Instow to Westward Ho!
Instow has a pleasantly nautical air, with sailing boats rooted in the low-tide mud, and a wide expanse of yellow sand. The town is pretty, with a parade of pastel-shade villas along the waterfront, many with boldly-coloured shutters. A cricket pitch perches above the estuary. Everyone seems to have a wet dog, and knows everyone else.
We walk south along a tarmac path, still on the Tarka Trail, which here follows the route of a former railway line to Bideford. The day starts cool, with dark clouds overhead. But the sky soon clears, and the sun emerges, making me glad I wore shorts. Sam maintains that it is cold.
The tide is in the estuary, giving it the appearance of a tabletop of frosted glass. Several cyclists pass us, and out on the estuary a lone water-skier traces a lazy figure of eight.
After two miles of fairly dull walking, we cross a low, brick bridge into Bideford. The town is cheerful in the sunshine, with flower baskets and small trees along the quay. It has an air of faded maritime prosperity; there are several distinguished-looking houses along the waterfront, some are boarded-up.
Bideford has a statue of Charles Kingsley, the Victorian priest, academic and social reformer. He was also a friend of Charles Darwin, but is probably best known today as a novelist. He wrote the Water Babies (one of many classics I have never read), and the historical novel Westward Ho! This story of Elizabethan privateers sailing to the New World and battling the Spanish is set initially in Bideford (Kingsley was born in Dartmoor and grew up in Clovelly). The novel led to the founding of a village called Westward Ho! It is apparently the only place name in England with an exclamation mark. We will arrive there later.
I suspect Professor Kingsley might need something stronger than an exclamation mark to deal with the treatment modern Bideford gives his statue.
The Path has until now cut a sorely diminished figure, a long way from its Exmoor pomp. But after Bideford, it perks up a little. Instead of tarmac and cyclists, it darts coquettishly uphill and takes us along a wooded path on a ridge above the river Torridge.
We soon see Instow from the opposite side of the estuary. After more than two hours walking we are about six hundred yards west of our starting point.
Appledore has a lovely, evocative name; like a town from a Harry Potter book, or maybe a Hobbit settlement in Lord of the Rings. It was once an important shipbuilding and fishing centre. The Path passes behind a still-functioning shipyard, which comes as a surprise in such a picture-postcard seaside town. Like Bideford – and Instow – Appledore presents an attractive front to the water, with elegant, nineteenth century terraced houses and antique shops. And plentiful pubs.
We stop for an early lunch in the Seagate Inn. Families opposite the pub are fishing for crabs in the estuary.
After lunch, the Path noticeably ups its coastal game. Leaving Appledore, we veer right and head north into Northam Burrows Country Park. This is a broad expanse of dunes and flat sand, with a golf course spoiling it and making short cuts problematic.
Sam has a little trouble adjusting to the slow rhythm of the day’s hike. He asks me if I know any maths puzzles.
“Do you know any good walking games.”
“I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a walking game.”
“I’ve got to keep my mind working.”
This is not helped by us walking past a family outside Bideford, clustered round a boy holding a phone. “They’re playing Pokemon,” Sam says, wistfully.
The Path takes us straight out towards the sea, before swinging round in a wide semi-circle to head back south toward Westward Ho! It’s a pleasant stroll, breezy under a big sky and with flat, wet sand stretching a mile out to a sumptuous blue sea.
Despite a doze among the dunes, we make good time and soon find ourselves striding along the pebble bank that flanks the long beach into Westward Ho! We arrive too early to check in to our accommodation. This forces us to resort to Plan B – a cream tea in the Tea on the Green cafe. In a Hollywood-themed establishment, we go for the Elizabeth Taylor cream tea, which consists of two stonking, lopsided scones, buckets of cream and jam, and a blue-spotted teapot, which yields three cups of tea each.
The cream tea is apparently a sensitive issue in the south west. In Devon, the custom is to put cream on the scone first and then jam (or is it the other way round?). In Cornwall you need to go for jam first, topped by the cream (or possibly the reverse).
Either way, this cream tea is lovely, but I feel I should walk another eleven miles afterwards.
I have looked forward to seeing the town worthy of an exclamation mark. But Westward Ho! is a disappointment, being a largely generic north Devon holiday resort. There is a go-kart track and an amusement arcade, and a long queue outside the fish and chip shop. Charles Kingsley apparently disapproved, and preferred Clovelly. I’ll know tomorrow if I agree with him.
Walking done for the day, we go for a brief swim, before dinner in a pub called the Village Inn. They are due to have live music, from a band with the promising name ‘The Muddy Boots’. But we’re tired, and we return to bed before they play. No mucking about with bedding and towels tonight, and we’re both asleep unfeasibly early.