I awoke early on the First of April, vaguely convinced that my phone alarm must be playing some sort of April Fool’s Day prank. Alas, it was not. Blearily, I crawled from my bed and prepared for a full day of walking.
Were I anyone else, I should probably have had a hangover, which I did not. Near-immunity to hangovers may not be the most exciting of super-powers but it’ll do.
The sun hadn’t been up all that much longer than I had when I went outside to marvel again at the vicious, sharp ship-munching rocks.
The path back up from the hotel started on the road but soon left it, climbing past a couple of houses and taking me onto the cliff top. Here was a wide, flat grassy expanse called the Warren, which immediately put me in mind of those jokes we used to tell at school that began with ‘what do you call a man with X?’ Two in particular seemed appropriate, where X was ‘a seagull on his head’ (answer: ‘Cliff’) and ‘a rabbit up his bum’ (answer: ‘Warren’).
Sat all alone on the Warren were the remains of an old tower, known unsurprisingly as the Warren Tower. Probably built in the thirteenth century, this had originally served as a warrener’s house attached to Hartland Abbey, the Warrener being the man responsible for keeping the monks well fed on rabbit stew.
Later, after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, it served as a lookout tower — nearby Lundy was often a base for pirates, and was even occupied by Barbary Corsairs between 1627 and 1632 — as well as a ‘pleasure house’ for the landowning family.
I knew this level cliff top walk could not possibly last and, sure enough, I was soon confronted with my first ups and downs of the day as the path dropped into the valley of the Abbey River, on whose banks the abbey was sited. The path up the far side was steps.
A couple of ups and downs later I found myself picking my way down a scrabbly slope of lose stones, thinking how much I’d hate to attempt it without walking poles. In what was apparently something of a running theme (pun very much intended) some passing bloke took that thought and kicked it to death by jogging merrily past me, trotting down the treacherous slope as though it were a lap round the park.
I don’t know if it was the same man as ran along Steeple Point the day before — I didn’t pay that much attention at the time — or whether he wasn’t the only survivor from his doomed planet.
At the bottom of the scrabbly slope, the path carried me past another narrow ridge, another cut-off hill that resembled a cross between the previous day’s Steeple Point and St Catherine’s Tor. I was very glad I didn’t have to go up it, although I could see that someone had blazed a trail up there.
I briefly wondered who could possibly be that mad before Captain Clifftop decided to show me. I felt uneasy just watching him and after a few minutes I had to stop doing so. I never did see how he got down again — the path at the end dropped down the sort slope that wants to be a wall more than floor; certainly it was steeper than running down the side would be.
I now found myself wandering inland high above a small stream, looking for steps down to a bridge. On the far side the path ran up a steep slope to Upright Cliff. So far as I could tell, Captain Clifftop had run straight down to the stream and leapt across it, for he was already climbing the slope at a rate of knots. By the time I reached where I could see him, he was already coming back the other way having presumably reached Hartland Point and turned around.
Hartland Point Lighthouse
Hartland Point is Devon’s most north-westerly point and also marks the south-western limit of the Bristol Channel. It is graced by a coastguard hut and a lighthouse, the latter of which was built in 1874.
Hartland Point Lighthouse was designed by Sir James Douglass, who also designed the current (fourth) lighthouse on Eddystone Rock. It’s quite a short lighthouse, at only 18 m, but being on a cliff raises its lamp to 37 m.
The lighthouse, which is Grade II listed, was automated in 1984 and proposed for decommissioning in 2010. As of 2012, it is still operational though and Trinity House have a big sign on the gates to its access road apologising that it is not open to the public.
One reason that the lighthouse is not open to the public, when Trinity House like to open up their lighthouses if possible, is the access road itself. This short road snakes around the cliff to the lighthouse and is frequently part-buried or part-collapsed by rockfalls. The risk to visitors is simply too great.
Lying on the beach, not fear from the lighthouse, is the 1982 wreck of the Panama-registered, Dutch owned MS Johanna. She was driven onto the rocks in a strong gale less than 400 m from the lighthouse, which, while it could warn her that the rocks were there, could do nothing to stop her breaking up on them.
