Friday, 14 June 2013

Croyde to Barnstaple - Walking the South West Coast Path

It was raining hard and another gale force wind was swirling this morning. Mick and hung around drinking coffee and wondering whether the weather will improve. Eventually we decide to set off anyway and head off to catch the bus. It is possible to travel anywhere in North Devon for a £3.50 day rider ticket and as we are unlikely to get beyond Barnstaple we decide to be nice to ourselves and carry only a day pack and catch the bus home at the end of the walk rather than lug the tent and other gear around. 

After calling in S&P’s fish shop on Ilfracombe Quay for a tub of shellfish we catch the bus to Braunton and then wait for another to Croyde to set off from our bail-out point of yesterday. There is a fifteen minute window between the two buses which gives me enough time to stock up with more food in Braunton. I had decided to change my footwear today, if nothing else it would give a chance for blisters to form on different parts of my feet. 

The three mile ride on the bus from Braunton to Croyde had taken us five minutes on the bus. As we left Croyde a signpost on the coast path said ’Braunton 9 miles.’  ‘How can that be right?’ asked Mick. I showed him the map. After turning the corner from Croyde and crossing Saunton Sands, the path weaved around the Taw and Torridge Estuary and then doubled back into Braunton along the bank of the Caen River. ‘Ah, I see,’ he said.

The path to Saunton was alongside the road but at a higher level before crossing at Saunton Hotel and dropping down to Saunton Sands and the sand dunes of Braunton Burrows behind the beach. Saunton and Braunton Burrows are one of the most extensive sand dune system in Britain. Between the dunes and the sea lie Saunton Sands; a three mile stretch of flat golden sand. The entire area is privately owned by Christie Estates. Today the beach was almost entirely empty save a handful of surfers and, farther along, a solitary kite surfer skimming on the waves.

The coast path offers alternatives here: either along the back of the dune system or along the beach. Mick however is keen to go onto the beach, he is looking for a rock. Not any old rock, a pink granite rock which is to be found here that he has read about. The pink granite rock should not be here. It is an erratic, carried from Scotland, the only place where this granite can be found, and deposited here on the beach by a glacier, evidence that glaciation during the ice age reached as far south as Devon.

We hunt around under the cliffs but can see nothing resembling pink granite. ‘It must be farther along,’ said Mick. We walked along the beach. And walked. And walked. An hour later we were still trudging along. There was no sign of the erratic. The sand grew softer and my muscles were beginning to ache. The wind was gusting so strong I found that by flexing my arms I could do reasonable resistance exercises. ‘Quite a workout!’ I yelled to Mick over the wind.

On Saunton Sands
'Did you know there are more stars in the universe then there are grains of sand in the entire world?' says Mick. 'How many can that possibly be?'
'A lot?' I venture. 'More than I can imagine, anyway.' I think about what Mick has said and how vast the universe must be. It makes me feel infinitesimally small and insignificant. 'I don't matter, not in the least,' I muse. For some reason this makes me feel happy. 

It was over two hours before we finally left the beach and walked through the end of the dunes, keeping a wary eye out for adders. (And indeed, two days after we were there, a woman was bitten by an adder and spent several days in hospital)

We never did find that pink rock. The tide was out leaving rippling sand banks. On the opposite bank were Appledore and Westward Ho!, only a couple of miles away as the crow flies but twenty miles via the coast path, weaving around the Taw and Torridge Estuary.

Appledore from Saunton Sands

The path travelled along a dyke alongside the river. We surmised that this section was not one of the most intensively walked sections of the path, which was narrow and overgrown with grasses and nettles, a lonely windswept hinterland where long grasses lean in the breeze and twice daily the sea sweeps upstream and transforms the landscape, covering the mud and sand banks through which trickles of water wind.

In sheltered bends in the river clusters of boats huddle near the bank, many of them permanently inhabited. A few are abandoned, and are slowly being reclaimed by the sea, wooden skeletons abandoned to their watery fate. 

Tired Pigeon
Eventually we reached the outskirts of Braunton and turned left onto the Tarka Trail. This is the bed of the old Ilfracombe branch line, closed in 1970 and was our route into Barnstaple, our destination for the day. We stopped for a rest next to a lake. A racing pigeon was sitting on the fence, like us the bird was clearly exhausted and we all sat for a while, sharing bread and nuts before we heaved ourselves us and pressed on. The pigeon watched us go but didn't move. 

Farther along the track we come to the Braunton Inn. This was once Heanton Court, seat of the Bassets, an ancient Norman family. I sat gratefully in a comfortable armchair clutching a pint of Exmoor Stag. I'm not that keen to get up again, especially as by now it has started raining again. But evenutally we heaved ourselves up and set off down the path once more. It was almost an hour later that we finally walked into Barnstaple where we down a couple more beers in The Panniers, a Wetherspoon pub, and then wearily caught our bus home.

Distance: 15 miles
Total Distance: 68 miles
Accommodation ranking 8/10
Accommodation cost: £0.00 (home)

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