THE last Saturday in September saw me return to Plymouth on an overnight coach, only to then jump on the first bus out of the town. I was joined on this public transport extravaganza by Simkin, who hadn’t been to Plymouth in a while and so used the gap between coach and bus to wander about, much as I had before, taking in all the changes.
The bus onwards whisked us off to Kingsbridge where we fuelled ourselves with coffee and muffins before catching yet another bus to Salcombe. It was about half past nine when we got there, wired on caffeine and sugar and ready to perambulate the coast.
As we headed out of Salcombe up the inevitable hill, we were shown some excellent views of East Portlemouth and the coast that I had traversed on my previous jaunt.
The sea was a pretty shade of blue, belying its often treacherous nature. The Salcombe area has been the site of various shipwrecks over the years, dating right back to a Bronze Age ship (one of only 3 known in Britain), which sank off the coast containing French-made weapons and jewellery.
Another treasure-laden wreck was the so-called Salcombe Cannon Wreck: a 17th century ship bearing 400 Moroccan gold coins. The wreck of HMS Untiring also lies off Salcombe but she is a somewhat different beast: a Second World War submarine that was sunk deliberately in 1957, in order to use her as a sonar target.
Our path out of Salcombe took us past the ruins of Fort Charles, a small Henrician fort which was slighted on the orders of Parliament after the English Civil War. You can’t actually see the fort as you pass it, but the path soon carries you around towards South Sands, making the structure visible.
The road out of South Sands was exactly that — a road — which climbed slowly past tempting signs advertising bacon sandwiches.
Soon enough, though, the path diverged from the road and we were no longer dodging traffic on a narrow country lane with trees and houses to each side. Ahead, a narrow path ran along the cliff edge and climbed towards the top of Bolt Head; in some places it had hoof-marks on it. A signpost offered us a choice of routes onwards:
Two Sticks Man
As the path rose up towards Bolt Head, it became apparent that the road hadn’t really been all that much of a slope.
As we climbed, we passed a man with two walking poles, who stopped now and then to talk into his Dictaphone. Then he passed us, we passed him and he passed us yet again as we stopped for a rest on a bench near what we hoped was the top. It looked like the top.
Two Sticks Man expressed surprise to find us sat on the bench, having just passed him. We explained that we hadn’t wanted to rest until the top.
‘Oh, this isn’t the top,’ he said with some glee, giving us a nightmarish description of a hill that you had to go around rather than over. He also cheerfully informed us that if we broke our legs only the Devon Air Ambulance could retrieve us from the path.
There was something smugly ghoulish about him and I resisted the temptation to break his legs with his walking poles and test the truth of his assertion. We watched him scuttle off along the path, knowing that we’d only have to pass him again in a few minutes.
We passed Two Sticks Man, who cheerily called out that it would only get harder, and attained the top of Sharp Tor
Bolt Head & Tail
We followed the line of Starehole Bay to Bolt Head, where we turned west with the coastline (it was either that or plummet and swim). The path had by now opened out to reveal rolling hills on one side and dramatic cliffs on the other, with treacherous rocks below.
The rocks around Bolt Head have claimed many vessels over the years, such as the Finnish four-masted barque, Herzogin Cecilie, which was stranded there in 1936. But that’s are not the most alarming, most subversive rock to be found near Bolt Head. No, there is a type of rock altogether more capricious…
For some reason the subject of goats kept intruding into our conversation for the next mile or so, which may actually have been a helpful distraction as Simkin has the same sort of (lack of) head for heights that I also had until my recent battle with Swyre Head. Certainly, as the path began to descend towards Soar Mill Cove, it became less wide and open and more suitable for mountain goats.
Soar Mill Cove
Soar Mill Cove is a small and delightfully secluded sandy beach, dotted with dark, jagged rocks pointing at the sky.
In 1887 the tea clipper Hallow E’en was wrecked off the coast and a three metre wall of tea washed up on Soar Mill Cove’s beach. No such incident occurred while we were there and we took full advantage of the pleasant environs to stop and drink some water and have a bit of a rest.
