Monday, 14 May 2012

Mark to Blagdon

I was joined by Ben Lankester soon after breakfast. Despite having spent the previous two days on a fund-raising cycle adventure, and covering 125 miles, he was still game enough to join me. A fit young man – and looking much slimmer and svelte since last I saw him six years or more ago.

Ben Lankester
And excellent company. The walking was hardly noticeable all morning as we crossed the low country towards Cheddar, with marvellous views across to the Mendips from the modest height we gained from Mark. I learned a lot about orthopaedic surgery, too. Ben is a consultant at Yeovil, now firmly established as their knee man. Occasional hip jobs – simple hip replacements, nothing more esoteric, but mainly knees. And even with knees there are areas of differential skill.

It makes one understand a lot more about medicine. How you have to have quite large surgical units to be able to offer a reasonable level of coverage; how competitive it is to get good jobs in good hospitals; how one has to make regular career decisions if one is not to be trapped in a backwater. Ben is beginning to face up to the issue of whether it’s time to move on, or whether the quality of life in somewhere like Yeovil is enough of a substitute for beginning to shut off options to move.

He knows this part of Somerset very well, and had often walked parts of today’s route around Chapel Allerton. He’d lived there until six or seven years ago, and we actually passed his former home. He took a photo of me in front of it; I failed once again to take the photos I should take. I fear that this is reflected all too often in my account of the trip. I only think of what I should have photographed after the event, and when it’s too late to go back, or too costly in climbing up and down. I don’t avoid climbs, but don’t like voluntarily repeating them.

The last bit of the morning’s journey was across more of the levels to Cheddar. It’s all rather dull walking, so having an interesting companion is a great boon. As we approached Cheddar itself Ben consulted Trip Advisor on his i-Phone, and selected the Gardener’s Arms (4½ stars) for our lunch break. Shut, not surprisingly for a Monday, so we had to settle for the Riverside Inn. It rated three stars, but on the basis of our experience didn’t deserve even one. The Ploughman’s Lunch was awful, and everything you might want to liven it up came in sachets – even the salt and pepper was in little paper packets. I asked why they had to do this, and they said that kids often threw salt and pepper pots around, and lots got broken, All rubbish, in my view, and probably just the sales line pitched by vendors of these awful little sauces and condiments.

Cheddar Gorge, with Cheddar below, and Axminster Reservoir beyond
We had expected to have to pay to go up Jacob’s Ladder to the top of the gorge, but in the event took a steep footpath up the South side rather than the curiously named steps from the North. The top of the steps isn’t anything like the top of the gorge: that involves another uphill mile or so. But after the additional climbing the views down into the gorge, and across the Mendips and the lower country to the South, make it all worthwhile. It’s relatively open country at the top, but as you descend the other side it’s largely through woodland. There was evidence of much recent felling of mainly ash trees, and we were left wondering whether they just leave the substantial amounts of detritus that littered the ground to rot over what would have to be a substantial length of time, or whether they just hadn’t got around to clearing it up.

At the end of the route past the Gorge you cross a road and go into a National Trust  area. It’s called Velvet Bottom, and the name seems well justified. The grass is lawn-like in quality in the wide bottom of the valley you climb. The only blemish is an area beneath a modest rockface that is fenced off. Health and Safety again, of course. Rocks do fall, and being beneath them when it happens wouldn’t be the smartest of moves. But surely people can work that out, and ugly metal crowd control shouldn’t be necessary. At least the sun had now come out after the passing of a very obvious weather front.

Velvet Bottom

After Velvet Bottom we climbed up to the highest point of the day to cross the Mendip summit. Just before we reached there was a stile completely surrounded by water. This is marked “Spring” on the map. But why put the stile right there rather than a few yards wither side where it’s marginally higher and the ground is dry?

The final drop down into Blagdon was like many other descents I have experienced over the last few days. It seems much more significant in altitude loss than the preceding climbs would appear to warrant. And Blagdon’s still a good 100m plus above sea level. The earlier part of this section saw us pass a number of strange structures on the edge of the path. We worked out that they must be firing positions for a clay pigeon shooting range. Yet there were no spent cartridges to be seen, and no signage to confirm our view. Combined with yesterday’s pheasant farm it seems to underline that this is serious shooting country.

The view down into Blagdon - the end of Week Three
In Blagdon we stopped at the first pub we reached, which was shut, but in a reasonably sunny spot. The taxi that was “on its way” took half an hour to reach us. Then it was back to Mark, with that rather smug feeling that it took a long time even to drive the distance we had walked. When back at Rose Cottage we changed out of muddy boots and outer gear, retrieved Ben’s car, and set off for Uffcolmbe.

