Being a Cornishman, I grew up with my feet firmly on the southern side of the river Tamar, like many others, only ever passing through Devon to get somewhere else. I was still passing through, but travelling on foot meant I would inevitably see some of it, and dare I say, enjoy myself.
Lyme Regis had been good to me. It had rekindled the spark of adventure that first flickered, many months ago, when I decided to do this walk. I rose early and made my way to the coast path. The first stretch was remarkably easy. I walked through countryside, dodging tractors, on my way to Axmouth. My mum had sent me a text the night before, about a week long folk festival happening in Sidmouth. I decided to make Sidmouth my destination for the day and had visions of joining in with the festivities with my harmonica. The high hedges on the lanes to Axmouth reverberated the sound of my blues harp as I blasted out a rendition of ‘In The Jungle’.
Axmouth’s estuary was awash with birdlife. Curlews, little egrets, cormorants and the obligatory mallards tiptoed in the mud, picking out their breakfast. I love how birds walk on estuary mud, as though they’re walking on a frozen lake that might, at any moment, open up beneath them and swallow them whole.
Beyond Axmouth lies the remarkably tidy beach of Seaton. I noted a line of pristine, white beach huts backing onto a spotless promenade. The shingle was flat as a pancake with only one old timer sunning himself in a deckchair. It was early, but the gentleman was sporting such a deep mahogany tan that, I believe, could only be achieved from such dedicated worship. Such commitment to tanning one’s hide must be admired, and then avoided. It was a gorgeous day with bright blue sky, an ocean of glass and only the smallest, most decorative clouds in the sky. Devon was beautiful, and I had only dipped a toe in its waters.
I climbed to the top of Seaton’s crumbling cliffs, to take in the view. It was spectacular, and I realised once again that I was in Devon and that everything was astonishingly beautiful. This imposing white cliff was not the first of the day, in fact, over the next few hours my legs would be subjected to something not far off torture.
It was hot. Sweat poured down my face causing my glasses to repeatedly slide off the end of my nose. After Seaton Cliff came the picturesque fishing town of Beer and then Beer Head. From the top of Beer Head you can see all the way from Weymouth in the east to Brixham in the west. It occurred to me that I had been walking from Weymouth for several days, and although it was wonderful to be able to see it, it was also a depressing reminder of how slowly walking will travel you. I sat and ate some bread and cheese to fortify myself for the descent into Branscombe. I had come to loathe walking steeply downhill, as my heavy rucksack would insist on propelling me into a jog, if not a full blown downhill sprint.
As my limbs flailed into Branscombe, a rescue helicopter flew overhead. I had stumbled into a display put on by Sidmouth’s Lifeboatmen for a beachful of appreciative locals. I was now the appreciative tourist, making the most of the beer tent. To my surprise, one of the finest Cornish exports, Camborne Town Band, had set up next to the beer and were preparing to blow the beach away with traditional Cornish brass. The combination of brass bands, ale and a lifeboat display doesn’t scream FESTIVAL to me, but for Branscombe, it works. I sat down on the shingle to enjoy my beer, next to one of the lifeboat crew, who was enjoying some respite having just been plucked out of the sea by the helicopter and dropped into a speeding boat, to the delight of the crowd.
The beer was good, but I couldn’t sit there all day, so I left the beach and went in search of the path. This might be the only time in my experience walking the coast path, that I couldn’t find it. I found myself walking inland, away from the beach. I had seen a sign suggesting that the path didn’t connect to the beach, because it would have inconvenienced the millionaire owner of a beach front palace, who I believe was actually putting on the festival. It was a bit like the owners of Downton Abbey and their annual cricket match with the villagers, where they force themselves to come down from their castle and have a look at some normal people for a few hours. I followed the sign, which led me to the steepest, surely not a path, path. It was so steep in places that if I had tripped, I would have undoubtedly tumbled, arse over tit, backwards for at least a quarter of a mile. Fortunately I didn’t, but upon reaching the top of the hill and rejoining the coast path, I realised it did join the beach.
