Ilfracombe to Braunton – 42,000 steps
Breakfast is an egg and tomato roll, instant coffee and a custard tart. I eat it on a wooden bench beneath Ilfracombe’s singular war memorial.
The sun is already painting the roofs of buildings a sumptuous amber colour, and burning off the early haze. Seagulls cackle loudly all around, children are walking to school.
It’s a peaceful scene and I’m reluctant to start my day’s hike. I have a long day ahead of me. Not as long a walk as Day 2, but one thing that I didn’t factor in when I planned the trip was that the legs get tired and each day’s miles feel longer. Plus, it turns out that Devon coastal miles are longer than London and south east England (flat) miles.
A group of four men in yellow hi-vis jackets appear. One starts up a motor-mower and another begins rooting around me with a petrol powered strimmer. The peace broken, I heave up my increasingly heavy rucksack, and get going.
There’s a bit of fiddling about to find the Path. I start, inevitably, with a succession of hill climbs, zig-zagging up and out of town. But soon I am on a level clifftop path, hill and trees to my left, sea down to my right. My fleece quickly joins the cagoule in my pack, and away we go.
The Path becomes a level, broad track for the first few miles. Lines of rock show through the earth, like the bones of a prehistoric giant. After the rugged beauty of the Exmoor coast, this is more domesticated, reminiscent of the Ridgeway in Wiltshire, but with the sea below. The Ridgeway after a few decades more global warming.
I pass through the apparently deserted village of Lee. It could easily die of quaint, with its Oystercatcher cottage and Fisherman’s cottage and Smuggler’s Cottage tea room. But the derelict Waterfront Bar is a bit sad. I would have liked a coffee break here, but I press on.
I pass a pocket-sized lighthouse at Bull Point. A sign tells me that the coast of North Devon has caused hundreds of wrecks. Hence the lighthouse. Hence, also, the apt name of the promontory ahead – Morte (or ‘Death’) Point. Despite the off-putting name, this is a popular spot, with an impressive view. I pass several other people. They are not carrying packs, nor are they conspicuously fit, which suggests I may not be far from lunch.
Sure enough, around the point, Woolacombe comes in sight. I stop for lunch. I’m firmly back in Holidaymaker Devon here. The town sits at the head of two miles of sandy beach, patterned in white by lines of waves rolling in for a deserved rest after their long journey from mid-Atlantic. The beach is apparently TripAdvisor’s best beach in the UK, 2016. The air is clean, the sun high and warm in a porcelain blue and white sky. I can’t help feeling cheerful.
Until I look at the map. I seem to have twice as far still to go as I have walked this morning. My feet will never forgive me. I start to wonder about short-cuts.
After lunch, my relationship with The Path grows troubled.
It’s the Path’s fault at first. As I leave Woolacombe, it isn’t easy to find the way, and I end up on another track along the side of the Woolacombe Down, with the Coast Path in plain view below, but beyond a fence. We get back together, but I confess I am then deliberately unfaithful.
As I hike south along Woolacombe Sands, I become preoccupied by the sight of the peninsula ahead, which leads to Baggy Point. I can go straight ahead, across the neck of the promontory, or I can follow the Path around it (which is three times the distance).
I tell the Path it’s not you, it’s me. We can get back together soon. But I don’t know how persuasive that is.
Croyde Bay offers me the sudden temptation of a bus, passing right in front of me, blatantly advertising that it goes to Braunton. I resist the urge to board it, but don’t resist the appeal of a pub, where I have a refreshing beer.
I am briefly reunited with the Path past Croyde, but I stray again. The Path heads off south on a long diversion through the dunes behind Saunton Sands. I walk along the road into Braunton.
The National Park feels a long way behind me now. There is no pavement beside the road, and car drivers have a different view to mine of how close it is safe to pass a hiker at fifty miles an hour. My feet are sore.
I have arranged to meet an old friend in Braunton. He phones me when I’m about a mile out of town on the miserable road to tell me he’s waiting in a pub. I hint that it might be an idea for him to come and pick me up, but he seems to feel that would be slacking on my part.
Maybe our best days are behind us, the Path and me.