HMHS Glenart Castle
Johanna is just one of a series of shipwrecks at Hartland Point (which is, after all, why the point needed a lighthouse) but a memorial plaque near the point remembers a different kind of sinking, one not caused by natural dangers but by deliberate action.
162 people died aboard HMHS Glenart Castle. According to eyewitnesses, she was clearly lit as a hospital ship when UC-56’s commander, Wilhelm Kiesewetter, torpedoed her in direct violation of Section X of the Second Hague Convention. Not only that, but one of the bodies recovered was clad in a lifejacket and marked by gunshot wounds, indicating that UC-56 fired on the survivors in the water, possibly to prevent witnesses and so cover up the atrocity.
At the close of the war, Kiesewetter was seized, carried to Britain and interned in the Tower of London but had to be released as the terms of the Armistice did not allow for the detention of one side’s personnel by the other, not even for war crimes.
I was starting to feel peckish, so I sat near the entrance to the lighthouse access road and attacked part of a packed lunch that I had purchased from the Hartland Quay Hotel.
The day being warm, I decided that I had best eat my ham sandwich as breakfast rather than let it swelter in my bag; I left the rest of the packed lunch for later. It contained an apple, some chocolate, some crisps, two biscuits and a piece of cake. It didn’t contain any fungi but that was okay; I could see all one could possibly eat quite nearby:
The radar station at Hartland Point is used for both military and civilian air traffic control and is operated by the RAF. Just outside its fence are a number of concrete blocks: the foundations of earlier, WW2-era, radar towers.
The path turned into a bridleway shortly after the radar mushroom and continued as such past the tiny hamlet of Titchberry before changing to a route that occupied the coastal edge of fields, which were separated by stiles.
Beasts and Birds
Ewes with lambs watched me with nervous eyes as I passed while in other fields cows paid me no heed at all. Several times during the morning a hideous screechy noise and frantic wing-flapping heralded the sudden emergence of a startled pheasant taking to the air. I was pretty startled too and hoped fervently that none would pull such a stunt while I was anywhere precarious.
Soon, I was approaching Windbury Point, the site of an Iron Age hill fort of which only the southern ramparts remain. There, I found another plaque:
As I made my way down from the cliff top I got a clear view of Blackchurch Rock, a pointy-looking rock formation with gaps in it.
Ponies on the Path
The path passed through some woodland and a came to a junction where an inland footpath branched off. Since I wasn’t aiming for wherever it said on its signpost (Brownsham, I think) I kept to the coast path. A small sign warned that the National Trust were using Dartmoor ponies to keep the vegetation under control.
At the valley bottom was the inevitable tiny stream, which was followed by a narrow, zig-zagging path up the far side of the valley. This lacked tree cover and, while it didn’t exactly feel precarious, it didn’t feel entirely comfortable either. Much of it was covered in pony dung, which didn’t really help.
Towards the top, the path turned into a flight of steps and I glanced upwards to see a sight that stopped me dead in my tracks. Two Dartmoor ponies were standing on the steps, which were themselves only one pony wide. Dartmoor ponies are small, hardy animals, known mostly for looking cute and friendly and then injuring dozens of tourists each year. They can be a tad unpredictable. In fact they’re quite possibly insane.
I evaluated my choices, which were:
- Approach the ponies, probably getting bitten or kicked in the process. Or both. And then — if not killed or crippled by a kick — push past them on the outside edge of the path, where an inquisitive pony roughing me up for sugary treats would accidentally push me off the path to my death.
- Approach the ponies, probably getting bitten or kicked in the process. Or both. And then — if not killed or crippled by a kick — push past them on the inside edge of the path, where an inquisitive pony roughing me up for sugary treats would squash me against the cliff side. And then bite me some more, just for fun.
- Not approach the ponies.
Option three was sounding favourite. I thought about making some noise, but that tends to make them come over to see if you have any food that they can use as a pretext to bite your hands off.
