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.

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