There I took leave of Ben, let myself in to Chris and Ann Hill’s house, had a bath and prepared the dinner they had left me, and set about writing this.

And this is the last time I’ll have to suffer this broken keyboard without an “R” key, which means that I have to type 4 each time and then do a global replace. Tomorrow it’ll be replaced!

Drizzling rain to start the day, but drying by midday and sunshine from 2:30 onwards. 15 to 20C. 26.91km; 550m ascent, 400m descent (estimated – technology failure). Very flat, fairly muddy on farm tracks to start, more on roads than not; undulating after steep climb alongside Cheddar Gorge. Moderate.

Map (which has some missing detail) -


That’s the end of week three! So far it’s 480km (300 miles!), and 11,500 metres of climbing. One blister, not serious. Two pairs of boots retired. Legs less tired than I’d expected. I am getting fitter. But I haven’t actually lost any weight. Maybe more of it is muscle, though!

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Cannington to Mark

A fine day, but dull walking.

Off by just after 10 after arranging a (very expensive) taxi to take my bag to Mark, and failing once again to hand in my key. But perhaps as well: I don’t think anyone should be allowed to get into a room like that!

A flat five miles to Bridgwater. A flat walk across a dull town and the M5 – the first Motorway I’ve seen on the trip. A further flat cross country bit to Chedzoy. The local dogs get bored, too: two of them accompanied me all the way from the edge of town to the pub. I had been warned that it might be closed, but it wasn’t – though the landlord said that he was thinking of shutting. Apart from me there were only two local women sipping cokes, and no-one else appeared while I was there. It was, at least, another phone charging opportunity.

Cow Parsley country
After the breack there were some minor navigational challenges crossing open fields by dead-reckoning, sometimes through knee-high grasses, at other times through waist high barley. And then – the only ascent of the day: all of 50m up the Polden Hills which border the Somerset levels. Easy uphill, though – tarmacadamed as part of a national cycle trail.

After a gentle descent to the levels it was a totally flat five miles to Mark. One brief section of footpath (very rutted and muddy), but mainly roads. This is Cow Parsley country: every inch of every verge is covered by its white profusion. Hawthorn is beginning to come out, but it must be a good two to three weeks late. Otherwise it’s drainage renes in straight lines, scattered willow trees, green fields for grazing or sileage. Swallows hoovering up insects the main bird interest.

Nearly there! But it's just one long, straight road ahead.
Not much more to say, really. A dull day. But at last I’ve turned the corner, and now I’m walking North.

Another day for plenty of sunscreen. Blue skies morning and evening, cloudier in the middle of the day. 14 to 22C. 28.21km; 93m ascent (largely over footbridges!), 100m descent. Very flat; occasionally muddy on farmland, but more roads than not.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Watchet to Cannington

Taxi all arranged for my baggage to Cannington, and off on the road by 9:30. And at the beginning it had to be road: all the footpaths here seem to run North/South, and I want to go due East. It’s largely uphill, but a fairly easy 2½ miles to West Quantockhead, where I can join the
Coleridge Way
. Or at least that’s what it’s called on the map: the signs refer instead to the Somerset Coast Path (though we’re quite a way from the sea) or the Quantock Greenway.

Looking back over West Quantockshead to Watchet
It starts in woodland above the busy A39, which it follows for a couple of miles. Then it opens out into open moorland above fields fringed with trees. It’s undulating country, attractive, and since for most of the time I’m at 150 to 200m elevation there are great  views across the lower country between the Quantocks and the sea, with Hinkley Point nuclear power stations prominent on the near shore. Cattle in many fields, and lts of green fields, but this is now more arable country, and the acid yellow of rape in flower is evident everywhere.

Later the woods thin out, and the trees are in scattered copses. And cuckoos calling: two, as if in competition. I had only heard one in the preceding fortnight, whereas they used to be a widespread harbinger of Spring. The other birds included the usual warbling suspects, singing and flitting around everywhere. Astonishing numbers come here every year.

Despite it being a theoretically easy morning, the regular climbing, nothing too big, but plenty of minor ascents, takes its toll, and it’s after one when I reach Holford. No Post Office, despite what it says on the map. So nowhere to buy a package and return the key I’ve managed not to hand in. So it’s just a consoling pint, and a recharge for my phone.

After the break it’s back on the
Coleridge Way
, up a longish climb to a cairn at the top of an open hill. Mobile reception at last – and I get a message to the effect that they’ve found my binoculars at the Blue Anchor. I think they must just have been too idle to look properly the day before.

The climb from Holford - Holford Combe off to the right
So across to the East, first across open moorland, and then a couple of miles of forest – broadleafs first, and then mature conifers. Finally the compensating descent into Nether Stowey – a pretty village, where there’s the Coleridge Cottage. He stayed there for two years in the early 1800s, and they were apparently two of his most productive, before the drug-addicted period of his later life.

