6. Hartland Quay to Padstow – the toughest day, to a land of red trousers and posh fish and chips and wondering “what’s up Doc?”
I approached the 15.4 mile walk from Hartland Quay to Bude with some trepidation. This proved to be justified, as it fully lived up to its reputation as the toughest, but most spectacular, day of the trip. Pat stayed with me at The Hartland Quay Hotel, but drove round to Bude after breakfast so that I could travel light. I was to be grateful for that!
This was a day of amazing rock scenery, but the many ups and downs were really soul destroying at times. Time and again the path descends to sea level, only to climb 500 feet or so to the cliff top. I’m sure the number of breath taking climbs have been documented, but I lost count.
The “Hawker Hut” near Morwenstow provided an excuse for a welcome break from this “big dipper”. The hut was built of timber retrieved from shipwrecks by an eccentric poet and clergyman, Robert Hawker. It must have been a peaceful and inspiring place to compose his verse.
The GCHQ listening station just outside Bude is visible from many miles away, beckoning hapless hikers with the false promise that their destination is close: however, as often happens on the SWCP, this is an illusion and one never seems to reach the thing, and even when you do it is a fair few miles to go before you hit the bright lights of Bude.
This was one of many installations along the path operated by the military/ intelligence community. I guess it’s understandable that they have taken advantage of these isolated spots to pursue their secretive ends. All of them seemed very busy – not surprising really, given the number of places throughout the world in which we are flexing our military muscle and killing innocent civilians, along with too many of our soldiers, in the process. I’d better get off the politics, as I know it’s a very sensitive subject, but I come from a class that tends to be called upon on a regular basis to die for their country. My granddad lost a lung on the Somme and my dad lost his best friend at Anzio, an experience that affected him for the rest of his relatively short life, so maybe that explains why I’m passionately anti-war.
I’d best lighten up a bit!
After one of my best walking days ever, I arrived tired, but happy, in Bude, where the ever-reliable Pat was waiting for me at the B&B. As this was a Sunday night, Pat dropped me off with my kit and returned to the real world of work in Bristol.
I stayed in a nicely appointed room in an old pub, but was unlucky to be staying there on mothering Sunday, when it seemed that half of Cornwall had brought their mums out for a treat. I was seated at a small table next to the toilets; one might have hoped that, as a resident, I would have been given something better than this bog-standard perch!!
As always happens when eating alone, I found people watching passed the time nicely. A bullet headed, bull-necked, heavily tattooed man at an adjacent table provided great entertainment, complaining bitterly that his steak was not done to his liking. You will get a feel for what a classy joint this was when I describe the diner’s chosen outfit for a special evening out with his old mum – a pair of cut-off beach shorts, displaying a St Piran’s flag tastefully tattooed on his calf, teamed with flip flops. This man of few words simply slammed his plate down on the bar and said “I’m bringing this back ‘cos I asked for it medium to well done and it’s burnt to a cinder” He then turned on his heels and walked back to his table, leaving a slack jawed barmaid in his wake.
If I’m perhaps giving the impression that I have a low tolerance of my fellow man I plead in mitigation that I’ve spent much of my career as an auditor. This is an occupation where – however you wrap it up – you always have a potentially adversarial relationship with clients. Let’s be honest, no one ever volunteers for an audit and it’s not a job (like an ice cream man, clown, or Dyno-Rod operative) where people are actually glad to see you and to avail themselves of your services. Anyway, the point is that my long career as an auditor must influence the way I relate to other people. Perhaps this walk will change all that and I’ll suddenly become the avuncular funster of my imagination …….but I’m not holding my breath.
The 10 mile walk from Bude to Crackington Haven was another “challenging” day, but the hardships were compensated for by the cliff top views over the wild Atlantic and the many charming waterfalls tumbling towards the path. At some point on this stretch I passed a bench with the SWCP logo and the legend “Poole 500 miles” – a sobering thought.
My accommodation at Crackington Haven had a very quiet, out of season feel and was another example of poor value for money: £50 for a single room with neither coat hangers nor toiletries, other than a tiny bar of soap more suited to a doll’s house. I found it even more unbelievable that the room is normally a double! How do they get away with this sub-standard service? Possibly because there is very little accommodation at Crackington Haven.
