5. Bideford to Hartland Quay

5. Bideford to Hartland Quay – a load of bull, getting all literary and a Westward Ho! shooting gallery. 

Determined to enjoy my first rest day I ignored the drizzle and hit the town. An elderly lady serving in the Oxfam shop cheered me up no end by telling me a charming story about her trip to London for the “March Against the Cuts.” She’d overheard a conversation with a deeply concerned little girl who, having heard the marchers chanting “cut the fat cats” said “our cat’s not fat is he mummy, so they won’t cut him will they?”

Bideford Riverside

For those in the predicament I found myself in, here are some suggestions for things to do on a wet rest day:

  • Visit an Oxfam shop: most towns have at least one and they are generally staffed by really nice people with a good selection of cheap books sold to swell the coffers of this worthy charity.
  • Go to the library. In the Northern town where I grew up this was the traditional activity of old men saving on their heating bills and drunks waiting for the pubs to open. I guess that’s why I feel very much at home in libraries.  
  • Take in an art gallery and museum……….

……… talking of which, I spent an enjoyable couple of hours in Bideford’s excellent Burton Art Gallery & Museum. It features a fascinating exhibition on local history, including references to “The Postman Poet”, who I’d never heard of and Charles Kingsley, who I had.

“The Postman Poet”, Edward Capern, was born in Tiverton and worked in a lace factory. His failing eyesight forced him to abandon this occupation and in 1847, in dire straits, he secured an appointment as “the rural postman of Bideford.” Writing poetry in his spare time, he achieved that rare trick of becoming popular with the public and also well received by critics. Tangible recognition came when he was eventually granted a civil list pension by Lord Palmerstone – a fantastic achievement for one from such humble beginnings.

Charles Kingsley was raised in nearby Clovelly and his novel “Westward Ho!” led to a seaside town of that name being founded – the only example of a town with an exclamation mark in its name. Until I viewed the informative exhibits, I hadn’t realised what a great social reformer Kingsley was and that a cult had developed around this forward-thinking figure.

Bideford was my first, but sadly not my last, encounter with a cult of a very different kind – one devoted to tea-time drinking. When you work full time for a living in a fairly conventional job, you are totally unaware that, while you are labouring at your desk at 3.30 or 4 o’clock, the pubs are filling up with a variety of regulars, many of whom (as my old mum would say) seem to have “had enough,” even at such an early hour. Most of these folk are benign and, on many occasions, positively exude an air of bonhomie, albeit of a strange, terror-inducing kind. However, as this journal will attest, there are others who just seem to be intent on making complete arses of themselves.

Another day, another plate of beans on toast and I couldn’t have wished for a better start to the day of my easy 8.3 mile walk from Bideford to Westward Ho!

I should explain that beans on toast was the “official breakfast” of my walk, having decided at the outset to stay away from the “full English”. I love a fry-up, but decided 40 consecutive days-worth might kill me, so I reverted to my childhood favourite, beans on toast. I know it’s sad, but my daily “fix” really was a highlight of the walk. Pat would confirm how partial I am to this fine meal and reckons that our relationship almost fell at the first hurdle because of it. She recalls how – on our first romantic weekend away, in Prague- I returned from the breakfast buffet with a broad smile on my face and a mountainous pile of beans on my plate. Something which she still describes as “disgusting”. (I think she meant the beans, not my face).

I met three lady hikers at breakfast on my first morning in Bideford and on the basis of the entirely superficial indicator of accent, had already pigeon-holed them as “middle class, stuck up, right wing harridans”. I chatted to them again on my second day and realised my error.  

On my second morning, an appetising breakfast conversation about the joys of using an outside toilet during a hard frost – which I felt compelled and indeed eminently qualified to join in – proved that I was definitely wrong. They turned out to be a jolly trio of old friends, who were knocking off the SWCP over a long-weekend every year. I felt even more embarrassed by my snap character assessment ( or assassination) when one of them re-appeared after breakfast and gave me £15 towards my charity sponsorship.

