HAVING gone to bed without an alarm, I awoke at about four in the morning and vaguely snoozed until about six. I freely admit that I didn’t really want to get up and look out of the window because the dull grey half-light strongly suggested rain. By the time I had performed my ablutions and got dressed, it was a grimly unavoidable truth that Plymouth was firmly enveloped in low cloud and drizzle.
I can’t say that the weather really surprised me. The default for Plymouth is a light drizzle that one doesn’t wish to dignify as ‘rain’ but which is blown through every layer of one’s clothing by the wind coming in off the sea.
Disturbingly, it made me feel nostalgic. Nostalgic, cold and wet.
The world’s most eager to help night porter directed me to the nearest shop, which opened minutes after I got there, allowing me to procure bottles of water and sandwiches for the day’s walk. By the time I returned to the hotel, Simkin was up and eating breakfast, the night porter having helpfully told him where I was.
November September Rain
Bang on time, our taxi arrived and whisked us back to Bigbury-on-Sea, a thirty quid journey necessitated by the withdrawal of the Sunday bus service. Even so, it worked out cheaper than trying to stay in Bigbury itself and the taxi driver’s choice of road music — Guns’n’Roses — brightened my mood enormously. The only thing that made me even happier was his incredulity.
‘You’re walking all day in this?’ he asked us repeatedly.
Faith and Forecasts
I placed my trust in the Met Office. While early morning rain in Plymouth is not unexpected, they were predicting that for the rest of the day it would fall east of Salcombe and so narrowly miss us. I’m pleased to say they were right.
We hadn’t been on the path for more than ten seconds when we opted to step off it again, heading down to the beach. The tide was on its way out and had already exposed the causeway to Burgh Island.
We looked across to the island, now essentially a mere hill, and its art deco 1930s hotel — which inspired Agatha Christie to write And Then There Were None — and knew we had to cross over to it.
Moments later we were standing beside the Pilchard Inn, which is also run by the hotel.
Both Simkin and I agreed that we didn’t really need to walk around Burgh Island. He wanted to save his efforts for the day’s trek while I reserve the right to be entirely inconsistent as regards my policy on islands other than Great Britain itself.
We thus headed out of Bigbury-on-Sea and passed, a mile later, through the hamlet of Challaborough, which mostly comprises two caravan sites in the parishes of Bigbury and Ringmore respectively, along with a tiny handful of private houses.
Challaborough also boasts a shop, which furnished us with chocolate.
During the five minutes that we were in Challaborough’s shop the weather switched from ‘fine mist’ to ‘actual rain’ and we trudged onwards hooded and wrapped in cagoules. The path rose gently to about 70 m above sea level and then, upon reaching Ayrmer Cove, dropped steeply to sea level.
We looked in dismay at the slope which would have been traversable in better weather but now threatened to be a Mudslide of Death, complete with actual death.
About ten metres back we had passed a footpath running inland to Ringmore, a village about a mile inland. Did we want to chicken out and add two miles to the walk? Or did we want to risk the slippery mud?
The answer was ‘cluck’.
Ringmore, which was listed as ‘Reimore’ in the Domesday Book, turned out to be quite picturesque and, as a bonus, it stopped raining pretty much as we reached the centre of it.
On a Sunday morning, it was understandably quiet as we picked our way past the thirteenth century All Hallows Church and the equally old Journey’s End Inn.
Things had been rather less quiet in the 1640s when All Hallows’ priest, William Lane, made a number of Royalist pronouncements, bringing down the wrath of the Parliamentarian authorities in nearby Plymouth. A contingent of troops, which had landed at Ayrmer Cove, headed inland to burn the rectory and slew two of Lane’s son’s while he was forced to hide and later flee for France. Presumably he left via Challaborough, which served as Ringmore’s tiny ‘port’ at the time.
Ayrmer Cove (Again)
We arrived back at Ayrmer Cove and looked at the hill we’d avoided, emphatically justifying our detour to ourselves. As we did so, another walker — a man in his sixties — came down the hill at quite a pace, supported in part by a walking pole.