Two small groups of people had had a similar idea — a family with a nervous-looking dog and a group of youngish walkers. Although, now that I think of it, they all had to be walkers; there wasn’t any other way to get there.
We were relieved, on leaving Soar Mill Cove, to find that what had looked like the way onwards was merely a side trail for maniacs and goats (rocking ’til they drop) and that the actual path went another way which was merely steep instead of vertical.
We climbed, with an effort, to the top of Cathole Cliff and wondered — in what would be a recurring question — what catchphrase a hypothetical Captain Devon superhero might have.
‘Up, up and again!’ and ‘Up, up and awry!’ had become the two leading favourites when to our dismay we sighted Two Sticks Man who gave us a wave and greeted us with the heartwarming words:
‘You look exhausted, lads. Finding it hard going?’
I mentally counted to ten.
Two Sticks Man II
Two Sticks Man went on to ask if we were heading to Bantham, which he erroneously pronounced ‘ban-thum’ rather than ‘bantum’, further eroding his credibility.
Naturally, he told us that it would be hard going. He had assumed we were going to Bantham (which indeed we were) because, as he said, ‘you can’t go any further, there’s a river in the way.’
We nodded and smiled and set off, aiming to put as much distance between ourselves and Two Sticks Man as possible. I had the ferry times in my pocket (it was the last day of the season) and was reasonably confident that the River Avon would not be a barrier to our progress.
We were now traversing the edge of Bolberry Down, which is one of the longest coastal areas owned by the National Trust. During WW2 it was used as an RAF station and the old concrete buildings and disused runway can apparently still be seen, although I don’t recall seeing them.
As the path became more accessible, we started to see more and more other walkers and one helpful chap tried to direct us on a short cut to Hope that would have bypassed Bolt Tail. I don’t think we looked as exhausted as all that
Bolt Tail was the site of an Iron Age promontory fort, although little now remains on account of it having fallen into the sea. It was a cracking place to build a fort though, with its commanding views of sea and coast alike.
We followed the path down a series of steps, flanked by brambles festooned with the most impressive lichens I’ve ever seen, and found ourselves on the shores of Hope Cove in the wonderfully-named village of Inner Hope.
By now, we were feeling pretty hungry but when our attention was arrested by a sign indicating a purveyor of sandwiches, we were alarmed to be told that there would be a ten minute wait as the sandwiches were made and brought down from a nearby hotel. We politely declined.
We moved a little further on, Inner Hope becoming Outer Hope and stopped at a pub which, inevitably, was named the Hope and Anchor. There we obtained food and drink quickly and efficiently and paused to rest and refuel.
The village of Hope as a whole had a historic reputation for wrecking and smuggling, with the latter growing ever more sophisticated. In the 1800s ships plying trade from France would weigh their kegs of brandy and rum with stones and drop them to the sea floor for local fishermen to recover when hauling in their crab pots.
These days, Hope relies largely on tourism, and the tourists get a much better deal than the 140 Spaniards whose vessel, the hospital ship, San Pedro el Mayor was blown onto rocks between Inner and Outer Hope in 1588. Given that Spain and England were at war, and that San Pedro el Mayor had sailed with the Spanish Armada, it is perhaps not surprising that the Spaniards were initially sentenced to death. The authorities later relented and ransomed them back to Spain.
While our break had done us a power of good, it also made things a bit tight for making the ferry. So, as there was absolutely no way in the world we were going to let Two Sticks Man be right, we set off out of Hope at a hectic pace, hurtling past the distinctive arch of Thurlestone Rock.
The arch-shaped Thurlestone rock gives its name to the nearby Thurlestone village, around which we skirted, discovering to my dismay that someone had built a golf course along the coast.
In 2002, a 30-year-old female Pygmy Sperm Whale was washed up on Thurlestone Beach. This was unusual, not least because Pygmy Sperm Whales are a deep ocean species more usually found in the southern hemisphere. The cause of her death was unknown but I’m inclined to think it was despair — I like to think that she swam all the way to Devon to look at the twisted arch of Thurlestone Rock and then she spotted the golf course and simply gave up, saying to herself ‘what’s the point?’