It probably sounds as though I’m making a big song and dance about Dartmoor ponies and it’s true that mostly an encounter with them doesn’t turn into ideal footage for a third-rate shock documentary titled When Ponies Attack! But they are semi-feral (and certainly not broken) and they can be savage when they want.
I’d be much more concerned about the likelihood of being injured by a skittish Dartmoor pony than being bitten by an adder. So, I stayed put. The ponies ignored me.
After a while I got bored staying put so I approached them after all, trying simultaneously to make some noise to shoo them onwards while not actually trying to startle them. They noticed me. They moved towards me a short way, took a look, and then moved away again. Even having watched it, I have no idea how they managed to turn around on a path that was only as wide as they were. Slowly, steadily, the ponies climbed the steps ahead of me. Then they stopped. One helpfully defecated, completely burying two steps.
The Cause Becomes Clear
I moved slightly closer and they eyed me warily but didn’t go any further. I was wondering what the hell to do now when a woman’s face peered down from the top of the cliff, just past the ponies.
‘There’s someone trying to come up behind them,’ she said to someone I couldn’t see. Then to me: ‘I think they’re afraid of my dogs’.
I bit my tongue and waited. Nothing much happened. I started to get a tad annoyed. Of course wild ponies are going to be uncomfortable around your pet wolves. What I didn’t realise at this point what that the woman and her husband had three dogs, none of which were on leads. The ponies very much realised this and they were going nowhere.
A Radical Solution
‘Can you push past them?’ asked the woman.
I considered a multitude of answers but settled on a firm but neutral ‘no, I cannot,’ and the polite suggestion that possibly she ought to bring her dogs under control and move them away. As ideas go, this was apparently completely out there, an utterly unheard of concept, but she eventually complied.
The ponies, with some relief, trotted up the steps and away along an inland path until they were stopped by a gate. I now navigated the moist and fragrant steps and reached the cliff top.
Clueless Couple with Canines
‘We thought the ponies were with you,’ said the woman. Because, well, obviously.
I bit my tongue again and pointed to one of the NT’s signs about the ponies, which she was standing right next to. I may have put a particular emphasis on the ‘these are wild animals’ and ‘keep dogs on leads’ parts of the sign, but I did so politely because it was clear they were clueless rather than selfish. Well, mostly.
They had brought their dogs under control — more or less — but still showed no signs of putting them on leads, while they engaged me in amiable chat about going for a nice walk. They then headed off down the dung-strewn path, rather than inland as planned, because the ponies were now blocking that route. The dogs were still running free.
The ‘My Dog is Different’ Delusion
Honestly, the weird ‘oh, Rover wouldn’t hurt anyone’ blinkered world-view that some dog-owners seem to adopt astounds me. Because Rover’s not descended from a wolf at all. Except of course he is, and that’s all the ponies can see. Or the sheep. And possibly Rover himself when he unexpectedly finds himself in a field full of lambs and his instincts try to assert themselves.
It’s not impossible that that couple’s day ended with a mutilated sheep and an irate farmer exercising his legal right to fire both barrels of his shotgun into one of their dogs.
My irritation and disbelief evaporated soon after, I’m pleased to say. The path crossed a field and descended through another wood.
At the edge of the wood, I met another couple: two elderly people out for a walk who engaged me in conversation in what was a transparent ploy to gain a sneaky rest at the top of the hill, without admitting that they needed one.
These two were locals and I told them there were some Dartmoor ponies ahead. They immediately commented that Dartmoor ponies could be ‘completely bonkers’, which I found oddly validating. They then quizzed me on where I had walked from and to and, with respect to both the Steps of Pony Poo and the previous day’s ridge at Speke’s Mill Mouth, the man sighed and said ‘oh, you didn’t need to do that bit, there’s another way around.’ He then grinned a crooked grin.
‘Not much help is it, telling you that now?’ he added. He did however go on to explain that I could miss out a ‘tortuous’ hill by walking on the beach later on. I took careful note of what he said.
