Yelverton, according to the Dartmoor tourist board, is home to the world class attractions of the Yelverton Paperweight Centre, Garden House and Buckland Abbey. Essentially, all I saw of it was a roundabout with shops that didn’t wake up until roughly midday. These sleepy establishments consisted of a bakery, a cafe, a delicatessen and a butcher’s shop.
We sat on a bench in the early morning sun, being intermittently tormented by a gang of wasps, until Lawrence charmed the owner of the deli into breaching her hours of business for us. We clearly weren’t the only ones foaming at the mouth for coffee and pastries. The place was soon full and cash did flow. We drank several cups and waited for the last member of our growing rambling brigade to arrive, to join us for the final romp across the Tamar.
My dad hopped off the bus carrying a fine staff of hazel and a vibrant 1980s rucksack filled with ale – a sight for sore eyes. We set about finding the trail and as we did so, I got him up to speed with my distain for the West Devon Way and its love of placing signs at ambiguous angles sending you off course, more often than on.
Our first test came at a poultry farm, home to a beautiful collection of Muscovy ducks. I use the term ‘beautiful’ very loosely. The signs seemed to be sending us straight into the farmer’s kitchen, so once again I was left cursing the trail and all those who imagined its lines. We retraced a few steps and headed off on another path which I assume was the correct one, although it’s hard to say. The path eventually joined a cycle way which had been laid over an old train line. The ground was smooth and the surroundings were lush with forests and huge valleys as far as the eye could see.
We marched full steam ahead along the cycle way, over viaducts that promised views of peregrines. Along the way we found a mole who had lost his bearings. Perhaps he too was trying to follow the West Devon Way. I’d never held a mole, so took the opportunity to smooth his fur before moving him into a pile of leaves away from the whir of passing bicycles.
The cycle way remained easy and pleasant for the rest of the walk, which my feet were grateful for. Knowing that they only had a few miles left to tramp, they were beginning to fall apart even more than they had done over the past two weeks. I did a fair bit of complaining that day, and limping, but it would have been made a thousand times worse by hills and rough ground.
As the Tamar came into view, it was all suddenly over. My dad had his car waiting on the Cornish side to take us home. As with any long walk, there has to be an end point, and it inevitably gets built up in your mind to a great climax. In reality, unless you’re crossing the finish line of a race, lined with flag waving, adoring fans, it will be an anti-climax. This was exactly that. Months of planning and fundraising, two and a bit weeks of tramping and now just me and my dad standing in the middle of a bridge. Men in high vis jackets dotted the tarmac. It was quite sad. That was it. We took a picture and walked the last hundred or so metres into Saltash. Once in the car, and travelling at speeds I hadn’t known for some time, I felt overwhelmingly numb about the whole thing.
That night, sat on the harbour outside the Chainlocker in Falmouth, I was made very aware of how insignificant my journey was going to be to everyone else. I was catching up with a friend over a beer or two. He told me, at length, all about his new job and asked literally nothing about my walk. I was glad of it. I wasn’t ready to tell people about it. It had been very much my journey. I was still absorbing it. I hadn’t trekked across a desert or summited Everest, so my stories would all seem small. It is only now, as I finish writing about it, that I realise how much I learnt during those two weeks about myself and what I could do. I’ve travelled quite a bit. I’ve done quite a few of those ‘must do’ things on various backpacker routes, but nothing has tested my mettle as much as the night I spent sleeping rough on a bench above Sidmouth.
It’s the little things in life that make you and shape you.