Thursday, 13 June 2013

Ilfracombe to Croyde - Walking the South West Coast Path

Just before going to sleep last night I made the mistake of listening to the weather forecast. ‘Heavy rain and strong winds, possibly gale force.'

Great. Just the weather for walking along the top of vertiginous cliffs. Sure enough, when I woke this morning it was tipping with rain and the trees were swaying vigorously in the wind. I called Mick to ask whether he still wanted to join me on the next stretch. ‘I was hoping you would give it a miss today,’ he said gloomily. ‘But if you’re going I’ll come along too.’

I was not sure whether we would be staying out so we both carried our camping gear, just in case. The rain also gave us the opportunity to try out our new black and yellow Vaude cycling capes. Before leaving Ilfracombe we stopped at Turton’s Butchers for a scotch egg and pastie to take with us. Turtons is the best butchers in North Devon, possibly in all of Devon. Everything is baked on the premises and their scotch eggs are even better than Haggetts in Silverton near Exeter. And that is saying something. The butcher burst out laughing when he saw us. ‘You look like a couple of bumble bees,’ he said. As we left the shop with our wares he said, ‘Enjoy your walk. Now buzz off.’

The first section to the village of Lee was familiar, we often walk over to the Grampus Inn, a fine little hostelry, although the cliff route back to Ilfracombe is best avoided after a skinful, it is a little close to the edge in parts. The cliff path climbs in switchbacks from Ilfracombe up and over the Tors, the series of hills to the west of the town and ends with a steep descent down a narrow hedge-lined lane to Lee. Today we resisted the pub and instead stopped for a coffee from the machine at the craft shop in the village, situated in the old school, before following the little path over the stream towards the beach. Half a mile along I realised I had left my walking pole behind. Damn! Not again! This was the third time I had left it behind. This time Mick did not offer to retrieve it, so I trudged back to the shop to collect it. I resolved from now on to strap it to my pack every time I stopped.

Lee is nestled in a steep valley and it was a haul out the other side, after which the path dipped and rose relentlessly, passing through tiny coves guarded by upturned slabs of glistening grey slate. This coastline was once a veritable sailor’s graveyard; it was not difficult to see why the promontory beyond Mortehoe was known as Morte Point, it looked lethal. June is a perfect time in Devon though, with plenty of foxgloves lining the path and clusters of wild campion and sea thrift among the rocks.

The southwest wind had by now chased the weather front east and we watched the back of it roll away, followed by a cloudless blue sky. Above us a kestrel hovered motionless on the thermals, maintaining a perfectly stationary position by the flick of wing or tail, while in the sea far below three seals swam near the rocks, bobbing on the water. We agreed it had been the right decision to ignore the weather and set off this morning.

Bennet's Mouth

Morte Point

Beyond Morte Point the path swung round to display in all its glory the awesome three mile sweep of Woolacombe Sand, virtually empty aside from a speckle of surfers at the near end of the beach. We stopped for a coffee at the beach café and I discarded my boots and walked barefoot for an hour to the other end of the bay along the almost deserted golden sand with little sound except for the rollers crashing onto the beach and gulls crying overhead.

On Woolacombe Beach

Beach huts, Woolacombe Beach

Usnea Lichen on Baggy Point
At the far end the path heads out to another promontory, Baggy Point. On the North side we were protected from the blasts of the wind but as we turned the corner we were accosted by it full force. Here the path was perilously close to the edge, sheer cliffs dropping hundreds of feet to the churning sea below. It was spectacular.

Baggy Point

I turned to talk to Mick only to see him scampering up the side of the hill towards the safety of a fence, scattering a herd of goats as he went. ‘I’ll see you farther on!,’ he yelled. He had a point, I don’t suffer from a fear of heights but I still wasn’t keen on walking the path past hideous drops in blustery wind. Suddenly a young woman appeared around the corner, dressed in white shorts and t-shirt, running along the path. One slip or one gust…maybe it’s just me but she made me very nervous and I quickly scuttled along the path.

Croyde is a popular place to visit but in my humble opinion it is over-rated. The beach is nice but not as good as Woolacombe. The only two campsites we found charged the same: £25 per tent per night (extra if you want to erect a gazebo) which I thought was extortionate. We considered wild camping in a park, but we would have to wait another three hours for darkness to fall. Suddenly a bus to Barnstaple trundled down the road. We looked at each other. ‘We could go home,’ said Mick, ‘We could get a pint in Barnstaple and then get the bus to Ilfracombe.’

The temptation was too much. I stuck out my hand for the bus to stop and we climbed aboard. Croyde would not have the benefit of our custom this evening. I doubt they missed us very much and I have to say the feeling was mutual.

View from Baggy Point towards Croyde

Distance: 13 miles
Total Distance: 53 miles
Accommodation ranking 8/10
Accommodation cost 0.00 (home)

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