4. Minehead to Bideford

4. Minehead to Bideford enter “The Pieman,” lambs in Pak A Macs, solitude and surfers.

Back to the starting line at Minehead, where on a sunny March morning many thoughts whirled through my head. I was excited about the challenge of doing something a bit different, but somewhere at the back of my mind lurked nagging doubts. Had we got the itinerary right? Would I stay the course? How would I tell my sponsors if I failed? But mainly: “What on earth is an overweight 57-year-old doing setting off on an arduous 633-mile hike?”

We didn’t start until noon due to the tortuous logistics of the first few days’ walking. Pat was to accompany me for the first three days, from Minehead to Combe Martin. To facilitate this, our good friends Peter and Gwyneth selflessly agreed to meet us at the crack of dawn in Combe Martin then take us back to Minhead for the start – which meant an even earlier start for them from their home in Wiltshire.

I’ve known Peter for over 30 years and christened him “The Pieman” for two reasons: (a) he is from Wigan, a town with claims to being the pie capital of the UK, if not the world; and (b) he is inordinately fond of pies, carrying out a rolling survey of what’s on offer at every Premier League ground, as he travels the length and breadth of England supporting his beloved Wigan Athletic F.C.

Peter and Gwyneth were waiting as we pulled up on the harbourside at Combe Martin. The landlady at the pub where we were staying three days hence kindly allowed us to leave our car and gave us a free cup of coffee while we waited for room to be made available in the small car park. We then all travelled to Minehead where, at high noon, Pat and I finally began the relatively short nine and a half mile walk to Porlock Weir.

We were carrying enough gear for three days walking, but trying hard to travel light. For all my years of walking and backpacking, I’ve always found it difficult to keep the weight down. However, on this occasion, age and declining fitness levels were good incentives to reduce my pack to the bare minimum.

We had arranged things so that Pat would bring me a fresh change of clothes every 4 or 5 days, so I confined myself to one set of walking kit plus one set of “evening wear”. This, plus a lightweight waterproof, over-trousers and fleece, comprised my SWCP wardrobe. One advantage of this minimalist approach was that I always seemed to get a seat on the bus and plenty of space in the bar.

I was surprised at having to apply sun cream on “day one”, which was an easy but enjoyable walk, ideally suited to the first day. Key impressions were: Exmoor ponies, a fleeting glimpse of a big stag on North Hill, delicate blue wild flowers around the chocolate-box village of Bossington, and a decidedly prehistoric, submerged forest just before Porlock Weir. 

Submerged Forest, Porlock.

We had a reminder of a sadder day near Bossington, where a monument commemorates the 11 airmen who died when an American “Liberator” aircraft based in the New Forest clipped Bossington Hill in poor visibility during World War 2.

Bomber Memorial

We met up with Peter and Gwyneth and enjoyed a lovely meal at the attractively thatched Ship Inn at Porlock Weir. The pub- known, somewhat unfortunately, as the “Bottom Ship”, to differentiate it from another “Ship Inn” further up the hill in Porlock – had a nice out of season feel to it, friendly service and good ale. What better start could you ask for?

It was warm and sunny again for our walk from Porlock Weir to Lynmouth, but frustratingly we saw little of the sun as we walked through woods for most of the way. However, the smell of pine and the deafening sound of birdsong provided some compensation as we made our weary way along interminable forest trails, climbing over 3,000ft in the process. Pat is more of a sun worshipper than I am, so she felt particularly deprived.

The highlight of this 12.3 mile walk was visiting a small church, nestling delightfully in a leafy, yellow gorse-filled valley at Culbone and reckoned to be the smallest complete parish church in England. Pat left a 50p donation – probably not sufficient to be assured of eternal life, but maybe enough to secure an extra day or two?  The woods surrounding the church were really atmospheric and it was no surprise to learn that they inspired two of Coleridge’s best known works, “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of The Ancient Mariner”.

We duly arrived at our B&B in Lynmouth. The proprietor was a very friendly lady, but the place was stuffed full of stuffed toys, with a menagerie of bears, dogs and cats silently watching over us at breakfast. In addition, a full sized doll’s house adorned the dining room. There appeared to be no children in the house, which we found rather spooky.

