I AWOKE bright and early in my dodgy-yet-pretentious hotel room feeling very hungry indeed. I had gravely miscalculated in not stopping to eat before getting to the hotel on Saturday night, despite passing a plethora of restaurants in Torquay, and had then felt too tired to go out and look for food upon arriving there. In consequence, I had gone to bed early on a sumptuous dinner of one packet of crisps and my body was demanding calories before it conquered any more hills.
Unfortunately, breakfast is hard to come by at half five in the morning, so my stomach had to make do with a harsh reprimand about rumbling and a promise of sustenance later.
The English Riviera
It was still dark as I made my way down the road past Torre Abbey to the seafront, although the eastern horizon was showing the first hints of becoming a lighter shade of blue.
Initially the path followed the sea front and then a main road lined on both sides with hotels. It carried me along, as the sun crept over the horizon, until I found myself two miles further south, standing on the seafront in Paignton.
Paignton takes its name, via Peynton and Paington, from an Anglo-Saxon form meaning ‘Paega’s settlement’. It is older than that, though — it was originally a Celtic settlement — and had already been around a good while when it was mentioned in the Domesday Book.
For much of its history it was a small fishing village (and a market town from 1294) but a new harbour in 1847 and the coming of the railway in 1859 really started to put it on the map as a resort.
It gained a pier in 1879, courtesy of local barrister Arthur Hyde Dendy, who paid for it, and local architect George Soudon Bridgman, who designed it.
Mr Dendy had a number of other business ventures including a bus company and a theatre, which in 1879 hosted the very first performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance. This was in part a cunning ploy by Messrs Gilbert and Sullivan to protect their British copyrights (in an age where copyright was far less straightforward) ahead of its official London premier in 1880. The comic opera’s official world premiere was actually held in New York, the day after the Paignton performance.
The path now started doing some ups and downs without even having the good grace to wait until I was outside urban Paignton.
I followed the path as it climbed over Roundham Head, which was altogether more park-like than my map led me to suspect. It then made its way through some seaside terraces before becoming a muddy track — complete with steps in steep places — as it followed the railway line over a cliff in Goodrington.
Goodrington is a village long since swallowed into Torquay. It lays claim to the largest Davey elm in the UK. Sadly I wouldn’t know a Davey elm from any other type of elm tree, so for all I know I walked right past it.
I made my way alongside Broadsands beach sometime around seven, surprised to note a couple out swimming in the numbingly cold sea. In a moment of rampant stereotyping, I predicted to myself that they would either be German or Scandinavian; their thick Brummie accents soon confounded this idea.
A Drunkard and his Dog
I had my mind taken off the two swimmers moments later when I was interrupted in confirming exactly where I was — by means of my map and signpost — by a man walking his dog. Well, I say ‘walking’…
The dog was running about near his feet; he was standing and swaying, his can of breakfast lager in his hand.
‘Are you losht?’ he slurred at me, full of amiable helpfulness, not to mention fumes that could kill at less than twenty paces.
I assured him that I wasn’t and thanked him for his implicit offer of help.
There are alcoholics, and there are raging alcoholics, and then there are the haggard-looking wrecks that mush-livered alcoholics aspire to be. My faith in outrageous stereotypes was feeling much reinforced as I left him; I think he was trying to figure out which of the dogs he could see was really there.
Inevitably, the path climbed away, although as it also turned all leafy, I didn’t particularly mind.
I traipsed along a track through clifftop woodland as it described the southern curve of Torbay. Almost before I knew it, it deposited me in Brixham, where I picked my way down streets of dangerous steepness to wind up beside the harbour where one of the cafés was open and serving breakfast.
By now I was absolutely ravenous . When I realised that this establishment graded the size of its full English breakfast by maritime rank, there was no way I could decline. I ordered tea and the Captain’s Breakfast — no measly First Mate’s Breakfast for me — and spent some time sitting in ‘Shipmates’ refuelling my body and watching the harbour come slowly to life as the clock ticked on.
The path out of Brixham was, of course, a steep hill, which got even steeper further up.
It soon passed a hotel and then ceased to be a road. It all went leafy again for a while before suddenly entering open rolling fields atop Berry Head, where I found a Napoleonic fort.
These days, North Fort features a visitor’s centre, a lighthouse (built a century later in 1906) and a café. The latter furnished me with fresh bottles of water and answered an urgent biological need that stemmed from how many cups of tea I’d had with my full English breakfast.
Now better prepared, I pressed on.
The Coast Path
St Mary’s Bay
The path was now surrounded by greenery and felt very rural indeed, as well it might. This stretch is a national nature reserve home to a number of rare birds (e.g. Cirl Buntings), mammals (Greater Horseshoe Bats) and plants (White Rock-Rose and others). It was strange to think that, according to the map, I was still within a stone’s throw of Brixham’s streets and would continue to be so until I reached Sharkham Point.
When I got to Sharkham Point I stopped and rested, careful not to drink too much of my water because I’d seen a riot of contour lines coming up on the map. Wikipedia will tell you that at St Mary’s Bay (the bay of which Sharkham Point is the southern end) the path ‘begins to rise and fall over the soft middle Devonian shales.’
Well, yes it does. Rise and fall? Oh yes, it does exactly that.
Sitting on a handy bench at Sharkham Point, I was at about 68 m above mean sea level. From there the path climbed swiftly up onto Southdown Cliff to peak at 131 m. That bit didn’t look too bad on the map although, in reality, the path gave up on climbing the direct route and zigged and zagged its way up.
