LAST Monday, I awoke bright and early, stretched out in an enormous bed in a rather large room and, for a moment, didn’t feel like getting up at all. But the lure of walking beckoned, so I arose and performed my ablutions before pausing to look out of the bedroom window at a view across the River Torridge.
It was then that I realised that the coast path ran past the end of the street.
Shrugging, I headed downstairs to eat my bodyweight in toast before checking out of the hotel. The hotelier was amused when he asked about my plans for the day:
You realise you’ll be walking past here again later on?’ he said when I explained them. ‘You can always pop in for a coffee or a pint.’
With a promise that I’d bear it in mind, I headed out of the door and back to Westward Ho!, which was about two miles away by road. Two miles goes by a hell of a lot quicker at the start of the day when you’re fresh and eager than it does at the end after eighteen and a half miles walked already. Thus, in what seemed like no time at all, I was back in the UK’s only town to spell its name with an exclamation mark.
I rejoined the coast path by the beach and it quickly carried me past Westward Ho!’s seafront and away from the town.
Directly north of Westward Ho! lay Northam Burrows Country Park, a grassy coastal plain situated at the mouth of the Taw Torridge Estuary. The park was basically the sort of scrubby, lumpy grassland that you get when sand dunes and salt marsh become meadow. Its monotony was mainly punctuated by sheep and golfers of the Royal North Devon Golf Club, the oldest golf club in England and Wales (founded 1864).
I quite liked Northam Burrows; even the golfers managed to placate my (admittedly irrational) ire at that their very existence by the ingenious means of a big, bold sign that declared ‘walkers have priority at all times’. A nice change from the attitudes of most golf courses; I was impressed. They were also the first club to allow women to join.
The path out of Westward Ho! initially followed a road and, while I could see the golfers and the sheep on my right, I couldn’t see the sea on my left on account of the huge wall-like ridge of pebbles that obscured it.
The pebble ridge, which was natural in origin but also vigorously maintained as a sea defence, stretched on for about a mile before it gave way to dunes and the path became an exercise in spotting the next marker and heading for it as the trail wasn’t clear on the ground. Since the ground was only covered in short grass and sheep poo, this wasn’t exactly a hardship and meant that I could basically pick my own path.
Taw Torridge Estuary
Keep on the Grass
At the northern extent of Northam Burrows, the mouth of the Taw Torridge Estuary, where the rivers Taw and Torridge both meet the sea, still appeared a little misty and its muddy sand looked deceptively easy to walk on. Frequent signs warned against bathing or crossing the mudflats, however, this being the perfect recipe to get yourself swallowed by quicksand. I stayed on the grass.
The path arced around the edge of Northam Burrows and past the Skern, an embayment of intertidal salt marsh, then joined a narrow toll road on which two girls on horses passed me by.
A stone bridge over a tidal creek led me out of the country park, at the entrance to which was a sign in the shape of a sheep showing the number of ovine injuries and deaths caused by dogs during the year (7 and 3 respectively).
No doubt the owners of the dogs in question were shocked to discover that ‘Rover would never do that’ was an entirely erroneous assertion and then shocked again to find themselves charged with the crime of sheep worrying.
Shortly after the sheep sign, I was surprised to be offered a high tide and low tide route. The tide being out, I took the latter, walking along the muddy edge of the Skern for a while before a ramp took me back on firm ground and carried me past an RNLI station into Appledore. A lifeboat was sat in the estuary and I paused for a moment to take a photo of my out of focus thumb, which wasn’t quite my intention.
Appledore was a thriving fishing and trading village from the fourteenth century onwards, although it long predates that, having been a Saxon settlement. Regardless of modern historians who claim that the Battle of Cynwit (878) took place at Cannington in Somerset, local tradition holds that invading Vikings under Hubba the Dane (Ubbe Ragnarsson) were defeated by the Ealdorman Odda of Devon at nearby Bloody Corner between Appledore and Northam. A plaque marks the corner, while a shiny new memorial stone sits on Appledore’s riverfront.
Appledore is rather picturesque and the route to the main riverfront took me down this charming narrow street:
Hocking’s Ice Cream
I found myself an ice cream, which I purchased from a van on the quay. This was Hocking’s ice cream, a brand made in Appledore and only sold in north Devon. It was excellent.
Appledore to Instow Ferry
Had I been doing this walk just three days later, I could have caught the Appledore to Instow Ferry and cut right across the estuary mouth. But I was just that little bit too early in the season and so would have to walk the long way round. Still, as the ice cream man observed, ice cream is full of calories for walking.
The Second-Homer Situation
While I could understand the antipathy that locals might feel against the owners of holiday homes, whose greater spending power pushes house prices well above what locals can afford, I couldn’t help but feel that the cartoon had missed its mark.