To the pub, for a cup of tea in one of the most charming beer gardens I’ve ever seen – and all to myself. And a brainwave: if there was a local taxi firm I could go back to get my binoculars. It’d take some time, but would solve the problem. There was: so Terry Buller agreed to do the job, though he wouldn’t be able to get to the pub for 30 to 40 minutes. More tea in the garden, and an opportunity to study every picture and every information panel in the pub. Did you know that there are more documented cases of dragons in Somerset than any other county? Look it up!

Nether Stowey, looking North to the Rose & Crown
Terry Buller duly appears with one of those country taxis with two rows of seats behind the driver. Mrs Buller has come along for the ride, and their one-year old is sitting in a rearward facing child seat immediately behind Terry. So I’d relegated to the back row, with a restricted view just like on the way to Hartland Point a week ago. But we get the job done. Or two jobs, really, because after what seemed a longer route on the way to Blue Anchor we go back through Watchet and I’m able to return the key I took in the morning. The landlord – another Terry – was of course somewhat surprised to see me.

Back in Nether Stowey I replenished my cash resources, and set off for the last few miles to Cannington. This is cross country stuff, a mix of crops, livestock, hayfields ready for cutting. At one stage I cam across the largest pheasant-rearing operation I’ve ever seen; a field or two later there was a vineyard.

Footpaths there are in plenty – at least on the map. In this part of rural Somerset signage is optional and intermittent, and any footpath that actually cuts across a field has to be tackled by dead-reckoning. Not quite compass stuff, but not far off. Fortunately the OS Explorer maps show fields boundaries which do actually correspond with what’s on the ground, so it is possible more or less to do as intended.

Cannington - at last! (Check the time.)
I finally reached Cannnington a little after 8:00. A fine church, and a few isolated grander buildings, but otherwise undistinguished. The Friendly Spirit was busy on a Saturday evening, but I was just in time to get an excellent steak. The room, however, was awful – the worst B&B so far. At some stage I’ll get round to reviewing them all. Watch this space!

Stunning! Sunshine from first light until the end of the day; hardly a cloud in the sky. 14 to 21C, warmer in direct sun. 31.76km; 717m ascent, 685m descent. Moderately easy, but muddy when crossing open fields.


Friday, 11 May 2012

Porlock to Watchet

A day that exceeded all expectations!

It started with a climb of just about 1000ft (308m, to be precise) for the third day in succession. I’m not saying that one gets used to it, but this one seemed easier than the previous two. Maybe it was because there were no steps; maybe because while the first 200m were fairly severe, the rest was up a long gentle gradient.

Looking back at Porlock from nearly 1000 ft
But the rewards were fantastic. It had been cloudy when I left Porlock, and surprisingly chilly in the wind. Now the sun came out, and for then rest of the day the level of cloud cover diminished steadily. And the views from Selworthy Beacon must be some of the finest in the country. The air was completely clear after all the rain in recent days, so one could see for perhaps 60 miles.

To the North there is the Welsh coast, with hills behind – perhaps even the Brecon Beacons. Turn more to the North-East, and you’re looking up the Bristol Channel, with the islands of Steep Holm and Flat Holm and the Brent Knoll and the Mendips all obvious. To the South East one can see the Quantocks, and further round towards the South and Southwest there is rolling country with Exmoor and even Dartmoor visible in the distance. Completing the circle, you can see back along the coastal cliffs. Given the lie of the land, you can hardly see any houses, but the Works of Man are evident in the huge power station on the coast of the Bristol Channel and the ships on its waters.

After admiring the view for a good while, it was a gentle, high-level cross country walk across the hills. This is an almost isolated end of the Quantocks. The tops are scrubby moorland, with fields sloping down to the sea and on the inland side. The path follows the boundary between the moor and the fields. There is a “more rugged” and longer version, but I elected the easy way. Others did not: at the far end where the two paths meet I saw two fit young blokes study the sign and their maps, and head off for the harder route. Purists! Perhaps one can’t really claim to have done the SWCP properly unless one takes all the hard options.

At last - the end of the South West Coast Path.
Though most guidebooks call it the start

After the walk across the tops the path turns sharply to the right, and the descent into Minehead begins. It seems interminable. Only the first 200m are steep: thereafter it’s a very modest gradient – first open ground, then woodland, until the last kilometre or so is entirely flat. Just before reaching Minehead Harbour there’s a meadow which is entirely covered Alexanders. They’re large, yellow-green flowered umbellifers, with a fine perfume when it’s warm enough, and are one of the first flowers to appear in Spring. I’ve always associated them with East Anglia, but I’ve see plenty of them in Cornwall and Devon, but never anything like this five Somerset acres.

