11. Bigbury to Babbacombe

11. Bigbury to Babbacombe – resumption, a scary ferry-dog, an electric storm and reunited with friends and family.

The second – and thankfully last – instance of sloppy planning involved booking a B&B in Bigbury: the fact that the walk starts from Bigbury-on-Sea should have been a clue and I learnt to my cost that it’s a good 2 mile walk from Bigbury to the sea, all of it along narrow country lanes, dodging reckless white van men as they raced to work along what was without doubt the most dangerous section of the whole walk. The B&B was also another example of very average accommodation at a very high price – £75 for a small single room, with a malfunctioning radiator.

Heading down to the River Avon ferry.

As I stood on a wet, windswept and deserted beach trying to hail a ferry across the River Avon from Bigbury-on-Sea to Bantham, I began to regret leaving my sick bed and wondered if, after weeks of glorious weather, my luck had finally changed. I really couldn’t complain though if it had.

The guidebook advises that one should hail the ferry by waving or shouting. Being a reserved sort of chap, I started with a low key wave. When this elicited no response my shouts grew louder and more hysterical. It must have looked odd, this bedraggled hiker, alone on a deserted beach apparently howling at the moon, or in this case the rising sun.

A (ferry) man of few words eventually pottered across the river – this taciturn individual was accompanied in his small ferryboat by a large wolfhound, which seemed intent on biting my arse. As I often do, I tried to reassure myself by resorting to humour. “I hope he’s had his breakfast”, I jauntily quipped, while turning my bum-cheeks away from the slavering hound. No response from our captain, so I tried again with “I bet he’s made this crossing a few times eh?”  This time “Captain Bligh’s less sociable cousin” managed to respond with a gruff, “it’s his first time on a boat with passengers.” My terror mounted until we reached the safe haven of Bantham.

Having a breather overlooking Burgh Island and its art deco hotel.

The 13.7 mile walk to Salcombe started gently, passing through a deserted Bantham and then a succession of coves with road access. However, after the picturesque Hope Cove it got tougher, particularly in the rain and the cold wind. On a better day the later section of today’s walk is spectacularly attractive, but not today, sadly.

Just after Bolt Head I was joined by old friend and former Audit Commission colleague, Roger, bizarrely carrying an umbrella! Much as I enjoyed the solitude, it was good to meet up with friends at various points and we enjoyed a nice meal and a couple of pints in a quiet, pre-season Salcombe.

My B&B tonight was pleasant enough, but not for the first time I was struck by the owner’s insistence on being paid in cash. This, plus the lack of any receipt suggests tax dodging to my audit mind. As someone who has paid my share of tax all my life I don’t find this at all admirable.

Musing on the way back from the pub, I reflected on how the nature of walking has changed – from an escape from the drudgery of unsatisfying labour, celebrated in “The Manchester Rambler,” to what is now a solidly middle class activity. With the “middle class rambler” (there’s another song there?) came the growth of outdoor shops selling “designer” walking gear. When I were a lad we had to make do with the Famous Army Stores, or if you were flush, “Blacks of Greenock.” Now walkers are adorned with all manner of accessories from dozens of high-end suppliers. I never fail to be amused by ramblers walking along the promenade near my home carrying walking poles, map case and GPS. I saw many walkers on the coast path similarly attired: each to his own I know, but I fail to see how a GPS can possibly be necessary when walking a well signposted coast path. “Keep the sea to your right” would seem to be all the guidance needed, that is of course provided you’re walking the path in an anti-clockwise direction; if you’re going the other way you’ll likely drown.

The next day I strolled into Salcombe from my B&B at South Sands to await the East Portlemouth ferry.  This was a delightful start to a day with a dramatic ending. 

Although rocky in places, it was a good walk along fine paths and I felt that it didn’t really justify its “strenuous” tag on the SWCP web site. After rounding Start Point I made my way to Downs Farm, which was in a very isolated position a mile or two inland. I checked in with Richard and Judy (honest!) the friendly couple who ran the farm and B&B, made friends with their three lovely sheep dogs and awaited the arrival of Pat, who was bringing my latest walking companion, our nephew Sam, from Bristol.

Richard had been elected onto South Hams District Council the day before, a local authority that I used to audit. He explained that he was a Conservative, “but not one of the right wing ones”. Richard’s family have farmed this land for generations and he is very active in conservation circles. A number of information boards positioned around the perimeter explain the sterling work that appears to be going on hereabouts.

As I sat outside the farm, throwing balls for the dogs and enjoying the tea and cake kindly provided by my hosts, I noticed the weather starting to change but, at that stage, thought nothing of it. However, after an excellent meal of chicken chasseur- all local produce and much tastier than the pub fare I was accustomed to – we were treated to a spectacular electric storm, with forked lightning providing an impressive Son et Lumière over the sea. 