I really loathe golf courses, the whale-murdering monstrosities.
Being less sensitive than whales, we escaped the golf course with irritated muttering rather than death and rounded the headland onto the banks of the River Avon.
The Avon is one of countless English rivers named ‘Avon’, which becomes even less imaginative when you realise that it’s the Celtic word for ‘river’ (afon in modern Welsh and avon in Cornish). This particular Avon rises on Dartmoor and when the seasonal ferry isn’t running, the nearest crossing is at Aveton Gifford, some four miles from Bantham.
Bantham is popular with surfers, many of whom were trying to make the most of the waves right on the mouth of the Avon.
While it looks a peaceable enough place now, in the ninth century a Danish invasion force was massacred there by the Saxons. The Danes weren’t the first foreign visitors to the area either, there is evidence to suggest that Bantham may have traded tin with the ancient Phoenicians.
I love how this kind of history can be quietly associated with a village comprising little more than a handful of houses.
Bantham Ham Ferry
It was just before four when we caught the ferry at Bantham Ham, meaning that we caught the very last ferry of the season, with no more until Spring 2012.
We may have mocked Two Sticks Man some more as we walked the quarter mile back to the river mouth and round the coast to Bigbury-on-Sea.
Bigbury-on-sea lies two miles from the inland village of Bigbury from whence it takes its name. It grew up from a few fisherman’s cottages during the early twentieth century and lies at the end of the B3392, which runs down to the village and just stops. It is this road that brings Bigbury-on-Sea its only bus, which runs once a week on Friday mornings.
Near the end of the road is a car park, at the side of which is a beach café which furnished us with refreshing ice cream and a view of Burgh Island as we smugly considered the end of our walk.
The tidal island of Burgh Island was originally called St Michael’s Island but was changed to Borough Island, and then corrupted to Burgh. It is home to a very expensive hotel which ferries its guests by ‘sea tractor’ when the causeway is submerged at low tide.
We Made It! Now What?
Smug as we were at completing our journey, we now had to return to Plymouth, where we were staying. This involved an additional four mile walk via Bigbury and Easton to Aveton Gifford in order to catch the Dartmouth to Plymouth bus.
This walk, which doesn’t count for mileage total purposes, was initially an uneventful trek along narrow roads, with a brief stop in the Royal Oak, Bigbury, for a cold drink and a toilet stop.
We had two ways on from the hamlet of Easton – a steep track up Drunkard’s Hill (so named, one assumes, because you’d want to be drunk to consider it) or a tidal road by the river. Unfortunately, the tidal road was underwater, which meant Drunkard’s Hill, however sober we might be.
As we trekked along I felt something strike my bag and when I looked down, there was a snail looking up at me. I don’t know if it fell off a tree, or if a passing thrush couldn’t tell me from a stone. Either way, I set this sole hero of the Mollusc Parachute Commandos down on the ground to continue on its way.
The village of Aveton Gifford takes its name from both the Avon and the Giffard family who historically held the manor — Walter Giffard came across with William the Conqueror and helped with the Domesday Book.
The pronunciations of the name are many and varied with little agreement, it appears, ranging from ‘Awton Jifford’ to ‘Averton Gifford’ and every combination in between.
However it is said, we reached the village in excellent time and immediately made a wrong turning, skirting around the edge of the village and somehow ending up by the tidal road anyway, which looked to still be ankle deep. Thoughtfully, the footpath was equipped with stepping stones and we made it to our bus stop with eleven minutes to spare.
On returning to Plymouth we devoured fish and chips on the Barbican before heading to the Hoe to find our hotel. We were pretty tired and I had booked a taxi for seven thirty on Sunday morning and so Simkin and I soon headed to our respective rooms for an early night.
It was only after I’d crawled from the shower to my bed that I remembered my phone had died and I couldn’t set my alarm. I briefly toyed with asking for an alarm call but the telephone was on the far side of the room.
’I’m sure I’ll wake up before seven,’ I thought. ‘What can possibly go wrong…?’
This time: 13 miles
Total since Gravesend: 534½ miles
(some photos courtesy of Simkin)