FOR ME, the last day of March began with an overnight coach from London to Plymouth and then, after breakfast, I jumped on the first bus back to Bude. Not entirely coincidentally, it was also the last day on which the 576 Bus from Plymouth to Bude would be running a full service; Cornwall Council would no longer subsidise the route as of the first of April and thereafter there would only be one bus per day, arriving in Bude in late evening.
Breakfast was a large bacon and egg roll from Cap’n Jaspers, smothered in sweetcorn relish, since you ask.
Bussing to Bude
Time of Arrival
Catching the first bus on the last day got me there for 11 am, which was an hour earlier than the only other alternative, namely the bus from Exeter.
The journey proved mildly entertaining as the driver kept talking by radio to other drivers and the controller at the bus depot, on account of his having noticed that the bus that should have passed him the other way had failed to do so. He rightly surmised that there had been a hideous scheduling cockup and deduced that no one had been allotted to drive the missing bus, while another, specific, service would have two people show up to drive it.
Much of the journey was thus conducted to the backdrop of his being told that it was all under control and then being proved exactly correct, right down to which bus had two drivers. Truth be told, I think he was rather enjoying it.
The bus dropped me off at Bude Strand dead on 11 and I spent a moment trying to decide if it was next to the River Neet or the remains of the Bude Canal. I quickly decided that I didn’t much care and that I should probably find some water of the bottled rather than flowing variety; I thus availed myself of Bude’s shops.
Possibly I should have been a little more interested in Bude Canal because it was a little unusual. Dreamt up by a successful canal pioneer named John Edyvean in 1774, it wasn’t actually built until 1817 since the Napoleonic Wars rather got in the way. The cunning plan was to link the canal to the Tamar, thus providing a cargo route direct from the Bristol Channel to the English Channel, which made a lot of sense at the time.
Boats on Wheels
However, to keep the costs down they decided not to build a lot of locks but instead mostly relied on inclined planes, which is basically much like building weirs along its course. To get around the issue of how canal boats would traverse a sloping weir they used tub boats with little wheels on the bottom, so that they could just roll up or down. And to power the upwards rolling, they installed continuous moving chains at the planes — each powered by an underwater water wheel — to which the boats could attach themselves and be hauled up. It was pretty ingenious and not a little daft.
Completed in 1825, it cost £118,000 and succeeded in its aims, allowing Bude to ship mineral-rich sand and Welsh coal to Launceston, where the canal met the Tamar. Its economic success was short-lived however; the coming of the railways and the development of cheap synthetic fertilisers destroyed Bude’s sand trade and closed the canal.
Today, it is not only no longer navigable but large sections of it inland have completely disappeared, having been filled in and ploughed under (or built on). Bude doesn’t have a railway station either these days, the line having been closed during the Beeching Axe in 1966.
From Bude Strand I headed seawards, passing Bude Castle, built in 1830 for Sir Goldsworthy Gurney, who was as perfect an eccentric Victorian inventor as one could hope for. A chemist, engineer, surgeon and architect he invented the Bude light — a type of very bright oil lamp which was used to illuminate the House of Commons for over fifty years — and various types of blowpipe and blastpipe that would be important for devising more powerful steam engines.
Later, he went on to design an array of steam-powered motor carriages and would have made a fortune but for the fact that railway tycoons and stagecoach magnates already had money and friends in Parliament. A series of Acts of Parliament levied prohibitively high tolls on the use of steam carriages on public roads and Sir Goldsworthy’s business venture collapsed, sending him bankrupt instead. Bude Castle is now a heritage centre.
I soon reached Crooklets Beach, on the outskirts of Bude, and decided to fuel my day’s walking with lemon drizzle cake. Because it was available.
I then set off at a brisk pace, enjoying the lovely, level terrain on the cliff top, knowing that it wasn’t so much trying to lull me into a false sense of security as just to provide some really serious contrast. I had read that the section of coast path between Bude and Hartland was reckoned by many to be one of the toughest. But it wasn’t yet…
The going continued delightfully easy for all of about a mile, which brought me to Northcott Mouth. There the wreck of the SS Belem, launched in 1891 and wrecked in 1917 by those fun-loving rocks, can be seen at low tide.
I peered down into the waves below and consulted the tide times. Yep, I was there at the highest part of high tide, no wreck-spotting for me.
A gentle drop down into Northcott Mouth was followed by the first set of steps and then everything started to get mildly hilly.
This time I was prepared, having purchased some walking poles. I had always shied away from these in the past, as they somehow felt a bit like cheating. But going by road when the going is hard also feels a bit like cheating and on my last walk one of the people I met on the way had indirectly and surprisingly politely called me a ‘bloody idiot’ for not using them.
