MY TUESDAY morning began with waking bright and early and devouring an excellent full English breakfast. I then checked out of my hotel and went in search of a shop that could sell me water for my walk. It wasn’t a difficult search on account of the hotel receptionist having already told me where to look. As I ventured outside, I found myself once again stepping around the Blackbird Without Fear.
Lynton and Lynmouth
The shop to which I had been directed was only just opening as I arrived but the shopkeeper helpfully paused setting things up to turn on the lights and sell me some water anyway. I paused as I tucked it away into my bag in order admire Lynmouth’s bunting-bedecked streets.
One person who thought that Lynmouth was not just lovely but ‘the most delightful place for a landscape painter this country can boast’ was Thomas Gainsborough, who enjoyed his honeymoon in the village in 1746. It has changed a bit since then however…
For a start, the River Lyn was largely culverted over in order to increase the available land for business premises, a plan which became quite literally unstuck in 1952 when an intense storm dropped heavy rainfall on an already waterlogged Exmoor.
The floodwaters scooped up debris, which then formed a temporary natural dam in the upper West Lyn valley. When this broke, a wall of water, fallen trees and other debris tore through Lynmouth, ripping away amost all of the bridges and destroying a hundred buildings. 34 people died and 420 were made homeless.
The river was not re-culverted after the disaster but was instead diverted around the village, which now boasts a memorial garden and hall.
The path onwards was at the opposite end of the village from the cliff railway, anyway. Before I ascended the zig-zagging path (although not the same one as I’d come down the evening before) I looked ahead to Countisbury Hill and Foreland Point rising out of the sea mist.
I emerged from the zig-zag path hot, tired and with my legs feeling like lead, which was not ideal given that I was just starting a day-long twenty mile walk. But then I counted my blessings and found amongst them the simple fact that I hadn’t just tried to carry a lifeboat up the hill. Things seemed a lot better after that.
The path ran along with the A39 for a bit but soon branched away, sticking close to the cliff edge while the road tried to maintain a fairly constant elevation by cutting inland. The elevation of the path was not constant and involved both ups and downs with an overall excess of up.
Other People on the Path
No one else seemed to be climbing the path but I met several people coming down the other way. One was an elderly man, accompanied by his dog, who waxed lyrical about the view and the subject of walking before exhorting me to do some in Ireland should I get the chance; his father had been Irish and his mother a Devonshire girl, it turned out. I promised him that I would bear Ireland in mind.
I then met a couple whom I thought of as ‘older’ but realised to my chagrin that they’re probably actually my age. They were keen to be told that it wasn’t far to Lynmouth and that they could find beer there; it was about ten o’clock at this point, which seemed a bit early for beer to me until I realised that the woman really wasn’t enjoying the heights and ‘beer’ was the only thought that was keeping her mind off the drop.
The path did more climbing and I had to pick my way through a group of conservation volunteers armed with bills and other traditional implements, which they were using to mow the long grass by the path. They seemed pretty oblivious to walkers and to each other.
No Head for Heights
I came far closer than I’d have liked to being beheaded by a bill-wielding teenager who was getting a bit carried away with what is, after all, England’s most traditional pole-arm. He was very apologetic and I hurried quickly on — I may not have much of a head for heights but it’s the only one I’ve got.
Countisbury is a tiny hilltop settlement with a church, old coaching inn and car park but not much else. Its name is thought to mean ‘camp on the headland’ in reference to an Iron Age hill fort on nearby Wind Hill, about half a mile south-west.
Battle of Cynwit (878)
Countisbury is claimed to be the site where the Saxon ealdorman Odda defeated and slew Hubba the Dane in 878. You might recall that Appledore near Bideford makes exactly the same claim; modern historians believe it actually happened at Cannington near Bridgwater in Somerset.
From Countisbury the path led out onto Foreland Point, the most northerly point of Devon. There is a lighthouse at the end of it, which was established in 1900, electrified in 1975 and automated in 1994, but the coast path doesn’t actually go out to the tip of the headland. Instead it curves around one of the hills having been diverted for safety reasons.
The path briefly joined the lighthouse’s access road but gave that up as boring long before it would join the A39, passing instead through several delightfully leafy sections as it approached Glenthorne and the Devon-Somerset border.
The Glenthorne Estate was attached to a house built in the 1830s; these days it is part of the Exmoor National Park. The next five miles or so would be continuous woodland, which made me very happy indeed. Woodland by the sea is pretty much my perfect terrain combination.