Minehead has quite an attractive esplanade, but the middle of town, which I went into for some light refreshment, has a lot of charity shops. No sign of the multiple retailers, which is good in one way but a clear indicator that it’s not a wealthy place. The dominant feature is an enormous Butlin's Holiday Camp with what looks like a small version of London’s Millennium Dome dominating the seafront. And there were queues of people apparently waiting to get in, all lined up with suitcases in the sunshine.

The map describes the beach as “mud and sand”, but at least close to the shore it looks fine. Perhaps it gets squidgy between the toes further out. Not that anyone was doing that today – just a few brisk walkers, and three or four kite-surfers.

Holiday chalets near Minehead
The next stage was along the coastal path – now no longer the South West Coast Path, but the Somerset Coast Path. First there’s the Minehead and West Somerset Golf Club. Nothing higher than 7m above sea level, but it looks like a challenging links course if there’s any wind like there was today. Immediately to the West there’s a development of about 500 little wooden chalets, with 200 of these arranged in a long line along the shore and the rest behind. Only a few people there, though, painting and decorating for the summer ahead. A few open fields with the West Somerset Railway – genuine steam trains – approaching the coast, and then yet more chalets and caravans. Finally the flat bit ends, and after a pint at the Blue Anchor it’s uphill again for the modest cliffs that characterise the last two miles.

Attractive now to be back in woodland and fields bordering the cliff. Flowers again – and my first butterfly of the year. The bright acid yellow of rape in flower was much evident, but the main local crop seems to be caravans. This is clearly a very popular part of the coast, which I’d never really appreciated before. Perhaps it’s because you can get at the sea without having to climb down several hundred feet and back up again later, which is the case for much of North Cornwall and Devon.

Disaster!  I suddenly notice the absence of my binoculars! I must have left them in the Blue Anchor. I call; they can’t fine them. Minehead? No – they can’t find them either. Last night’s B&B? (I’m sure I must have used them today, but I’ll call anyway.) No. So there was a rather substantial cloud after all.

The Ancient Mariner in Watchet
Back to the trail. There is then a final descent into Watchet, which is a pretty little town slightly spoilt by the fact that the centre seems largely to be a car park. There’s a great harbour with proper marina facilities, but the tidal range is huge (this is getting further up the Bristol Channel) and you can get in and out only part of the time. It’s the first place with reasonable facilities for yachts since Padstow. The South Coast is much better provided.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge is celebrated here in North Somerset, since he spent much of his most productive time in the area. But it was only as I was going back to my B&B that I noticed the statue of the Ancient Mariner.

Forecast inaccurate again! Sun promised everywhere, but the map on the TV did show a little cloud over the area. Only a smidgin, but there it was –and there it was in reality. Chilly 1rC in a brisk Northwesterly as I set off, but by 11:00 the promised sun had broken through, and the rest of the day was wonderful, even if the temperature never got above 18C. 30.88km; r50m ascent (estimated; technology let me down), same descent. Easy expect for the initial haul up to Selworthy Beacon.


Thursday, 10 May 2012

Lynton to Porlock

A damp start to the day. Chris leaves our B&B
We started the day studying the ceaseless activity at the bird table outside the B&B’s breakfast room. Siskins, chaffinches, greenfinches, blue, great and coal tits, nuhatches, a greater spotted woodpecker. And a special treat of a handsome cock bullfinch. But the chief debate was whether we were watching a marsh tit or a willow tit. Willow tit would be a new, and much-desired, tick for both Chris and myself. But the two are virtually indistinguishable, particularly as you see the bird only for a fraction if a second as it grabbed a sunflower seed. The book specifically said that willow tits come to garden feeders for sunflower seeds, but the fact that there was no similar statement for the marsh tit doesn’t necessarily mean it never comes to feeders. So the question was unresolved as we set off.

When you look at the map of Lynton and Lynmouth it’s hard to appreciate how vertical everything is. Our excellent B&B, Woodlands, is on a r5 degree slope with the
Lynbridge Road
below. It’s then about 150m downhill – steeply downhill – to Lynmouth, where the two valleys with their two torrents merge to enter the sea. It was then a stroll around the little park at the rivermouth before setting off uphill.

This is another long uphill stretch – and in some ways more impressive than Great Hangman yesterday, as when you look back down from about 300m by Countisbury Church you can see every inch of the climb from the woods of Lynmouth across the open grassland above, and the sea is a long way beneath.

Looking back at Lynton and Lynmouth: a long climb accomplished
There’s no real reward of gentle high-level walking. It’s a long, long descent down to the road to the lighthouse at Foreland Point – the existence of which has to be taken on trust, as it’s not visible from the landward side. It’s open grassland skirting fields, and for the first time there are actually steep slopes of scree on the hillsides. I hadn’t seen those anywhere else on the path.