Fancifully, the in-room information pack described the food as being “prepared in our professional kitchen”. I wondered what an “amateur” kitchen would look like: food prepared by a YTS trainee, using a camping gas stove? I collected many superfluous signs on the walk, including the ubiquitous “fresh crab”- I’ve yet to meet anyone who prefers their salad to be topped with an old, rotting crustacean.
I awoke to a misty, wet and windy dawn: the first really heavy rain of the walk. The spectacular view from the hotel’s breakfast room of huge waves breaking over jagged rocks did not allay the nagging thought that, sooner or later, I was going to have to go outside and get very wet.
As I was leaving for the 14 mile hike to Tintagel I met a large group of ramblers gathered by a stile debating whether to continue in the inclement weather. While I was passing, their rather pompous leader decided to abandon the walk and described me as “a brave man for continuing.” I explained that I didn’t have much choice, as I had a room booked in Tintagel that night.
I met a couple of members of this large group later in the week. They had “mutinied” by then and were going it alone after rebelling against what they considered to be an overly-cautious approach by their leader. They explained that, after seeing me striking out along the cliff top, they had spent some time challenging his decision to quit.
Like that doyen of Lakeland fellwalkers, Alfred Wainwright, I’m averse to large groups on the hills; usually defined by me as gatherings of more than two people. Squeezing past a conga-line of ramblers on a narrow path and listening to the hearty banter that often goes with it does get a bit wearing. Rambling clubs seem to frequently combine path-blocking and banter in a particularly irritating way.
Talking of Wainwright, I love his guidebooks which are works of art combining stunningly original pen and ink drawings with some breathtakingly lyrical descriptions that seem at odds with a man who was clearly an eccentric and by his own admission didn’t much like people.
What I do object to though is the way that some recent converts to fellwalking seem to think that Wainwright discovered the Lakeland fells and, like rambling train spotters, talk about “doing the Wainwrights”, as they tick off another summit. Having said that, I understand the challenge of completing the 214 mountains he described, having done them all myself.
I also have problems with the High Priestess of the Wainwright Cult, Julia Bradbury, and her televised series of “Wainwright Walks”. I just find her orgasmic outpourings at every viewpoint and upon every meeting with anyone who was remotely acquainted with the grand old man of the fells quite irritating. I’ve loved the Lakeland fells since my first camping trip to the Duddon Valley as a 13 year old boy scout; so, I’d concede that my reaction (or even “overreaction”) is maybe that of a protective lover, reluctant to share the object of his affections.
I pressed on in the wind and rain along what felt like one of the most exposed sections of the SWCP. It reminded me of a wild and airy Lakeland ridge; I do miss the Lakes, but it’s surely churlish to complain, when surrounded by such world-class walking on my own doorstep?
This was another “challenging” day, one of several along this wild, remote but beautiful part of North Cornwall. After an unrelentingly stormy day, amid fantastic scenery, I checked into my pub in Tintagel, a town whose local economy is dependent on the Arthurian legend.
My pub accommodation offered a well- appointed but very small room. So far, for me the only “magical” thing about Tintagel was how they had managed to get a toilet and shower into that room – the work of “Merlin the Plumber?” I certainly couldn’t have held a cat-swinging competition there.
I stayed two nights in Tintagel, to facilitate another rest day. My plan of having a rest day every 4 or 5 days worked well and felt about right for me. I certainly needed the recovery time, which seemed to stop me from ever getting really tired.
The perils of having insufficient rest were brought home to me later in the walk when, just after Bolt Head, I passed a man stumbling wearily along the path to Salcombe. Doing the whole SWCP for a prostate cancer charity in memory of his father, he looked a human wreck. Relying heavily on his walking poles and carrying a huge pack, complete with two big, swinging collection boxes, he replied to my query about his wellbeing by reeling off a litany of ills, including shin splints, dodgy knees and a sore ankle. I said I found the weekly rest day enabled me to keep going without getting injured or too exhausted; to my amazement he explained that he was looking forward to his first rest day since starting out weeks before in Minehead! While admiring his determination and commitment to charity fundraising, I found his planning skills less admirable in the light of what seemed to me a suicidal schedule. I really hope that he made it to Poole Harbour, but question the wisdom of attempting to walk from Minehead to Salcombe, a distance of 452 miles, with a heavy load and without a break.