I’d been walking in the woodland for about half an hour (and so, I’d estimate, was about a mile and a half in) when I encountered a group of four walkers examining maps. We had the usual chat about the weather and it turned out that they were on a walking holiday but were only walking a handful of miles each day. As such, they asked hopefully if they were near the end of the woods and weren’t entirely overjoyed to learn otherwise; they had their hearts set on enjoying a picnic perched on the top of an open cliff.
‘Oh well,’ said one, ‘lunch in half an hour then,’ and they set off. ‘Enjoy the rhododendrons,’ she added as they left.
‘Rhododendrons?’ I thought. ‘What rhododendrons?’
Rhododendrum ponticum is admittedly very pretty and had turned whole hillsides into a riot of a purple that was rather magical to walk through. It finds it easy to thrive in places like Exmoor, for rhododendrons are members of the heath family, related to heathers and suited to similar conditions.
The thing about R. ponticum is that although it thrives well here it hasn’t been native to Britain since before the last Ice Age; it never recolonised us afterwards.
Well, not until 1763 when it was brought over as an ornamental shrub native to Southern Europe and the Near East. And that’s the problem — it’s an invasive species. And while it’s thriving, it’s overgrowing, shading and generally crowding out the native species, which means that Exmoor National Park is actually engaged in a concerted rhodie-bashing campaign in order to stop the national park becoming nothing but rhododendrons.
The old stone cross and cairn sit in a delightful shaded corner marking a holy well or spring. The cross is Victorian (but intended to look older) but the spring, which is known as Sister’s Fountain, is linked with the legend of Joseph of Arimathea. The legend has it that, while he was making his journey to Glastonbury, he paused here desiring drink but there was no stream. He thus struck the ground with his staff and water poured forth, continuing to do so to this day.
I looked at the water from the holy well but stuck to drinking the bottled stuff as I continued on my way. The terrain was the sort of familiar deciduous woodland with bracken undergrowth that immediately springs to my mind if someone says ‘forest’.
The path soon carried me to Culbone, also called Kitnor (and listed in the Domesday Book as Kytenore or Chetnore). The name ‘Culbone’ is thought to derive from the Celtic cil beun for ‘Church of St Beuno’; St Beuno being a seventh century abbot of Clynnog Fawr in Gwynedd’s Llŷn Peninsula.
Although Culbone has been inhabited on and off since 3500 BC its remoteness has made it an ideal dumping ground to which to banish social misfits. In the thirteenth century this meant disbelievers, lunatics and witches, who were left to fend for themselves without support or resources of any kind. The following century it was criminals and those deemed immoral, while the sixteenth century brought lepers and the nineteenth brought Indians captured during the expansion of the Raj.
The Culbone Stone
I sat on the wall of Culbone’s stone bridge and watched a cat vainly but determinedly chasing a squirrel that she simply wasn’t fast enough to catch. I considered taking a detour to look for the Culbone Stone, an early mediæval standing stone inscribed with a cross that lies in woodland close to the parish boundary. It is a scheduled ancient monument. It also turned out to be three quarters of a mile away, which I decided was too far.
Culbone Wood became Yearnor Wood and the paths started to wind down the hillside passing strange walls and bricked-up tunnels. At one point the path led through one that wasn’t and it had a bizarre, fairy-tale feel.
Actually, the tunnel doesn’t even lead to Worthy Manor, to which it once did, as the manor was demolished in 1974.
An eighteenth century fantasy affair with minarets and cloisters and vaguely modelled on the houses around the Italian Lakes, it was the home of Ada, Countess of Lovelace, who was notable for being both the world’s first computer programmer (she worked with Charles Babbage) and the daughter of Lord Byron.
Lord Lovelace heavily modified the manor house to please his wife, including the tunnels in the grounds which concealed any tradesmen travelling to and from the house.
Worthy Combe Road
At the bottom of the hill was an archway and tollhouse, guarding access to the Worthy Combe Road, which remains a private toll road.
Next to the hamlet of Worthy is that of Porlock Weir with its harbour, now a haven for small pleasure craft.
Porlock Weir sits on the edge of Porlock Bay, whose beach forms a natural shingle barrier protecting a salt marsh beyond. The village of Porlock lies beyond the marsh while at the far end of the bay is the hamlet of Bossington and, behind it, Bossington Hill.
A submerged forest can be seen at low tide, drowned by rising sea levels seven to eight thousand years ago, and the bones of an aurochs were discovered on the beach in 1999.