As we climbed back up the road we saw a Post Office van, which I expected to pass us. At the top of the climb (a mere 50m job) it became apparent that it must have gone on to $odany Cottage, an isolated house a further kilometre to the East. It just shows the lengths to which the PO has to go: four miles, we estimated, perhaps just to deliver a single letter – for which they get but a few pence if it’s for one of the other postal services. The American system of boxes at one’s local post office or delivery containers at the end of the drive, seems much more sensible. But I think that any suggestion of such a change would create outrage.

The most disappointing thing at this point was that we had allegedly only come four miles. It had felt a whole lot more. And Porlock Weir – not Porlock itself – was still more than 8 miles away. The major part of the remaining journey, all the way to Culbane Church (always further away than one had hoped) foll0wed pretty well the 200m contour, with only modest climbs and descents. The constant feature was a 45 degree slope down to the sea on the left. Initially it was oak woods, still hardly in leaf, but still attractive. There mwere no hoped-for woodland birds such as redstarts, but we did see a pair of peregrines demonstrating the aerobatics a couple of hundred metres away.

And then – rhododendrons. For a mile and a half they had obliterated everything else, dark and lifeless below, and without more than an occasional bud to relieve the monotony. It reminded me of Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour, and the southern part of Mull in the Hebrides, both places where rhododendrons have also got out of hand. I hate them when they’re like this – and I can’t imagine how the problem can be cleared up without the use of some general plant killer and a wait for several years. I don’t think Chris shares my loathing for them, but at least I don’t think he found this part of the path very enjoyable.

Culbane Church - at last - but exhaustion!
Fortunately they eventually came to an end, and the last three miles to Culbane were broad-leafed woodland again, but still on a 45 degree slope. The church at Culbane is tiny – one wonders whether there are ever any services there. And there are only two rather modest houses.

Then it was downhill to Porlock Weir, still through woodland, and finally a two mile walk along the road to Porlock itself. There it was time to take my leave of Chris, who took my car back to Tiverton after a cup of tea and a change of clothes.

For myself an indifferent dinner at the recommended pub, and a relatively early night. The weather looked promising for the morrow.

Forecast inaccurate! Raining when I awoke, and still gloomy when we set off. Better mid-morning, but occasional squalls, and showers later. Never really great, but good weather for walking. Mild: 1r-18C. 23.0 km (estimated). 819m ascent, 9r8m descent. Muddy footpaths for most of the way. We did not deviate from the Coast Path

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Combe Martin to Lynton

My new companion - Chris Hill.
Will he look as happy in a couple of days?

It is not often that one starts a day’s walking with a 1000ft (318m) climb, but that’s how it was today. Great Hangman, the highest point on the South West Coast Path, is at the beginning of this stretch. Fortunately it’s a long steady climb rather than the endless steps that characterise so much of the Cornish part of the Path. The threatened rain had yet to materialise, so we climbed through birdsong most of the way. Initially blackcaps – several seen clearly – then whitethroats, chaffinches, blackbirds and songthrushes, and even the occasional willow warbler.

The first part of the path is a narrow defile through scrub. Then it opens out to be more like downland, with sheep grazing everywhere. The lambs were almost entirely black, which prompted a question we were unable to answer. Were all the sheep covered by a black ram, or had they been black themselves as lambs? They mothers certainly  all looked rather grey, perhaps faded versions of the black lambs they might once have been, but maybe it was because it was so pervasively wet. It was certainly muddy underfoot. I had decided to give my boots one last outing before consigning them to the garbage, and was paying for it an hour after starting out in that my socks and feet were already wet.

Me at the top of Great Hangman - in the rain.
By the time we reached the top of Great Hangman the rain had set in. We managed to take a couple of photos of first Chris and then me at the cairn that marks its summit, to which I had added a modest pebble. And then it was downhill – pleasant grassy walking for half a mile.

The it was the same old story as in Cornwall, but a new one for Chris – a long steep descent to cross a raging torrent at the bottom, some 170m below the summit of Great Hangman. There was an even steeper ascent on the fare side, almost at right angles to the numerous contour lines shown on the map.

When we reached the top we came across two couples walking in the opposite direction, both of whom were dressed and shod more for a walk in the park than for a strenuous cliff-top expedition. Faces dropped when we told them that they had 2½  hoursw and more than r miles to get to Combe Martin, with no obvious means of escape until they were almost there. For us it was a further mile or two before we reached the next decision point. Should we continue on the Coast Path and then cut inland to the Hunter’s Inn, or should we take the road thatg led thgere more directly?