We dined at a nice pub, where the sedate, old-world ambiance of the dining room was soon enlivened by the arrival of a waitress and four pairs of diners.

First up in this “end of the pier show” was the waitress, a very obliging German girl, who unfortunately spoke in an incredibly high pitched, whining voice that sounded like a xylophone tumbling down a flight of stairs. This may have been due to nervousness, an impression confirmed when she poured a bottle of wine over an old lady, breaking a glass in the process.

Four very different couples then joined the general cacophony. A girl from Doncaster with her Essex-Boy partner; a very large woman from Bournemouth and her taciturn husband; an elderly couple, comprising a deaf husband and his loud, shouty wife who were being treated to a weekend away by their daughter; and finally, a couple comprising another loud wife, a double for Beverly from “Abigail’s Party,” with a husband who was, conversely, as silent as a trainee Trappist monk.

A few snippets of conversation will give a flavour of the entertainment on offer. The Bournemouth bus driver complained that they had originally booked a chalet at Butlins, Minehead but had left shortly after arrival as “it was not what we expected”. One wonders what his expectations were; perhaps he had anticipated a country house hotel a la Gosforth Park, rather than a holiday camp?

The husband had not said a lot until conversation turned to busses- clearly his “specialist subject”. At the mention of the “bendy- bus” he became positively animated and regaled the group with misty-eyed tales of driving a Routemaster, complete with a detailed assessment of the various gear box options available. He followed his paean of praise to the double decker by disclosing that his ultimate ambition was to drive said “bendy bus.” The perfect busman’s holiday?

After the plump lady and her partner left the table, the woman celebrating her anniversary muttered rather cruelly, “Did you hear her say she was on a diet; she’s just eaten pie and chips!”

You may wonder how I gleaned so much information? Well, I enjoy listening in to conversations in pubs or restaurants. Doesn’t everyone? I know this can seem rude, and drives Pat to distraction, but it has yielded a fair few anecdotes for this account.

Retiring for a nightcap at the Village Inn, we bumped into a walker who had left Minehead with us and was now enjoying a solitary dinner. Over the next couple of months I was to experience much “solo-dining” myself and also to enjoy meeting other “serious” walkers doing parts of the SWCP.

There was a sobering start to the next day. Sat outside a Lynmouth sandwich shop while Pat bought provisions, I overheard a conversation between a man emptying the litter bins and a well-dressed, “arty” looking lady. It seems that this man’s wife had left him 2 months ago. The lady was being very kind and told him that he should not “hide away” – not the last instance of faith-restoring kindness that I saw on my walk.

Seeing someone looking out for their neighbour was heart-warming, and suggested that there may be something in this “Big Society” stuff after all. I just find it odd that the idea is being peddled by the heir of a politician who declared that there was “no such thing as society” I also doubt that the “Big Society” will be quite so big in areas struggling to survive the recession and where there is not an abundance of educated, middle class people with time to fill the gaps created by the coalition government’s dismantling of basic public services.

Valley of The Rocks

Walking from Lynmouth to Combe Martin we first passed through the sylvan delights of the Valley of The Rocks, where goats graze happily amongst the bracken, beneath jagged rocks rising like turrets from the sea. Shortly afterwards we had a distinct “ahhh” moment near Lee Abbey, where the many new-born lambs appeared to be wearing what looked like the type of plastic “Pak-a-Mac” my grandma used to take on her day trips to Blackpool.

The walk then took us over Great Hangman – at 1,043 ft, the highest point on the SWCP. It seems oddly premature to be passing a fairly momentous milestone so early in the walk; I felt I hadn’t really earned it. By the end of the day, though, we certainly did feel that we had earned our dinner, after 13.3 miles of strenuous walking involving over 4,400ft of climbing.

The views on this stretch were magical, with the hazy sun bathing a long series of headlands with spectral light and breaking through the clouds to cast dramatic search-light beams onto the sea.