I wiped the sweat from my eyes and composed myself. The next beach along from Branscombe is Weston, unreachable by road and therefore idyllic, as you might imagine. I clattered down yet another almighty descent and sank into the shingle for a breather. I’d earned a beer by my calculations, so cracked one open and forgot about hills for a few minutes. I called my wife, enjoyed the sun, and thought that perhaps this beach was the most fantastic beach I had ever sat on. Either side of me were towering, multi coloured cliffs bursting with vegetation. I felt as though I had been dropped into the set of The Lost World.
I looked at my map and reckoned that I might be able to walk all the way to Sidmouth along the beach. There was a cliff in the way, but I thought I could see a sliver of sand that would let me through. I went for it, walking along the shingle towards the incoming tide. Had that beer just cost me my shortcut or was there just enough sand left to make it around the rocks? My thoughts were distracted for a moment, when I noticed that the elderly gentleman, that had just walked past me, wasn’t wearing any clothes. Tell a lie, he was wearing shoes. Then I spotted a few more. I had wandered into a nudist beach, which would have been fine, I’m no prude, but upon reaching the end of it, I realised that attempting to cross between the cliff and the sea would leave me wrecked on the rocks. This meant I had to turn around and walk back, past all those same naked bodies, making myself appear a voyeur. Scandalous.
Leaving the beach meant yet another climb, to the top of Salcombe hill, through fields and over streams. I met a chap somewhere between Weston and Sidmouth. Like a lunatic, he was RUNNING the same trail I’d been hiking all day, and as it happened, had also stopped in Branscombe to watch the lifeboats and sample the local ale. I said something about not being able to pay me enough to run up those hills. I shouldn’t have said that. A little further on, approaching the final summit, I met an elderly couple. As I staggered up the hill next to them, we exchanged complaints about knees and the heat. At the top, I slumped on the floor to take in the view, only to find that one of my trainers had fallen off my bag, somewhere in the 3 or so miles between Weston and the top of the towering hill I lay sprawled on. There is nothing as luxurious, after a day of hiking in stiff boots, as putting on featherweight trainers. There was no way I was leaving it. The couple offered to watch my bag as I ran back down the hill. I didn’t really mean to run, but once I had started to pick up speed, the degree of slope sent me hurtling into full race speed, still in heavy boots. I found my trainer, lying in the grass, about a mile back down the hill. By the time I eventually returned, thighs fit to burst and my face the colour of beetroot, a small crowd had gathered to applaud me. It was the last of my energy for the day. Fortunately, it was also the last of the hills and I had only one last leg wobbling descent left, to take me into Sidmouth.
I stepped out from the path, onto a square filled with morris dancers. The town was seething with festival goers, and I suddenly looked a misfit with my rucksack and no obvious instrument to strum, drum or otherwise. I had not thought much about what I would do once I reached Sidmouth. I thought, perhaps, I’d fall in with a travelling band of folkies and while away the midnight hours drinking whisky and sharing stories over a campfire. After a few minutes of being barged this way and that, I felt I was becoming an obstacle, so found a quiet pub with friendly barmaids and escaped the crowds for a bit. This was not the way to fall in with folkies, but it was a chance to charge my phone, eat a ‘basket of seafood’ and enjoy the comforts of being inside. Priorities. It didn’t take long for some locals to strike up conversation. Carrying a rucksack and looking like shit all the time will tend to attract questioning.
I spent several hours chatting with my new friends, drinking more than is useful when on a journey that requires you to feel well and able bodied. I stayed there until nightfall, then headed into the darkness in search of a place to camp. I didn’t find any folkies, campfires or any sign of potential comrades, so struck out on my own up hill and out of Sidmouth. This takes us back to the beginning of our story and the most terrible night of my journey.
In the morning, I left Sidmouth by bus and headed north to Exeter, to begin the last leg of my adventure – Dartmoor.
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