I WASN’T planning to walk last weekend. Instead, I thought I’d rest my tired knees, which were starting to complain, in an achy sort of way, about the billion or so steps I’ve recently forced them up and down. No, I decided, this weekend I will stay home.
Realisations & Railways
An Ambulatory Anniversary
All changed when I realised that the first of my coastal walks, from Gravesend to Strood, was on the third of September 2010. This meant that Saturday was exactly one year on. At that point, I thought I really ought to go walking.
So, I worked out how far the weekend would take me and came to a total distance since Gravesend of 499½ miles and I thought, that’s 500, rounding up.
Well, then I had to go walking. How could I not?
Logistics and Lateness
So, I booked somewhere to stay in Torquay and train tickets there and back, realising straight away that there was a bit of a logistical issue. Namely, that I couldn’t possibly hope to start actually walking much before midday, purely by dint of the time it would take me to get down to Exmouth. This, of course, would severely limit my walking time.
Still, by catching the first Penzance train of the morning, I stood a pretty good chance of having just enough time. So long as the train didn’t, oh I don’t know, lose all use of the motor in one of its power cars somewhere between London Paddington and Reading. But what would the chances of that be, eh?
Apparently, I am the world’s most brilliant railway mechanic and can fix trains in my sleep. I know this because I dozed off somewhere after Didcot and, when I woke up near Bath, the broken engine was mended and the train had almost caught up on lost time. Honestly, sometimes I amaze even myself.
A change of trains at Exeter took me down the banks of the Exe to Exmouth, ready to start my walk. Less than half an hour of morning remained.
Exmouth has a claim to be Devon’s oldest holiday resort, having established itself as an alternative destination to the chaos of revolutionary France. Admiral Lord Nelson’s estranged wife, Fanny, lived in the town for some time and Lady Byron visited it with her daughter (who later, as Ada Lovelace, became the world’s first computer programmer, creating an algorithm for Charles Babbage’s ‘analytical engine’).
Analysing my urgency as somewhere between ‘hurry up’ and ‘run!’, I hurried up and more-or-less ran from the station to the seafront and the Exmouth-Starcross Ferry, which I made by mere seconds. In my experience leaping aboard at the last moment before it sails is pretty much the only way to catch a ferry.
The ferry carried me across the Exe Estuary, which is actually fairly wide, to deposit me, a quarter of an hour later, on its dedicated pier at Starcross.
The time, I was pleased to note, was exactly midday.
Starcross was a small village with a rather unusual building in the middle of it.
St Petroc’s Cross
The path out of Starcross was actually the road — a bit dull, in a tarmac sort of way, but pretty quick to walk along. As I endeavoured to prove this by walking quickly out of there, I passed a certain flag flying on a pole.
Devon isn’t the only English county to adopt a flag this millennium; In 2008, Dorset adopted a similar flag (St Wite’s Cross) with red and yellow rather than black and green. I can only assume both counties had woken up to Cornwall’s widespread and successful use of the white-on-black St Piran’s Cross, which dates to the twelfth century.
Although the road out of Starcross had St Petroc’s Crosses, what it didn’t really have was views of the sea on account of the railway line being placed in the way. This was okay for a while, but I was just starting to grow bored of it when it took me to a village with a name that absolutely, positively demands a bout of puerile schoolboy sniggering.
I had to pass a pub in going through Cockwood, which seemed like a good occasion for a toilet stop. And, as it would be rude to use a pub’s toilets without buying a drink, it was also a good excuse for a gin and tonic.
Coastal walks are fuelled by the four basic food types of walking – gin, bacon, ice cream and tea – and this nicely took care of one of the essential four requirements. It also gave me a chance to reflect on my surroundings:
Cockwood is a rather lovely, tiny little village about which I have been able to learn precisely nothing else.
Not all that much reflection then.