Our eagerly anticipated dinner proved to be quite an experience – but in the same way that having your private parts buffed up with a Black and Decker sander would undoubtedly also be an “experience”. We have eaten in some slow establishments over the years, but this one took the biscuit- and believe me, there were times during the evening when I would have killed for a biscuit.

We entered the dining room at 7.30. Our food arrived at 9.30. Enough said? Except that this brief description doesn’t do justice to the experience. The service was very friendly, but the kitchen staff seemed to be overwhelmed. Who is to blame for this sorry state of affairs? Clearly not the waitresses; as a lifelong democratic socialist, I like to think it’s all down to the shameless capitalist owners maximising their profits by cutting staffing costs to the bone, meaning that the staff suffer the triple whammy of being overworked and underpaid as well as abused by disgruntled customers. Or then again, maybe the waitresses and kitchen staff were just disorganised, inefficient and lazy? 

Our enjoyment of dinner wasn’t enhanced by the behaviour of a couple at the next table. A rather agitated man punctuated each sentence with a loud, retching sound, accompanied by nervous foot tapping and arm scratching, which appeared to be afflicted with the sort of skin complaint you wouldn’t want anywhere near food. Yesterday we had passed the remains of an old leper colony in Culbone Woods and I did wonder if he was an escapee. I just hope that it wasn’t a first date, if so I fear it may have been the last.

Leaving Combe Martin

Pat accompanied me on the five and a half mile hike from Combe Martin to Ilfracombe. After that, I walked the remaining seven miles alone. This was a great walk in spectacularly wild country, with expansive views of Lundy Island, nestling in the Severn Estuary, for much of the way. I climbed over 4,000ft, some of it over lung-bustingly steep cliff paths.

The highpoint for me was the rocky spine of Morte Point, rising jagged from the cliffs like a dinosaur’s back, just before my descent to Woolacombe.

After so much solitude, it was a culture shock to arrive in Woolacombe, which seemed to be full of surfers. Pat met me there for a kit change, but she was pleased to depart fairly sharpish.

Why did I dislike Woolacombe? Well, it certainly made me feel old, but also not a little sad. Most of the people enjoying its attractions are in their teens, but those that aren’t are pretending to be. I’ve never seen so many men of my age with highlights in their hair. Fortunately I don’t have to dye my hair, as it’s already got white highlights – all over.

After I checked into my hotel, Pat beat a hasty retreat to Bristol and left me to my meal at the Tides Inn. No complaints at all about the food or service here – which is more than can be said for many, allegedly classier, establishments I was to eat in later.

Woolacombe represents a distinct surfing sub-culture; one that I’m not familiar with. It hits you as such a stark contrast, like moving from a National Trust promotional video to an amateur production of Baywatch in one flick of the remote control.

Nothing could have prepared me for the interior of my hotel, which seemed to have been imported from Malibu. The breakfast room was decorated Americana style, with a Wurlitzer juke box, loads of stainless steel and walls hung with pictures of James Dean, the Beach Boys and other American icons. Luckily, I was first down to breakfast and having been told by the owner that I could programme the juke box, I sequenced enough tracks to ensure a satisfying breakfast soundtrack. Hidden amongst the predominantly “cool surfer” playlist I found some good soul and also several tracks by “Them”, featuring my all-time musical hero, Van Morrison. So, a great start to the day!

Although I enjoyed the music, I couldn’t say the same about the company. My fellow guests made me feel uncomfortable. They were all very uncommunicative “surfing dudes” and they all had blond girlfriends. Or maybe they were normally communicative, but just didn’t want to “commune” with someone old enough to be their granddad who was singing along to Van Morrison’s greatest hits with a face miserable enough to match that of the great man himself?

Grateful to be leaving “surf central”, I made my interminable way through the sand dunes that make up Woolacombe Warren. Formerly used for “D Day” invasion training, but now invaded by surfers.

The highlight of today’s fifteen mile walk was the surprisingly quiet Croyde Bay. I always prefer out-of-season seaside resorts, when you can see the sands (rather than an expanse of burning blubber); hear the waves lapping the shore (rather than the blare of radios); and the pubs aren’t full of drunks. This includes where I live in Dawlish, the nature of which changes totally in summer with the arrival of an army of caravaners, described evocatively by a friend as “The First Battalion, Hairy Belly Brigade”.