A simple decision, really, given the increasing rain – it was the road. That was a long descent, first through rolling moorland, and then through increasingly wooded areas as we reached the valley. This is a spectacular area of three steep-sided heavily wooded valleys, all with rushing streams, that meet at a confluence before flowing for a mile North into the sea. There were sycamores, oaks, a few holly and beech trees and r5 degree slopes down to the streams below. The leaves were only just coming out – this is, after all, a very late Spring – so the woods have yet to become dark and enclosing. The tragedy was that there was so much cloud even when the rain occasionally relented: in sunshine it would have been a real wonderland. As things turned out the sun did put in a momentary appearance as we reached the bottom but it was over before we had a chance to appreciate the view. And that brief instant was it for the day.

The Hunter’s Inn was a welcome sight. It’s a great country hotel, restaurant and pub in the middle of nowhere. A beautiful spot, without question, but a long way from anywhere. Even on  a foul day such as this it gets a good few customers. We stopped there for the best part of an hour. Chris had actually taken off his waterproof jacket as we were about to leave, but the heavens immediately responded by opening the sluices for a real downpour, so it was back inside for a further half hour before braving the elements again.

All too common a sight today - another raging torrent
There was then a steep ascent of over 150m through woodlands beside one of the streams before reaching more open country as the ground levels out above the valleys. After that it was all minor roads for the remaining 5 miles into Lynton. It was open fields, sheep, caravan sites (where there were even a few brave souls actually camping) until we reached the high point of 320m before the final descent into Lynton. In retrospect it might have been better to take the alternative road, which was closer to the coast but slightly longer if lower, but sightseeing was not high on the agenda. It was conversation instead – Chris was excellent company. We share friends and interests, and are both eager to see as much of the world as we can over the next few years. And play bridge better and more often. We’re all so busy: how did we ever find time to go to work and raise families?

The last descent into Lynton is precipitous, but the views are stunning. The village itself felt dead; the cream tea we had hoped for was nowhere to be found, so we called for deirections and went straight to our B&B – Woodlands House. A drying room! Tea! No-one else staying that night, so we were able to upgrade to separate rooms. Outstanding bathrooms. All in all, a great find.

The final descent into Lynton - in the rain
My boots had finally had it: completely worn through on both soles, so they were consigned to the rubbish bin. They had lasted about 12 days – say 250km. Not good. So one resolution is to buy better boots next time. And it’s obviously to take a spare pair in one’s transferred baggage.

Dinner was at a tapas bar in Lynton, and was excellent, accompanied by a great wine from Navarra . (How come there is such an establishment in a place like Lynton?) And a little light map-reading before tomorrow’s stage. At least it’s supposed to be dry …

Dull and cloudy to start, but rain set in at about 11:00 and lasted almost all day. One glimpse of the sun at 12:58 which might have lasted a minute. Teeming down again as we left the Hunter’s Inn after lunch. Mild: 12-15C. 26.11 km. 888m ascent, 753m descent. Muddy footpaths for the first five miles, but given the rain the remainder was entirely on roads.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Barnstaple to Combe Martin

Another day, another bridge. Barnstaple's Taw River
Woke early to see that our B&B had a wonderful garden – improbable in central Barnstaple. Good breakfast in the Old Vicarage – a splendid gothic pile in the middle of the older part of town. Then walked Susan to the station so that I could walk back to the bus station, where I planned to return later. That way there were no missing yards in my journey North.

After that it was a frustrating day. The plan was to take my large case to that evening’s B&B in Combe Martin, and then drive on to Porlock to leave the car to be picked up a couple of days later by Chris Hill, who would drive it back to Tiverton where I would stay next Monday night before driving back to London the following morning. All fine as far as getting to the Porlock destination – but that’s where the problems started.

I had to wait almost an hour for a bus to Lynmouth. Spectacular country, with great views over the coast I would be travelling with Chris two days later. An excellent open-topped bus, a bit cold upstairs – and slow! When I reached Lynmouth it transpired that I would have to wait almost an hour and a quarter or a bus back to Barnstaple. No luck with local taxis either: all already committed, and impossible to use the mobile so I couldn’t get one from Barnstaple.

The funicular between Lynmouth and Lynton
In the end I took the funicular up to Lynton, and waited there for what I suspect was the bus I could have caught from Lynmouth. So altogether I had lost more than two hours for buses, and with two hours more on the journeys themselves it was nearly r:00 by the time I could set off from the bus station in Barnstaple.