South Devon Railway Sea Wall
Suitably refreshed, I left Cockwood behind and followed the road to Dawlish Warren, a village comprised almost entirely of holiday accommodation and caravan sites, right at the mouth of the Exe opposite Exmouth. There, I obtained an ice cream, which satisfied a second food type requirement.
The Sea Wall
The path divided in Dawlish Warren and I took the route along the South Devon Railway Sea Wall, which was built by the South Devon Railway in 1846.
The sea wall can be scary and dangerous at high tide but, fortunately for me, the tide was safely on its way out. This meant that I could see the sea again and, more importantly, that I could purchase a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich from the rather surly staff of the Red Rock Café.
Red Rock Café
If I thought the service at this ‘café’ – by which I really mean more of a kiosk with some tables next to it – was morose and disinterested, with a side order of sarcasm, then I fared quite well. As I sat and munched my bacon sandwich, rating it somewhere between ‘meh’ and ‘yeah’ on the highly scientific bleurgh-meh-yeah-yay-wow Bacon Sandwich Appreciation Scale, an outraged man walked past with five cups of tea, asking his wife ‘do you think he always insults his customers like that?’
She shook her head sadly, but it wasn’t a negation. ‘So rude,’ she agreed.
Along the Sea Wall
Dawlish is an actual town with a permanent population, although it still relies heavily on tourism to drive its economy. It grew from a tiny fishing village to a popular resort during the eighteenth century, when it still belonged to Exeter Cathedral, who had owned the land there since 1050.
That Dawlish’s landlord was a cathedral amuses me slightly on account of the settlement’s Celtic name, Deawlisc having originally meant ‘Devil water’: The red sandstone mud and soils would turn the tiny brook of Dawlish Water red in heavy rain, which was judged to look like blood.
I rested briefly in Dawlish, watching the black swans do black swan things, and then set back off along the sea wall.
The railway remained between me and the red cliffs as I headed towards the next town along the coast. My progress was soon interrupted by the cliff getting right in my way and this required a steep climb up onto its top, followed almost immediately by a steep descent into the valley of the tiny Westbrook and inevitable climb back up again, which was mostly steps.
I passed through the tiny village of Holcombe, with its thatched cottages, where a path named Smugglers’ Lane took me back down to the South Devon Railway Sea Wall. The railway, meanwhile, had simply tunnelled through the cliff.
From there it was another straightforward walk along the sea wall until the next town came into view.
The Next Town
What Town is This, Anyway?
I have seen the Teignmouth sign with its easily four foot-high letters so many times from a train that it felt kind of odd to walk slowly past it instead, heading into the town…
Teignmouth (pronounced TIN-muth) grew from two villages on either side of a stream called the Tame and is first recorded in 1044 as Tegemuða, meaning ‘the mouth of the stream’.
It was for a while Devon’s second largest port after Dartmouth, with its heyday in the fourteenth century, but the harbour silted up and put an end to that.
That didn’t stop the French landing there in 1690, however. Flushed with their victory over the Anglo-Dutch fleet at Beachy Head, they sent about a thousand French troops ashore and burnt down many of the town’s buildings> This was an action that Louis XIV and his government considered fairly pointless and a total squandering of the initiative that their decisive naval victory should have brought them. It cost the French admiral, the Comte de Tournville, his command. It also made Teignmouth the last part of Great Britain to have been successfully attacked by foreign troops on the ground.
Of course large swathes of Great Britain were attacked from the air in WW2 and Teignmouth was no exception, losing its hospital along with ten lives. Rebuilt and reopened in 1954, it became the first complete general hospital to be opened under the aegis of the newly formed NHS.
Teignmouth was mercifully free of marauding French soldiers and German air raids while I was there, which allowed me to enjoy another refreshing mug of tea, to help fuel me in my journey onwards.
The River Teign
Heading south along Teignmouth seafront, I passed Teignmouth Pier (constructed 1867) and a lighthouse before suddenly running out of Teignmouth on account of the River Teign being in the way. On the opposite bank was the village of Shaldon, described by one of its own pubs as ‘a quaint English drinking village with a fishing problem’. It can boast one of the oldest regattas in England, dating back to at least 1817.