I was extremely touched by this gesture of genuine kindness and their clear concern for people less fortunate than themselves. As well as swelling Shilhay’s coffers, it taught me a valuable lesson.

While we are on the subject of soliciting sponsorship, I should explain that I adopted a low key approach throughout the walk. My policy was never to volunteer the fact that I was being sponsored, but if anyone asked, to explain that I was, but that this was not my primary objective.

Having dried my eyes and pocketed the money I thought I’d better start walking. This was another flat amble, taking in Appledore – with its dockyards, rusting hulks lying dying in a sad ships graveyard, quaint narrow streets and inviting old pubs- then trekking on round Northam Burrows Country Park to Westward Ho! I still can’t get used to typing that exclamation mark, but having been there I agree that it is an effective way of denoting the incredulity of the unsuspecting visitor.

First, to Appledore, a delightful village situated at the mouth of the River Torridge. The settlement prospered as a port in the Elizabethan era, and some cottages date from then. The construction of a quay in 1845 further developed the port and as a result, Appledore has a rich maritime heritage.  

I needed to ensure that my “Virgin Giving” web page was up and running and called into Appledore library in search of internet access. Those planning other sponsored events might like to know that, unlike other web-sites, “Virgin Giving” is a not-for-profit business and do not take a percentage from every donation made, as others do, charging only the charity when they register.

Appledore’s library and information centre is based in an attractive old building by the river. I received a warm welcome from the librarian and really appreciated the free internet access that my Devon library card gave me. While checking out my Virgin Giving page, I was approached by several elderly ladies who, having been told by the librarian that I was walking the coast path, were keen to engage in conversation.

This experience brought home to me just how important libraries are to local communities. This one was clearly as much a social hub, where friends could meet for a natter, as a place to borrow books. Such social interaction might otherwise have been missing from the lives of some of the lovely people I met there.

I must declare an interest. Having been brought up in a home without books, I found the local library to be a refuge and a window to a different world. I know how important public libraries are and think that it’s a tragedy that, under the coalition, libraries everywhere are under threat. I urge everyone to sign-up to the excellent “Save Our Libraries” campaign. It’s really important.

Rant over, back to the walk. Appledore library was full of posters for the town’s annual literary festival. Lots of big-hitters from the world of books turn up there: P D James, Kate Adie, Tony Benn, and other luminaries were all featured on the posters adorning the library’s walls. I recall seeing Benn a couple of years back giving an inspiring speech at Bristol Slavery Week – speaking without notes from the pulpit of a Weslyan chapel, he seamlessly and entertainingly wove together the histories of Methodism, the labour movement and slavery. He may not have always been as supportive as he could have been to the governments he served, but he was a class act.

In the library I met a really friendly, elderly lady who said she was speaking at this year’s festival about a local author, Daniel Farson.  She told me she had “befriended him” and was the executor of his will. I wondered at the time if her interest in Daniel had been more than just literary. Anyway, she spoke so passionately about him that I decided to investigate.

My speculation about a possible romantic link proved well off the mark; a little research revealing that Daniel Negley Farson was a gay writer, broadcaster and popular television personality who’d had a rather colourful life. His father was an American journalist who took the young Daniel to Germany where he was allegedly patted on the head by Adolf Hitler. Daniel later shot to fame in the 1950s when he joined Associated Rediffusion, Britain’s first commercial television company. Here he took risks that few television interviewers (certainly not those employed at the then very conservative BBC) would dare take, dealing with issues of social exclusion and alienation that most of the media at the time preferred to sweep under the carpet.  He was also a prolific author and a prominent figure in the arts world, writing the authorized biography of his friend, the painter Francis Bacon.

His father had been an alcoholic, and Farson himself had been a heavy drinker since his Bohemian days in 1950’s Soho, the effects of drinking becoming more apparent in his later years. He knew he was dying of cancer and in 1997 passed away at his father’s house in Devon. My friend from the library was doing a splendid job keeping the memory of this remarkable man alive.

