Hartland Quay to Bude
By the morning, the rain has disappeared, and the wind has dropped away, giving us unexpectedly pleasant conditions as we set out. The sky is overcast and grey, but there are occasional fragments of blue in the distance, promising better weather later.
My guide book has whetted our appetite by telling us that the route ahead is
“one of the most scenic and dramatic stretches” of the coast path…”but also one of the toughest”.
There is little sign of that toughness in our first hour, as an initial climb takes us away from Hartland Quay and into a surprisingly level stretch of path and road. We stride along this at a good pace for the first part of the morning. We pass a white van at the side of the road. The man inside has a large box of cornflakes. He waves at us as if we are old friends.
We have been promised ten valleys, but they are slow to materialise. There is one steep descent and climb early on, where we pass the waterfall at Speke’s Mill Mouth.
Apart from that, the first few miles are a pleasant stroll along a clifftop plateau, with sumptuous views along the coast of north Cornwall.
This all changes at Welcome Mouth, where we descend a zig-zag column of 150 steps cut into the hillside, bringing us down to a secluded bay, where a small group of surfers are in the sea. We take a break, and watch them for a while. One poor guy spends 15 minutes trying to paddle out through the surf to breakers, but is constantly pushed back towards shore.
After Welcome Mouth we make a strenuous climb up the other side of the valley and here, at last, the Path unveils the challenge it has been saving for us. A succession of deep valleys, each as knee-aching, sweat-inducing, foot-burning as the last. The views, when I can lift my head from my feet and choke back the groans, become breathtakingly beautiful.
Somewhere in the blur of climbing and descending, at Marsland Mouth, we cross from north Devon at last into Cornwall. I reflect that I will be on the Cornwall coast for some time at my present rate of progress along the Coast Path. Possibly into 2018.
At Marsland Mouth there is a stone cabin, restored in memory of playwright and poet Ronald Duncan. It’s open, and inside there is a visitor book, where many people have written short comments about the view and the (usually dismal) weather. A whole page is filled with the comments of runners from this very morning, who seem to have set off from here to run nearly 30 miles to Tintagel, as part of some insane Cornish Coast Challenge.
The gorgeous views come thick and fast, with coastal rock formations twisted and shaped by ancient geological forces.
After five valleys, we turn inland and follow the north side of a stream to Crosstown. Entering a field we see an intriguing sign, on which the lettering has mostly faded. We can make out the word ‘Caution’ followed by several illegible words and then ‘on’ and a half-erased word ending in ‘-th.’ We hope the missing word is not ‘death’.
Jerry solves the mystery as we cross the field, by falling over when his leg disappears down a large hole in the ground. At the far end of the field there is another sign, readable this time, although lying on the ground, warning of the hazard of badger sett entrances in the ground and urging (a little late in Jerry’s case) walkers to take care.
In Crosstown we enjoy lunch and a cheeky pint of beer in the Bush Inn. A classically cosy English pub, with low ceiling and wood panels, horse brasses and dark beams. It would be easy to stay for the afternoon. But obviously we would miss those remaining valleys.
After lunch, with the weather continuing to improve, we walk back to the coast along a wooded valley, accompanied by the soothing sound of a narrow stream.
The Path welcomes us back with an immediate sharp climb up to Higher Sharpnose Point. After a brief respite along a gently undulating clifftop, another steep fall and climb brings us up to Lower Sharpnose Point. Despite the name, it didn’t feel much lower.
The plateau here is filled with satellite dishes and radar domes, behind a forbidding rank of fences. This is GCHQ Bude, a government listening station. It is estimated that a quarter of Internet traffic goes through here. I however could still not get a signal on my mobile phone.
Down into valley number 9 to reach Duckpool, where there is a car park. A family is unloading an impressive amount of equipment, preparing for a barbecue.
The climb up the other side of the valley is especially stern, or maybe I’m just getting tired. Either way, I reach the top wheezing, with my achilles tendons feeling like someone has hit them with a hammer, and my hamstrings as tight as overstretched lengths of washing line.
Coming out of valley number nine, we are immediately confronted by the descent into valley number ten. Truly the Path is spoiling us.
But all good things must end, and after the tenth valley. the Path calms down, leading us over gently rolling cliffs down towards Bude.
Beyond Bude, the north coast of Cornwall stretches far into the distance. I suspect it will be 2017 before I return to tackle that.
We have a cup of tea in the beach cafe at Sandy Mouth. Families with children are sitting in the sun, eating ice creams. We are back in HolidayLand, with the splendour of the ten valleys fading behind us.
All that remains is a brief dip in the sea at Bude, before an evening of beer and curry and not climbing any hills. And next morning, a long journey by bus and train back to London. Jerry makes a new friend at Exeter, but sadly can’t take him home.