Restrictions on travel and lockdowns over the last two years have meant that our Point to Point walks were stopped in their tracks. Indeed we have not done one of these journeys since our aborted attempt at the Cleveland Way in North Yorkshire in 2019.
So it was with great excitement that we arrived in Somerset recently to start the South West Coast Path. As its name suggests the path runs all the way round the south west of England, from the Minehead on the north coast, to Poole in Dorset on the south coast, a total distance of around 630 miles, and no, we were not doing it all in one go. At nearly 1000km it would take us 6-7 weeks to complete the whole thing! Our plan was to walk the first 7 stages which would total around 90 miles.
Minehead is a large town sitting on the south coast of the Bristol Channel and bordering the Exmoor National Park. It has a large promenade from which the the South Wales coast can be seen on a good day. It is a popular holiday destination and noted for its Butlins Holiday camp which sits on the edge of the town.
Left: Minehead Heritage Railway Station; Right: Lyn Practising What She Preaches!
We made our way to the sculpture that signifies the start of the South West Coast Path and after posing for a few photographs we set off on the trail, pleased to be walking point to point once again. A short flat section along the west end of the promenade gave way to a wooded steep climb on to North Hill.
L: Leaving our hotel in Minehead R: Minehead Beach
The Start of the South West Coast Path
We soon had to make a choice of route, the path over the hills and moorland, or the “Rugged Path”. We chose the latter. This route meant a longer walk on a narrow path of steep climbs and descents, but which afforded us spectacular clifftop views of the coastline, yellow gorse and bluebells, and in the distance the coast of Wales which stood out in the bright blue sky. It was not named the “Rugged Path” for nothing. It was a spectacular route and very rewarding.
Top: The Wooded Path Out of Minehead; Centre and Bottom: Posing at the Top of The First Climb
Some of the Local Residents – Wild Exmoor Ponies graze on the cliff side
Bluebells and Gorse bushes in full colour
The clifftop path eventually descended into Bossington village, a place which appeared to be stuck in the past. It seemed that no new buildings had been allowed there since about 1800, except for a Visitors Centre which doubled as a Village Hall and sat on the edge of the village on the route of the path and away from all the houses. All the cottages were what could be termed “quaint” , some thatched, with small windows, rose covered arches around the doors and typically English “Cottage Gardens”. It was a charming little village which guarded the eastern point of Porlock Marshes. From here it was pleasant walk across the flat marsh into our destination, Porlock.
Top: The Cliff Path Continues; Centre: Us by the Bluebells; Bottom: Lunch Stop and a Cloud Inversion
Our accommodation was in the centre of the village and was comfortable but not spacious. There are three pubs and a restaurant in Porlock and despite it being early May, the only place with availability was a dodgy looking place at the end of the village, whose culinary delights started and ended with Pizza! Everywhere else was fully booked. This was to become a theme for our walk and we resolved to try and book places at every stop before we arrived. Staff shortages were the biggest reason.
Day two started well, albeit under high, light grey clouds as we headed back out to the marsh and along Porlock Beach to Porlock Weir. The notes from my diary suggest that this was a better selection of pubs and restaurants and maybe we should have stayed here instead!
Views of Porlock Marsh and Beach
From here, the path started to climb into an extended wooded area which gave us occasional glimpses of the sheer drop off the cliff edge, and views of the coast line and across the Bristol Channel to Wales. The path had been re-routed in several places owing to landslips which added to the distance we had to cover. At one point on the trail we came across a small settlement of three houses and a church hidden in the woods. This was Culbone, home to England’s smallest church, and only accessible via a two mile rough track through the woods. I would like to have stopped to take some pictures but we were running a little late due to the diversions and the steep nature of some of the climbs so we pressed on.
Some scenes from the first part of Day 2 walk
Glenthorne House Front Gate – Country House in the forest
Our lunch stop was just off the cliff path with a sheer drop beneath our feet. On the map it was named Desolate, a very apt description, despite the area now being bathed in sunlight and making walking much more pleasant there was not another soul around. Another, longer diversion because of path closures saw us take the path over Countisbury Common, an open path across lush green pasture with a farm nestling in a dip and a herd of cows grazing quietly on the grass. We reached a narrow lane with a long steep twisty descent to eventually meet the designated route again. The trouble is if you walk down a hill, you invariably have to walk up a hill again and so it was we started to climb again.
