Part 1 – Minehead to Padstow
Taking the train to Taunton and then a bus to Bishops Lydeard, I caught a steam train, operated by the West Somerset Railway, to Minehead. What a way to arrive at your starting point. A buzzard flew alongside the train for ½ mile or so, as joyful as I was to be travelling through the countryside. The sense of arriving at a pre-war restored station was so real, I half expected a porter to take my rucksack for me.
It is the beginning of April, so I am prepared for a bit of bad weather, but luckily for me, I was to enjoy 6 weeks of glorious sunshine, walking almost everyday in shorts. The new sculpture at the start, announced the task ahead, a full 630 miles of coastal walking. The sea my constant companion at my right shoulder.. My first gentle day of 10 miles into Porlock, passing easily across “Exmoor by Sea” as I contemplate what lies ahead.
The first B&B was superb as was a local restaurant, that served a meal that was astonishingly good value, as if some 5*chef was running a charity. Setting off on the path, I met up with Stuart, who was walking the path for 10 days. He was carrying a huge backpack full of camping gear. His method would be to stop early afternoon at a decent pub, drink 5-6 pints and have a meal, and then ask to camp in the garden. This strategy worked well he said, allowing him to substitute accommodation costs for beer and food! The next wooded section, with incessant climbs and descents, gave an indication of the effort that was going to be needed. The YHA Hostel was a welcome sight at Lynton, serving a lovely organic home cooked meal, by an eco conscious young couple into Folk music I liked, specifically Seth Lakeman, a local lad. The hostel closed that September, unfortunately.
The route into Ilfracombe was a tough 20 miles, with over 2,000 metres of climbing according to the guide. The scenery was dramatic, more than I expected, with extensive views from Great Hangman, the highest point of the entire path at 318m. I am now in Devon as I descend into Ilfracombe and a pleasant B&B. Long chat with the Harbourmaster, an ex-Naval Commander, about why I was raising money for Seafarers, a charity that supports the maritime community. He wished me well after donating £5.
I posted my first map home as I reached Woolacombe, to walk for over 2 miles along the beach towards Croyde Bay. I stopped for a siesta at Baggy Point, before arriving at another lovely B&B, very organic, sustainable, vegetarian. Run by a lovely lady who was happy to chat about the area and its history. I find staying at these places leads to a richer experience and affirmation of life, giving you an insight as how others live. As the sun set, I could easily see myself moving to the area, such was the tranquility. After a lovely breakfast I marched off towards Barnstaple, leaving my sunscreen behind, only to have the landlady drive up to meet me to return it. Thanks Rose.
I meet Stuart again, struggling along with his pack. We walk together through the Burrows, where he stops at a nice pub for his usual quota. I walk on to cross the bridge at Barnstaple, along the cycle path, which is hard on the feet. Squads of potential Marines are speed marching on the same path and they leave you in no doubt that you are the one to get out of the way. It is 19C as I retire to a B&B, where I discover that the landlord was a colleague of my Father in the 1960’s. Small world.
I bump into Stuart again, who has had a skinful and is making slow progress. He must get up at dawn to get ahead of me. I stop for lunch at North Burrows and can almost touch the path across the estuary I had walked the previous day. Westward Ho! is full of grockle zombies, eating ice creams and it is a challenge not to knock one over as I make a hasty exit to rejoin the path. A farm B&B and lovely pub that evening, with superb views to Lundy, an island in the middle of the Bristol Channel, silhouetted in the evening light.
The eggs for breakfast had be laid that morning, deep yellow and delicious. I start late and take it easy into Clovelly, that picture postcard, jigsaw puzzle fishing village. I have to go down to the harbour to take a look and climb back up easily past the tourists, my calf muscle now tuned to the landscape. I meet a German girl, who asks me directions to Bude. I explain that this is a long and strenuous walk along the coast path. She is carrying a small water bottle and not much else, she isn’t wearing much either as she sets off, unperturbed. I never see her again, as if I had just had a conversation with a Pixie. One of those surreal experiences. Overnight I rest well in a cosy Bivouac spot, knowing that the next section is the toughest of the whole walk.
Hartland Point to Bude cuts across the grain of the landscape, and the climbs and descents never let up. They are steep and arduous too, and you will begin to wonder if they will ever end. A geologist would be in heaven here with folded and contorted rocks and cliffs. I break the journey at Elmscott YHA, so this is a rest day of sorts with an extended siesta in unseasonably good weather. There are few people about as this coastline is difficult to access. The YHA is a real gem.
I rested well, and that was a good, as today is 15 torturous miles into Bude. I start out with a couple from Yorkshire who are staying at the Hostel. The 3 peaks challenge came to mind as yomped ahead along the rollercoaster ride up and down into each Combe. 10 or 11 I recall. I arrive at a cafe after 5 hours, crossing into Cornwall. The owner is very impressed at my pace and cuts an extra large slice of fruit cake! Just a short walk to the B&B through wonderful Bude. Definitely a place to return to. The landlady is delightful, but she tells me the next day she has Cancer, which I found shocking, given her hospitality, youthful looks and young family. Very humbling as I set off on the path. A time to reflect on your own mortality.
Cleave and Crackington Haven are delightful. I am now getting inside the walk and the scenery is imprinting itself on my memory and my muscles. The weather continues to hold out, I should be sleeping outside daily. The section to Boscastle is tough and I rest awhile, overlooking the unnavigable entrance to the harbour. In August 2004, this was the scene of a devastating flash flood, that destroyed the YHA Hostel I am staying at tonight. Rebuilt, it is cosy, modern and comfortable. Pictures of the aftermath are displayed on the wall, to remind us of the power of nature.
Fulmers chatter away, flying to their nests with grace and ease. I stop for a Pasty and a snooze. My legs complain about my idleness as I set off again. New born black lambs are bouncing around the fields, unlike me. Port Issac is busy with tourists, but I find a chair in the cafe before retiring to a sea shell covered B&B. The next day I set off early to march into Padstow in 4 hours. I come across a guy studying for his ITIL (IT Services) exam. Knowing the subject in detail I explain the sections he will find challenging and rattle off a few acronyms. I walk on in the early morning fog without elaboration. It is my turn to deal out a surreal experience as his perplexed look testifies. The ferry from Rock connects with a bus in Padstow, to Bodmin Parkway station. Before I know it, I have crossed the Tamar Bridge and I am on my way home.
I now have to work for 3 days to transition a project to an incoming manager. I take the opportunity to fundraise and now have collected over £1,800. My colleagues say I look tanned and relaxed. The work environment is unreal and I can’t wait to get on the train to the south west.