Bude to Boscastle
8.30, Thursday. Outside Bude’s Brendon Arms pub, where I have spent the night. The clouds, which appear to be no more than a few feet above my head, are as grey as the belly of a battleship. My guide book says of today’s walk: “The coast path is easy from Bude to Widemouth Bay, then becomes progressively more difficult, with several short, steep ascents and descents…followed by some rugged, remote paths…”
I have prepared carefully. Accommodation booked, maps studied, rucksack packed with such care that I weighed both pairs of walking boots and found one pair was twelve ounces heavier, so I brought the lighter pair.
A lot has changed since I was last in Bude, completing Day Ten in September 2016. Two equinoxes have passed, as the world has sped half way round the sun. Our country has begun the process of leaving the European Union (which I expect to continue for the rest of my life), with the bizarre spectacle of our highly-paid ambassador to the EU taking the Eurostar to Brussels to hand over the Prime Minister’s letter. Meanwhile, Scotland’s first minister is preparing to send a letter of her own to the PM, demanding a referendum to break up the country.
Further afield, America has replaced its first black president, a man who can think in whole paragraphs, with one who appears to believe that what is on Twitter is true, even the stuff he’s just made up. Most astonishing of all, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. I am beginning to think we have slipped into an alternative reality.
Closer to home, there has been upheaval too, with two close family members hospitalised, and me laid low for most of the winter by an agonising bout of sciatica. Throughout the months of physiotherapy, boring exercises and painkillers, I have dreamed of being fit again, to resume my romance with the Coast Path.
One thing that hasn’t changed is Bude. Still the same slightly windswept jumble of Victorian houses, shops and cafes, carved up into unsymmetrical slices by Summerleaze Down, the river, beaches and canal. Despite the cream teas and surf shops, there is a pleasingly proletarian air about the place. Last night I had a beer in a pub where there was a large sign displaying the rules of the bar. These included: ‘The barmaid is not a ‘slag’ if she doesn’t serve you next’, ‘No bar brawling’, and ‘Ladies: Keep (.) (.) off the bar’. A couple at the bar engage in a mock brawl. A lot of people in the bar sounded like they’ve been drinking for at least six or seven hours. It was 6.30 in the evening.
But enough of Bude. I’m walking to Boscastle. I set off at 8.45, and the guide book has it right: the walking is easy across springy turf. The promised rain holds off and sun breaks through on my left, with the Atlantic sighing on my right, scraping pebbles across the beach with a sound like someone shovelling coal.
There isn’t much in the way of scenic beauty, and I reach Widemouth Bay in an hour. I’m disappointed to find the cafe closed, but intrigued by the local Christmas tree recycling scheme.
After Widemouth Bay, the Path offers a Faustian new deal: it will remove the dull views and replace them with spectacular Cornish coastline. It will also axe the easy walking in favour of more climbing and scrambling.
The Path climbs until I am high on the clifftops, with a satisfying vista across the sea to my right. The wind picks up, becoming so strong that I can feel it pulling my face out of shape. I pass a wind turbine, which spins so rapidly I worry the blade could fly off. It makes a sound like a distant washing machine on spin cycle.
At 11.30, I encounter a very muddy section, and I slip over. There are no injuries, but my one pair of walking trousers are caked in mud from waist to ankle. On the first morning. Maybe I should have brought the heavier boots.
I have lunch in Crackington Haven. The guide book tells me that this is a spot popular with geology students (who probably get here in a mini-bus, not on muddy cliff paths). Like much of the coast since Hartland Point, there are complicated folds and faults in the strata. The cliffs look pained, forced to maintain for millions of years positions that my Pilates teacher would hesitate to make me hold for thirty seconds.
“Sit as little as possible; do not believe any idea that was not born in the open air and of free movement – in which the muscles do not also revel. Sitting still…is the real sin against the Holy Ghost.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘Ecce Homo’
I know where Nietzsche was coming from, and I’m generally in favour of lots of walking, and minimal sitting. But during the afternoon I could have told him where to stuff it.
My beer and lunch in the Combe Barton Inn make me sluggish, and the Path soon sends some hills. These include southern England’s highest cliff, the imaginatively named High Cliff. (I think this gained its name after a public vote. Other names on the shortlist included ‘Big Hill’ and ‘Tall Peak’. I would have voted for ‘WTF Another Lungbursting Climb’.)
During the afternoon, I become aware that I have lost a lot of strength and stamina with my months of sciatica. My pace slows, and the miles take longer than expected. Matters are not helped by my misreading the map and misjudging distances, which means that I think I have climbed High Cliff when I haven’t. Half an hour later, having to toil up Even Higher Cliff is an unpleasant surprise. Even if the view from the top is lovely.
I am so tired after this that I don’t even bother to look out for the ‘feral goats’, which the guide book warns about on the next slope, at Rusey Cliff.
I am in any case worrying that my approach to the Path might be a bit lightweight. Many people have come this way before me. And written books about it. Mark Wallington walked the whole route in the early 1980s with a tent and Boogie, a mongrel dog whose farts could stop a runaway horse. Twenty years later, Mott The Hoople bass player, Overend Watts, also tackled the whole route, carrying everything on his back, camping rough, at the age of 55, with no previous hiking experience (and severely blistered feet).
Poet Simon Armitage only walked the north coast, from Minehead to Land’s End, and stayed in some comfortable accommodation. He also got the odd lift by car, while his suitcase was ferried from place to place by helpers. Plus, he dawdled in Porlock Weir for morning coffee with Maragret Drabble. But, to be fair to him, he did it by performing his poetry wherever he went, taking collections after his readings to pay his way. I’m carrying a light pack, staying in comfy pubs and B&Bs, and doing the Path by instalments.
It was over ten miles to Crackington Haven this morning. The six afternoon miles to Boscastle seem harder, and nature plays a cruel trick on me when I again misjudge the distance and I convince myself the inlet at Pentargon must be the entrance to Boscastle Harbour. It isn’t and I have to walk another weary mile.
At last, Boscastle pops gloriously into view and I check in to the Wellington Hotel. I lie on the floor for a while, drinking tea. Before showering, changing and taking up residence in the bar for pasta and beer, which taste every bit as good as sixteen miles of hills can make them.