ON MONDAY morning, as most of my friends were commuting to work, I was arriving in Ilfracombe by bus, having already ridden the overnight coach from London to Exeter and then the first train of the morning to Barnstaple.
I was back in Ilfracombe by just after eight and I unwittingly purchased what turned out to be quite the worst bacon bap I’ve encountered so far on my coastal circumperambulation.
The bacon was hot but not crispy (I prefer crispy) but the roll was dead cold. Not merely ‘not warm’, not ‘slightly below ambience’ but full on, ‘technically successfully defrosted but still only just above freezing’. The hot/cold temperature medley that accompanied each bite was not one that enhanced the breakfast experience. But I ate it anyway; it was bacon. Besides, I was going to need it…
I stood on the quayside of Ilfracombe Harbour and looked up at the bulk of Hillsborough (a corruption of Hele’s Barrow), knowing that the path was going to climb right up it. And so it did. But not right away, that would be far too easy.
At first, the path climbed through some leafy parkland, affording me a nice view of Hillsborough’s summit but then, about halfway up, it dropped back down to the beach again, meaning I had to climb that height all over again.
I had walking poles. A mere climb was not going to defeat me. This was apparently a sentiment to be lauded, as the vegetation overgrowing the path endeavoured to pat me encouragingly on the arms and shoulders as I progressed. Then, suddenly, the path opened out and I got a pretty good view of Ilfracombe below.
The path soon crested Hillsborough and, having proved itself, joined the A399 for a bit off a breather. When they separated again, a short while later, they sort of ran next to each other for a while.
I say ‘sort of’ because the road steered shy of any steep gradients and meandered inland a bit, while the path stuck resolutely to the cliff edge and did most of its meandering in the vertical plane.
The weather somehow managed to combine overcast with glorious scorching sunshine through the careful application of patchy cloud cover and it was perhaps a tad warm for exertion but it was proving an excellent morning all the same. I was thus in excellent spirits as I approached the inlet known as Watermouth.
At the far end of Watermouth lies a hamlet of the same name which has a ‘castle’, now a theme park of some description. Watermouth Castle, which is actually just a castellated country house, was built in 1825 and served as the home of the Basset family until 1945. It is a Grade II listed building.
Ideally I would have got a photo of Watermouth Castle, but that would involve my not moving my phone in the fleeting moment between pressing the button and it actually taking a picture. A Herculean task that is clearly beyond me. I do however have a photo of the leafy lane that the path onward to Berrynarbor became.
Berrynarbor is a village that sits in the Sterridge Valley and the footpath merely brushed its northern extremity. It has a primary school, two pubs and a shop, all things that have been long gone from many of the other villages I’ve passed through.
Back when hundreds were still administrative divisions of counties (i.e. before 1894) it was part of Braunton Hundred (as were Barnstaple and Ilfracombe and the other surrounding villages).
Berrynarbor’s church dates from the fifteenth century, although the site is a couple of centuries older.
Village and Valley
At the north end Berrynarbor abuts the neighbouring village of Combe Martin, which sits in a valley of the same name.
Combe Martin gains its name from being a steep valley (a cwm) that was given to the FitzMartin family around the year 1100 (although it was recorded as just ‘Comer’ in 1128). The FitzMartins had lost the manor by 1326 but the manor never lost their name.
The Longest Street?
Given the narrowness of the valley — it is a cwm after all — Combe Martin pretty much comprises one long street, which has been erroneously hailed as the longest village street in England, a prize that goes to the village of Stewkley in Buckinghamshire. That didn’t stop Combe Martin from getting itself into the Guinness Book of Records though, which was achieved by holding the world’s longest street party in their (second-longest) English village street in 2002; the party stretched for a mile and a half.
Morecambe in Lancashire plans to beat this on Sunday as part of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations but I imagine both efforts will be peanuts compared to the 37-mile party held on Germany’s A40 Autobahn near Dortmund in 2010 as part of a bizarre ‘living art’ piece in honour of the Ruhr being the 2010 European Capital of Culture.
I’m sure there’s a joke about national stereotypes in there somewhere.
Hunting of the Earl of Rone
Something very English about Combe Martin is its annual hobby horse procession, known as the Hunting of the Earl of Rone. This may or may not be a reference to Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone (1550-1616) who fled Ireland in 1607 and — as far as the evidence goes — never ever stepped foot in Devon in his life.
The festival takes place at the end of May, meaning next weekend, so once again I have missed an annual village festival by a week. I’m good at this. If only I could monetise it, I could miss these things professionally.
