Saturday, 8 June 2013

Minehead to Porlock Weir - Walking the South West Coast Path

This year I turned 50. I have also decided to walk all 630 miles of the South West Coast Path. These facts are not connected, it in no way indicates I am in the throes of a mid-life crisis. Really. Honestly. Ok, maybe it does, but it's a lovely walk anyway isn't it? So why not?

It's the first long distance walk I've tried and I have no idea how I'll fare. But hey, it's only walking, I reason. I've been doing that since I was three. (I was a late starter, preferring to travel on my bottom, until my mum pretty much insisted I tried bipedalism. I was pretty efficient at it too, sometimes I wonder why I've bothered standing up at all.) I've heard that the coast path has a few ups and downs and I'm not used to carrying a backpack, so I'm not too sure how far I'll get. I'm also a commitment-phobe. Even booking a bed and breakfast in advance brings me out in a cold sweat. It's a commitment. What if I don't like it/don't get there/change my mind? So instead I'm keeping my options open. I'm taking a tent.

Yesterday I packed my old rucksack and hoisted it onto my shoulders. My knees immediately started to buckle. Twisting awkwardly I managed to drag the huge bulk off my shoulders and dump it heavily back on the floor. This would not do. I spread all the stuff out over the floor. It all seemed pretty essential to me but I would have to thin it down somehow.  Here is the list of items I was either wearing or carrying:

Tent – small one person.
Sleeping bag – 3 season – the only one I own
Tent pegs
Small beanie pillow
Shorts x 2
Legs to attach to shorts, not my legs but trouser ones. (If only I could take spare legs!)
Waterproof T shirt
Lightweight fleece
Croc shoes
Socks x 3
Pants x 3
Bra x 2
Sit mat
Camera and charger
Phone and charger
Laptop and charger
Suncream (small)
Toothpaste (tiny tube)
Wetwipes (small packet)
Tiny bar of soap
Book  (novel)
Head lamp
Rear lamp
Notebook (paper sort not computery sort)
Small radio
Several pens
Bank card and money
Map and case
Walking pole
Walking boots

Some of it would have to go. What could I manage without? I finally discarded the novel, the swimsuit, the tiny bar of soap, the thermarest, the nightdress and one of the pens. My friend Mick also offered to lend me his lightweight sleeping bag rather than my heavy one. Everything else stayed on board. For now, anyway.

Mick also offered to drive me to Minehead for the start of the walk and I turned up this morning at his front door clad in shirt, shorts, white socks and boots, clutching my walking stick. Mick looks me up and down. ‘That reminds me,’ he says, ‘The Sound of Music is on tonight.’ Hurrumph.

Minehead is only 40 miles away and it was not long before we drove into the little seaside town.
We decided to stop in a café for a Full English before I set off. Inside the place was  full of groups of lads ordering fry-ups. ‘Breakfast will be a while,’ the woman behind the counter advised me when I gave her our order. ‘Can you bear with us? The bloke in the kitchen is doing his best.’ 

I assured her it was not a problem, after all I was more than happy to put this off for a bit longer. It was a lovely sunny morning and we sat outside with a cup of coffee while we waited for the food to arrive. Endless gangs of men and the occasional group of women, all of them with bleary red eyes were prowling up the main street, obviously in search of somewhere to sit and soak up last nights monumental piss up. 

I went back for a second coffee. ‘Sorry for the wait,' said the woman, 'it’s adult weekend at Butlins.’ Butlins, of course, has a huge holiday camp right on the seafront at MInehead. ‘It’s not so bad for me,’ she continued, ‘I only get them when they’re hungover. There’ll be entertainment later when they’ve all had a load to drink, if you want to hang around.’
‘Um, thanks, but no thanks,’ I said. 
'The funny thing is,' she continued, 'when I put the breakfast in front of them, mostly they go green and say they're no longer hungry.'