Any thought of finding an attractive route on footpaths had to be abandoned, so I plotted a route on minor roads. With time on my hands I worked out the route and estimated the times for each stage. I haved to say I impressed myself – the estimates were almost unbelievably accurate – two minutes late at Prixford; bang on schedule at Muddiford; five minutes late at Indicott (not surprising given that this was an uphill section); a minute early at Wheel Farm, and five minutes early at the final destination, Blair Lodge in Combe Martin. If only one could always be as accurate with estimates!

Uncorrected for BST, so it's actually 5:30. Still less than half-way there
Not an interesting trip. Some reasonable scenery, but nothing exceptional. And all too often any view was hidden behind high hedges. This is, after all, the West Country.

I arrived at Blair Lodge to find that Chris Hill had got there almost a couple of hours earlier. The good news was that, although we hadn’t ordered it in advance they were able to provide dinner.

Not much photographic quality on this leg, I fear.

Mainly sunny, but cloud increasing during the day, until there were actually a few  drops of rain after arriving at our B&B. 10-17C. 21.1km (estimated from the map). 478m ascent, 475m descent. Entirely on roads.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Bank Holiday Weekend - and Bideford to Barnstaple

Frank and I arrived in Bideford late on Friday afternoon. It had been a longer day than anticipated, and the baths were very welcome.

Susan with Brian and Jill Rowson - a full set of companions
Susan had travelled down by train to Tiverton, where she picked up the car. She called from the road, stuck in traffic just outside Tiverton. Roadworks – at the beginning of a bank holiday weekend! It5 may just have been emergency work made necessary by all the recent rain, but somehow I suspect it was just brainlessness. Or am I being too cynical?

It was a pleasant relaxed evening at home with the Rowsons, with an excellent dinner and then a post-prandial in front of a warm fire, welcome despite the fact that this is May.

Frank left for home early the following morning, leaving Susan and myself to spend the weekend with Brian and Jill. And a wonderful weekend it was.

It seems astonishing that I had not seen Brian and Jill for years and years when everyone was working and bringing up families. Distance, of course – Devon isn’t an easy weekend destination; other people to see, other things to do; travelling on work. The excuses are obvious, but it’s still a surprise that so many years have gone by. We had never met any of their three sons, now all grown up and away from home; they have never met Katie (apart, perhaps, at my 60th). We have seen them more often in recent years at Clare College get-togethers or at Brierley events, and had visited them in Bideford on our way to Cornwall three or four years ago, but we hadn’t ever had an extended visit.

Yet it was easy to relax straight back into an incredibly comfortable relationship. Everyone got on well with everyone, and there was plenty to talk about. I only hope it presages further opportunities to catch up.

Their house is a wonderful Georgian family home, now without the family. Once all alone on Orchard Hill, its surrounding area has been encroached is Bideford has grown. They rattle in it, of course, and the question of what to do is beginning to exercise them. Move closer to London, the family and friends? Build in the garden? Somehow I don’t think they will resolve the question very quickly. Orchard Hill House may be impractical now, but it would be a huge wrench to leave it.

On Saturday we walked back along the quayside, explored Bideford’s town centre, and went to the local gallery and museum. It felt rather run down: there are some of the multiples that standardise every high street, but there ared also a lot of charity shops and buildings in need of some serious love and affection. The Pannier Market is very attractive, but now largely given over to llittle craft stalls rather than everyday necessities. A pity: it’s basically an attractive town. Perhaps it doesn’t help that it’s built on the side of a hill so not as pedestrian-friendly as most places.

The view across the Torridge to Appledore
The museum is good. There’s not really any obvious attempt to tell “the Bideford Story”, as it were; it’s more reasonably self-contained snippets of local interest and importance: stuff about the local railways: some wonderful models of men-of-war made by French prisoners-of-war incarcerated in Dartmoor Prison during the Napoleonic wars; the manufacture of local slipper ware; a local coin hoard from the time of the civil war. It would have rewarded a longr visit, but perhaps its better to leave something for the future.

That evening we took Brian and Jill to The Quay in Appledore, which we hadn’t visited before. On a previous trip we had been for a long walk on the Westward Ho peninsular, but hadn’t realised there was so much more around the Taw/Torridge estuary. Appledore is very pretty, and the restaurant was excellent – a cheerful room upstairs and a bar below; fish the speciality.

The weather forecast for Monday was appalling, and when I suggested that we might all walk to Barnstaple on Sunday everyone agreed. So this stage of the Great Walk turned into a (lengthy!) Sunday stroll, largely in good conditions. It’s all on the Tarka Trail which is on the disused railway between Barnstaple and Bideford, and absolutely level, metalled, and open to cyclists as well as walkers (with or without dogs). It’s surprising how variable the scenery can be. Urban to start, along the riverside; then open fields; Devon’s oldest cricket club behind a series of weekend shacks; saltings; an area of woodland. It finally opens up to saltmarsh and the riverside again as one reaches Barnstaple, where we caught a bus back to Bideford.

