Day 2: It takes two

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Sunday 5th October 2014 (Posted 03/11/14)

Porlock Weir to Lynmouth:  Distance 12.3 miles / Ascent 3,156 feet

Cumulative: Distance 21.8 Miles / Ascent 4,980 feet (plus “alternative rugged coast path” of Day 1)

With the exception of the bus driver, whose forgetful antics I surely cannot be held responsible for, I felt the planning of the inaugural leg had a reasonable level of competence. I was, therefore, fairly confident that, following this positive experience, my successful planning of future legs would thrive. I believed that merely replicating my new found knowledge and skills across the planning requirements for the remaining seventy or so legs of the South West Coast Path Walk (depending on which guide book you choose to follow!) would result in the planning for future walks being accomplished with great ease! Hmmm… It would appear that such thoughts were just a tad premature or maybe, more realistically, highly naive!

The starting point (Porlock Weir) and finishing point (Lynmouth) were fairly simple to identify as both the guide books which I had purchased agreed on the same “Day 2” of the walk. The necessity of parking was also readily achievable, with a quick check on the internet revealing an all day car parking space in the vicinity of Lynmouth available for the sum of £5, which proved a bargain when compared with Porlock Weir’s daily car parking spaces being rented at a whopping £8.

My youngest son, Jonathan had spotted a pair of walking poles at half price within a store in Worcester and my sons: Matthew (26), Luke (24) and Jonathan (22) had agreed to buy them for me for a Christmas gift. (I love this time of year, when it is so easy to recall how old my sons are… Come April, and Jonathan’s birthday, they all go higgledy piggledy again until September!)

Furthermore, my good friend Sue, had already put up her hand for the second leg and agreed to partner me on the route. I’m certain that when Sue and I encountered each other in the heart of the dialect, accents and grammar lectures of the 1994 English degree university classroom, Sue never considered the possibility of a lengthy  stroll along the South West Coast Path twenty years later… Heated debates in a public house as to whether Jane Austen was “just another Mills and Boon” would have most definitely been a high probability, however, blisters, rhododendron bushes and scaling Countisbury Hill would most surely not even have registered on Sue’s horizon of any future life which encompassed me! Might I say, however, what a gem of life would have been forfeited by us both had the encounter within the classroom been averted and the companionship of the second leg of the South West Coast Path failed to materialise.

So, with car parking located, geographical  location  of walk confirmed and my walking companion eagerly awaiting the arrival of the said date, Sunday 5th October 2014, the only aspect of the walk which remained to be planned was she transporting of us both from Lynmouth to Porlock Weir, in order for our return amble to be accomplished. And there the planning with ease came to a screaming halt. Whereas for the first leg, following an Internet search, I had quickly located a bus to transport us from the Porlock Weir car park to Minehead, despite repeated in depth searches, I was unable to locate the topless bus, which I understood linked our two locations (Lynmouth and Porlock Weir), via the A39. Further investigation located a collective noun of buses (what would that collective noun be, I wonder?!) which would transport us from Lynmouth to Porlock Weir, via what seemed to be several villages and towns within Exmoor, North Devon and Somerset, for the extremely delayed delivery of five and a half hours… Really?! In desperation, I telephoned Lynmouth Tourist Information, who advised me that the topless bus had been grounded as the company no longer existed and confirmed, “Yes”, the only other option was a nigh on six hour journey by a variety of buses! So, that left me with only two viable options… “One”, a taxi (£25) or “two”, we travel in two cars, leaving one at Porlock Weir and the other at Lynmouth. After a moment or two’s deliberation between Sue and I, we quickly established the fact that travelling in two cars would incur double fuel and double car parking fees but, most significantly, the loss of the fun of the occasion of traveling together, which outweighed the cost of the taxi fare. The taxi was booked, Bill of 1st Call Exmoor Taxis and, after a small explanation of: “No, I couldn’t walk in the opposite direction from Lynmouth to Porlock Weir and he dropped us back to Lynmouth… Well, because that was the ‘wrong way’ and would not support my OCD tendencies”, Bill happily agreed to pick us up from Lynmouth. Had he spoken with my work colleagues, Bill would have not even posed the ‘reverse walk’ question, for he would have determined that I was not even capable of reversing our work lunchtime walk!

