I was down in North Devon because Debbie was spending the weekend with some fellow bassoonists, but I was not restricting myself to sitting indoors reading while I was down there, and had already taken in the parkrun in the wind and the rain at Barnstaple on the Saturday morning, which you can read about here. Now I was getting myself ready to get started on the South West Coast Path.
With nineteenth century origins as a coastguard patrol route to restrict smuggling, the South West Coast Path is England’s longest waymarked long-distance footpath (and one of the longest in the UK) and a National Trail. It stretches for 630 miles (1,014 km), up and down endless cliffs, running from Minehead in Somerset, along the coasts of Devon and Cornwall, to Poole Harbour in Dorset.
I was working from my OS Explorer map 139 and planned to do a circular route from the farmhouse we were staying in which would take in a stretch of the Path through Ilfracombe. Unfortunately, this would not see me starting the Path from its very beginning, but my intention is to come back and do the Path in sections until I complete the whole thing. I was also very well aware from looking at the map that it was going to take some effort and not a few miles to get to and from the Path from where we were staying, and especially because I was going to be using this ‘walk’ as part of my push to get back to fitness. Those of you who read my blog should know by now that I have got into ‘tabbing’ in a big way. Just to remind you, ‘tabbing’ is a military term (‘tactical advance to battle’) which essentially means moving quickly while carrying weight. Of course, I do not travel as quickly or with as much weight as the military, but the events I am currently drawn to are worked on this basis. So I decided to go out today with my Karrimor SF Sabre 45 bergen carrying my essential safety kit, which consisted of my sleeping bag inside my bivi bag and stuffed to the bottom of the bergen; a spare compass, headtorch, spare laces, paracord, gaffer tape and a couple of utility tools in one waterproof bag; wooly hat, ruff, and a pair of gloves in another; mountain first aid kit, and a towel and talcum powder in their own bags; a hexamine stove with a Zippo lighter, spork, tea bags and bags of porridge inside a metal pot and cup, all bagged and secured so it would not rattle; a cut down rollmat, and in another waterproof bag my change of clothing, being a short-sleeved zipped base layer, a fleece, a pair of hiking trousers, and socks, and once all that had been gathered together my bergen was weighing 25lbs. I had a sausage roll and a couple of bananas in the top of my bergen, and I also had 3 litres of water in a bladder, with water purification tablets in an empty water bottle in case of the need for an emergency resupply from a stream. My pacing beads were attached to one of the shoulder straps on the bergen. I was wearing long North Face hiking trousers, gaiters, Paramo boxer shorts, Bridgedale socks, a Rab long-sleeved base layer, my The 100 Peaks Challenge technical tshirt, my Rab Vapour-rise Lite Alpine jacket with my Mountain Equipment Fitzroy jacket on top, and my AKU Pilgrim GTX boots. I had my compass attached to one of the outside pockets of the Fitzroy jacket, my map in one of the outside pockets of the Rab jacket and my notebook and pencil in the other, and a couple of Chia Charge bars in my trouser pockets. I was also wearing my Garmin Fenix 2 watch, so I had absolutely everything I could ever need to survive in the wilds of Ilfracombe.
The weather was dry and mild with the sun starting to come through as I set off diagonally across the field at the back of the farmhouse in Lower Mullacott, passing the alpaca who had tried to stop me getting to parkrun earlier that morning, and heading for a gap and a path which would get me down to a cycle path, the National Cycle Network Route 27, which follows part of the Tarka Trail.
That was the intention, but once I got to the gap and saw the very muddy path and the steep decline which would take me down to the cycle path, I looked at the map and decided to retain the higher ground, so I turned right, instead of left. If I had not, then it looked like I would simply be heading down to the town below and walking along a cycle path through it, and where is the fun in that ? The woods were surely going to be a much better option. The ground was the same going this way and it was not firm underfoot, being a thick, wet, deep, clay-based mud, and the track itself was not flat, leaning down the steep slope to my left, so I was taking it very carefully, and still found my feet sliding in the mud.
This was a steady climb uphill heading towards the woods, right on the edge of a very steep drop, which is why I was taking it so carefully until I got into the woods. Once in the woods I followed the path upwards but it did not appear to be going in the direction I wanted, so I took a fork off to the left and followed it downhill, with a barbed wire fence to the right of me. I soon encountered a problem, though, because either the path I was on had become overgrown, or it was simply not intended to be passable, because the barrier of brambles I got to was enough to send me back on my way to find a route over the barbed wire fence. Fortunately it was down in one section, so I crossed there, and literally slid on the seat of my pants to the footpath below. I was clearly having a few issues with my balance because as I rounded a corner I went over again, just in time for a dog to see me and come running over, clearly sensing an injured prey. I was into The Cairn Pleasureground now, although it was not marked on my map, so I had no idea it contained a maze of paths, but it was great fun going up and down through the woods, following whichever track took me in the general direction I wanted to go, with the paths being generally firm underfoot, though a little slippery in places. It was only when I found a sign at the other end of the woods that I could see I had passed through Dogs Hind Leg, North Kerne Path, Elm Grove, Preacher’s Leap, West Zig Zag, Woodpeckers and Spindles, before coming out at the Roundhouse. I went back and continued along Station Path to finally join up with the cycle path, and from there it was just a matter of following the pavements, passing the Garden of Remembrance before joining Wilder Road to get to the seafront, with my target being Capstone Point.