This was definitely their loss as when breakfast arrived it was superb. I tucked in with gusto to the bacon and eggs, confident I would burn it all off later in the day.  ‘This should keep me going,’ I say to Mick through a mouthful of toast.
‘I thought I might walk a little way with you,’ he said. Despite having said all along he was not interested in going for a long walk, now I was kitted up and ready for the off he was a little envious.
‘Sure, no problem,’ I said. 'It's a lovely day for a walk.'
‘Ill just go to the top of the hill and then I’ll leave you to it,’ he said.

We walked down to the other end of MInehead. This end of the town had an entirely different feel to it. Old cottages lined the road and a small stone harbour reached a protective arm around a handful of boats moored there. Few of the members of the stag and hen parties have made it this far and it is quiet and peaceful, more like a sedate and attractive town as no doubt it was before Billy Butlin decided to put one of his holiday camps here. 

On the promenade was a marvellous sculpture of hands holding a map. The sculpture denotes the official start of the South West Coast Path and I was very pleased to also find a start to the walk painted on the pavement as well. 

We took a few photos in front of the sculpture and chatted to a couple about my planned walk. They were gratifyingly impressed with my plan of walking the whole path, I wished I felt more confident about it, my 28 mile walk across Cornwall with its accompanying blisters was still fresh in my memory.

We set off down the road and though a small park. We had been walking for less than two minutes when a man stopped and began berating Mick, who was carrying only a small day sack. 
‘This is terrible!’ he said, pointing his stick at Mick. ‘Why are you making her carry everything? Your bag is almost empty!’
‘I know,’ I said. ‘He’s forcing me to carry everything.’
‘That’s not true,’ said Mick, playing along. ‘After all, I’m carrying the beer!’

The path soon began a climb up through a wooded valley. Within minutes the sea was far below us as the path clung on to the sides of hills, rounding back on itself.
and dipping and rising over and over with glorious views. We walked on for a couple of hours until finally we could see below us the flat vale of Porlock. The sun had been beating down and we were feeling weary. ‘I may as well walk into Porlock now and get a bus back to Minehead,’ said Mick.

We chose the steepest descent down to sea level, which played havoc with my knees on the way down, despite my 'third leg', a walking pole I had bought in Minehead before setting off. Below us, curling round the bay and forming a barrier between land and sea, was a long shingle ridge of pebbles. This used to form a barrier between land and sea. That was until 1996 when Hurricane Lillie turned up and for the first time the barrier was breached. Now the water comes in with the tide and the land behind the barrier has become a salt marsh and wildlife haven. 

At the bottom a pretty walk alongside the river brings us to the impossibly pretty settlement of Bossington part of the National Trust's Holnicote Estate, with thatched cottages painted the colour of  cream cream. We stop at the tea shop for a cup of tea and huge scones laden with butter, cream and jam, considered a healthy meal down here in the West Country.

Fortified, we jauntily walk the last couple of miles into Porlock.  Having enjoyed the walk I can tell that Mick is reluctant to leave. 

‘I may as well stay, just for tonight,’ he ventures.
‘But you don’t have a tent. You don’t have a sleeping bag either.’ 
Mick had come so unprepared he did not have a coat or even an extra layer to put over his t-shirt
‘We could sleep in the back of the car,’ he suggests.
‘Well yes we could, but if we do I get the bag,' I replied.
So while Mick disappeared off the catch the bus to MInehead I walked the additional couple of miles down to Porlock Weir.

It’s a beautiful little spot. Once a poor community which survived by fishing it is now home to a couple of rather fancy hotels and the pub, The Ship, known locally as ‘The Bottom Ship’ to distinguish it from the other pub called The Ship in Porlock village, known logically enough as The Top Ship. The car park makes no mention of overnight stays, and we took this omission as tacit approval of overnight sleepers. 

As the sun began to dip low we wandered down to the pebble beach and took a look at the old lime kiln there, a relic of the days when lime brought over from Wales was heated to make quicklime. Afterwards we headed back to the Bottom Ship for a couple of pints of Stag from Exmoor Ale before climbing into the back of the car to go to sleep.

Distance: 9 miles
Accommodation ranking 2/10
Accommodation cost £6 (parking fee)

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