I took out my poles with mixed feelings and set off up the steps.
For the record, I love walking poles. I’m a complete convert. They make gradients easier and they add stability. As the day progressed, there were at least three places that I would not want to have tried to scramble up without them and two where I would never have had the confidence to try.
They are great.
Bucket Hill to Warren Point
Initially though, it was just a few steps and some not too brutal slopes where the poles just showed how much easier they make going uphill (by transferring some of the effort to your arms). I ambled along, surprised and delighted by the difference they were making, enjoying the green of the grass and the blue of the sea and the lambs gambolling about on the hillsides. Although one hillside ahead appeared to be farming a flock of giant receiver dishes, which was different. And also not on the map.
Shortly thereafter, the path brought me to Duckpool, the mouth of the Coombe Valley.
Now, with a name like ‘Coombe’ it was never going to be anything but steep-sided, that’s what a cwm is, after all. But I have to admit I looked at the far side with some dismay. The path ran up the side of it at an angle before running right along the top.
At first it didn’t look quite so bad but, as I got closer and the angle I was viewing it from changed, I got increasingly nervous. The top was a ridge and the valley wall was steep enough that you would fall down it not onto it.
Worse, you see that bit on the left, where the path reaches the top of the ridge? The top of that was as wide as the path and no more, which was all of two feet.
Three Dogs Man
I looked up at the ridge from the valley floor, my eyes quite possibly wider than the path, while a man out walking his three dogs tried to tell me that it wasn’t as bad as it looked.
‘Well, not until you get to the top of the ridge anyway,’ he added helpfully. ‘At least it’s not windy.’
A quick look at the map showed that I could go around it, taking another footpath that missed out this Path of Terror. But I put the map away and gripped both walking poles; I had decided to try to make myself do it. Teeth clenched, I set off.
‘Good luck,’ said Three Dogs Man.
Path of Terror
I absolutely wouldn’t have tried this without the poles; the extra stability they gave me added just enough confidence that I wouldn’t trip and fall to my death.
Even so, it tested my courage as I made my way slowly up the narrow, stepped path, upon which all my attention was focussed. I didn’t look down into the valley, I didn’t look up. I kept going.
I was almost at the top and feeling quite proud of myself for even attempting it when someone cheerfully shouted ‘excuse me!’ and I froze. Seconds later a man without poles nipped lightly past me and continued his run up the path onto the ridge.
Why no, I didn’t feel at all inadequate but only because my brain refused to process this. How could anyone go running on that ridge? All I could manage was a terrified plod, gripping both poles for dear life. Clearly he was fearless and possessed of inhuman balance, not to mention a level of fitness that only kryptonite could diminish.
With a sigh, I pressed on, soon reaching safer ground where I sat on a bench and rested, looking down on the valley floor some 70 m below.
It’s Not Just Me
As I set off again, a couple passed me, coming the other way. Much as I’d disliked coming up that ridge, I think I’d have hated going down it even more. Judging from the young woman’s anguished cry of ‘Oh God,’ she felt similarly.
I left them consulting their maps and began a slow, gradual climb of another 30 m before the path suddenly turned inland and faced me with this:
GCHQ Bude sat next to Lower Sharpnose Point on the site of what was RAF Cleave during WW2, which is just shown as a disused airfield on Ordnance Survey maps.
A distant outpost of GCHQ, the government’s signals intelligence outfit based in Cheltenham, its antennae were pointed at a wide range of communications satellites including the INTELSAT, Intersputnik and INMARSAT networks, presumably gathering data for ECHELON.
Apparently a number of EU countries have alleged that it carries out industrial espionage in addition to plain old ordinary espionage. At any rate, the Intelligence Services Act 1994 basically says that it can listen to whatever it likes, and if you’re making calls or sending text messages that are being bounced off those satellites, you might as well just say ‘hello’ to them while you’re at it.
Lower Sharpnose Point
From Lower Sharpnose Point northwards the beaches give way to a lot more sharp ridges of rock. This is the Shipwreck Coast.
No sooner had I passed GCHQ Bude than the path dropped down to sea level again, taking me down to Stanbury Mouth.
The route up the other side was dusty and steep in places and if I hadn’t had the walking poles, there’d have been a lot of difficult scrambling with hands and feet. And I’m absolutely certain that I couldn’t get down it without falling over at least once.
Between this and the terror that had been Steeple Point, I was reminded that I’m doing this path in reverse order to that normally given in walking guides. I think I’ve got it right though, I really wouldn’t want to walk the South West Coast Path in the other direction. No thank you, no.
