that too disappears and all is silence. The mist closes in, and it is like walking with a bag of cotton wool over my head. I begin to wonder whether it was wise to have left the compass at home.
This continues for several miles. Some coast path this is.
Eventually I decend through Hurlstone Combe towards Bossington, and slowly emerge from the cloud. The sun comes out and the temperature rises a couple of degrees. I catch sight of the sea in Porlock Bay. Things are looking up. Not me, I’m looking down. The slope is steep and rocky and slippery, and my knees are making clear that they will stand no nonsense.
I managed to miss lunch, so I’m unable to resist the tea rooms at Bossington. By now it is warm enough to sit in the garden, with a coffee and an excessively large, but tasty, wedge of ginger cake. For a while, my only company in the garden is this carved rabbit.
But I am soon joined by Pete, a chap from Godalming who I met briefly in Minehead. He’s walked more of the coast path than I have. But I don’t let that put me off. Leaving the tea rooms, we walk another mile across the flat marsh to Porlock*. We turn out to be staying at B&Bs near each other and we have a pleasant meal and beers in the excellent Ship Inn. (Technically, it’s the Top Ship Inn. there is apparently a Bottom Ship Inn not far away, in Porlock Weir.)
I go to bed early. Tomorrow I have to walk nearly three times the distance I walked today. I wonder if I have planned this trip properly.
*Porlock, incidentally, has a literary claim to fame. In 1797, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (according to his own account), was close to writing down the whole of a visionary poem, Kubla Khan, which had come to him in an opium-fuelled dream. As he was writing it, he was interrupted by an unnamed ‘person from Porlock’, who
detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast…
So Kubla Khan was never completed, remaining only 54 lines long. If you’ve ever read it, or any other work of art inspired by copious amounts of drugs, you may have cause to be grateful to the person from Porlock.