I had cause to pause for thought near Croyde, passing a memorial seat inscribed “Ian James Shaw – 1967 to 2009 – Surfing For all Time”. A reminder to enjoy it while we can.

The final section of the day’s walk took in part of the Tarka Trail and was very flat, taking me along the Taw estuary and through Braunton Burrows, an important National Nature Reserve, part of which is used by the Ministry of Defence for live firing. Hearing the rifles crack made me uneasy and I began to wish I’d looked to see if Berghaus or Rohan make a gore-tex flack- jacket.

The weather did little to improve my mood: a very damp, misty drizzle. Mustn’t grumble though, as this was the first rain of the trip!  

I arrived at my accommodation in Braunton to a frosty welcome from the young barmaid who ushered me into my single room without telling me where the separate bathroom/ toilet was or where and when breakfast would be served.

Resolving to make the best of it, I booked a table in a Thai restaurant, bizarrely attached to a traditional English hotel bar. The food was very good, if a little expensive for such modest surroundings. I wondered how such a business model could be sustainable, but locals assured me that the restaurant was very popular. There was little evidence of this tonight though as I shovelled down my chop suey in a soulless void (the room, not my mouth).

I ended my (mercifully) one-night-stand in Braunton struggling to fall asleep while what sounded like the whole population of the town whooped and hollered in the bar immediately below my bedroom. I thought these people were very inconsiderate to be having such a good time.

Bidding goodbye, rather than “au revoir”, to Braunton, I re-joined  the Tarka Trail cycle track for what proved to be the start of one of the most tedious days of the walk, following the long trail round the Taw estuary. This is probably a great bike ride, but as a walk, it’s too “much of a muchness”.

As I left town I caught a glimpse of a local newspaper headline explaining that “Solvent abuse is being targeted”. Social problems like this, consistent with rural poverty, are never far below the thin, touristy veneer that the holiday makers tend to see. This should not be a surprise: the unemployment and educational attainment statistics tell their own tale and, of course, the visitors tend only to see the pretty bits that the holiday guides direct them to. Understandable, if tough on the locals who are suffering just as much as their peers in the industrial heartlands, but are perhaps not having their problems prioritised in the same way by our policy makers. Maybe they need to shout a bit louder?

The walk around the Taw estuary brought a reminder of a previous life as I walked past two of the Council offices where I managed audits for the Audit Commission – North Devon District Council, in Barnstaple; and Torridge District Council, in Bideford. My pace seemed to quicken imperceptibly as the ghosts of accounts-past pursued me.

I had an encouraging vision of what might lay ahead in retirement when I met a jolly bunch of Cornish cyclists enjoying a trip around the Tarka Trail. They all seemed to be pensioners hell bent on not wasting away in their dotage. I hope to follow suit.

By day six my body seemed to be getting used to the rhythm of walking 13 miles or so every day and I was starting to accept some “givens” of coast walking – that the last mile can sometimes feel longer than the previous 13 and that the village you can see apparently “just minutes along the coast” can take hours to reach due to the fact that, inconsiderately, the path has many ins and outs as well as ups and downs.  

I had plenty of time for contemplation on this mind-numbing stretch and wondered if the walk really would be a “life changing” experience. I concluded that it was too early to say, but that I shouldn’t exaggerate the impact of what is, after all, just a walk. However – life changing potential aside – I was beginning to realise the magnitude of what I’d taken on.

Glad to get a long, boring walk over with, I checked into the friendly Mount Guest House in Bideford and went for an evening stroll around this pleasant market town. In the 16th century Bideford was the third largest port in Britain, but is now a centre for tourism, fishing and the embarkation point for the Lundy Island ferry.

I popped into the delightful White Hart for a pint or two. A lovely old boozer serving spectacularly well-kept beer brewed by the Forge Brewery at Hartland. In good, relatively sober, company I felt glad that I’d ignored the attractions of Bideford’s “premier nite spot”, “Caesars Palace,” in favour of this fine establishment. I slept well for some unknown reason.

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