If Snoopy sold his kennel then at least he’s made a tidy sum on it. Of course, if it was repossessed by the bank and sold, that’s a different story. And sadly, that’s not too implausible — knowing that they can sell a house to rich Londoners for more than the current occupant can repay is not exactly an inducement to restraint on the part of the banks when mortgage payments are at risk.
On the other hand, I was reminded of the taxi driver I chatted to near Land’s End, who felt that second home owners at least tried to be part of the village when they were there, while retirees (he opined) kept to themselves and thus unintentionally helped the communities die.
Unlike many west country villages, for which tourism is now the only industry, Appledore is still thriving, however. In addition to its local ice cream business it is also the home to Babcock Marine, the latest incarnation of a shipbuilders’ yard that dates back to 1855. The shipyard is currently building parts for the two new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers (which are then being assembled in Rosyth).
My route took me past the Quay, which was built in 1845, widened in the 1940s and raised in 1988; the old quay edge is now buried under the middle of the road.
A short road trek through Appledore’s more industrial areas carried me directly past Babcock Marine, where I spotted a number of hard-hatted workers taking a smoking break outside the grounds.
Just past the shipyard a small footpath cut away from the road and through some woodland to deposit me upon on the banks of the Torridge, where the decaying carcasses of old, abandoned boats lay a mere stone’s throw from the shipyard where they’re building new ones.
The River Bank
I now had a lengthy trek along the banks of the river, which more or less guaranteed that I wouldn’t need my walking poles. This was indicated as a ‘low tide route’ which suggested that the Torridge might be prone to tidal flooding. A quick check of the tide times showed me that I had no cause for concern.
The path soon moved slightly further in and onto a higher bank, where it remained delightfully semi-wooded, with wide-open fields just beyond the trees.
Just short of the A39 road bridge, the woodland/farmland idyll ended and I found myself on a metalled path at the end of a couple of streets that ran down to the river. One of these, I realised, was the street on which my hotel sat and I considered doing as the hotelier had suggested and popping in for a coffee or a pint. However, I was making good time and the hotel was up a bit of a hill, which is why I’d had a good view.
I decided I’d just press on into Bideford.
I soon passed under the Torridge Bridge, built in 1988 to carry the A39.
The A39, also known as the Atlantic Highway, runs between Falmouth in Cornwall and Bath in Somerset. Until 2002 it was a centrally-funded trunk road but was ‘de-trunked’ as a cost-cutting measure, meaning that it is now the responsibility of local councils to maintain rather than the government-funded Highways Agency.
It’s quite a slender bridge and quite high; I wondered how secure the drivers of articulated lorries felt as they crossed it, what with being sat higher than the railings while their vehicles are buffeted by the wind.
Beyond the Torridge Bridge, my environs changed to encompass houses, a park and then shops as I walked along a quayside that had been refurbished as recently as 2006.
The Wonky Conker
Near the town centre, I passed an old horse chestnut tree, leaning at an alarming angle with a heavy side-branch held up by a support in the shape of a carved wooden hand. The tree is known as the Wonky Conker and locals climbed into its branches when the council attempted to cut it down as unsafe. The ‘Helping Hand’, provided by a local artist, is an alternative safety measure.
Charles Kingsley Statue
Next to the tree was a statue of Charles Kingsley, author of Westward Ho! (which is partially set in his home town of Bideford).
A Former Port
Bideford (pronounced ‘biddy-ford’ not ‘bide-ford’) is an old port town and was one of England’s major ports in the sixteenth century before silting reduced the navigability of the Torridge.
It carries the distinction of being the last place in England to execute witches, with three women — Temperance Lloyd, Mary Trembles and Susannah Edwards — convicted and hanged for witchcraft in 1682 (a decade before the famous witch trials of Salem, Massachusetts).
The Council and the Church
More recently, Bideford hit the news in February of this year when it was found, after a complaint by an atheist councillor, Mr Clive Bone, that Bideford Town Council’s insistence on holding prayers before its meetings was unlawful. This was not, however, unlawful due to any formal separation of church and government, which England doesn’t have — the Church of England is the established church, after all — but because the Local Government Act 1972 provides no such power to a council.
The councillors of Bideford Town Council are still free to hold prayers before their meeting but not as a formal part of the meeting and Mr Bone no longer needs to feel compelled to take part in a ritual he doesn’t believe in.
Bideford Long Bridge
The only ritual I engaged in while in Bideford was the time-honoured tradition of sacrificing food to the temple of my body, courtesy of one of the quayside’s many establishments. Armed with a cold drink and a portion of chips, I then crossed Bideford Long Bridge to the town’s eastern bank, traditionally known as East-the-Water.