Richard and Judy left me alone to attend a function, but my excitement at being reunited with friends and family turned to apprehension as Pat’s estimated arrival time passed and it dawned on me that they might be having a difficult journey. Unfortunately I had no way of knowing how they were getting on, as there was no mobile signal at the farm and I could only connect to the outside world by walking, in the pouring rain, to the top of a nearby hill.

Time passed and soon they were over 3 hours late – and I was getting extremely worried. For the umpteenth time I climbed my hill in the wind and rain and as I was once again failing to get through saw a car’s headlights in the distance. Pat and Sam must have been surprised to see a wet, spectral figure weaving towards them, topped off by a glowing Petzl headlamp. It turned out that they had battled through wind, rain and flooded roads to get there.

Downs Farm is an excellent B&B which I would heartily recommend, but it’s one drawback is that there isn’t a pub within walking distance. Anticipating my need for one of the basic necessities of a civilised life, Pat had brought some beer with her, so the evening ended pleasantly, with me and Sam catching up over a drink in the comfortable guest sitting room as Pat set off into the night on the long journey home. 

Having weathered the storm during the night and woken to a fine morning and an even finer breakfast, again featuring local produce, I was hoping that the weather would stay fine, not least because Sam only had shorts with him! He was concerned that he might not be fit enough, but youth will out and he proved to be more than equal to the task and in fact left this veteran for dead on some of the hills- I rationalised this by pointing out that I had walked over 460 miles by this point.

We paused for thought at Slapton besides the Sherman tank that had been recovered from the sea a few years ago. This tank is now a memorial to the men who died when a pre D- Day training exercise, “operation tiger”, went horribly wrong and a German MTB launched a deadly surprise attack.

Despite a very long inland diversion after Slapton Sands – which made it less of a coast walk and more of a country ramble – this was another good day.  My reluctance to leave the coast was soon forgotten and it was interesting to explore the sleepy villages of Streete and Stoke Fleming. The last few miles were a delight and involved walking around the Dart estuary, before meeting Pat for the drive home to Dawlish, where I planned to stay for the next few nights as I perambulated my “home” turf.

Soon it was morning and time for another lift from loyal chauffeur Pat, accompanied by Sam and my neighbour Rick, who joined us for the drive to Kingswear, across the river from Dartmouth and the 11 mile walk to Brixham.

Another bright, sunny day dawned, with a refreshing, cool breeze. Perfect walking weather and good company- what more can a man ask for – perhaps a nice pint or two, but that came later.

We visited another National Coastwatch Institution station, this time at the mouth of the Dart; another one of the series dotted along the coast and another example of “Big Society by The Sea”.

I found it heartening that we all got on so well, despite the generation gap. I collected memories of loads of laughs and a long lunch, lounging in the sun on the beautiful beach at the less than beautifully named “Scabbacombe Sands.”

I recalled a memorable day spent walking this stretch a few years ago with a Balti porter. I found myself in this unlikely scenario because I’d helped bring over to the UK a Pakistani guy who’d led the “cook crew” on a trek I did to K2 base camp. Mohamed had his very first view of the sea at Dawlish Warren, but was not overawed by the culture shock of finding himself on the SWCP and treated everyone he met with good humour and at the drop of a hat would entertain us with a folk song from his homeland, much to the amusement (and bemusement!) of other path users. Happy days!  

Back home in Dawlish for a rest day I decided to save the walk from Babbacombe to Dawlish as my final day, since – having juggled the itinerary after my illness – it hardly seemed to matter now that South Haven point will not be the “finish” and it would be nice to complete the 633rd mile up my own drive.

Although the next day’s walk, from Brixham to Babbacombe, was a respectable 13.2 miles, it is largely an urban ramble around Torbay. I was accompanied by Rob, friend and former Audit Commission colleague and after a drive to Paignton, then a bus to Brixham, we were away. The walk featured sunny intervals and a strong wind, not bad conditions for walking. Rob proved an amiable companion and I looked forward to hooking up with him again further down the trail.

This walk was totally different from anything that had gone before and it felt strange to be  jostling for space with a mixed bag of shoppers, holiday-makers, dog walkers and a (very) few coast path walkers. The walking was far easier, but enjoyable for all that – I think I was ready for an easy day.

Excitement mounted at Churston Cove, where a woman told us she had just seen a seal. Despite scanning the water for ages, nothing appeared. Apparently he lives there all year round, but was presumably away on his holidays when we passed. A mile or so further on we crossed Broadsands where we were lucky to see the Paignton to Kingswear steam train puffing majestically across a viaduct.

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