Northam Burrows Country Park

Moving on from literary reflections in Appledore, I started the long trudge round Northam Burrows. This is an evocative landscape of dunes and saltmarsh, lying alongside the Taw estuary. Part of the North Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, it is a desolate, windy and peaceful place: until you have to start dodging the balls from the golf course, that is.

An overly long walk around the golf course brings you to Westward Ho! It would perhaps have been more accurate if Charles Kingsley had written a novel called “Westward No!” This was definitely one of my least favourite places on the whole path. My journal records first impressions thus:

“a sad, out of season seaside resort that’s seen better days”.

I thought that the saddest thing about Westward Ho! is it’s apparent attempt to become a surfing centre; comparisons with surfing meccas encountered previously, such as Croyde and Woolacombe, are not flattering.   

Westward Ho! The last resort?

My accommodation in Westward Ho! was in a gothic pile with peeling paintwork and a generally shabby aura. The interior decor matched the exterior and it looked in need of major renovation throughout.

I was directed to a nearby pub where it was said I might find sustenance. It looked to me like a typical seaside family pub and I entered reluctantly. However, I was heartened to find an exceptionally friendly, unpretentious and welcoming bar.  

It was strange being the only sober person in the pub, an experience that I’m not overly familiar with, but I enjoyed listening in to the conversation of the increasingly inebriated old boys at the bar. One loud individual dominated proceedings, castigating a range of local personalities as “assholes” and offering the same remedy for all of them – that they should be “put up against a wall and shot.”

As he finally staggered off into the night, I asked my drinking companions if this was a one-night-stand or a regular performance. They assured me that this was a nightly event, but that he was “no trouble.” The regulars seemed to accept his tirade with equanimity. I suppose there’s no harm done, but it did leave me feeling that one shouldn’t have to witness this kind of foul mouthed abuse in a public bar and reflecting that Westward Ho! seemed to have more ass- holes than a haemorrhoid clinic.

Perhaps my bar room buddy will find a suitable role in Cameron’s “Big Society”: when local vigilantes take over the running of the police service, he can then meet out summary justice to the “assholes.”

The breakfast menu at my B&B boasted “butcher’s sausages”, which sounds to me like unnecessary information, after all what other type are there? I don’t recall hearing anyone say they are popping down the newsagents for a few links of Cumberland sausage or complaining that the local garage doesn’t sell burgers. Come to think of it though, some garages probably do these days.

To be fair, the breakfast here was memorable for providing the largest plate of beans on toast of the trip, eaten at a table with a panoramic view of the windswept beach. I was so delighted that I took a picture of the vista, with my plate in the foreground. I have a high embarrassment threshold but, when the owner interrupted me, I did find it awkward explaining why I was taking such care in framing this memento of my breakfast. He seemed a little wary of me after that.

I left Westward Ho! with some relief, fearing that if I had stayed much longer I may have been put up against a wall and shot as an incoming asshole.

The 11 mile stroll to Clovelly was not my favourite day’s walk, but there was some interesting industrial archaeology to look at on the way. Lime kilns dot the cliffs hereabouts and there is a picturesque old harbour at Clovelly. Like the one at Hartland, this harbour was built in Elizabethan times to facilitate the transport of goods up and down the Bristol Channel.

I found the final few miles before Clovelly, along the “Hobby Drive,” to be tedious; the “drive” being a long, well surfaced track, built in the early 19th century by Sir James Hamlyn Williams, using labour provided by Napoleonic prisoners of war.

Clovelly itself is a celebrated tourist honey-pot. The village has been privately owned for generations by one family, the descendants of Zachary Hamlyn, who acquired the area in 1730 from another landed family, the Careys of Clovelly, who had occupied the area since the 14th century.  

Clovelly

After many miles of free access I baulked at the idea of a “private” village, even though as a “resident” for the night I was able to avoid an entry fee. Day trippers parking at the car park above the village are not so lucky and have to pay their dues before descending the cobbled street leading down to the harbour. I know that many folk find Clovelly bewitchingly beautiful, but my advice to them would be to “get out more” – I just couldn’t get excited about what seems such a twee, over-commercialised place. I was to visit many places on the SWCP where I would far rather be.

