Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Heddon Valley to Ilfracombe - Walking the South West Coast Path

After two uncomfortable nights sleeping in the back of the car, the bed in the campervan felt like the finest and comfiest bed on earth. It was gone nine when I came to and scurried over to use the National Trust toilets.  By the time we had dragged ourselves properly awake and I had enjoyed the luxury of several cups of tea in bed it was past ten o’clock. Mick told me that he had dreamed of Prince, the Black Labrador he used to have when he was a kid. Prince would follow him on the way to school and Mick would have to speak sternly to him: ‘Go HOME Prince.’ The dog would stare at him with soulful, disappointed eyes before turning and skulking back to the house. ‘I dreamed I was Prince,’ he said. ‘You were telling me to go home.’
'You can come along if you want to,' I said. 'But you'll have to bring your own tent.' 
Mick readily agreed. 'But we won't need it for a couple of days anyway,' he said. 'We can sleep at home tonight.' Mick and I live in Ilfracombe, he on the top of the hill and me at the bottom. He likes this. 'I look down on you and you look up to me,' he once observed.
'In your dreams,' I said.
River Heddon 
We had walked for twenty minutes when Mick realised he had forgotten the keys to his flat and by the time he had gone back for them it was half past ten.

We were soon confronted with a monster hill on the opposite side of Heddon Valley. We plod up and it is only minutes before my jumper is stuffed back into my rucksack, despite the wind and spitting rain. Two thirds of the way up Mick bailed out, baulking at the sheer drops opening below us and I carry on alone around the back of the hill. The view is awesome but the path precarious, edged around the cliff with nothing between me and churning sea except some feeble bracken and an occasional gorse bush. The birds are wheeling, it’s nesting time and the gulls and guillemots are making a din as they fly around the cliffs.

Path from Heddon's Mouth

I meet Mick around the other side and we follow the path as it climbs over Trentishoe Down and Holdstone Down. It is wild and remote, we are nearing the highest point of the entire coast path. Before we do though, the path cruelly plunges down a steep sided gully to Sherrycombe, crosses a stream and then starts up the other side. From the far hill the path had looked gradual enough, but lurking in the trees at the bottom was a hideous section, almost vertical, before it began the steady climb up to the cairn at the top of Great Hangman, over a 1000 feet above sea level and atop the highest sea cliff in England. Quite a climb and quite a view.

Great Hangman

Bear Grylls would keep this to knit himself a pair of socks 

At the top we sat down for a while and tucked into our meagre supplies of cashew nuts and tomatoes. From here it was a steady downhill to Combe Martin and some nosh and a cup of tea. The village is basically one long street, winding up the valley for more than two miles, it lays claim to being the longest village street in the country. The steep sides of the valley in which it nestles gave builders little choice. We found a nice looking café not far along the street. I asked for lasagne. 'Sorry, we've sold out.' 
'Ok, I'll have a prawn salad.'
'We're out of prawns.'
I studied the menu for a third time, wondering whether the whole thing was a work of fiction. But the waitress assured me everything else was available. Except the fish. In the end I opted for a cheese salad while Mick had the gammon and egg. He said it was the best gammon he had ever tasted. He is fond of hyperbole however; the fruit cake he had eaten in the Blue Bowl at Countisbury had been the best he’d ever tasted too.

Fortified, we set on on the last five familiar miles back to our homes in Ilfracombe. The climb out of Combe Martin was up the very, very steep old road. We struggled to the top at which point I suddenly realised with dismay that I had left my stick in the café. ‘You wait here, I’ll fetch it,’ he says. This was unexpected. 'What are you after?' I asked suspiciously.
'Nothing!' he protested. 

Stick retrieved we head back through the tiny harbour at Watermouth, the path hovering near the busy A road but mostly managing to avoid it. Above the beach as the road passes through a campsite we stopped to chat to a man who had walked from Land’s End to here in fourteen days. Impressed, I asked him if he had enjoyed it.
'Not really,' he said. 'I tried to do too much. Most days it was just head down and march along. Now all I want to do is get to Minehead and finish.’

I tried to cheer him up by telling him that at least it was downhill now to Combe Martin where he was booked to stay for the night.
‘Yes, but tomorrow I have to climb that hill,’ he said, looking morosely at Great Hangman looming over the village behind us. I could think of nothing to say about this except, ‘Well yes, I have to admit, it is a bit of a sod. Nice views though…’ I trailed off.  
‘Ah well, I’d better get on,’ he said and wearily trudged off over the hill.

We rested at Hele before the final push over Hillsborough. The hill is known locally as the sleeping elephant so we call her Ellie. 

By the time we finally make Ilfracombe the soles of my feet have an interesting tingling sensation. I’m not sorry to get home for a hot shower. The first forty miles have been completed. Only 590 to go.

Distance: 10 miles
Total Distance: 40 miles
Accommodation ranking 8/10
Accommodation cost £0.00 (home)

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