The Teign can be crossed by two methods, the 1931 Shaldon Bridge a short way upstream, or by means of a small ferry. A sign at the ferry point gives its first and last services but is otherwise vague as to when it arrives so I asked the only other person waiting, a bored-looking girl of school age.
To my surprise, instead of shying away from the strange man asking her questions, she was able to tell me not only that the ferry was imminent (she even pointed to it) but that the driver was Geoff, or some other name, and that he was a bit slow compared to the other one. She was, it turned out, the daughter of one of the ferrymen.
Beyond the Teign
A steep climb up the Ness duly followed, leading onto a long and undulating perambulation of the coast which involved a number of low but rather steep hills. On one such hill I passed a herd of cows who watched me with interest as I failed to find good purchase on grass.
‘This,’ their expressions seemed to say, ‘is why we have four legs, one at each corner. For the stability, do you see?’
The path headed south past Labrador Bay, where a sign showed that dogs were banned from some of the paths. It then passed through an open terrain with field son one side and the sea on the other.
It was all ups and downs for the next couple of miles until the path brought me to Maidencombe, a small, rural hamlet at the northern edge of the Torbay conurbation (Torquay, Paignton and Brixham, which line Torbay, more or less run right into each other).
As the ‘combe’ part of its name suggests, Maidencombe is set in a steep-sided valley, which duly required more descent. My mind also descended, in this case into the gutter, and I giggled quietly at the name Maidencombe, still inhabiting the headspace that had given me amusement at Cockwood’s expense.
The heavily wooded path now embarked on a step-strewn yo-yo adventure as it bounded up and down the coast a stone’s throw from urban Torquay. With all the trees one almost might never have known that this was within the boundaries of a sizeable town if it wasn’t for the occasional clue, such as a funicular railway. Even so, when I reached the point where the suburb of Babbacombe extended down to the shore it felt more like I’d found an isolated village than part of Devon’s third largest town (population: 64k).
As soon as I saw that the road zig-zagged up from the beach I knew what to expect and, sure enough, a steep climb followed until I left the road at the base of another flight of steps. I kept up the best pace I could through a trial of leafy up-and-downage but I was very much aware that the sun was now setting and I had limited daylight left. Ultimately, I forwent the bit of the path that passes Hope’s Nose and took to Torquay’s urban streets, lit as they were by streetlamps. I still had three and a half miles to go before I would reach my hotel.
The English Riviera
Like many Devon towns, Torquay was little more than a tiny fishing village until it transformed into a resort in the early nineteenth century. It takes its name from providing the quayside for the ancient village of Torre, which in turn is named for a nearby tor. Its first major building was Torre Abbey, a monastery founded in 1196.
I would pass the abbey twice during my stay in Torquay and both times it was in darkness and I could not get a photo in which you could actually see it.
Torquay is the setting of the 1970s comedy Fawlty Towers. It was also the home of Agatha Christie. I fervently hoped, as I made my way long the seafront, that my hotel would not be like the former, nor involve any incidents of the sort favoured by the latter for her novels.
As I walked through the town, I became increasingly aware of Torbay’s claim to be the ‘English Riviera’. There were what looked like some sort of palm tree everywhere. These turned out to be ‘cabbage trees’, native to New Zealand but introduced to Torbay in 1820 and known locally as Torbay palms.’
Mallock Clock Tower
Torbay, incidentally is the bay on which Torquay sits, and also the name of the unitary authority of which Torquay, Paignton and Brixham are part.
I made my way along the edge of Torbay until I reached Abbey Sands, the beach nearest to Torre Abbey.
There, I turned inland to find my hotel, which was, in true Fawlty Towers style, cheap and cheerful but convinced it was something far better than it actually was.
This time: 16½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 483 miles