Ashamed by comparison, we turned and pressed on, climbing up the steep but manageable hill that led westwards from the cove. We had almost reached the top when the Speedy Sexagenarian caught up with us and wished us good morning. We noted that he was faster than us and admitted we’d gone round the hill. He, for his part, graciously conceded that it was already drying out.
A short conversation about destinations followed — Mr Speedy Sexagenarian was doing a walk as far as Mothecombe on the far side of the River Erme — and ferry times were mentioned. He’d clearly got his information from the same places as I had, although I temporarily misremembered the times, causing a moment of panic.
Having checked our various bits of paper, calm was restored and the Speedy Sexegenarian said he was planning to go on to Wembury later in the week before the Noss Mayo ferry ended its season on the 30th. That said, he bid us good day and disappeared off into the distance at about double our pace. Which was embarrassing.
The Speedy Sexegenarian was already out of sight by the time we found ourselves negotiating another steep descent, this time down to Westcombe beach (pronounced ‘WIS-com’).
The path had formed those natural steps made by other people’s footprints, and we came down pretty carefully as it was still quite slippery underfoot. This showed us that we’d been right to take the detour while it was raining, which made us feel a bit better at least.
Ahead, the path zig-zagged up another hill, climbing steeply from sea level to about 90 m in very little horizontal distance at all. I looked at Simkin, he looked at me. Should we rest? Should we press on?
‘Let’s just get on with it,’ we agreed.
It was a serious path, even if it did zig-zag. Worse, there was nowhere to rest. I pretty much collapsed when I reached the top of Hoist Point and the only reason I didn’t shout ‘My legs! My legs!’ was because I just didn’t have the breath.
We both sat in silence for a while. Then, when we got some breath back, there was swearing.
The path remained open and grassy and undulated gently as the coast rounded Beacon Point and turned into the mouth of the River Erme. This little stream rises on Dartmoor and flows down to meet the sea in a surprisingly broad river mouth, comprising a sandy-bottomed ria.
About the Erme
Its first definite mention is as ‘Irym’ in the 1240 cartulary of Buckfast Abbey but it is thought that it may be the otherwise unidentified ‘Aramis’ listed in the eighth century Ravenna Cosmography as being in southwest England.
There is neither bridge nor ferry at the mouth of the Erme; it must be forded within an hour or so of low tide (we watched Mr Speedy Sexagenarian cross as we looked down from the clifftop).
Our own timing was sufficiently excellent that it was both low tide and slack water as we made our way down to Wonwell Beach. This beach was guarded by a minefield during WW2, which brought an abrupt and unexpected end to a local dog that had gone missing.
The mines having long been cleared, many dogs were in evidence being walked by their owners or, in one case, being carefully ignored by their less than considerate owner while it pooed on some seaweed. Simkin watched another dog paddling in the Erme and cheerfully pointed out that it only had its paws wet. Almost as he said this it went further in and started swimming, prompting him to ask a nearby woman the best place to cross.
‘Oh, anywhere along here,’ was more or less her answer, ‘it’s not quite welly height’. She looked down at his walking boots and her face became something of a sneer. ‘—Oh.’
Fording the Erme
I’d been expecting it to be shin-height anyway, so it was time to take off boots and socks and walk across. Across, that is, the painful, knobbly stones that only lined the stream bed to maim unwary waders; the rest of the beach was all sand.
Fortunately, the stones were but a moment’s discomfort – the water was so cold that it hurt and the stones were soon eclipsed by the crippling numbness.
On the far side of the Erme, we paused at the slipway that abuts the road to Mothecombe and waited for feeling to return to our extremities. Also, it seemed a good spot to eat those sandwiches I’d bought in Plymouth.
Jolly Well Done
While we were sat there, stuffing our faces, a trio of terribly jolly ladies wondered past and asked us if we’d forded the river. I won’t tell you what they said next. Just take several small scraps of paper and write as many stereotypical PG Wodehouse-style positive exclamations you can think of. Shake thoroughly and draw them out at random. There, you’ve pretty much got the gist of it. What-ho! Spiffing!
We headed up the slipway and along the path, which led us to the privately-owned Mothecombe Beach and from there up a flight of steps and a hill. The steps ran past a small building built by Mr H Mildmay in 1875 as a private tea room, along with several others dotted across the Flete Estate.
