Barnstaple to Instow
It has taken longer than I expected, but finally we set out to resume the coastal trek. This time I have company: my son Sam, making his long-distance footpath debut. His proud mother takes a picture of us as we leave the house.
At the station, Sam says, “If only I had Pokemon Go on my phone, I could hatch loads of eggs on this trip.”
It’s the first Friday of the school summer holidays and the train from Paddington is packed with holidaymakers on their way to Cornwall. Sam and I had been unable to get seat reservations, but I use my hard-won commuter skills to bag two seats together. Some poor souls have to stand in the aisle at least to Exeter.
The three-carriage train to Barnstaple is less crowded, rattling through a narrow tunnel of trees, punctuated by sudden views across sun-filled fields, speckled with cows. The occasional dwellings become increasingly thatched and stone-built, and at one rural station a party of sixty-something women get on, all dressed in purple with red hats and fascinators. The train guard tells them he doesn’t want any trouble.
On the train journey I resume reading the book I started three months ago on my first foray into the Coast Path. It is “1913”, by Florian Illies, a peculiar month-by-month collection of vignettes from the year before the first world war. It features a crowded cast of politicians, intellectuals and artists, going about their business during a year that no one realised was the end of an era.
There are many priceless anecdotes, including the revelation that Hitler and Stalin – both then unknown – were both in Vienna during the same month, and both walked in the same park. This may have been the closest they ever came to meeting.
My favourite character is Franz Kafka, who is at every turn the very model of the tortured, self-destructive artist, unable to contemplate happiness without trying to stuff it up. Here he is writing to the father of Felice Bauer, whom he has just asked to marry him:
“I am taciturn, unsociable, morose, selfish, a hypochondriac and genuinely in poor health…In recent years I’ve spoken an average of less than twenty words a day to my mother, and I’ve barely ever exchanged more than a few words of greeting with my father. I don’t speak to my married sisters and their husbands at all, unless I have something bad to say. I have no sense of how to co-habit normally with my family. And yet your daughter is supposed to live alongside a person like this, a healthy girl like her, whose nature has predestined her for genuine marital bliss? Is she supposed to bear it, leading a cloistered existence alongside the man who…spends most of his time either shut away in his room or wandering around alone?”
I can’t help thinking that a few days on the South West Coast Path might have cheered Kafka up. But would he have written “Metamorphosis”?
The weather is overcast as the train heads west from London. By the time we pass through Wiltshire, the sky has stretched out into a wide, shallow bowl overhead, blue like Delft pottery, with cotton wool clumps of cumulus glued on in irregular groups, like a child’s artwork.
Three months have passed since I was last in Barnstaple. The country has voted to leave the European Union, after a rancorous campaign in which an MP was murdered in the street, the prime minister has resigned, the leader of the opposition has not resigned despite three quarters of his MPs voting no confidence in him, the pound and the stock market have tanked. In London, we have elected our first Muslim mayor. In Southern France, a lone mass murderer has killed over 80 people by running them down in a lorry driven along a crowded Nice promenade. There have been other atrocities, seemingly too many to list.
In Barnstaple, the tide is high so I can’t check how much has changed in the community of shopping trolleys in the river. I suspect this is one area of our national life where continuity reigns.
We take a taxi from Barnstaple station, to pick up the Path at Yelland. A short downhill walk through a farm brings us on to the Path, which here is still in its disused rail track incarnation, hence we spend the first half hour dodging cyclists. I can’t tell whether the Path bears any grudges from our parting three months ago. These early steps are businesslike and uneventful.
Past Yelland power station, the path veers out on to the sands and we go with it. At last, I feel I have regained the true coastal Path, and from here on there can only be solitude and the comforting rhythm of boot on earth.
Sam chooses this sublime moment to explain more of the mysteries of Pokemon Go. Apparently the eggs you collect hatch out when you walk a certain distance. The best and rarest require ten kilometres. He’s really kicking himself for missing the opportunity presented by this trip.
Appledore appears ahead, across the Torridge estuary. I cheer up Sam, and myself, by pointing out it’s our lunch stop for tomorrow. Once we have walked seven miles up and down the river.
In Instow, I thought I booked a twin-bedded room but it turns out to be double. Unsurprisingly, Sam doesn’t like the idea of sharing a bed with his dad, so I ask the inn manager if we can swap. They offer another room, but not until we have messed up the bed and I have had a shower. Sam and I go through a Fawltyesque ten-minute frenzy of room-swapping, transporting damp towels from room to room and replacing them with fresh ones, plumping up pillows and smoothing down covers.
We have a stroll along the estuary front and eat in the Wayfarer Inn. Sam says his feet are tired. I point out we have walked two miles. Tomorrow we’ll do more than five times that.
There’s a gorgeous blood-orange sunset over the mouth of the estuary.
Tomorrow, back on the Path good and proper!