The Bench Elders
At the top of this dusty scramble was a bench with an elderly couple on it and they budged up to make room for me as soon as they saw me. I hadn’t actually intended to stop but now it seemed rude not to so I sat and chatted to them for a short while.
They were out walking of course, complete with walking poles, and concurred that they only ever came up the path I’d just traversed and avoided going down it. I mentioned the ridge at Duckpool and the man went an interesting shade of pale.
‘No, he doesn’t like that bit either,’ said his wife. ‘Of course they’ve made it into steps now,’ she added, ‘it used to be really steep.’
Higher Sharpnose Point
We set off in the same direction at the same time but I soon outdistanced the Bench Elders, who were taking things easy.
The vertical strata of the rocks made for strange cliffs whose faces were either single flat slabs or composed of sharp ridges. In no time at all I found myself at Higher Sharpnose Point, a short ridge that juts out into the sea.
I felt absolutely no desire whatsoever to walk out along Higher Sharpnose Point, turn round at the end and walk back again. I don’t like ridges as it is, why would I want to walk the length of one twice for no reason? Some might call it fun, but I’ll be considering self-immolation as fun before I’ll do that.
From Higher Sharpnose Point the path dropped down to a stream called the Tidna and then climbed quickly up the other side. I paused halfway up to peer back into the valley, where the Bench Elders were following a riverside path to Morwenstow.
The village of Morwenstow lay about a mile inland and I would later be told that I could have obtained an excellent Cornish cream tea there. Its main claim to fame is as the home of Robert Stephen Hawker, a nineteenth century vicar, poet, and opium fiend.
Hawker (1803–1875) wrote what is now often considered Cornwall’s anthem, Trelawny. He did much of his writing, and his consuming of opium, in a tiny hut on the cliff top, now the National Trust‘s smallest building.
Hawker’s Hut is about the size of a small garden shed and is built into the cliff face, looking out towards Lundy, with a short flight of steps leading down to it.
It seemed like an excellent spot to stop and eat my sandwiches, although not the safest place to be bombed out of one’s skull on mind-altering drugs (although, on opium, one might well know no fear).
I had given some thought to heading inland to Morwenstow but ultimately decided to carry on along the coast.
I thus traversed the path along Vicarage cliff and dropped down into the next valley, where I envied the Revd Hawker his opiate-assisted sense of calm. The other side of the valley was extremely steep and the path zig-zagging up it was also very steep and looked not a little precarious. My stomach lurched just looking at it and I thought ‘I can’t go up there’.
But I wasn’t going back. Oh no…
Another nervous climb of only focussing on the path ensued. The path up to Henna Cliff managed to combine feeling extremely precarious (although not quite as bad as Steeple Point) with the kind of steep, scrabbly going that I’d found at Stanbury Mouth.
At one point, even with the walking poles, I managed to trip while climbing onto a rocky ledge in the path. All I can say is that it’s probably a sign that you’re out of your comfort zone when you grab hold of a gorse bush for support. And it’s definitely a sign that you’re out of your comfort zone when you grab hold of a gorse bush for support and keep tight hold of it.
Trio in Trainers
I was more than a little relieved to reach the top of it. There I found a trio of walkers — mum, dad and teenage daughter — resting on a bench. We exchanged brief pleasantries and they set off to make their way down the path I’d just come up. They had neither poles nor walking boots and I wonder how well they fared. Quite possibly they skipped down like mountain goats. Again, I’m quite sure I couldn’t have.
The next section had an altogether more reasonable style of up-and-downiness as it made its way along the top of Cornakey Cliff. This ended with a steep descent to cross a stream at Litter Mouth.
A small wooden bridge crossed the stream at Litter Mouth, after which came the ascent up Marsland Cliff. This would be the last such climb in Cornwall. The next one would be in Devon.
Atop Marsland cliff, I passed by Gull Rock, a sticky out headland with a hole through it at the end.
I mused as to just how many ‘Gull Rocks’ I’ve passed on my excursions and whether coastal communities weren’t lacking in imagination when they named them.
The path now dropped sedately, via some steps, into the Marsland Valley, a steep-sided valley carved by a small stream named Marsland Water. This is the northern border between Devon and Cornwall, which otherwise runs along the Tamar for most of its length.
At the top of all the steps things levelled out for a short distance and a footpath branched off inland towards the hamlet of Mead.
Local Lady & Excitable Dog
A very excitable dog bounced up intent on licking me to death while her owner, a young lady, called her back without much success. She was clearly local rather than a walker and she asked me how far I’d come. Not seeing any reason to keep it a secret (I’ll leave those to GCHQ Bude) I told her, adding that it would have been easier if I had a better head for heights. Local Lady laughed and pointed at the far side of the next valley, Welcombe Mouth, noting that I had to go up that yet. It didn’t look so bad.