This was fine by me, it wasn’t what I was concerned about…
On the far side of Southdown Cliff was the tiny beach of Man Sands and an equally tiny stream at the bottom of a combe. It was, as I feared, a very steep descent on the sort of path where there aren’t any official steps but other people’s feet have formed some anyway — a series of permanent footprints giving you the only level purchase all the way down.
At the bottom I sat for a while and watched the waves splash against the beach. It appeared to be badly named, for Man Sands was all stones. There were hints however that sand would be exposed when the tide went out.
Now, of course, I had to climb back out from Man Sands. The path at first was merely steep and non-existent; a grassy bank climbing past a single, impossibly isolated house. Soon enough though, the grassy bank — on which my feet were already slipping — gave way to a properly madly steep hill with only another series of unofficial footsteps to make it climbable. I was reminded very much of Swyre Head near Durdle Door.
From my position at the top of this slope I continued onwards, through a gate to find that the path kept climbing, albeit at a civilised rate. The top of the cliff above Crabrock Point reaches 120 m or so and then descends right to the bottom again, treading in the footsteps of those who went before.
On the far side of the tiny stream that runs from Woodhuish to Scabbacombe Sands, I found another grassy hill that would have been unwalkable were it not for the impressions of other walker’s feet.
From there, according to the map, it should have been easier going, as the path skirted around Scabbacombe Head, maintainging a more or less level course while the land towered above it at 162 m near Coleton Farm. The map lied. Or, at least, was not at a sufficient scale. That’s my fault, I suppose — because I’m covering up to 20 miles in one go, I’m using the 1:50,000 scale Landranger series of OS maps rather than the 1:25,000 scale Explorer series. I was therefore a little surprised when the path went up and down like a yoyo. Shortly thereafter, I was a little alarmed…
Turning One’s Back
My first moment of alarm came when I found myself facing another mad scramble up a slope with more impromptu footsteps, but this time instead of being parallel to the cliff the path had turned inwards so that the cliff was behind me.
Knowing that if I slipped now, I wouldn’t just roll down a steep hill and break a limb or something but that I’d roll down a steep hill and break a limb or something and then fall off the cliff was less than comforting. My recently acquired comfort with heights held fast (though barely) and I conquered the slope and moved on.
An Exciting Trip
The second moment of alarm came shortly thereafter when the path zig-zagged up a particularly steep bit. This in itself was okay but the zig-zagging went on for some time and my legs started to get tired. When my legs get tired, I become a victim to my lack of co-ordination and trip over things.
I therefore stumbled on a root or a stone or something, somewhere on one of the highest bits of Scabbacombe Head and did that funny hop- skip-three-steps-forwards-really-quickly thing that people do when they trip but manage to recover.
Your heartbeat is meant to sound like a continuous tone, right?
My third moment of alarm was when, after rounding a corner and picking my way down a slope that had had a blind summit, I turned round and looked back at where I had just come from. The path usually seems okay when you’re on it and sometimes it’s better just not to know how precarious it really is.
It’s hard to show in a photo what it’s actually like there, as you can’t see the context or the angles. Or the height.
Having pointed out to myself that I was actually standing somewhere really precarious, my brain decided to experiment with being afraid of heights again and I was severely rattled for several minutes. So much so, in fact, that when I came to a sign post indicating the coast path one way and Coleton Car Park another, I almost said to myself ‘well, I’ve done enough cliffs for one day, an inland route won’t hurt.’
But that, of course, would mean giving up. The Helpful Mammal is not made of giving up. I pressed on.
Ferns by the side of the path became trees by the side of the path, which itself became a series of actual proper steps. I was now on the home run approaching Kingswear. First though, I had to round Froward Point.
Another stretch that seemed to be all leafy tunnels and steps followed and I was just thinking that it seemed to be without end when, just to spite me, it ended.
The path emerged onto a narrow road with a number of expensive-looking houses on either side. I followed this road as it snaked its way for about half a mile, zig-zagging up and down hills, until it reached Kingswear proper, which is entirely built on the steep valley side. Dartmouth, on the River Dart’s opposite bank, is much the same.
St Thomas’s Church
Kingswear was a landing place for western pilgrims heading to Thomas à Beckett’s tomb in Canterbury, back in the days when pilgrimages were more common and Dartmouth was Devon’s main port. Kingswear’s own church – St Thomas’s – looms dramatically over the railway station and ferry docks.
Paignton to Dartmouth Steam Railway
Kingswear is on the bit of the Paignton branch line that Dr Beeching got rid of, namely all of it south of Paignton itself. The line still operates though, having been bought as a heritage railway, the only one in England to run as a fully commercial operation; all the others use some degree of volunteer labour to keep going.
This railway is the Paignton to Dartmouth Steam Railway, although none of its trains actually go to Dartmouth, Kingswear being the end of the line. This apparent anomaly has always been the case: Even though a railway station was built in Dartmouth, the plans for a bridge provoked too much local protest and the trip across the Dart has always been served by ferry.
I sat in the station café, taking a call from a friend, while I waited for the next train back to Paignton to arrive. While I waited, the other platform was playing host to the Torbay Express, a steam-powered tourist service from Bristol to Kingswear.
The steam train whisked me punctually to Paignton, where I transferred to the mainline and the tender mercies of First Great Western, changing again at Newton Abbot. There, I found that my booked train was running some forty-five minutes late — a delay sufficient for me to be able to head into town to find food and get back again in time for my train. And then it was time to head home…
This time: 16½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 499½ miles