A day off - Rosemoor Gardens
The Sunday (rainy as threatened) saw us take a trip to the RHA garden at Rosemoor, a couple of miles South of Torrington. A lovely position, and beautifully laid out, but where were the May flowers? Was it just because it’s been such a miserable Spring, or does the RHA approach mean that there are exemplars of everything but no great displays?

The it was a pub for drinks and a snack; and afternoon with the papers, an excellent late lunch or early dinner, and we took our leave to drive to Barnstaple – through absolute deluges of rain, just to confirm the forecast.

Sunday (walking day) - sunny intervals early; cloud increasing until there were actually one or two drops of rain as we reached the bus stop in Barnstaple. 8-13C. 19.38km. 20m ascent, 20m descent. Easy, almost entirely on Tarka’s Way – clean tarmac surface; hardly any mud on my new  boots, being broken in for later.


Friday, 4 May 2012

Parson's Cross to Bideford

Hartland Quay - view towards Hartland Point

The previous evening we had arranged for a taxi from the same firm to take us back the exact point where we had finished up the previous evening. This time, instead of a largely silent driver we were treated to local views on the benefit culture and housing. Scroungers, who had never done an honest day’s work in their lives, being given brand-new homes in the country, which honest folk in public housing in Bideford were never offered; retired or redundant auto workers from Ford and GM buying up local properties and putting prices out of reach of younger locals; and so on. I suspect these are views shared by a large proportion of the working class – or at least those who are actually in work – whether in Devon or anywhere else.

A mile after the start we crossed the River Torridge for the first time – here flowing South befure sweeping in a great 180 degree loop to meet the sea at Appledore, North of our destination in Bideford. As we crossed the bridge a car pulled up, and the driver, who lived nearby, told us that the previous Sunday the river had flooded the fields to either side to a depth of some feet, and that there had been salmon flapping around in the fields.

After this it was generally fairly straightforward road walking all the way to the vill.age of Buckland Brewer. The country is rolling, reasonably attractive, but without any great vistas or features. Minor highlights were seeing our first willow warbler of the year, an unusually confident bullfinch on a telephone wire, and a flock of a couple of dozen curlews foraging in a roadside field.

After lunch at the Coach and Horses we set off downhill towards the River Yeo – a name which appears to feature often in the West Country. There was initially a small length of footpath, which demonstrated the farmer’s disdain for the public. Although the paths were shown as crossing three successive fields diagonally in every case they followed the filed margins. In Suffolk footpaths correspond with the map, and if they are shown as crossing a field, that’s what they do. Not in Devon.

Frank poses in front of Oakleigh Court
Then it was time to put our Orleigh plans into effect. A road to
Orleigh Court
was shown on the map, and after that a track down to Orleigh Mill on the river – at a saving of a mile of more, and avoiding roads as well. A chat with the woman at the lodge suggested that even if we couldn’t get down to the mill we could avoid half a mile or more of the road. So off we set.

No problem as far as Orleigh Court itself (a handsome building) and on past the double garage that had been described to us, but the two women we saw after that weren’t able to help. It seems astonishing that people who live in places like this don’t know their own back yards. Of course, we managed once again to lose our way. The first trach seemed as if it went too far to the South, so we took the next. It meandered past pheasant release pens where a few surviving birds still lingered, and then on past areas where large numbers of trees had recently been felled.

Death in the afternoon - a stoat kills a squirrel
And then we saw the astonishing sight of a stoat tackling what I assumed was a baby rabbit. Two bodies intertwined, writhing in a deadly embrace, until the stoat prevailed and made off with its victim, which must have been the heavier animal. I managed to take some photos, one of which was reasonable, and on examination I now think the victim was a squirrel.

After the excitement we soon recovered the path (which was the one we had eschewed in the first place) and walked on down through the mill. No challenges, despite being seen by a number of people, and no sign of the dog(s) we had been warned might nip our heels.

Bideford's old bridge - the end of Week 2
Then it was a mile and a half down the road to the point where we crossed the river. Frank noted an area where Japanese Knotweed had become established, and said that we should tell Devon County Council. A half mile to join the Trka Trail, and a final two miles to Bideford Old Bridge. After the SWCP, county footpaths and minor roads, the Tarka Trail is real luxury: newly metalled, constant width, maximum gradient 1 in 250 or more. Even though my left hip was somewhat uncomfortable it was an easy end to the stage.

The last mile was on the Bideford side of the Torridge, downstream and then inland to the home of Brian and Jill Rowson, Orchard Hill House.

Dull, overcast and cool all day. 27.8km. 281m ascent, 447m descent. Easy, almost entirely on roads – some muddy diversions.