Sue brightened the whole occasion with her homemade flapjack, (maybe I could encourage her to make some for each leg of the walk), and I brought bacon ciabattas to the breakfast table, along with a flask of coffee. With a little disbelief, our planned timings were fully adhered to, with Bill dropping us, as planned to Porlock Weir car park for our 10am start… and he even had a pair of nail scissors to rectify my broken nail en route! (Note to self to carry an emery board on future legs!)

And so, the second leg began. Initially it seemed the preparation was greater than the intended walk! The weather was fine and the path was well signed. With two bottles of water each, breakfast biscuits, ham ciabattas and homemade flapjack life was looking good. Little did we know what lay before us. The view of the coast was very quickly impaired by the onset of wooded areas and, in particular, rhododendron bushes, which seemed to flank the ‘coastal’ path for miles and miles, obscuring the stunning coastal views which we had anticipated . Whilst Summer may have produced beautiful flowers, with a scent to match, we had only endless branches with their protruding green leaves to keep us company. On an odd occasion we glimpsed what we believed to be the sea, presented between a small break within this intrusive wall of nature, which would most certainly not be considered to be native. Although these glimpses helped to remind us we were walking a coast path, their rarity made it impossible to note coastal landmarks, which would have enabled us to visually mark our progress. Instead we had only the aching feet upon which to measure our advancement towards our destination.

Thank heavens, the tediousness of this path was broken by several moments of pleasure:

Culbone church appeared from nowhere. Enabling a congregation of just about thirty parishioners. Reputed to be the smallest church in England (that still holds regular services) and apparently having a window through which members of the local leper colony were permitted to engage in the service, this tiny church nestled within the woods and directly on the South West Coast Path. At this time our path crossed with Colin and Paul who kindly obliged us by taking a photo of us both at the Church. After our visit to the church we said “goodbye”, for the men decided the answer to the dreariness of the path was to head upwards and take the alternative coast path… As always, I plumbed for the path closest to the coast, albeit a secluded one, secreted beyond the depths of dense vegetation.

Encountering Sister’s Fountain was a landmark for us as this provided the crossing from Somerset into Devon, as well as the folklore of Joseph of Arimathea, who having struck the ground with his staff brought forth a spring. Definite photo spot!

After several miles of tedious plodding, the unsuccessful search for a bench and the failed observation of the coast, the rise and fall of this tiresome path began to take its toll upon our legs and, even with the walking poles shared between us, our resolve for reaching our destination began to diminish. Until, rather like an oasis in the middle of the desert, though maybe I exaggerate a little (?!), at the summit of one of the longer climbs, both a stunning view and an empty bench appeared forthwith! We gratefullly placed our weary bottoms upon its wooden length, located the much needed flapjack and savoured every crumbly bite as we gazed upon the stunning view which had been so very absent for the majority of the walk. (More healthy ham and tomato ciabattas were also on the menu, along with bags of hula hoops, but the flapjack was the star attraction!) Whilst lunching, another couple appeared at the brow of the hill and we offered to share our bench and agreed upon the difficulty of this particular length of the coast path. Shortly after, Colin and Paul reappeared, a little dishevelled and confirming that despite having ‘ascended’ in order to gain viewing opportunities, the views had failed to materialise rendering the additional ascent pointless. Colin and Paul continued on their way. Once our flapjack was consumed, and with the knowledge that there was still a considerable distance to be covered, we wished our bench companions well and began the second part of our journey.

With the coast now clearly visible, flapjack devoured and renewed energy we strode towards Lynmouth. Our striding must have been greater than that of Colin and Paul’s for we quickly caught them up and the remainder of the walk was conducted as a quartet. Whilst the clear views gave us the ability to landmark and chart our progress, which raised our spirits, they quickly plummeted to a new low when a valley seemed to appear out of nowhere, meaning rather than the climb of Countisbury Hill beginning part way up the hill, we had to walk down into the valley and commence the climb from much lower down. For those not familiar with this hill, there is a road on the other side of the hill, which has escape routes because of the steepness of its incline. Climbing Countisbury Hill as an isolated venture would result in an amount of heavy breathing. At this point in our walk, with aching thighs, throbbing calves and (in Sue’s case) blistered feet each step which took us lower into the valley was burdened by the knowledge that the balance would have to be later redressed by the equal amount of ‘up’ steps… Oh, and did I mention we both needed the toilet and, having been surrounded for so long by suitable nature curtains, we were now completely conspicuous, with not an appropriate bush to be seen.