The Ship Inn
Porlock Weir had a pub, which made me very happy, although less so when I learnt that the pub’s kitchens had closed fifteen minutes before I arrived. Still, they sold me crisps and a gin and tonic and I idled away some time drinking my G&T in the sun and putting off what must come next:
The path from Porlock Weir tried to set off along Porlock Ridge, the natural shingle barrier left by changing water levels at the end of the ice age. I say ‘tried’ because it has been diverted inland on account of a breach.
Porlock Aircrash Memorial
Not only the path had been moved on account of the breach and flooding but also the Porlock Aircrash Memorial, a small memorial to the deaths of eleven American airmen in 1942. A USAAF B-24 Liberator that was returning to its airfield in the New Forest from a routine U-boat patrol in the Bay of Biscay clipped the top of Bossington Hill in bad weather and crashed into the marsh. Only one crewman survived.
The path took me near, but not into, the village of Porlock. In a 2010 survey, Porlock was found to have the most elderly population in Britain, with 40% being pensioners. The village is itself pretty old, and is recorded in the Domesday Book as Portloc.
The Stranger from Porlock
Probably the village’s most famous resident is the unnamed ‘Stranger from Porlock’ who interrupted Samuel Taylor Coleridge while he was transcribing Kubla Khan based on a dream he’d had. The Stranger from Porlock detained him on some business for an hour after which Coleridge had forgotten the details of his dream and so could not finish the poem.
Having edged past Porlock, I paused in the hamlet of Bossington in order to avail myself of a tea garden, where I consumed tea and Victoria sponge cake.
A very chatty owner, who turned out to hail from London, pointed out details of my route ahead on my map and ruminated on other walkers he’d encountered including a girl determinedly walking during a downpour and an East Asian man who had timed his schedule to the minute with absolutely no contingency.
When I’d drunk my tea and summoned up the willpower I set off along the path around the bottom of Bossington Hill, knowing that it was about to charge right up at any moment. And it did. It probably wasn’t as bad as some other ascents that I’ve done and my heart didn’t explode from the effort or anything but, I have to admit, there was a point near the top where I wasn’t so sure that exploding would not be an option. I should probably try not to leave it an entire month between walking trips.
I was given a choice of two routes at the summit. The main coast path route followed a track along the broad ridge formed by a series of hills while a ‘rugged alternative’ ranged nearer the cliffs with all the vertical oscillation that usually entails.
I quickly decided that I didn’t need any rugged alternatives; having climbed to 300 m I’d just stay there for the next three miles.
While I was up there I encountered a couple from South Wales who were looking across the Bristol Channel (at South Wales) and working out what they recognised.
It turned out that they had come to Exmoor because they’d bought of a watercolour of somewhere called Cow Castle and, having learned that it was in Exmoor, they wanted to see if it looked like the painting. They’d found out where it is (near Simonsbath and about eight miles south of Glenthorne) and were planning to go there the next day. I wished them luck.
I passed sheep, Exmoor ponies and the largest flock of crows I’ve ever laid eyes on (there were easily over a hundred all cawing in a deafening and somewhat creepy chorus) and then the path re-entered woodland and zig-zagged its way down to sea level. At the bottom I got my first sight of Minehead.
Minehead has been inhabited since the Bronze Age and its name has nothing to do with mines, deriving from Welsh mynydd (meaning ‘mountain’) via ‘Mynheafdon’, ‘Maneheve’, ‘Menehewed’ and ‘Menedun’.
Coast Path Start/End Marker
I walked past the harbour — Minehead was a major Mediaeval port but later lost out to larger ports — and also walked past this sculpture marking the start (or in my case end) of the South West Coast Path:
Food and Rest
Minehead has an Edwardian avenue running through its centre, which led me to my hotel. As I walked up to reception the receptionist greeted me by name and told me she’d just tried to call me since I was later than I’d said I would be. I guess I was her only errant guest but even so I was impressed.
While the receptionist was super-efficient the hotel was surprisingly vague on the temperature of its water — a sign in my bathroom warned ‘water maybe hot’. As it turned out it was hot and a good soak later I felt willing and able to go and hunt down some food.
The next morning I jumped on a bus to Taunton, where I caught a train home. Sadly I couldn’t catch a train to Taunton from Minehead itself as the line was closed in 1971 and, though reopened as a heritage railway just five years later, it only goes to Bishop’s Lydeard, five miles short of Taunton.
Also it costs almost twice the bus fare. Even so I was tempted.
This time: 20 miles
Total since Gravesend: 916½ miles