Some walkers do complete the whole path in 6 weeks or under, but these are young bucks (and buckesses). I’m convinced that recognising that I’m not as young or as fit as I was got me through it in one piece.
I enjoyed a pleasant walk around Tintagel, mingling with early-season tourists. The parish newsletter, picked up from the excellent information centre, was another reminder of the dark underbelly of rural life that tourists don’t usually see. The newsletter reported “several mindless acts of vandalism” and “anti-social behaviour”, including damage to the playing fields and the discovery of several bottles left behind the public toilets. The back of a toilet block would not me my party venue of choice, but each to his own.
With time to spare in Tintagel I was unable to escape the wall-to-wall Royal wedding fever gripping the nation-or so we are told by the tabloid news media, including the increasingly tabloid BBC. There were still weeks to go before Will and Kate’s nuptials, but breakfast TV was full of items on street party preparations, including useful advice on making red, white and blue cakes. Public service broadcasting at its best.
I was walking during the early days of the coalition government, which was formed after the May 2010 election and already saw some evidence of the impact of their cuts. The parish newsletter reported that Tintagel castle would now be closed week-days during the winter and in Appledore the librarian had told me that while, to their credit, Devon County Council were trying to avoid any library closures, there would be drastic cuts to hours.
An encounter in a sunny Tintagel beer garden reminded me of the worthiness of the charity I was supporting. While enjoying a pint in the bumble bee filled garden of the Cornishman, the barman noticed my Shilhay tee shirt and said that he had used our services and they had really helped him get back on his feet. Great to hear a success story.
At breakfast the next day I met a walker doing a short section of the path, but finding it very hard: he was from East Anglia and said he was surprised how steep the hills were. I’m not surprised as I’ve frequently heard seasoned hill- walking mates from up North expressing surprise at the severity of the “ups- and- downs” of SWCP walking.
I felt well rested after my “day off” and hit the trail with renewed vigour for another day of solo hiking. Reflecting on the pros and cons of walking alone, I concluded that I engage with more people when travelling alone, but against that I miss the joy of sharing a view/ cream tea/ pint with someone else. It’s a tough call, but if I did have to choose, I’d take good company, although I cannot deny the joys of wandering remote places alone, where you can stop where you want and go at your own pace – but Pat says I always do that anyway. Maybe I want to have my cake and eat it? I always have, which is probably why I started the walk weighing over 16 stone.
The 9 mile walk from Tintagel to Port Isaac was a cracker and one of the few sections graded “challenging”. I had been a little concerned that I might struggle, but it wasn’t too bad, even though there were seven deep valleys to cross. I felt that I was getting fitter, especially on the hills.
This part of Cornwall is so special – a real wilderness. All my favourite places seem to be remote out of the way spots; places like the Boltoro Glacier on the trek to K2, the Cho La Pass in Nepal, Langstrath Valley in the Lakes (reluctant to mention that in case everyone goes), the Patagonian Ice Cap, Dingle in the west of Ireland and parts of Dartmoor, not far from my home. The last one shows that you don’t have to go to the other side of the world to experience that sense of solitude and wonder. Sometimes, if you care to look, it’s just on your doorstep.
After a fabulous walk – passing what must be one of the UK’s most scenic youth hostels, at Dunderhole Point – I arrive in Port Isaac, popularised for viewers of ITV drama by “Doc Martin”. Excitement mounted as I found that they were filming this week and my hopes of landing a walk-on part as “dour Northern hiker” or “passing village idiot” rose as I sashayed seductively past the cameras and lighting rigs on the slipway.
The “Doc” connection is doing for Port Isaac what Rick Stein has done for Padstow: certainly if the price of B&B is anything to go by. Conventional wisdom is that exposure on the telly is a great thing for the local economy, yet most of the local people I spoke to said that the film crew were a real imposition and that they couldn’t wait to get their village back after the “occupation”. There is clearly some tension; many shops do display signs saying “we support Doc Martin”, but the barmaid said that she found the intrusion “very disruptive to village life.” That was certainly my experience after just one night at the (excellent) Slipway Hotel. I guess it all depends on whether you are making any money from the “Doc”.