On leaving the elderly couple, I followed a zig-zag path down a steep, wooded valley wall. I quite like it when the plunging hills are wooded — partly because I like trees and partly because they make the drop less obvious.
At the bottom were some ruins, which I took to be a mill — not least because the place was called Mouth Mill. It seemed like a good place to stop and eat my cheese and onion crisps.
I hopped across the tiny stream at Mouth Mill and looked up at a path clearly intended only for maniacs and goats. Fortunately, at the bottom of the path was a coast path sign pointing along another route. With a big sigh of relief, I left the vertical path to any passing maniacs and found myself following what seemed to be a well-made farm track.
A steep, wooded path led up from this to the clifftop, where it soon became broad and easy-going as it curved through the trees towards Clovelly.
Clovelly is a picturesque village whose main street, named Up-Along, is cobbled and built on a pretty steep incline; the entire village occupies a dramatic cleft in the cliffs. It is famous for using donkeys to haul things (or people) up the hill and for using sleds to carry goods down it.
While the donkeys are largely a tourism thing these days, the sleds are not: they are a matter of pragmatic convenience and take the form of boxes or cages with primitive, home-made runners on the bottom. There’s really nothing picturesque about the sleds.
Clovelly Estate Company
The village and surrounding land is owned by the Clovelly Estate Company, headed by the Honourable John Rous, a descendent of the Hamlyns. Clovelly is very much a family affair; in fact only three families have been associated with it since the thirteenth century.
There have, of course, been some outsiders connected with Clovelly. Take, for instance, the local rector, who in the early nineteenth century was the Reverend Charles Kingsley. His son, also Charles, would grow up to become a famous novelist and the author of Westward Ho!
Taking a Break
Clovelly is a lovely place to stop and take a break, so that’s exactly what I did, sitting on the quayside with an ice cream and a cold drink. I resisted buying any fudge at the visitor’s centre at the top of the hill, despite the woman in the fudge stall giving me some of the off cuts (she was chopping it into squares) in what was probably an attempt to tempt me.
The Hobby Drive
Rested, refreshed and having had a tiny taste of fudge, I set off from Clovelly towards Buck Mills at quite a pace. For most of the three mile distance between these two villages the coast path followed the Hobby Drive, a private road built by the Hamlyns between 1811 and 1829.
It was metalled along its length with compacted stones but lacks a top layer of tarmac (so its surface is macadam rather than tar macadam, the former having been devised by a Scot, John Loudon McAdam, in 1819).
Hobby Drive (or ‘the Hobby’) used to be open to traffic, both horse-drawn and then motorised, subject to a toll. These days, it is pedestrian only. It curved around the coastal valleys, maintaining a more-or-less constant elevation and crossing four streams along the way via gently curving stone bridges.
John Gregg — Robber and Murderer?
A cave near the road was associated with the myth of John Gregg, who allegedly lived in it with his extended, incestuous family. The Greggs were said to have robbed over a thousand people and to have eaten all their victims, which makes you wonder who then told the tales about them.
The answer is that they came from an anonymous late eighteenth century booklet, which alleged that the Greggs were executed in Plymouth without trial.
The History of John Gregg, and his Family of Robbers and Murderers is frankly preposterous but it makes a lot more sense when you realise that smuggling was rife when it was printed; it was probably intended to warn people away from a cave where contraband was stored.
Thankfully, I wasn’t robbed and eaten by cannibals. I did however follow the Hobby to its end and then traverse some more fields and woods to arrive in the village of Bucks Mills.
This was a small village with a small waterfall. Its stream used to power several water mills, which are now in the sea thanks to erosion. An Elizabethan quay has also long since disappeared. The remains of eighteenth century lime kilns can still be seen however.
The King of Bucks
At about the time that Bucks Mills’ inhabitants were using lime kilns to burn culm (a mixture of anthracite and limestone) to create fertiliser, the village was dominated by the Braund family whose head, Captain James Braund, was known as the ‘King of Bucks’ and actively discouraged strangers from visiting or settling in the village.
