Porlock to Hunter’s Inn, Heddon’s Mouth (44,000 steps)
There is one other guest at breakfast. I ask him if he’s walking.
“No, I’m working.”
“Someone has to” I say.
He’s down from Nottingham to insulate a house. I imagine they appreciate insulation on Exmoor in the winter. He doesn’t seem to want to chat. Which is fine with me. I am after all walking the coast path for five days on my own.
Breakfast is cereal and fruit, followed by a mushroom omelette, accompanied by beans and Landlady Gill’s homemade ‘fatty rascals’, a kind of scone with cheese and herbs. I eat my fill, conscious of the many miles ahead of me.
It’s a sunny morning, with a refreshing bite of cold in the air. Rain is promised later so after breakfast, I am on the road by 8.15. Gill sends me on my way with a packed lunch including one of her delicious salmon, cheddar and onion pies. Why am I going? I could just stay here.
The day warms up fast and my fleece soon joins my cagoule in the rucksack. I’m wearing the new socks I purchased in the Porlock camping goods store. My feet told me yesterday that I needed new socks, and a wise man pays attention to his feet.
After yesterday’s misty monotony, the Path shows off a bit. It takes me quickly along a bit of road, a muddy marsh, an awkward shingle ridge along the beach, more road and then a sharp zig-zag uphill beyond Porlock Weir, and into the woods. At Porlock Weir, I reflect that I have now reached the recommended end point of day one, according to the guide books. Before today ends I have to reach the halfway point of day three. I wonder again about my planning.
Soon I am high above the sea, walking along an easy path among trees. There are occasional diversions uphill to detour round landslips. Otherwise it is level, with gentle rising and falling, for several miles. I hear birds singing,and hear a woodpecker higher up the slope. A few nervous grouse scarper from the path when I draw near.
I walk at a steady pace, and for several hours I see no other people, leaving me alone with my thoughts. To be honest, my thoughts have mostly deserted me too. I settle into that trance-like walking rhythm, broken only when I stop briefly to consult the map and drink some water. There is wild garlic in the verges of the Path. In the fields, young lambs cling to their mothers.
The Path is very well signposted and maintained. This means that the maps I have brought with me serve only two purposes. From time to time they remind me how far I have still to go, and how slowly I’m going.
A carpet of white sea mist appears far off the coast, towards Wales. As the morning wears on, it creeps closer, like something out of Doctor Who.
At around one I reach Lynmouth. I have done over thirteen miles this morning and a hotspot on my left foot checks in to tell me that it has made a deposit on a blister, which will be fully functional within an hour. Unless I apply a blister plaster, stop for lunch or seek beer. I eat Gill’s packed lunch, reclined on a park bench by the river in Lynmouth. I would happily sleep there for an hour or two. I make a new friend, a robin, who cadges a crisp and flies away.
There is a historical anecdote on the walls of the local history centre. In 1899, the lifeboat service in the town was called out to assist a ship in trouble off Hurlstone Point. They were unable to launch at Lynmouth owing to heavy seas, so some genius came up with the idea of men and horses towing the boat over the hills to launch from Porlock.
This puts my tiredness into perspective. But then I think, ‘Horses? I’ve had to carry my rucksack all by myself.’
Leaving Lynmouth, I decide it isn’t cheating to take the Cliff Railway to Lynton, rather than climb the steep hill.
The Railway has two balancing cars, on a 45 degree track up the side of the cliff. It is powered by water, which is piped from the West Lyn river a mile away, into the top car. Water discharged from the car at the bottom of the incline makes it lighter than the one at the top, which decends, with the speed controlled by a brakeman in the descending car.
From the top of the Cliff Railway, I set off on the Path again. The views are better during the afternoon, with the Path winding along the top of the cliffs above the sea, and fewer trees in the way. I fall again into my walking rhythm, although my mind is if anything more vacant than this morning, largely a result of growing tiredness. The sea is calm and smooth, and the coast of south Wales is visible now to the north.
Around four in the afternoon, the sky darkens and it begins to rain. I estimate that I have about an hour of walking still to do. The rain thickens and the narrow path quickly becomes a narrow muddy stream. There is a deep rumble of thunder and then a streak of lightning crackles close overhead, followed by a louder thunderclap that makes me flinch. I am suddenly conscious of my metal walking stick, held in my wet hand, and how attractive that might be to lightning. I fight the urge to run, and hold the stick by its polyester strap, taking care not to let it touch the wet ground.
After what seems far too long a stretch of exposed clifftop, the path enters a narrow, steep-sided valley, and descends to the small river at its foot. The Coast Path crosses the river by a small footbridge, but I continue inland, where, at last, I reach my stop for the night, the Hunter’s Inn. I am greeted by a couple of vigilant peacocks.
The Inn has been stricken by the thunderstorm that spooked me late in the afternoon. Their electric till had given off smoke and packed up, and the phones are not working. Mobile reception is a non-starter.
But there is food, and a shower, and beer. And bed.