Westward Ho! To Clovelly
For the past two days the weather forecast for today has been suggesting a chance of rain. We wake up to find that chance has materialised. The road outside is wet. More rain is promised for the rest of the morning.
At breakfast, Sam has his iPad out and looks up maths puzzles. I can tell today’s walk will be one to savour.
The guide book promises a step up in the Coast Path, with hills and cliffs. Neither of us is particularly equipped for bad weather. But that’s OK: the forecast doesn’t threaten huge amounts of rain. So we decide to wear shorts to start the day, aiming to change into dry clothes whenever the rain stops. It’s a plan.
Like most plans, it survives about ten minutes contact with the enemy.
We leave Westward Ho! along the promenade, past a rank of jolly beach huts, and along the side of what bills itself as the most famous car park in England. The Path then heads doggedly west, close to the sea, under an increasingly grey sky. A few miles ahead, a mist of rain smudges the sea, but it holds off for now.
About half an hour into our day, the Path springs an unpleasant surprise. Rather than eke out the predicted rainfall during the morning, it gives it to us all at once. We are hit with a rapid deluge, so heavy that within minutes we are soaked through to our pants and socks. The rain then eases off to a gentle mist, with intervals of sunshine, but the damage is done. We are thoroughly wet until at least our lunch stop. And beyond, if the rain has penetrated our packs.
We try not to let it spoil our mood. The view, despite the dark clouds, is increasingly grand – rolling green hills falling away at forty five degrees to rocky beaches fringed with white water. The pull of the sea on the heavy pebbles of the shore gives our walk a pleasant accompaniment; a deep, musical grinding sound, like the bass strings of a piano being rattled by a heavy spoon.
The Path becomes more difficult, with repeated climbs and descents. It also becomes surprisingly overgrown, with vegetation soaked by the guerrilla downpour that chilled us to our pants. This means that our feet, which were already wet, grow sodden, with our toes squelching inside our boots.
“I’m not enjoying this.”
Sam becomes disenchanted. We are wet. The Path is a succession of tiring climbs. There are stinging nettles. His feet are tired. He rips the sleeve of his cagoule on barbed wire. There are no Pokemon.
The rain is now a thin aerosol spray, coating everything in a layer of damp. And – with a warm sun beginning to break through the clouds – there are suddenly bugs everywhere, including some aggressive biting flies. Sam gets one bite on his leg, which draws an impressive bubble of blood. After that, he is on high alert, constantly flapping his hands around his legs and face to ward off real and imagined insects.
We try to keep our spirits up with one of the maths puzzles from the Internet. How can you combine the numbers 1, 4, 5 and 6 to make 24? (* answer below) This is fun at first, but we both go off it as the morning stretches out and the roller-coaster path rolls wetly on. And as we fail to solve the problem.
At last, we turn away from the coast and take a path inland, heading for our planned lunch stop, the Coach and Horses pub. Sam is muttering darkly about taking a taxi from the pub to our B&B. We sit and steam damply as we wait for our food.
But the pub is friendly, with the atmosphere of a busy private front room, and after we have sat in sullen silence for half an hour a woman at the next table says, “I’ve been watching you two and I can tell you’re gloomy. Neither of you has said a word.”
Tony and Susie at the next table turn out to be a pair of wealthy retired life coaches, who save our day. They are full of anecdotes and sunny observations on life. After twenty minutes of conversation, our mood is transformed, and when I offer to call a cab, Sam announces that he has decided to continue walking.
As we leave, I nobly offer Sam my ace card – a spare pair of walking trousers from the bottom of my pack. Dry trousers, and covered legs, cheer him up immensely. I remain in damp shorts, but I try to keep my spirits up.
The first couple of miles after lunch are easy, along a narrow country road, angling back towards the coast path. The rain has stopped and there are signs of brightness on the western sky. And, of course, we have had lunch.
Our path leaves the road and cuts across fields towards Buck’s Mill. Trees close in and the path becomes muddy. Flies reappear, although not in the swarms of the morning. Buck’s Mill is a tiny coastal settlement at the foot of a narrow cleft in the high ground. Quaint cottages cling to steep slopes and there are flower boxes sprouting all over. There is even a classic red phone box, in which the phone actually works. It’s like being back in the seventies.
After Buck’s Mill the path climbs back up the heavily wooded slopes and for a few miles rises and falls in parallel with, but mostly out of sight of, the sea. The woodland is very lush, with moss covering tree trunks and dense ferns in places. It’s obvious that rain is not rare here.
It’s an easier, and more pleasant, walk than in the morning. But we tire of it by mid-afternoon, and it seems to take longer to reach Clovelly than it should. We both become weary and footsore, and Sam slows down, falling twenty yards behind. Our conversation dries up again. We start fantasising about hot baths and dry socks.
At last, we reach our B&B, a mile inland (and uphill!) from Clovelly. We get a warm welcome from Chris and Sylvia at Pillowerry, who sort out drying facilities for our wet clothes, point us to a hot shower, and – when we’re changed and rested – drive us down to the top of Clovelly Street so we can get some food. They also offer a very welcome pick up service later in the evening, to bring us back.
Clovelly is every bit as chocolate-box cute as advertised. It’s the village that Time forgot, remembered again, mislaid for a few decades and then revived as a half-mile long cobbled slope of quaint.
It’s indeniably beautiful, especially at this time of year when the village is decorated throughout with colourful knitted doo-dads; on lampposts, on houses and walls, and a knitted lifeboat on the harbour front.
It’s also impressive in the way the village clings improbably to the hillside. What on other parts of the coast would be a slope of trees and rocks tumbling to the sea is here an impossible cascade of tiny stone cottages, cantilevered over the steep slope.
We eat in the Red Lion hotel on the harbour. The evening has turned fine, with low sun bathing the coast back to Westward Ho! in honey. It’s a good end to a testing day, and the end of this second section of the Path.
I check the guide book. It says this last day was ‘moderate’. The coming sections are ‘strenuous’ and ‘severe’. I suspect I will be doing those on my own.
(* The maths puzzle solution: divide 5 by 4 (1.25) and subtract 1 (0.25). Divide 6 by 0.25 = 24. I confess, we looked it up later…)