Hunter’s Inn to Ilfracombe (36,000 steps)
My calf muscles feel like they have had tractor tires parked on them overnight. But I eat breakfast and take ibuprofen. The sun is shining and I have a shorter walk today. I’m feeling optimistic enough to wear my shorts.
I leave the Hunter’s Inn and follow the river down a narrow, green valley, accompanied by the musical sound of running water. My optimism is only briefly dented by the sight of the climb with which my day begins. It’s best not to overreact; the morning turns out to have plenty of climbing.
After the big climb up the side of Heddon’s Mouth, the bulk of the morning is spent on a grassy clifftop path, which rises and falls along a series of undulating hills like the back of a half-submerged sea monster. There are spectacular views of the coast ahead, where I can see the whole morning’s walk laid out for me.
I take a brief rest after an hour. The sun is now pleasantly hot on my bare arms. It’s very peaceful – a view of rolling hills inland, the sound of sheep in a nearby field, the low whisper of the sea against rocks far below. The sky is a thin blue, with long strands of high white cloud.
When I get going again, the great Hangman looms into view. It is the highest point on the South West Coast Path. From a distance it doesn’t look too forbidding. But I could have done without the steep descent into a narrow valley that immediately precedes the even steeper ascent up the back of the Hangman.
At the top, I treat myself to a sit down and some water as I enjoy the view out to sea. Then I walk down into Combe Martin.
I read somewhere that Combe Martin is the second longest village in the country (it stretches inland along a very narrow valley). That just makes me want to know which is the longest.
Lunch is egg and chips in the Foc’s’le Inn on the beachfront. The music is piped directly from the early 1980s. It’s heartening to see a bold use of apostrophes in a pub sign (although arguably there could have been a third, between the letters ‘o’ and ‘c’).
Combe Martin marks the boundary of the Exmoor National Park, and it’s clear that the Park is behind me as soon as I walk out of town after lunch. The Path has bored of showing me spectacular views. The route becomes rather mundane as we pass a series of campsites and holiday parks, and remain close to a busy road. We’re firmly in Holidaymaker Devon now, instead of National Park Devon. Even beyond the campsites, the terrain is more like Surrey by the sea than the wild coastline of the past two days.
The Path does its best, darting in and out of the corrugations of the coastline to stay away from the road as much as possible. But the diversions make the walk increasingly fussy, and longer than it should be.
As yesterday, it begins to rain, and the holiday resort ambience is reinforced by the growing quantity of plastic bags and Coke bottles lying beside the route. To escape from the busy road, at Hele Bay I take up the invitation to divert again towards the sea. The coast path takes a confusing and unnecessarily complicated route over the wooded hillside in which sits the ruins of iron-age Fort Hillsborough. I’m a bit tired by now and I get irritated as the signs send me up and down the hill. The logic, if there is one, seems to be that if you’re walking the coastal path you won’t mind a few bonus ascents before you are granted entry to Ilfracombe.
This is a town firmly at the holidaymaking end of the Devon spectrum. There are numerous pubs, and a lot of bucket-and-spady-seaside-town shops.
The town also has a theatre that looks like a power station, and a Damien Hirst statue – Verity – at the end of the harbour. This is a pregnant woman with a sword.
I go into a pub on the harbour. It advertises a tempting array of beers and fresh fish. The beers are from the local Wizard Brewing Co. and have names like ‘Druid’s Fluid’ and ‘Thirst Borne’. But the barman says they are not serving food tonight and the only beer available is bottled porter (Druid’s Fluid). He needs to get round to brewing more, he says. The porter turns out to be very tasty, and he only charges me £2.
I’m staying in a backpackers hostel. It’s the cheapest and most basic accomodation of my trip so far. It’s clean and dry, and after a shower and change of clothes I feel refreshed. But my legs are tired, despite the shorter walk today.
And there is another long day tomorrow.