I thus extricated myself from Excitable Dog, who was running round my feet as though she thought she were a cat, and headed slowly down into Welcombe Mouth.
Having got there, it seemed like a good spot to take a break, have a drink of water and look at the map. The Bench Elders earlier had told me that it was mostly level from Welcombe Mouth, so this would be the last major climb for about four miles or so. All good.
I started up it.
Courage is a Finite Coin
It was steps but the steps weren’t level, rather they were sloping sections of path covered in loose stones. A short way up the path turned and I made the mistake of looking up along it. It was fairly steep and seemed to be raised, putting it on a ridge. My heart quailed.
In truth, I don’t think it was anywhere near as bad as the paths I’d already trodden that day but courage is a finite coin and my account was temporarily empty. To my own self-disgust, I turned around and walked back down to the bottom.
If at First You Don’t Succeed…
Moments later, I watched a middle-aged walker, without poles, make his way down from the top.
Right, I thought, if he can come down, I can go up. I started up again. And once again I got to the turn in the path, looked up despite my intention not to, and — quite frankly — chickened out.
I’m really not good with heights.
Retreating to the Road
Welcombe Mouth Hamlet
Oh, I told myself that I wasn’t chickening out as I headed off along the road (this being the first valley mouth in a while to even have a road) and I soon convinced myself that I had to head inland to buy more water.
But I knew I was lying.
Well, maybe not about the water but as it turned out, the hamlets of Welcombe Mouth and Southole didn’t have a shop anyway. I never expected them to. They weren’t exactly major centres of commerce.
The hamlet of Southole (according to road signs) or South Hole (on my OS map) dates back to the Domesday Book and isn’t much bigger now than it was then. In the Domesday Book it is listed as Hola and recorded as being worth £1 3s.
A quick check showed me that I was carrying more than that in loose change, a sum I’d happily have spent on more water had I been able to buy any.
After about two miles of road, during which I’d missed the chance to pass yet another Gull Rock, the footpath came to see what I was up to and joined me on the road. Half a mile later it left the road again and I went with it; it seemed rude not when it had come to fetch me.
Back on the Coast Path
A fairly level clifftop walk followed, with fields on one side and the jagged cliffs and rocks of the Shipwreck Coast on the other. Before long I came to Longpeak, a jaggedy sticking-out headland, and could see Speke’s Mill Mouth ahead.
Speke’s Mill Mouth
Speke’s Mill Mouth is probably North Devon’s most famous waterfall. It’s not very wide but it’s quite pretty, with Milford Water falling 48m in three stages down from the gorge to the beach. You can only see the first stage from the clifftop although a much more impressive view can be obtained by heading off down the steps to the beach below.
What I couldn’t really tell in advance was that in order to get down to Milford Water and the waterfall I had to make my way down yet another ridge — Swansford Hill — with cliffs on one side and the valley on the other. Although, in hindsight the fact that I’d passed a sign for the ‘valley route’ might have warned me that the ‘cliff top route’ might not exactly be considered easy access. Fortunately the Bank of Courage had accrued me some interest in the meantime and I was able to make my way down without much concern at all. It’s funny how the mind works, really.
St Catherine’s Tor
A set of winding steps carried me over the next hill into a valley dominated by the odd shape of St Catherine’s Tor, which as I said earlier looked like a mountain cut in half.
I was very pleased to see that the path went around it, through a low, damp valley that at one time held a pond used by the monks of Hartland Abbey in order to keep waterfowl for the kitchen.
A surprisingly broad and gentle path led me round the next headland, where I got my first glimpse of my destination:
Approaching Hartland Quay
Hartland Quay comprised an inn and a car park, sitting on some low cliffs below some higher cliffs, on which there are a couple of houses. Naturally, the path was on top of the higher cliffs, necessitating a slightly precarious descent.
The actual village of Hartland lies two and half miles east of Hartland Quay, with the hamlet of Stoke more-or-less in the middle. Stoke was the site of Hartland Abbey and, though the abbey was closed by Henry VIII, its church, St Nectan, has the highest tower in Devon at 128 ft. Mary Norton, author of the Borrowers novels, is buried there.
Hartland Quay itself was built in the late sixteenth century to provide a safe(ish) port for Hartland on this treacherous coast. It was maintained until the coming of the railway (to nearby Bideford) and vastly improved roads made it less economically practical. A storm swept away the quay in 1887, while Dr Beeching ended Bideford’s railway links.
Hartland Quay is pretty much now just an inn and hotel, which was fine by me as I was staying there. They were very welcoming and surprisingly inexpensive; I dined on scampi and more gin and tonics than was probably wise.
This time: 13½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 817½ miles