My reaction to Clovelly may be coloured by a reluctance to pay anything to visit natural attractions such as show caves or waterfalls, arguing that there are enough such places that one can visit for free and – as a spin off – not have to be pushed and shoved by hordes of gawping tourists. We are lucky that in our country we have large tracts of open access, thanks to organisations such as the National Trust (which owns much of the SWCP) and the National Parks authorities, all of whom do sterling work to make the countryside accessible to everyone.

I’ve always been an advocate of the “right to roam”.  Being a walker from the North West of England, my early heroes were those working men who participated in the Kinder Trespass of 1932. The mass trespass of Kinder Scout in the Peak District was undertaken to highlight the fact that walkers in England and Wales were denied access to areas of open country. The trespassers march featured violent scuffles between ramblers and gamekeepers and some ramblers were roughed up, arrested and subsequently imprisoned for offences relating to violence against the keepers.

The Kinder trespass marked the start of a long campaign which culminated in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, granting rights to walk on mapped access land. The introduction of this Act was a key promise in the manifesto which brought New Labour to power in 1997; one of the many things that Tony and his mates did get right.  One of the leaders of the trespass, political activist Benny Rothman, lived long enough to participate in a 2012 memorial event in Derbyshire, but sadly died shortly afterwards.

The story of the Kinder trespass inspired the godfather of the English folk revival, Ewan MacColl, to write “The Manchester Rambler”. I empathise with the song’s sentiments and believe that the “right to roam” should be defended to the death. If you fancy joining in a sing-along, led by Mike Harding at the 2012 memorial event in Edale, click here.

Pat joined me in Clovelly. Normally, meeting her gave me a lift, but instead a dark cloud descended when we viewed our accommodation. Despite its charming name, our B&B was a charm-less establishment. Sixty pounds secured an attic room, with no wardrobe space or en-suite facilities. We would not really have objected to the lack of an en-suite bathroom if the shared bathroom had not been one floor below and shared by the whole house, including the proprietor and his family. Having noticed a bath, I was about to comfort myself with a nice soak after a hard day’s walk, but then I realised that the plug had been removed, presumably to prevent residents using too much hot water? Welcome to Devon!

Price was no indicator of value on this walk: often the correlation was so weak that we could not escape the conclusion that some B&B owners are taking the mickey. With notable exceptions, some of the places we stayed seem to aspire to no more than the very minimum standards of service and – far from going the “extra mile” for their guests – appear to be only in it for the money. I’ll name those places where we were made to feel at home and where nothing was too much trouble: other places will be described anonymously – not just to avoid expensive litigation, but also because I’m aware that tastes do differ and it would be unfair to prejudice other travellers or adversely affect businesses if I had just had an “off day” or been even more curmudgeonly than usual in my assessment.

The 10.3 mile walk from Clovelly to Hartland Quay is graded as challenging – and it was! However, we were well rewarded at the end of the trail – The Hartland Quay Hotel was one of our favourite stops on the whole trip. It has a stunning setting and provides comfortable accommodation and an unpretentious bar. Coast path walking (or post-walk drinking) doesn’t get any better than this!

We had a strange and frightening encounter with some cattle en-route to this nirvana. Eating lunch in the corner of a field, I looked up from my sandwich to see a number of what I took to be bulls in the opposite corner. The next time I looked up they were advancing, nay galloping, towards us in the manner of Zulu warriors at Rorke’s Drift. Pat felt that I was over-reacting, but she did make this observation from the safety of the adjacent field. I made my rather undignified escape over the stile just before the bulls gathered around the other side of the fence, nuzzling the steps and eying us hungrily. The “bulls” could have been cows with horns of course, but what would that make me?

This was not the only encounter we had with cattle, but was the only one where I felt genuinely threatened. I saw many signs assuring the walker that farmers only allow “benign” cattle to graze in fields crossed by footpaths, but on this, and other occasions, I was not so sure.

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