The paths look straight on the map, but on the ground they zigzag up the side of the hill so you end up walking twice as far as indicated on the map! We eventually reached the top of Butter Hill which gave fantastic views along the coast from around 1000ft up. Our descent into Lynmouth, our night stop, was gradual but a route through a woodland path fringed on both sides by beautiful wild garlic flowers was very restorative. Today was a hard leg, having walked about 2.5 miles further than the mapped route had indicated.
A word about Lynmouth. The village sits at the base of a steep cliff with Lynton almost directly above it. The two are linked by a Funicular Railway which literally runs up the cliff-face. The village is noted for the flood which happened in 1952. The August of that year had been particularly wet and the fields above the village and in the West Lyn Valley were already waterlogged. On 15th-16th August, a storm of tropical intensity broke over southwest England and 9 inches of rain fell in 24 hours on an already sodden Exmoor, above the village. Flood water cascaded down the West Lyn Valley converging on Lynmouth. Fallen trees and debris formed a dam up the valley and which subsequently gave way, sending a huge wall of water and debris down the river and into Lynmouth. Overnight more than 100 buildings were destroyed or damaged along with 28 of the 31 bridges over the river, and 38 cars were washed out to sea. 34 people lost their lives in the flood. Our accommodation was built on the site of the Old Lyn Valley Hotel.
Day three started with lengthy steep climb up the cliff path to Lynton, the small town immediately above Lynmouth. A quick stop to buy lunch and we were back on the path heading towards The Valley of Rocks, a spectacular natural phenomenon and popular tourist destination.
Sculpture set into the wall on the path to the Valley of Rocks
As we followed a tarmac path towards the valley we saw a small heard of wild Mountain Goats grazing on the cliff side.
One of the joys of point to point walking is comparing notes with people you meet along the way, following the same route as you, but walking at different speeds. In Porlock we met two Dutch ladies in our B&B and chatted with them briefly before setting off. We did not see them in Lynmouth but we past them half way up another climb, they were resting on a bench! They were walking the whole route and they had allowed 7 weeks they had told us, and this day was an easy one for them. We also encountered a couple with a dog doing the whole route. We kept overtaking each other and the last we saw of them was at the top of Great Hangman Hill about 3 miles from our destination of Combe Martin. The poor dog looked exhausted as it was a very warm day but he was well looked after and was happy, his tail never stopped wagging!
This was the toughest day of the walk so far with many steep climbs and descents and we eventually walked wearily into the village of Combe Martin at around 5pm having completed a 14.5 mile stage and walked for nearly 8 hours. I recall enjoying a family holiday in Combe Martin when I was a child, but I did not recognise any of it. There are not many places that have not changed in the last 55 years or so!
Our accommodation was an old Victorian Villa on the edge of the village and a comfortable room and hearty breakfast set us up for anther day of walking.
As with the previous days, day 4 also started with a climb but not a steep one as we headed towards the very picturesque Watermouth Bay and onward to Widmouth Head which gave us a lovely view back to the bay. At this point our path joined the Tarka Trail, another long distance path named in honour of “Tarka the Otter”, a novel published in 1927 by Henry Williamson. The book tells the story of an Otter who lived in the habitat provided by the rivers Taw and Torridge which flow through this part of North Devon. Although not written as a children’s book it has become hugely popular as one and has never been out of print since its publication.
- Woodland Path: 2. Wild Garlic Lines the Path: 3. Bluebells; 4. Sea Campion
Later, when the sun came out it was a glorious walk.
The Tarka Trail eventually led us into the large town of Ilfracombe which we could see from Beacon Point, a viewpoint just east of the town.
As we walked in to the town the finger boards denoting the SWCP became footprints set into the paths which made navigating our way through a little more challenging, but we eventually found our way out and on to what on the map is called Seven Hills, an undulating stretch of cliff side path with steep climbs and descents.
Cliffside paths are inherently unstable and subject to landslips and so it was with today’s route, with a number of diversions which eventually led us to Bull Point, a rocky promontory where there is a lighthouse and spectacular views of the coastline. The path led on to Morte Point and a scramble over the rocks on to a lower path which led us into Woolacombe, the main attraction of which is a very long sandy beach. Over the last couple of days the wind had increased and there was now a choppy sea, ideal for the odd surfer we could see in the distance.
We did not appreciate it at the time but this was the end of the hilly section of our walk and as we walked into Woolacombe the coastline appeared to level out around the bay and more ominously, the path round the point towards Cryde Bay, our route for the next day, was covered in spray and mist.
See Part 2 for for the rest of the blog.