On reaching the bottom of the steps, the dark cloud, which had hovered tauntingly above us, decided it was a suitable time to release its precipitation… I felt so weary, the thought of stopping and retrieving my raincoat from my bag seemed far too great a task and, the coolness of the rain actually seemed to ease the chore which stood before us. Believing our weary legs would hinder Paul and Colin, I offered for the gents to lead the way but they declined, allowing us to tread the initial steps, with them following behind. I commented that ‘I really was not fit’ and Paul pointed out… “But you’re here and you’re doing it”. Thank you Paul, a much needed positive reminder. I’m not exactly sure when Sue declared that she thought she might die… It may have been this stretch, slightly earlier or slightly later. By now, much blurring of mind took place. I do recall reaching what initially appeared to be ‘the top’, only to discover there was a path which continued “up”… I think it was at this point that Colin reassured me the ‘continuing up path’ took you to the road and we were to traverse the path this side of the road… And, therefore, no further ascent was required. This knowledge and the liquorice toffee that he offered brought great relief… Well to my mind and taste buds, anyway. The bladder still required a receptacle for its relief.

Lynmouth harbour was clearly visible but it’s minuteness only served to heighten its distance from us, truly disconcerting. The downhill trudge towards the harbour continued for well over an hour, eventually bypassing the ‘escape lane’, climbing steps made for people with four foot long legs, balancing along the wall on the edge of the road and, finally, zig zagging down through the woods to the coast and the edge of the harbour, where a deserved photo call took place… And, all the while, repeatedly telling my bladder it was not full and did not require release.

We staggered across the edge of the harbour, crossed the white footbridge spanning the River Lyn and precariously negotiated ourselves into the pub and well earned seats, where Paul and Colin met their mate who had not been able to partake in the walking of the second leg. We were offered a drink by our gallant gents… Sue begged for a pot of tea, whilst I settled for lime and soda… But, first, we needed to desperately locate the ladies room. There were two cubicles within which Sue and I sat, side by side… And we waited… And waited… Silence. Either the prolonged convincing of our bladders that a) they were not full and b) did not require release, inaccurately rendered them as “perceived empty” or else every muscle within our bodies had surrendered and were now refraining from their intended function. Either way we were unable to pee! Following great thought about the process, words with oneself and positive encouragement there finally resulted a never ending stream which, we feared, may have continued without arrest!

After our communal beverage, we said our goodbyes, returned to our car and began the journey back to North Somerset… Reminiscing upon the day’s events: the wonders of communicating for nigh on twelve hours (well, except for the bits where we only had breath to walk, not to talk), the wonderful scenery (when not obscured by the foliage) but, most of all, the power of friendship.

Day 1: The inaugural leg

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Friday 29th August 2014 (Posted 21/10/14)

Minehead to Porlock Weir:  Distance 9.5 miles (plus 2.5 miles) / Ascent 1824 feet… At least!

As a young girl, numerous Summer holidays incorporated wonderful walks along the coastal paths of England, predominantly traversing the scenic coast of the Isle of Wight, in particular Ventnor and the surrounding areas. Prior to the walk, the planning involved the suggestion: “Shall we go for a walk today” and, once agreement was established, appropriate footwear donned and the important decision as to whether one required sunscreen or waterproofs, we would begin the coast path stroll, which generally concluded at a public house or, when the walk was carried out in the evening, the ice cream soda cafe on Ventnor Esplanade, which sold Horlicks in proper Horlicks mugs. Several years later, as a Mum, and accompanied by my three sons or combinations thereof, history was frequently repeated as we continued in the Adkins family tradition, walking coastal paths whilst on holiday, although the family walks were generally of the Devonshire and Cornish variety.

Naively I assumed that walking the South West Coast Path would be equally simplistic!

Obviously the 630 miles was not going to be conducted with a pair of my FitFlops. A trip to Bedminster’s Taunton Leisure, the support of an extremely patient lady and £120 later, I was the proud owner of my Scarpa boots, size 7 (really?!),  which were to assist me throughout my journey, along with two pairs of Merino wool socks. Further purchases of rain repellant trousers that zipped off to form shorts (well this is England) and a bargain Merino top were added to my newly formed walking wardrobe. (Merino, a wool which apparently ‘wicks’… and there was me thinking only candles were capable of wicking!)