Western Bigbury Bay
A bit of undulation followed but once the path had attained the clifftop it ran along for a mile and half with fields on our right demarcated by an electric fence or, at one point, by a non-electric fence made to look electric, presumably in the hope that livestock has learned to avoid it.
Then, as the path approached Blackaterry Point and the field beside us was looking particularly steeply angled, the path suddenly turned inland up the field. I may have sworn again..
DOE or Die
As we made our way onwards, further up the field, along a path seemingly made entirely from cowpats, we passed the first knot of youths embarked on a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award thing.
This first group looked happy and enthused but, as the day progressed, and we passed groups lagging ever further behind, the ratio of joy to sullen resentment would gradually shift.
Beware of the Bull
The path dipped down into a hollow in a field inhabited by one solitary shape — a bull sitting on a higher path further up the hill.
Ahead of us was Beacon Hill and three late-middle-aged ladies picked their way down it, one of them terrified in case the bull should charge. This was not going to be a problem: it was fiercely hot and sunny by this time and the bull wasn’t moving at all if he could possibly help it.
We bid the ladies goodbye and headed up the hill; Simkin quietly singing Kate Bush lyrics but definitely not running up it — Beacon Hill was grassy and lacked not just steps but a path. It climbed from 30m to 107m in about 250m, which I make a 32% gradient. All I can say is that it felt steeper.
At the top was another group of DoE youths, looking a bit lost. Oh and this:
Once we had our breaths back we continued for maybe half a mile to Stoke Beach, passing ever more disgruntled youths as we went. At Stoke Beach — which is apparently good for wrasse fishing — we checked our progress and realised that getting to Noss Mayo in time for the ferry was touch and go at best. Fail and not go, was actually looking more likely.
A bit of hasty replanning saw us turn inland, dropping four miles of coast and Gara Point from the plan and instead crossing directly to Noss Mayo via one mile of road. This carried us through the hamlet marked on my OS map as ‘Rowden’ and which appears to comprise Rowden Court — a complex of buildings built in 1882 to house the horses and the carriages of Lord Revelstoke’s country estate. These were converted into holiday homes in 1985.
A short while thereafter we arrived at the village of Noss Mayo, with its thirteenth century church. Noss Mayo and Newton Ferrers sit on either side of a creek of the River Yealm, running into each other at its end. They have been described as two of Devon’s most attractive villages, a sentiment difficult to argue with:
Noss Mayo means ‘Matthew’s nose’ and was given by Edward II to Matthew FitzJohn of the manor of ‘Stok’ in 1287, while Newton Ferrers was recorded in Domesday as Newton, given to the Norman Ferrers family.
Since we now had plenty of time, we ensconced ourselves in the Swan Inn and downed a couple of cokes each in an attempt to cool down and rest. The Swan sits below the second, current church, St Peter’s, built in 1877 for Edward Baring, Lord Revelstoke, who was a grandson of Sir Francis Baring, founder of the now defunct Barings Bank. Lord Revelstoke was himself an important banker and a director of the Bank of England.
Having got directions to the ferry from the landlady of the Swan, we headed off towards it with only a slight detour to get lost while trying to take a shortcut through the nearby Ship Inn and failing to find either of the two exits we wanted. I did, however, manage to get gently mocked by a barmaid as I totally missed the last step on a flight of stairs. I didn’t mind; I deserved it.
River Yealm Ferry
Noss Mayo’s seasonal ferry to Wembury was summoned by a very simple system. If you wanted a ferry you opened out the ferry sign into a white disc, remembering to close it again when he arrived.
As the ferry whisked us across, the ferryman made self deprecating jokes — the ferry itself sported a sign saying ‘under old management’ — and his daughter looked as embarrassed for him as only a girl in her early teens can. The ferryman also revealed that it was his last day of the season, in complete contradiction to the information that I and the Speedy Sexagenarian had.
‘Well,’ we said, as we stepped off the ferry, Mr Speedy Sexagenarian is going to have an unpleasant surprise come Tuesday.
Simkin pointed out someone else having no luck — a couple waiting on the slipway for the ferry who had yet to notice the white disc…
A short walk around the coast conveyed us to Wembury, where the siren lure of ice cream overwhelmed my willpower.