Filming was going on outside my room and the bar was full of film crew. Why are these people so self-important and so LOUD? The guy at the next table sounded as if he had imbibed something a whole lot stronger than Doom Bar bitter judging by his agitated demeanour and hysterical, honking laugh, which came at inappropriate points in the conversation. If you’ve ever heard the cry of an abused Barnacle Goose, you’ll get the picture.
After a fine dinner at the Slipway, I retired to the terrace of the Red Lion for a pint and a sunset. Despite the distraction of the ludicrous “Doc Martin” crew, this hour will live with me long after I hang up my walking boots. Good company, good beer and a sky turning a flaming orange, as the sun slowly sank into the sea. The experience was enriched by a chat with a very friendly couple; both sounded American, but he was originally from Surrey, had married an American girl and now lives in Cape Cod.
The SWCP passes the well-signposted “Doc’s Cottage” on the way out of Port Isaac and I paused to watch a scene being filmed. I was appalled to hear the man who I took to be the director barking instructions. In the far distance, behind “the shot”, was the slipway, upon which a number of people were enjoying the early morning sun. This was clearly not in the script and I heard the director informing an underling that “it’s OK at the moment, but if any more people appear on that slipway you have to get over there and fuc*ing move them.” I rather wish that I had been ambling along the public slipway if one of the cloned, blond haired, tight jeans clad, walkie-talkie and clipboard bearing underlings (and that’s just the blokes) had requested me to desist. I fear that my response may not have been to ask for “Big Ears’” autograph but rather to suggest that the director stick his big, furry microphone where he would need a “doc” to retrieve it.
TV has been around for a long time now and what these self-important twerps don’t realise is that not everyone is overwhelmed at the prospect of being around those making a popular ITV drama. Having said that, I’m still amazed how many people seem awestruck by TV folk, rather than seeing them as often self–important, ill-mannered oafs.
Having got over my disappointment that the Doc doesn’t provide a foot care service for passing hikers, I gratefully exited Port Isaac. The Cornish coast looked like a Greek island today, very hot and sunny, with great rock scenery and a host of colourful wild flowers for the first few miles. The inlet at Port Quin being particular beautiful.
As the Camel Estuary approached, the path got decidedly busier – this was the school holidays in one of Cornwall’s most popular tourist destinations after all, so why should I be surprised? A culture shock nonetheless, after weeks of relative solitude.
After Polzeath, a long, dull walk along the beach brought me to Rock, across the Camel estuary from Padstow. Rock is famous – or infamous – during the summer months for the wild beach parties thrown by the children of the rich and famous. I didn’t think that I would ever again see so many Timberland, Rohan, White Stuff and Musto labels in one place: but I hadn’t visited Salcombe at that point.
The Rock “uniform” seems to be deck shoes, long shorts and a blindingly bright jumper, usually tied languidly around the neck on the warmest of days; whoever told these guys that this was the height of fashion must have been kidding. The wealth of the people living and holidaying here is palpable and reflected not only in their dress but also, for some, in their superior, unfriendly demeanour.
Far be it for me to set myself up as a fashion guru – a job I’m singularly unqualified for – but I noticed another feature of the Rock garb that I saw nowhere else other than at Salcombe (or in a circus). That is, the salmon pink chino. This garish garment seems to be de rigour in these parts for older men in a certain income bracket – oddly enough, the sort who look as if they wouldn’t be particularly comfortable sporting pink keks at a gay pride event.
I have the feeling that I’ve well and truly left the wilds of North Cornwall behind.
After crossing the River Camel to Padstow, home of the Rick Stein seafood restaurant and the lucrative empire of other ancillary businesses that have mushroomed with it, we walked up the hill to what was one of our favourite B&Bs, 50 Church Street. We have such happy memories of a spacious house, dating back to 1735, and a really friendly welcome; a large well-appointed room and an excellent breakfast made our stay complete.
I heard mixed responses to Rick Stein. With his restaurants, hotel, pub, cafes and delis he has undoubtedly brought many jobs to Padstow and his name clearly pulls in a lot of visitors. Like Port Isaac and ‘the Doc’, most B&Bs make the most of the connection and reflect it in their prices. However, I can’t help but feel sad that, because of this upmarket Harry Ramsden’s, many youngsters can no longer afford to stay in the place of their birth.