Clovelly to Hartland Quay
When I returned from the last instalment, I told my good friend Jerry that the next two stages were described in the guide book as ‘moderate to strenuous’ and (oh joy) ‘severe’.
“Oh?” said Jerry, with a tone like I’d just told him Madonna was on the line, at a loose end after her date had cancelled. He was in.
At Paddington, all trains are suspended, after a death on the track at Southall. I find Jerry in the bar and we take the tube to Waterloo, thinking we might get a slow train to Reading, and maybe catch our Exeter train there. Fortune smiles on us, and we find a train from Waterloo to Exeter. It takes ages, but we get there.
We finally reach Clovelly at nine, dropped off by a taxi in the dark and rainy Visitor Centre car park, above the town. We make our way down the narrow, cobbled street to find the New Inn. It’s dark, rain glistens on the cobbles and drips from the trees, ancient buildings loom out of the night, and a strange-looking man passes us walking uphill with a slatted wooden contraption on his back. It’s like an early scene in Lord of the Rings.
In the morning, the rain has cleared and the sun gives Clovelly a fairy tale appearance. Fuelled by breakfast and coffee, we climb the cobbled street again to find the Path. It takes us a while to get under way, largely because Jerry appears unable to start walking until his various GPS devices have got going. It is apparently important to track the walk. On several devices.
The Path starts off relatively midly, but soon regains the pomp it has not displayed since the glory days of Exmoor. For the first hour, we walk through thinly-wooded downland, with the sea an occasional silvery presence below us on the right. After a couple of miles, the Path began to loosen up, with steeper descents and steeper climbs. Lundy Island is visible out at sea, looking like the setting for a Conan Doyle story.
After half an hour we pass a man who was at breakfast in the Inn with us. He has come from South Africa and is walking the whole 630 miles of the Path in a continuous stretch. This path is a late substitute for the south west of Turkey, where the risk of terrorism is offputting. He has run into ‘foot issues’ in the first few days, and had to get new boots, and resort to luggage transfer. Even so, he is going pretty slowly. The remaining 500 miles may look a little forbidding.
A sprinkling of rain starts up. We put our cagoules on. The sun reappears.
Walking with a friend is a different experience mentally than walking alone. Instead of the meditative blankness of mind that sets in with the rhythm of a solo walk, we find ourselves musing on a succession of unrelated topics, our minds blowing all over the place like seagulls tossed by the Atlantic wind. During the morning we talk about:
– the Manson murders
– Trigonometry, algebra and geometry (and the fact that I know little about any of them)
– Whether Roman Polanski is better or worse than Woody Allen (and who would be preferable as a dinner guest)
– Blackberries as a delivery mechanism for seeds through birdshit
– What’s worse, Hell or high water (easy choice, in my view)
– Whether granite is metamorphic (apparently not, it’s igneous, but there has apparently been debate)
– Whether Finisterre is in Spain or France (both), whether it is the westernmost point in Europe. (I said no, Jerry said yes. He was wrong) and whether the unfortunate protagonists in Chris Priest’s novel ‘Inverted World’ ended up in the sea at Finisterre or southern Portugal (it was the latter – another point to me).
We stop for lunch at the Point@Hartland. Despite the modish name, this turns out to be a hut beside the car park for Hartland Point. It has wooden benches outside and we have a very welcome lunch of mezze and a ploughman’s, with good coffee.
As we are eating, the sky and sea to the north rapidly turn the same shade of grey, as rain eases across the horizon. When we set off again, we put on our waterproofs.
As we approach Hartland Point, it is clear from the sea that this is a point of change on the Path: to the east, the surface of the water is smooth and silvery; to the west, it is speckled with white and noticeably more agitated. Past Hartland Point, there is a dramatic transformation in the Path, the surrounding terrain, the view and the weather. The coast is now rough and rocky, with vast slabs of rock angling into the fizzing white water. We are also now exposed to a south-west wind so strong that it threatens to knock us off balance. Some gusts are hard enough to stretch the skin on my face.
The afternoon stint is short, but increasingly enjoyable in terms of the view (if progressively more challenging in terms of the steep climbs and descents). A taster, we suspect, for tomorrow’s longer walk.
All at once, we find ourselves descending a steep slope to Hartland Quay, where the welcome sight of the Hartland Quay Hotel steps out from behind the overhanging cliff.
Hartland Quay was apparently once a genuine quay, looking much like the harbour at Clovelly. It operated for hundreds of years from the 16th Century. As so often, the advent of the railways changed things, and maintenance of the pier was abandoned in the 19th century. In 1896, much of the pier was destroyed by storms, and there is no sign of it now.
For somewhere so remote, the bar is crowded and noisy. Jerry and I have a brief conversation with South African Man, who amazingly claims to have arrived at the Hotel before us (he must have sneaked past while we were having lunch). We then sit in a corner of the bar with Jerry’s laptop, attempting to watch Reading v Ipswich on an Internet stream of dubious legitimacy, and drink too much beer. But we’ve earned it. And tomorrow we will earn it again.
Reading fluke a win with a 95th minute penalty. By the time we go to bed, dark rain is sweeping horizontally across the Hotel.