Sunday, 9 June 2013

Porlock Weir to Countisbury - Walking the South West Coast Path

How did that happen? One minute it was four am and dawn was blushing bright pink over the Bristol Channel. The next it was half-past eight and walkers, canoeists and tourists were wandering past as we snoozed peacefully in the back of the car.

It had not been the best night’s sleep, sharing one bed-roll. Poor Mick was shivering without a sleeping bag, but as so often happens, deep sleep came just as it was time to get up. Eventually we roused ourselves and staggered to the toilet for a quick wash before setting off on the path which climbs out of Porlock.

As anyone who has been to this part of the world knows, the path is exceedingly steep although it is not quite on the scale of the formidable Porlock Hill nearby. We climbed up through the woods for a while and then suddenly arrived at the gatehouse for the toll road, behind which were the remnants of terracing from Ashley Combe house and gardens. 

Built by the 1st Earl Lovelace, little remains now except some overgrown landscaping and some tunnels, two of which take our path through the gardens of the estate.  Once, however, poets and mathematicians found inspiration here: the 1st Earl married Ada Byron, daughter of Lord Byron. A talented mathematician, Ada formed a lifelong friendship with Charles Babbage, inventor of the world’s first computer. Ada saw the potential of computers as more than simply mathematical machines and almost two hundred years ago she speculated that the Engine ‘might act upon other things besides number…the Engine might  compose elaborate  and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.’ Quite an insight.

A mile or so on from Porlock Weir is the tiny settlement of Culbone, inaccessible by road where we came upon the tiny and ancient church of St Beuno, one of the smallest parish churches in England. St Beuno was a Welsh fella so I’m not sure what he was doing on this side of the channel but a fair bit of trade has always passed between this coast and South Wales so maybe that’s why it is dedicated to a Welsh saint. Inside the church I breathed in the smell of ancient wood; the pews are at least a century old and there is still the little private box into which the Lovelace family shut themselves when they came here to worship. The church is so small that if the congregation numbers more than about 30 then they must sit on eachother’s laps. Given the remoteness of the location however, this is unlikely, I have observed that most people are seldom to be found more than fifteen feet from their vehicle.

Soon after the church the path climbed yet again. Suddenly Mick nudged me. ‘Look,’ he whispered. Standing stock still in the bracken was a young red deer.
‘If I don’t move you won’t see me,’ she seemed to be saying, just like a child covering her eyes when playing hide-and-seek. We eyeballed each other for a good five minutes before I finally moved and she did too, elegantly bounding off through the bracken. Rather less elegantly, I puffed up the hill to catch Mick. I found him peering worriedly over a row of boulders, apparently the scene of a recent landslip. Having a fear of heights induces a morbid fascination in Mick of all things high, scary and dangerous. ‘It’s like prodding a tooth when it hurts,’ I said. ‘Don't look.’
‘Just checking,’ said Mick still peering over the edge. ‘Bloody hell, look at that drop!’

Above Countisbury the rhododendrons were out in abundance, glorious purple flowers and shining dark green leaves, magnificent in the green bracken. As an introduced and non-indigenous species however, it is a menace. Nothing grows under the rhodie’s tangled roots and the spread of the plant is almost impossible to prevent. The attractive interloper is growing ever more widespread along these cliffs, driving out the delicate homegrown flora.

By now my feet were beginning to sting and every step hurt. I was more than happy to reach the Blue Ball Inn at the top of Countisbury Hill and stagger inside. We ordered a pot of tea and a huge slice of fruit cake which cheered me up no end. Mick looked at his watch. 'It's gone five now, he said. I may as well stay again tonight.'
‘But I’m supposed to be doing this walk on my own!’ I said. ‘It's my personal challenge!'
'I'll just stay until tomorrow,' said Mick. 'To make sure you can manage. After that you're on your own.'

While he caught the open topped bus back to Porlock Weir to retrieve the car once more, I lay in the sun by the side of the road, head resting on my rucksack. The bus only went to Porlock so he had an hour walk at the other end to the car park. By the time he returned with the car I was still there, sound asleep.

When I had come round we drove down to Lynmouth  and parked the car at the end of a long dead end road next to a tumbling river. We walked into the village for some fish and chips and a couple more pints of Exmoor Stag in the Rising Sun Inn before heading back to the car to get our heads down for the night. There was another car next to us which I assumed belonged to one of the holiday cottages down the road, but there was no-one about. It was a very a pretty spot and I admired the scenery before turning to the job in hand and we noisily shuffled about getting the back of the car comfortable. I took pity on Mick and offered him the sleeping bag tonight while I put on every item of clothing in my backpack and wrapped myself in an old sheet I found in the back of the car. 

Mick got out to relieve himself. As it was so dark he didn't venture far from the car, after all the place was deserted. He was mid-stream when the lights on the car next to us suddenly turned on full-beam. For the first time I noticed that the windows of the car was rather steamed up.The car was not empty, it was occupied by two people, probably both married but not to each other. The engine started and they disappeared down the road in a cloud of dust and gravel. Mick walked back. 'Erm, I think we may have spoiled their evening,' he said. 'Plus I don't think he took too kindly to me weeing right next to his front wheel.' Apart from this incident thankfully the night passed very peacefully. 

The view to Lynton from Countisbury Hill

Distance: 10 miles
Total Distance: 19 miles
Accommodation ranking 2/10
Accommodation cost £0.00

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