Back Down the Torridge
The Tarka Trail
At the earliest opportunity I left the road heading north out of Bideford East-the-Water and joined the Tarka Trail.
Named for Tarka the Otter, the eponymous protagonist of Henry Williamson’s 1929 book, who roamed over pretty much the same route during the story, the Tarka Trail uses the track bed of the old Bideford Extension Railway, itself an extension of the North Devon Railway.
Bideford Extension Railway
The railway opened in 1855, linking Bideford to Fremington and Barnstaple but closed to passenger services in 1962. Freight trains ceased running on the line twenty years later and Devon County Council purchased the trackbed in 1987. It forms a broad, level, metalled, easy access route much favoured by cyclists and, near to the towns, by mothers with pushchairs out for a walk.
Aiming for Instow
And so, disturbed only by the whoosh of passing cyclists, I set off apace, passing back under the Torridge Bridge and heading for Instow, approximately three miles downstream.
On the way I passed a pontoon to which a whole range of military landing craft were moored. This was Zeta Berth and it belonged to 11 (Amphibious Trials and Training) Squadron of 1 Assault Group Royal Marines, which is based nearby at Arromanches Camp near Instow.
Along with its many modern vehicles the squadron maintains four WW2-era DUKWs, which are used for training purposes of some description. I spotted what looked like a DUKW at the very end of the pontoon, although it was mostly obscured by other vehicles, so it was hard to tell. At any rate, this pleased me as it resonated with my own family’s history: my grandfather drove an army DUKW during the war.
Rather less martial in nature was another distraction I passed on the way, this being the ruins of old lime kilns associated with the manufacture of fertiliser by burning lime imported from Wales. Though badly damaged, unlike previous lime kiln ruins I’d seen, these weren’t collapsed or filled in and it was interesting to peer inside them and imagine the temperatures they were built to withstand. Sadly it proved impossible to step far enough back to get a photograph. Not without swimming, anyway.
Arriving at Instow
The Tarka Trail was delightfully easy going but was starting to get perhaps a little bit repetitive by the time I reached Instow.
This is the trouble with disused railway lines. Once the vague thrill of walking on a railway line (which is usually prohibited) has passed — and that only takes minutes — you’re left with a walk on a path of identical width, surface and (lack of) gradient all the way. To be fair though, the Tarka trail is far better than some as it isn’t mostly hidden away in cuttings; at least I could see out across the river.
Instow Signal Box
I knew I’d arrived in Instow not only because I was suddenly walking past buildings but because the station is partly intact. The shape of one platform remains, with a suitable ‘Instow’ sign on it and near to it stands what is perhaps an unlikely structure to become a grade II listed building: Instow’s railway signal box, built in 1861.
Instow sits on the estuary right between the rivers Taw and Torridge. It presumably has a history of sorts; ‘stow’ is a common Saxon toponym meaning ‘place’, which suggests that it’s quite old. But I’ve been spectacularly unable to dig up anything about Instow at all.
It has a nice beach, with gentle waves since it is sheltered by the sand bars of the Taw Torridge Estuary. It is popular in summer on account of its beach but the beach has in the past suffered from terrible water quality. Beyond that, I’ve got absolutely nothing.
The Tarka Trail continued on from the old level crossing by the signal box but I turned onto the road and followed the waterfront around, this being the route of the coast path. I may also have bought another ice cream along the way (which may in turn explain why, despite all this walking, I’m not losing weight).
After a while, the path led me onto the beach itself and I stood and looked out to sea. Appledore lay clearly visible on the other side of the Torridge while, further out, a long dark strip n the horizon showed the coastline reaching out to Hartland Point. Not that it showed up at all when I tried to take a picture.
I followed the beach around until it began to turn into the bank of the Taw.
A road led me inland to rejoin the Tarka Trail within sight of the Royal Marine base. A set of signs indicated a diversion of the coast path onto the Tarka Trail earlier than was usual but, on inspection, it turned out that I had followed the diversion anyway.
The long, straight track of the Tarka Trail carried me straight past Lower Yelland, near which is a megalithic double stone row. It is unusual to find a megalithic monument on the water’s edge rather than on high ground but I couldn’t have seen it even if the Tarka Trail had passed close enough — because it’s on the edge of the Taw the rising silt level has buried it completely.
Keeping in the Loop
After a while I was offered a path leading off to a shoreline route and I took it, quickly discovering that it was a loop that returned me to where I left the trail. It was well-timed though: I took a phone call from an old friend and was able to sit by the river for an hour as we chatted.
While I was talking I was alarmed to find myself suddenly knee deep in dogs, all running about excitedly, their tails wagging fit to fall off. Or to make them take off, like little canine helicopters.
