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.


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