Leaving Coombe Martin
As I was leaving Combe Martin I looked up at Little Hangman, which together with Great Hangman, is one of the Hangman Hills. Little Hangman looked bloody huge from sea level, being 218 m at the summit, and I was slightly perplexed that I couldn’t see the path up it. Nonetheless, I soon found where the path left Combe Martin and gamely set off.
Signs on the way told me that I was entering Exmoor National Park and that it was another 15 miles to Lynmouth. This surprised me as I was pretty sure it was more like 13 and I still think I was right. I guess it depends where you measure from and to.
I was committed to reaching Lynmouth regardless as that’s where my hotel room was booked. I also soon found out why I couldn’t see the path up to Little Hangman from afar:
I battled my way through the undergrowth, using my walking poles like
two razor-sharp machetes blunt sticks for pushing things out of the way.
The path rose quite steeply and I was relieved when I broke out of the cover into a clearing, sure I was near the summit of Little Hangman.
Actually, the path skirted around the summit of Little Hangman and I forewent the detour to climb up it and then come back down the same way.
No, I had my sights on a bigger prize. Which oddly, was also an easier one.
The view from the top was rather lovely, with Exmoor’s rolling hills. In particular the path rolled on next to Holdstone Down, where it curved gracefully around the side.
I rested for a while, drinking far too much of my water and chatting with a man who I initially thought must be crazy but turned out merely to have miscalculated badly, a mistake he readily admitted. He too had paused at the summit of Great Hangman, having cycled from the other direction.
‘Some of that path would have been tricky on foot,’ he gasped. ‘It was almost impossible on this.’
Sherrycombe and Holdstone Down
I made it down to the bottom of Sherrycombe without allowing gravity to assist me down the slope, although it was close — the path was covered in loose scrabbly material that seemed to work as excellent lubrication between boot and ground.
It improved markedly once I’d made it back up Holdstone Down and the path began to oscillate up and down, left and right as it clung precariously to the side of Exmoor’s northern hills.
Elwill Bay and East Cleave
The path became narrow, with a steep slope below, which in turn led to a cliff. I watched my step.
Heddon’s Mouth Cleave
The precarious balancing high above the sea was temporarily relieved by a half mile diversion inland, during which I balanced high above solid ground instead. This was Heddon’s Mouth Cleave, probably Exmoor’s deepest, steepest V-shaped valley.
For added fun, the entire valley side was made from scrabbly material prevented from collapsing mostly by the vegetation holding it together. It was awesome to look at but I was still quite relieved when the path eventually made its way down to the bottom.
At the bottom of the valley it wasn’t clear which direction to head as the signposts were broken but a passing couple gave me directions to the bridge across the River Heddon.
The Heddon was a delightful gurgling stream and I dallied on the bridge enjoying the sun-dappled woodland.
Soon enough, though, I climbed the path up the far side of the valley, which was flanked with dozens of purple foxgloves. It quickly reached 150 m, passing round the headland of Highveer Point and beneath the remains of a small Roman fortlet.
The fortlet was a lookout post and signal station in which Italian-born legionaries are said to have died from the cold while on watch during one winter.
A bit further on was the fairly unimpressive natural arch of Wringapeak, said by local legend to be the home of the Girt Fish of Wringapeak, which has for centuries terrorised anyone mad enough to swim in the treacherous currents. This is, I feel, just another excellent incentive to not fall off the cliff.
The path rounded Wringapeak and entered Woody Bay, which is well named being both wooded and a bay. It was also very nearly a holiday resort, the local manor (Martinhoe) having been purchased by Colonel Benjamin Lake, a wealthy solicitor from Orpington, in 1885. He had grandiose plans to make it a resort in similar style to the twin villages of Lynton and Lynmouth, which had been developed by Sir George Newnes.
In imitation of Newnes, the colonel had new roads built in 1895 and a pier in 1897 but the latter was wrecked in a storm during 1899. Plans for a cliff railway and a linkup with the Lynton & Barnstaple Railway came to nothing and Colonel Lake went bankrupt in 1900.
Woody Bay remains little more than a woody bay containing tiny hamlet and a hotel.
What Woody Bay didn’t have was a shop, which was a shame because I’d run out of water. Still, the next bay was called Lee Bay and I hoped to buy some there. Just as with the previous Lee Bay, where I lost my black jumper, the footpath joined the road on its way in and out of the valley. This one was not so steep, however, and I wasn’t carrying a jumper.
Lee Abbey and Duty Point
Lee Bay is home to Lee Abbey, an ecumenical Christian organisation founded on the Church of England in 1945. It is housed in a Victorian gothic country house, overlooked by a folly tower on nearby Duty Point; the tower was portrayed by Romantic landscape artist Samuel Palmer in his 1879 etching entitled The Lonely Tower.
