Saturday 18th October 2014 (Posted 21/04/15… shocking delay!)
Lynmouth to Combe Martin: Distance 13.3 miles / Ascent 3766 feet (greater ascent than climbing Snowdon, apparently!)
Cumulative: Distance 35.1 Miles / Ascent 8,746 feet (plus “alternative rugged coast path” of Day 1)
In the summer, Jenny and I enjoyed our annual trip in my Motorhome, Morgan, to the far distant fields of Cheddar. For those who read my blog on distant shores and may be less familiar with the South West geography of England, this is only 6 miles from my home and, indeed the home of our yummy Cheddar Cheese! Knowing our calendars quickly filled up, it seemed a good idea to arrange the next Morgan weekend well in advance and so, the weekend of 17-19 October was etched into our diaries. Little did Jenny suspect, several weeks later, when I suggested a switch from a Morgan weekend to South West Coast Path walk, the trials that lay ahead. As Jenny was a seasoned walker, I knew that walking was not something which fazed her and, as anticipated, she readily agreed.
I went ahead and booked two night’s accommodation at Mellstock House, Combe Martin, which we were to discover was a wonderful guest house, to include evening meal and breakfast. As members of the South West Coast Path Association, and at no additional cost, our hosts Penny and John agreed to transport us to Lynmouth on the Saturday and collect us from Ilfracombe on the Sunday afternoon; with us breaking our walk at their guest house Combe Martin Saturday evening.
Jenny lives half a mile from where we work, en route to the M5, so we planned that I’d pick up Jenny just after 4pm, as I left work. Poppy (my six year old rescue Westie) had alternative thoughts. On the previous evening, her trip to the vets revealed a further five days of antibiotics required. Now, as super as my neighbours are in sorting Poppy’s feeding, watering and toileting, expecting them to corner an unco-operative Poppy into her basket, prise open her ear (between the thumb and finger of one hand) whilst locating the ear canal with the nozzle of the tube of medicine, and inbetween Poppy’s numerous attempts to avoid the procedure, squirt medication down her infected ear was above and beyond the call of duty. And so, plans were edited and I traveled home straight from work, to medicate said ear and then return to within half a mile of work to collect Jenny. A twenty two mile round trip but dear Poppy, and all her infuriating rescue dog habits, was worth it. (The lovely Claire agreed to drive over on the Saturday evening to administer antibiotic Day Two!) However, having conducted the required veterinary process, and begun my return journey to Weston-super-Mare, there was a nagging which chiseled away in the depths of my memory bank. I ran through the contents of the car… Radley overnight bag (proud possession!), walking boots, poles and clothes, food and water for next day’s lunch during walk, iPad, maps, chargers for iPad and phone… maps, maps, maps… I had no recollection of climbing on the piano stool to reach the maps down from the top shelf of the book case. Groan. U-turn on A370. Home. Retrieve maps. Text to Jenny to say am just leaving house, again, and will be with her ‘far’ later than intended.
Without further ado, Jenny was collected and the journey began. All was good as we sped along the motorway, aiming for the A361. As we left the M5 at junction 27 the sun had set and darkness was settling around us. Nevertheless, the journey continued with ease as the road was reasonably lit and often dual carriageway. Our turning off the A361 onto the A399 brought with it: torrential rain; complete darkness and worryingly twisty roads. Being unfamiliar with the roads my speed dropped to 25mph and a trail of traffic followed in my wake. Road signs promised the close proximity of Combe Martin and I suggested to Jenny to ring the guest house and let them know our arrival, although not imminent, was certainly going to take place that evening. As Jenny leaned forward into the footwell to ferret for my phone through the handbags, scarves and carrier bags tangled around her feet, a large dark shape flung itself across my path from the right, resting upon its four legs in front of my bonnet. Shifting my foot from the accelerator to the brake pedal whilst simultaneously putting my left arm across Jenny for fear she may bang her head, the car continued its path towards a deer. Oblivious to our screams and prayers, as we careered to a slower halt than we may have done on a dry road, the deer gave us a look of indifference, before nonchalantly scaling the fence to continue its journey into the field at the side of the road. Whilst a little shaken we continued, wishing our arrival at Combe Martin was approaching ‘forthwith’!
Fortunately the rain eased on our arrival and we were able to decant the contents out of our car and into Mellstock House without being drowned. We related our Bambi encounter to our hosts whilst enjoying a complimentary and most appreciated cup of tea and coffee and selecting our menu choices for our dinner. We ordered our evening meal, cottage pie for me and pork burgers for Jenny, and were shown to our room by John whilst Penny began to conjure up our two course meal. A quick wash and change of clothes and we returned downstairs to tuck into the meal… And very good it was too, with vegetables to accompany our meals, cooked to perfection. I decided on a bottle of red to enjoy over the two evenings and Jenny, one who never drinks alcohol take note, settled on a cup of tea. Our evening in the bar was filled with banter, laughter and, by the end of the evening, we parted from our newly found hosts with a friendship that was easily formed between like minded congenial company. We both slept soundly and woke early ready for our full English and lift to Lynmouth, ready to begin the third leg of the walk.