It was not hard to spot Capstone Point, with the Union Jack blowing proudly in the wind at the top, and the route up to the top over Capstone Hill was also obvious, but before I started on that I took a moment to get the bergen off my back, ate a banana and drank some water. As I stood there I noticed a mosaic on the ground and it turned out to be a stunning tribute to triple jumper, Jonathan Edwards, who had lived in Ilfracombe. I got my bergen back on and walked up the zigzag path to Capstone Point. It was not a hard or long climb, but it was far enough to allow me to build up an idea of just how strong the wind was going to be when I did get to the top. It did not come as a surprise to learn that a point on the path below is known as Windy Corner.
There were a couple of monuments at the top before I reached the flag, and although I could not read the writing on the stone monument, and so do not know what it was for, the statue of a young woman holds the tragic tale of a Russian girl, Ekaterine Frolov, who fell to her death from nearby cliffs, aged only 14. I got to the flag. It had taken me a few miles and quite some time, but I was finally on the South West Coast Path and taking in the stunning views from this prominent position.
I walked back down to Wildersmouth Beach and followed the footpath round the back of the very distinctively shaped Landmark Theatre, and the Ilfracombe Museum, up some steps before the path continued to gently climb overlooking the cliffs on one side and giving me a view down on to the town on the other, passing the sub tropical Runnymede Gerdens before I finally left the town behind me and joined Granville Road, which in turn led into Torrs Walk Avenue, before I was finally on to a track which led me back into some woods, to the countryside outside of the town, to Torrs Walk.
The track took me out to the cliffs again, overlooking Torrs Point, and a twisting and turning zigzag path which climbs steeply to the open ground at the top of the cliffs, to the Torrs and Torrs Park, and which was carved into the cliff face when Ilfracombe became a popular seaside resort in the 19th century. It was a tough climb to the top with my bergen, but the light was fading and the clouds were getting darker, so I had good incentives to keep pushing on. There was a viewpoint at the top which gave a clear view all the way back to The Outfalls, and all the way round to Flat Point. The sky was gloomy, but that just added to the atmosphere.
I carried on from the top into the open ground Seven Hills with views to my right out on to Brandy Cove Point and then Breakneck Point, following an obvious track which followed the edge of the cliffs before it came inland, then went through a gate and climbed up to reached a footpath junction which I identified on the map, so I knew I needed to continue to the West (the right, as I faced the junction, with my back to the coast) a little more, and sure enough at the top of that slope I found a bridleway and a footpath, neither of which were obviously marked on the ground, but they were very clear on my map. And so I had come to the end of my time on the South West Coast Path for now, but even just a quick glance at the map showed me how far from the finish I still was, and without an obviously direct route for the very final stretch. Right now I had the choice of two paths on the map, and while they were leading across the same field, I decided to walk up the straight direction of the footpath because I now recognised it as a location the owner of the farmhouse had mentioned to me, had I done this route in reverse. She had said that as you come down the slope it looks as though you are going to fall off the edge of the world, and looking back behind me I could see that she was not wrong ! I wondered why I was walking up this slope instead of going down it.
I got to the top of the slope and cut across the field to a gate in the far corner, because the field on the other side of a set of steps appeared full of cows and I was getting angry glances from them. I had a radio mast to my left which I remembered seeing from the farmhouse, and I came back on myself to find the trig point marked on my map, which appeared to have been fenced off, before cutting across the field to another track. I had been able to see the farmhouse as I cut across the fields, but it certainly had a so near and yet so far feeling to it. I now followed the track until I came out at a road and then turned left, following the road round until I reached a footpath. I could see the footpath on the map, and while it did not lead directly to my destination, I thought it was worth a try to see if I could drop down from it between the two Slade Reservoirs. Unfortunately, it did not lead to anything because the gorse was simply too thick to get through, so I retraced my steps and followed the Higher Slade Road round until I reached another track. It appeared to be an entrance for fishing along the reservoirs, but I reckoned it must take me through to a footpath which I knew would get me back to the farmhouse.
I walked along to the end of the Slade Lower Reservoir saw the railway tunnel which the owner of the farmhouse had mentioned to me, decided to go on for a little while to see what was on the other side, then came back to the railway tunnel and went through it, turned right, walked along the bottom of a grass slope with a stream running down below me, headed diagonally left up the slope to a gap in the fence and then straight up through a field of sheep to get back to the alpaca and the farmhouse.
In my first time on it I had encountered just a short part of the South West Coast Path, and in total had covered over 9 miles with over 1,600 feet of elevation. I had been very fortunate as the weather had stayed dry and mild throughout my almost 5 hours out on the ground. The walk had also served as an excellent navigation exercise. I would definitely be back for more.
You can see more photographs from the walk here.