A real helicopter — in the bright yellow livery of an RAF Search and Rescue aircraft — soon flew over and I watched it while I conversed, wondering if someone was in trouble. As I watched, it landed at an airfield across the river and I realised that this was Royal Marines Base Chivenor (formerly RAF Chivenor) and it was merely returning home having already carried out a rescue or an exercise.
Eventually, I decided that I really needed to press on and so I rejoined the Tarka Trail.
If I’m honest, I was starting to get quite bored with the Tarka Trail by now and it punished me for that by running through a cutting so that I couldn’t even look out over the countryside.
Fortunately, the trail soon forgave me and I found myself crossing a bridge to Fremington Quay. A memorial to ‘John “Dinger” Bell, local fisherman and character’ stands by the bridge; he drowned in 1986.
Fremington Quay was a good mile north of Fremington village and comprised a quayside and railway sidings to provide a working transfer wharf for the export of ball clay and import of coal. The shape of the old railway platform was still visible, although it was covered in grass. Opposite it was this:
Since I had been presented with an actual café, I made use of it, stopping for a cup of tea and a slice of lemon drizzle cake. I like lemon drizzle cake.
Although Fremington is only a small village, outgrown by the likes of Barnstaple and Bideford, it was previously more important, giving its name to one of Devon’s thirty-two hundreds (hundreds were county subdivisions used for administrative purposes from the seventh century up until 1894).
By contrast, Barnstaple was in the Hundred of Braunton and Bideford in the Hundred of Shebbear.
After Fremington Quay, the Tarka Trail made its way through more cuttings and under a bridge for a road that, according to my OS map, doesn’t go anywhere at all (I assume it’s a farm track, servicing fields). When I eventually emerged from the cutting, the scene to my left was intertidal marsh and low, boggy fields, with drainage channels and fence posts lacking any wire — I thought of these as the ghosts of fences past.
As I drew closer to Barnstaple the marsh gave way to actual river and I was able to see my destination clearly.
Western Bypass Road Bridge
Barnstaple’s Western Bypass Road Bridge was only opened in 2007 and, since it doesn’t cross the line of the old Bideford Extension Railway, I didn’t have to pass underneath it. Instead, the Tarka Trail sent me straight into town, where a series of underpasses led me to Barnstaple Station. There, I checked my train times: It was twenty past six and I had an hour before my next train. Fair enough.
Sorry, We’re Closed
This seemed like a good opportunity to go and find a bite to eat more substantial than lemon drizzle cake. A good plan, I thought, but foiled by one small problem: Barnstaple was shut.
I’m not kidding.
Okay, so I’m spoiled living in London, where all kinds of shops open late but it really did seem to me as if absolutely everywhere in Barnstaple had closed at half past five or six. There were a few pubs and a couple of eateries that were open but none of them particularly appealed. Defeated, I sloped back to the station to await my train.
Barnstaple’s Name and Spelling
Barnstaple (also formerly spelt ‘Barnstable’ although that is now considered archaic) derives its name from Old English bearde ‘battleaxe’ and stapol ‘pillar’. It is also sometimes referred to as Barum, the origin of which is obscure but probably Roman.
Founded at the lowest crossing point of the River Taw, it lays claim to being the oldest borough in England and by the time of the Domesday Book, Barnstaple had enough power and influence to have its own mint (although apparently not its own hundred).
By the Middle Ages, its size and wealth were growing, based mainly on it being a staple port licensed to export wool.
A wooden castle was built in the eleventh century and rebuilt in stone during the Anarchy, the twelfth century civil war between the supporters of King Stephen and those of the Empress Matilda, rival claimants to the throne. The castle’s owner, Henry de Tracey, supported Stephen. These days only the motte remains, which has a copse of trees on it.
I had plenty of time at Barnstaple Station to notice that while it only has one platform in use and a single line of track, it clearly used to have three working platforms. It is one of several stations that Barnstaple used to possess: Barnstaple Town and Barnstaple Victoria Road both fell victim to the Beeching Axe (one is now a school building, the other demolished). The current Barnstaple station was Barnstaple Junction from 1874 to 1970.
At one time, it served both the GWR and the London & South Western Railway (which was amalgamated into Southern Railway in 1923), using the North Devon, Devon & Somerset and Ilfracombe Branch lines. These days, only the first of those lines remains open.
The station’s current signage strongly evokes the long-vanished Southern Railway, with strong white lettering on malachite green. I guess they’re trying to look ‘historic’ but it does mean that there are large SR-style signs saying ‘Barnstaple’; a name the station didn’t have when it last wore signs of that style.
Exeter, Plymouth and Home
Eventually, a train arrived and whisked me away to Exeter and a second train took me to Plymouth where places were open and I could find food. The following day, having visited the National Marine Aquarium and generally mooched about in Plymouth, I headed home to London via coach.
This time: 16 miles
Total since Gravesend: 852 miles