As Penny drove us across to Lynmouth, Jenny did her utmost to convince me that Penny should drop us at Lynton, rather than the designated Lynmouth which was sea level and would require a reasonable level of energy to clamber up the coast path to Lynton. But… my previous walk had concluded on the white iron bridge of Lynmouth and, therefore, Lynmouth was indeed the necessary starting point. Penny duly obliged, dropping us in the Lynmouth car park and we walked down to the iron bridge for the obligatory photo shoot.
Our walk began with great determination as we clambered up the tarmac path which zigzagged alongside the cliff railway, although having such an early start meant we were unable to observe the funicular cliff lift in action. Once at the top, we enjoyed the extensive coastal views as we walked towards Valley of the Rocks, keeping our eyes peeled for the feral goats that roamed amongst the rocks. As we passed Lee Abbey and made our way towards Woody Bay, less than two miles into the journey Jenny decided an impromptu toilet stop was required and it was my role to keep guard as she snook behind a tree! (Very difficult as Autumn was well upon us and vegetation was now depleted leaving large gaps through which squatting bodies could be identified!)
With many trees having lost their leaves, we were fortunate to enjoy wonderful views back across to Lee Abbey and Valley of Rocks. The coast path edged along the cliff top, through woods and even along country roads, where we had to watch out for cars as the roads narrowed. Returning to a wooded path, I had to balance precariously at the edge of a waterfall for another photo shoot, although, yet again, Jenny declined the photo opportunity. As we returned to the cliff top, beautiful coastal scenery opened up before us and the sun peaked here and there through the clouds. Eventually the path wound down towards the river and deeper into the wooded area of Heddon Valley… Heddon Valley, the one place where a get out clause was permissible with public transport available further up the valley ensuring relocation to Combe Martin a far less strenuous manner. Jenny assured me her feet were holding up and we should continue with our planned itinerary. We crossed the river by a small stone bridge and I continued striding out, aware that time was of the essence if we were to arrive in Combe Martin before the arrival of dusk. Nearing the top of the track, and believing Jenny might have been finding the path a little tricky as she had made no participation within the conversation, I turned to find that, in actual fact, i had been talking to myslef, Jenny was still at the bottom, chatting to strangers (her favourite past time!) It was at this point I began to fear whether we would complete the trek before dark. Jenny finally caught up and we located a bench that gave us a view of the sea whilst we quickly ate our tuna and sweet corn sandwiches and munched through bags of hula hoops before continuing our journey.
Strong winds, stone walls, bridle gates and stiles marked our way towards Combe Martin, though I was aware that Jenny’s pace was slowing and I was concerned that maybe Jenny wasn’t sharing all the information regarding her feet. Being bossy, I insisted Jenny sit down and we checked out her feet… Badly blistered, despite having spent a fortune on special plasters. Socks changed and an adamant, “I am not stopping, I am going to complete this walk”, Jenny placed her walking shoes back on her weary feet and valiantly (no, I am not being dramatic), valiantly continued to walk.
Ignoring her protestations, I grabbed Jenny’s bag and carried it for the reminder of the walk, hoping to ease her burden a little. The next leg was down the extremely steep-sided slope towards the stream, passing the National Trust Great Hangman sign and alerting us to the fact we were approaching the highest point of the South West Coast Path. Even with sticks, the slope was significantly difficult. Once over the stream, a zig zag path led us back up the other side, towards Great Hangman and its renowned altitude. Jenny plodded on and I don’t really know the extent of pain she was in as, Jenny being Jenny, she soldiered on, regardless. We finally made it to the cairn on the top of the Great Hangman and, despite her attempts to avoid the camera, I insisted she had her photo taken whilst she added her thrown rock to the cairn, as a momento of her achievement. Darkness was beginning to fall and I feared, only three walks into the 630 miles, I was going to have to call the coastguard for support to help us off the coast path and to the safety of Combe Martin.
Rather than pausing to take in the wonderful views from the cairn, we “sped” (this word is chosen for dramatic effect… “Limped” would be far more accurate) towards Little Hangman and the sloping downhill Coast Path which would lead to Combe Martin and our home for the night. For the last half mile or so, I had to use my mobile phone to light the way down the steps towards the village. As the lights of the village grew brighter, and our destination neared, we rang Penny and John to reassure them we were safe and we would soon arrive at the Mellstock doorway. A second photo shoot at the bottom of the hill, near the cove, recorded the completion of the leg and the distances Eastward.
A small incline from the cove up to Mellstock House and our desperate knocking on the door, concluded with our hosts pouring Jenny a much needed and begged for cider (you may recall, Jenny never drinks alcohol!) which she necked whilst stood outside the front door, leaning against my car, shoes removed and socks exposed. To quote Jenny: “that cider never touched the sides”.
Wearily we clambered up the stairs to the first floor, staggered through our bedroom door and silently lay prostrate on the beds, wondering if we would ever gather the energy to return downstairs for supper… and me… well I said a little prayer for our safe return… And gratitude for not having required the support of the coastguard.