Whilst at Taunton Leisure it also struck me that a set of maps may be rather useful. Harvey’s conveniently provided a functional set of seven maps which chartered the South West Coast Path. Having chosen to follow the more popular anti-clockwise route, Minehead to South Haven Point, the maps supported my OCD tendencies in that Map One began with the Minehead to Porlock Weir and Map Seven concluded with Worth Matravers to South Haven Point. An assistant suggested the use of a compass to support the map reading… though surely, when walking in an anti-clockwise direction, one merely needs to keep the sea on the right, do they not?!

And now, I just needed a planned companion for the first leg of the walk. Matthew, my eldest son, eagerly put his hand up. Luke, middle son, apologised – unable to have the day off, and Jonathan, the youngest and a student, thought a 7am start was “just ridiculous” and to let him know when I neared Newquay, at which point he’d do a stretch with me.

Armed with bacon butties, ham ciabattas, bananas, water and the statutory plasters, we set off from North Somerset, aiming to arrive in Porlock Weir for 8.45am in order that we could catch the 9.15am local bus to Minehead. All went to plan, until the bus driver forgot to tell us where to jump off the bus – well to be fair, in addition to us two interlopers,  there were a further six people on the bus, all of whom seemed to know exactly where they were going, so I guess it must have been really tricky to accommodate our request! Despite the bus driver’s unintentional attempt to scupper our mission, we located the start of the path and after a few annoying photographs (Matthew never has grasped the visual recording necessity),  we began the first steps of the 630 miles. Rapidly the flatness of the Minehead path succumbed to a steep incline, within moments I was out of breath and, as I began the climb upwards, Matthew, who ran up most of the slopes, shouted encouraging words, “I bet you regret saying you’d do this!” In his defence, Matthew did locate a perfectly sized stick for me, which accompanied me throughout the rest of the walk and upon which I leant frequently and gratefully.

Rather than Selworthy Hill and its spectatcular views, we chose to follow the ‘alternative rugged coastal path’ as, if one is to walk the South West Coast Path, I do believe one should follow the coast… The clue is in the title! The challenge was presented and our stamina was tested as the path repeatedly  plummeted towards sea level, only to then raise itself out of the depths in order to reach the brink of the neighbouring cliff. There was just one moment when the path seemed a little too close to the edge, the ground on my left seemed a little too high and the earth to my right slipped a little too sharply into the ocean. My stick was gripped a little more tightly and rather large self-encouraging  words embedded themselves within my mind, enabling each footstep to continue in a Westerly direction, albeit gingerly. Little did I know that behind me Matthew was taking a photo of his feet overhanging the edge of the cliff… Do boys ever grow up?! It is difficult to know the length of this walk, as choosing the alternative rugged coastal path increased the length and possibly ascent of the overall walk. Maybe somebody could calculate the walk and the ascent for me and let me know? I’m sure there must be an app!

As drizzle decided to descend upon Bossington Hill and its occupants, we encountered three men, all of whom were sensibly clad in rain gear,  whilst I stood before them in ‘separated trousers’…  for, out of breath and overheated earlier,  I had removed my trouser zip offs, only to discover they did not actually fit over my boots and so, preferring not to remove my boots, the remains of my trousers hugged my ankles in a strange gaiter style manner. Engaging the gentlemen in conversation, to ascertain whether we were approaching Bossington from the ‘correct side of the hill’ as designated in our guide book, we discovered that they were all “First Bus” retired drivers and, were assured by them that, had they been our Porlock Weir to Minehead bus driver that morning, they most certainly would not have forgotten to tell us to disembark at the correct location!

As we neared the base of Bossington Hill, Porlock Weir and its car park with Ruby (my quirky Peugeot 107, red with broad white stripes – to match my demure nature) beckoned to us across the breadth of the pebbled beach. However, each step seemed to bring us no closer to our journey’s end and it was an hour or so before the car park finally arrived under foot… and only then, after having clambered across boulders, pebbles and rocks: the word “shingle”, given as the adjective to describe Porlock Weir beach, somehow failed to impart the energy required to reach our destination!

And so, the first leg was completed. With a half pint of lime and soda for me and a pint of some alcoholic celebratory liquid for Matthew, we congratulated ourselves on our achievement, whilst sat outside the Bottom Ship, with our weary feet resting upon the bench. Eventually I wished Porlock Weir “au revoir” and we returned to the car, parked several hours earlier that day. The stick Matthew found for me was safely stowed in my car boot, a note to self was made to purchase a pair of walking poles and, following the consumption of his pint, there was the obligatory stop en route home to North Somerset… for Matthew to relieve himself behind a tree!