To my great joy, Lee Abbey had a tea room, where I could buy water. Or at least I could have bought water had I not turned up fifteen minutes after it had closed.
A Terribly English Exchange
Thirsty and dehydrated, I stomped up the road only to pass what I took to be an outlying cottage of the abbey outside which a young couple were standing, mugs of tea in hand, watching their kids play.
With the need for water becoming quite important, I asked them very nicely if they wouldn’t mind filling my water bottle from their tap, if it wasn’t too much bother (and I was terribly sorry to be such a nuisance and disturb them), to which they replied it would be no bother at all and isn’t it lovely weather for walking?
I was very grateful. I was also amusedly aware of how very, very English the whole exchange was. Well, I am English. I can live the stereotype if I wish
Valley of the Rocks
I was feeling much better as I entered the awesomely named Valley of the Rocks, which sounds like the sort of place in which a fantasy epic adventure should be set. It looks like it too. Furthermore, it looked like it not just to me but also to Samuel Taylor Coleridge who visited it with William Wordsworth in 1797 and decided to set a story there called The Wanderings of Cain. He never finished it though.
The valley is full of rocks, fossils and feral goats. The latter were munching merrily away on the vegetation and paying me no attention. They were also mostly hidden by the vegetation and apparently camera shy.
I did watch a young woman with what I think was a Lancashire accent try and fail to pet one, though. The goat, using optimal efficiency, didn’t bother to move until she was within a meter or so and then it just skipped away at the last moment, leaving her gasping ‘almost!’ There was no ‘almost’ about it; she was never catching that goat.
Mother Meldrum’s Cave
Lynton and Lynmouth
Not long thereafter I found myself arriving in Lynton. Lynton sits at the top of a gorge formed by the confluence of the East Lyn and West Lyn rivers. At the bottom of the gorge lies its twin village of Lynmouth; the two villages share a single town council.
Sir George Newnes
Lynton was largely developed by Victorian publisher Sir George Newnes Bt, owner of The Strand Magazine (in which Sherlock Holmes first saw the light of day) and Tit-Bits, one of whose contributors went on to found the Daily Mail, while one of its staff founded the Daily Express.
Whatever his baleful influence on journalism, Sir George was pretty good for Lynton, gifting it with a town hall, a congregational church and the Lynton and Lynmouth Cliff Railway, a water-powered funicular railway linking the two villages.
He was also the chairman of the Lynton & Barnstaple Railway Company, which built a narrow gauge railway to run the 19 miles between Lynton and Barnstaple, terminating at Barnstaple Town Station. The L&BR proved economically unsound and, having been absorbed into Southern Railway in 1923, was closed by them in 1935.
Lynton and Lynmouth Cliff Railway
In what was starting to feel a bit like a running theme, the cliff railway had also closed, in this case for the day just twenty minutes before I arrived. I would have sworn loudly but it felt oddly unpatriotic.
A Zig-Zag Path
A handy shop provided me with water and an apple and I cheerfully devoured the latter. As I did so an older man walked past with a bottle of wine tucked under one arm and I asked him what the best way down to Lynmouth might be. He replied that he’d just come from checking the cliff railway times himself and that there was a path (I’d assumed there must be).
He not only directed me to the path but actually showed me where it was before wishing me a cheery good luck. It did involve quite a lot of zig-zagging down the gorge; Lynmouth lies 210 m below.
Lynmouth was home to a lifeboat between 1869 and 1944, which effected a particularly impressive rescue in 1899. When the ship Forrest Hall got into trouble off Porlock Weir, further east along the coast, the lifeboat, Louisa, couldn’t launch because the weather was so bad. The coxswain decided to take the boat to Porlock Weir and launch it in the more sheltered harbour there.
Twenty horses and a hundred men moved the boat across 15 miles of roads and paths, some of which had to be widened on the way, and both up and down an elevation of 434 m. At night. Amazingly they did it, successfully rescuing all of Forrest Hall’s crew and only losing four horses along the way. Impressive stuff.
I hadn’t been trying to drag a lifeboat up a 1 in 4 hill but I was still pretty tired; it had been a month since my last walk and my feet were a little out of practice. I was therefore very pleased to find my hotel and check in but not before I’d almost tripped over a fearless blackbird who was hopping about in the street with no regard for his safety.
At first, I wondered if he was injured but no, he flew away when he felt like it, it was just pure blackbird machismo apparently.
A nice hot bath eased tired muscles and then I went in search of food, finding whitebait with saffron mayonnaise. Saffron mayo looks alarmingly like custard. Tasted good though…
This time: 18 miles
Total since Gravesend: 896½ miles