Inhabited since Mesolithic times, Wembury came into its own with the Saxons, who colonised the area in the seventh century. Its name means ‘Woden’s town’.
Wembury was full of surfers, sunbathers and visitors to Wembury Marine Centre, which is run by Devon Wildlife Trust and caters for 20,000 visitors a year.
Offshore from Wembury Beach lies the Mewstone, a triangular island which is currently a bird sanctuary.
Wikipedia and the billion other webpages that have copied it will tell you that it was formerly home to ‘Sam Wakeman’, a convict who was transported to it for seven years and who carved some steps to the summit. However, this appears to be a somewhat garbled account.
Sam Wakeham was indeed an inhabitant of the island — at least until he was caught smuggling and removed — but he was neither the convict nor the first.
The convict appears to have been a man named ‘Finn’, banished to the island in 1774 for seven years for the crime of being ‘a nuisance to his neighbours’. He built a cottage on the eastern slope (the ruins of which remain) and lived there with his family. When his sentence was up he was so used to the seclusion that he moved down the coast to St George’s Island off Looe and lived as a tenant to Sir Harry Trelawney.
Finn’s daughter, ‘Black Joan’, remained on the Mewstone, living there with her husband when she married. He later drowned and several other tenants lived there thereafter including the aforementioned Wakeham.
From Wembury, the path led along low cliffs bathed in the aroma of rotting seaweed, which was less than delightful.
This led to the village of Heybrook Bay, about which I have been able to learn nothing except that the Eddystone Inn has good reviews. But we didn’t go there. Instead, we continued past Renney Rocks, rounding the coast and getting our first view of Plymouth Sound.
We started to see a number of concrete circles, the remains of WW2 gun emplacements defending the city and port. Theirs was an impossible task and Plymouth’s centre was more-or-less bombed flat.
We soon encountered an earlier fortification as we approached Bovisand, home to a holiday park and a diving centre at Fort Bovisand, an 1859 Royal Commission establishment incorporating an earlier battery. Since the 1970s the fort has held a succession of diving schools, which seem to keep going bankrupt.
The path climbed up steps past Bovisand to Staddon Heights and Jennycliff. There, the path became a leafy tunnel, especially after a point where a new-looking staircase branched off up to the road.
We now became aware of a really serious drop to our left, which added a certain excitement and which was explained when we reached the end and found a barrier failing to block our way. I remembered then that an old friend — known to us as Soviet Alex — had warned me that the cliff path had been diverted there. We had obviously used the old, dangerous path and survived. Hooray us!
It was at this point, as we emerged into a wide grassy park, that we officially crossed into Plymouth. An engraved stone set into the path read charmingly: ‘Welcome to Plymouth, please wipe your feet.’ I love that city.
After a brief rest in the park above Jennycliff, wishing vaguely that we weren’t too late for the Jennycliff Café , we embarked upon the final stretch down to Mount Batten.
In order to wend our way down to Mount Batten, we passed by Fort Stamford, a structure we had often seen from a distance but never close up. Another Palmerston Folly, the fort remained in military use until 1956 and is now a country club and health and fitness centre.
We passed through the suburb of Turnchapel, noting a number of Lawrence of Arabia themed street names.
Finally, weapproached the Mount Batten Ferry pontoon in the shadow of the Mount Batten Tower, built in 1652 during the Anglo-Dutch Wars and now a scheduled Ancient Monument.
Mount Batten Ferry
The Mount Batten Ferry whisked us across the Cattewater for the bargain sum of £1.50 each and afforded us of a view of the Hoe and Citadel by twilight.
The Barbican / City Centre
We parked ourselves at Cap’n Jaspers and stuffed our faces, washing it down with Jasper’s absurdly cheap cups of tea and coffee. A couple of drinks in the pub called the Bank (it’s what the building once was) and a stroll about town killed time until the coach home.
Leaving for London
The coach, when it arrived, was a bus on account of the coach having broken down but they managed to swap them back over in Exeter. We arrived in London, slightly late, at half seven in the morning leaving me to make my way home and Simkin heading into work…
This time: 15½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 550 miles
(photos courtesy of Simkin)