These days, as for most of the Devon coast, tourism is a lifeline. He’s probably turning in his grave.
From Bucks Mills the way onwards was through more woodland as the path carried me to Peppercombe. This was the point where the Elderly Ambler had earlier told me I could go by beach rather than tackle some hills. But when I got there, the path was a quarter mile inland from the beach and the hill didn’t look all that bad. I resolved to do the hill after all.
It really wasn’t that bad.
I climbed a bit, and got a little warm. I dropped back down again on the other side. It was fine. The beach, on the other hand, was all large grey pebbles that would have been hell to walk on. I know this because after the next hill the path dropped down onto the beach for a few metres, and a few metres was frankly enough.
This was the point where my elderly advisor had said I should rejoin the path so I did. I do wonder if he was slightly confused because while the bit I had just not missed out was okay, the next bit was actually quite tough.
Some steps led me back up the cliff from the beach but soon gave way to a steep, grassy slope. This had no steps, not even those made by other people’s footsteps, and was a pretty exhausting climb. Once again, I don’t think I’d want to go down it rather than up.
I was pretty tired at the top so I ate my apple despite the fact that I’m not a great fan of apples. Well, this apple may have changed my mind; it was exactly what I needed. I may even take apples on future walks, the combination of refreshing juice and crunchy foodstuff is pretty good when you’re hot and tired.
Greencliff, Abbotsham Cliff & Cornborough Cliff
Having accidently embraced the Church of Apples, I ambled down the much easier descent and onto Greencliff followed by Abbotsham Cliff and Cornborough Cliff, passing one more stream and the ruins of a lime kiln.
Approaching Westward Ho!
The last mile or so was very easy going indeed, being flat, level, wide and metalled. This turned out to be a section of track bed from the short-lived Bideford, Westward Ho! & Appledore Railway.
Bideford, Westward Ho! & Appledore Railway
The BWH&AR was conceived as a project in 1860 but not built until 1901, when the first section opened. It was not a financial success, partly because they refused to make their timetables suitable for commuting workers, preferring to pursue a higher class of customer, and partly because the bus to or from Bideford (the interchange with the London and South Western Railway) was cheaper.
In 1917, the War Office requisitioned the ailing railway and shipped its trains off to France to convey troops to the front line. They never arrived; their ship was torpedoed and sunk off the north Cornish coast. They lay lost on the sea bed until 2001, when the wreck was located, and some consideration has since been given to recovering them for use as museum exhibits.
The BWH&AR could at least claim to be the only railway company in Britain with an exclamation mark in its name. This was pretty much by default since Westward Ho! is the only place in Britain with an exclamation mark in its name.
The reason for this oddity is quite simple. The novelist Charles Kingsley, who grew up in Clovelly and Bideford, wrote a book called Westward Ho! in 1855 about a young man from Bideford who follows in Drake’s footsteps seeking a life of high adventure at sea, which he pretty much gets.
The Victorian Resort
The book was very much a hit and enterprising Victorian businessmen noticed that there was a good spot to develop a new resort next to Bideford and they had just the name for it. This probably makes it the only place in Britain named after a book too.
The Westward Ho! Hotel was built in 1865 along with a whole load of adjacent villas, all of which adopted the name of the book as their address. It’s now a small town.
Kingsley was apparently quite a bit put out that they stole his novel’s name without so much as asking him first.
Heading to My Hotel
Two More (Uncounted) Miles
Westward Ho! was not where I was staying, which was in a hotel in Northam, which lies between Westward Ho! and Bideford. I thus had an extra two mile walk inland along the A386 (not counted for mileage purposes).
A Top-Class Welcome
I had chosen my hotel for the cheap deal I got as much as anything and so was delighted when, on arrival, not only were they very welcoming indeed but it turned out I’d got the room at the top — the one they use as their honeymoon suite when they need one. I thus got to have a leisurely bath and then to stretch out and relax in a comfortable four poster bed in a bedroom not much smaller than my entire flat. I was not displeased.
This time: 18½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 836 miles