No question of a gentle acclimatisation on this trail. If the Path had begun eight or so miles to the east, at the little harbour town of Watchet, then all walkers would have been faced with is a 250ft rise over a gentle Quantock outlier. From Minehead though, it’s a head-on assault on England’s highest cliffs. Like the Pennine Way’s immediate launch on Kinder, some of the toughest ground is right at the start.
And you’re out of the initial county – Somerset – and past Lynton before things ease, with the descent of the Path’s high point, Great Hangman (1043ft), into the small resort of Combe Martin in Devon. There’s a mix of ground from here, frankly a bit iffy into Ilfracombe before a pleasant section to the first great ‘turn point’ of Morte Head. Here, the coast to Hartland Point comes into view, many days away on the trail and an enticing sight of what is to come. But the flat lands, often sandy ‘burrows’, besides the two great inlets of the Taw and the Torridge cannot be seen, hidden by the nearby Baggy Point. Beyond here, he Path alas misses the best bits of the great ecological reserve of Braunton Burrows, soon after which a former rail line beside the Taw gives the easiest of entries into Barnstaple.
23 August 2015: Minehead to Porlock, nine miles (eight on SWCP)
You would have to live very close to Minehead, or stay overnight beforehand, to have the chance to go any further than Porlock on the first day on the SWCP. Minehead is a long bus journey from Taunton, and if like me you were lucky to get a seat – many holidaymakers had to wait for the next bus – and then have a scare when the driver phoned his depot half-way, worried about his vehicle’s mechanical worthiness, then doubts of starting at all might creep into your mind.
The map sculpture on the sea-front marks the start. Alas the sculptor’s map does not use an OS-style grid. Never mind, it’s a nice idea. Soon after passing the harbour, the route enters Exmoor National Park and begins zig-zagging through woods up the cliff before open ground is reached. About an hour in, there’s a choice of routes, something the SWCP does quite often: here, either bowl along the top across open downland, or take the lower ‘rugged’ path on the edge just above the cliff proper. The latter sounded much more fun and a fine route it is, even if ‘rugged’ in Somerset isn’t quite the same as ‘rugged’ as in say the North-West Highlands. It could certainly though find out more than a few less-experienced walkers. The routes coincide below Bossington Hill for the descent of Hurlstone Combe, soon coming back to sea-level at Bossington village before heading across Porlock Marsh. My camp site lay a half-mile from the trail on the edge of Porlock itself.
24 August 2015: Porlock to Lynton, 15 miles (14 on SWCP)
It’s back across the marsh, inundated when the shingle bank was breached in 1996, past wizened trees poisoned by sea-water to Porlock Weir. Now, as at Minehead, starts a climb to a point (near the church at Culbone) where there is a choice of routes. This time, I chose the higher and more open, which runs for the most part on a green lane linking two isolated farms. The routes rejoin just before the Somerset/Devon boundary, just beyond which is a cairn marking the spring of Sister’s Fountain. It was well-placed for my planned lunch stop. A busy time it was too, as two couples plus a solo walker, all doing a few days on the SWCP (I’ve never met anyone on the trail who was planning to do the whole thing in one go), and two groups of day walkers passing me as I munched.
There’s a long four-mile stretch now, with a good deal of dipping through woods like Chubhill Wood and into and out of little sea-bound combes, until the church at Countisbury. Suddenly, the modern world intrudes, for one is soon not far from, or beside, the A39 on its descent to Lynmouth. Look out to sea instead, across the Bristol Channel to Wales, and do what you can to separate Newport from Port Talbot, the Gower from Pembrokeshire, the Beacons from the Black Mountain. Either Lynmouth or Lynton is a natural stop point, with plenty of accommodation including for me the camp site not far away at Lynbridge. It’s a steep old climb between Lynmouth and Lynton, more zig-zags, this time crossing twice the cliff railway between the two settlements. It’s cheating to use it though.
25 August 2015: Lynton to Ilfracombe, 18 miles
I’d checked the weather forecast the night before, to be depressed by the continual ‘heavy rain’ symbols backed up by an official Met Office weather warning. And this is August. So two breakfasts for energy, one in the tent and the other in the campsite cafe. Soon back on the trail proper, I decide to don a mid-layer at a shelter just out of Lynton on the path to the Valley of Rocks. There are many photographs taken of the Valley in sunshine, but perhaps fewer in today’s conditions. Even the goats were sheltering.
When planning, I had thought of seeking a wild camp around Lee Abbey so as to cut two miles off this long day. Passing, I rather wished I’d risked it – it’s a Christian community with an estate of many acres, so surely they would have looked kindly on a stranger. If they’d said no however, other than hiding then the only other option would have been to walk 2km uphill to the nearest official site. Just beyond Lee Abbey, the choice between the path out to Crock Point or the shorter road alternative was made easier by the temporary closure of the former – a useful saving in the conditions. On then, by good paths into the great gash of Heddon’s Mouth Cleave, where I met up again with one of the couples I’d met the day before. Indeed we’d intersected so much that I was on first name terms with Ruth and Craig. Like the long march to Countisbury yesterday, it’s a tough stretch from here, five miles of ups and downs to the high point of the SWCP at Great Hangman, 1043ft, just after a sharp descent to Sherrycombe. But rain gods be praised, the day was drying, layers were removed, and even the sun glasses came out. There was time for a long pause at the small resort of Combe Martin, at a beachside cafe.
Most SWCP walkers end here for the day – as were to Ruth and Craig, whom I had met one last time just before setting off. I had a contingency to end here too but in now pleasant walking weather and feeling good I picked up my sack once more. In truth though the five miles to Ilfracombe are nothing like the quality of any of the yards since Minehead. You’re often fighting the A399 coast road, or on muddy narrow little tracks which prevent good pace. The best spot, the little harbour of Watermouth, is guarded from the path by a fence. Just when you think you’ve made it, at sea level in Hele, there’s a vicious 440ft of zig-zag ascent to the summit of Hillsborough. When you reach the busy working harbour of Ilfracombe proper, you feel you’ve earnt it.
25 August 2015: Ilfracombe to Woolacombe, eight miles
There’s a circuit of Capstone Point to start with, a popular walk for holiday makers but not at 9am on a drizzly Sunday morning, before the Torrs Walk, Ilfracombe’s equivalent of the Valley of Rocks. Soon you’re heading downhill to the coastal village of Lee, which has alas seen better days, its big seaside hotel having recently closed. A couple of combes, nothing like as severe as the two big ones the day before, lead to the lighthouse at Bull Point, and from now it’s genuinely charming walking on good paths out to Morte Point. Here, the rocks plunge across the path, bleached white and jagged – a dramatic place, made all the more so by the gaze on a new coastline, past Clovelly to Hartland Point. Nearer at hand are Mortehoe and my target of Woolacombe, with then miles of golden sand to Putsborough Beach. No difficulties, though it was annoying the path was diverted up to Mortehoe’s elevated Esplanade rather than stay below its hotels. But I was just in time for one of the occasional buses that started me on my journey home.
15 September 2015: Woolacombe to Barnstaple, 20 miles
Keen to finish this stretch while North Devon was still fresh in my mind, I looked out for a weather window to give me the chance. Based in Braunton, I had time for a proper breakfast in the village before taking buses back to Woolacombe. It’s proud of its beach – rated thirteenth in the whole world, signs say – but the SWCP doesn’t take to it; instead, it takes bridleways and footpaths through the burrows (sand dunes) just behind. Though it doesn’t always follow the most obvious line, it’s a rewarding stretch, the shape of many good miles to come further south in Cornwall. There’s a change at Putsborough, as grassy fields head out to Baggy Point; while not quite the white-rock drama of Morte Point, this too is an excellent viewpoint, perhaps the closest land to Lundy Island and very busy with casual walkers today. A simple lane slopes down to the village of Croyde Bay, from where there’s beach walking towards Saunton Down.
Alas after this the road is always close, if not beside you, all the way to the gleaming white art deco edifice of Saunton Sands Hotel. The views across Braunton Burrows, recognised by Unesco and known as “one of the best quality dunes systems in the northern hemisphere”, will have been enticing, but the Path takes a prosaic line, first across a golf course, then down a wide, straight, stony lane. Signboards show recreational trails heading deep into the dunes but it takes none. Better is the stretch from Broad Sands and across Horsey Island, after the path turns north-east – the dike-top path with mudflats one side, low-lying pasture the other, reminded me of the Essex coast, which has many Anglo-Saxon-derived ‘-ey’ islands, not least a Horsey Island near Walton-on-the-Naze. This soon brings you to the Braunton suburb of Velator (not many villages have suburbs, but then Braunton is the largest village in England), from where the old rail line from Ilfracombe gives a simple last five miles into Barnstaple, views across the Taw estuary slowly narrowing all the while.
Onward to Barnstaple to Boscastle