Sunday, 16 February 2014

From Ilfracombe to Lee

Unbelievable. Looked out of the window and for the first time in months - it's not raining! 'Don't get used to it, though,' says the weather forecaster on the radio candidly. 'Tomorrow it's back to rain again.'

So as it seems this could be the only sunny Sunday of the year it seemed a shame to waste it. I donned my welly boots and set off on a walk to the village of Lee three miles away along the South West Coast Path. (There are two Lee Bays in North Devon, one near Lynton & Lynmouth farther up the channel, and the one I was heading to, nestled in an impossibly steep valley between Ilfracombe and Mortehoe.)

The path leaves Ilfracombe by way of the Torrs; the path zigzagging up the cliff. The path was laid by the Victorians, in the days when trippers used to arrive here in their thousands on the train and after paying a penny or two would stroll (or take a donkey cart!) up to the top of the hill to the Torrs Pavilion. However the pavilion was demolished in 1964 and nowadays if you want refreshments you have to bring your own.

Site of old refreshment pavilion

Looking towards Bull Point

The view from the top is as magnificent as ever though, stretching away west to Bull Point and east to Great Hangman hill on the edge of Exmoor. Looking back, the Torrs show something of their dramatic past, pushed and folded into a series of dramatic peaks. Despite the glorious weather I had the place to myself save for a few sheep.
Oi! Look at the camera!

The sea was flat calm after the rampaging force of the waves over the past couple of weeks, like it was have a darn good rest before the next onslaught. Just as well, I would not have fancied the next section, right on the edge of the cliff, in windy weather. The path was joined from a lane from the left; this is the old road from Ilfracombe to Lee and grooves are cut into the steep incline to give the carts some traction as they negotiated the slope.

Old iron sign

On the top the terrain was marshy to say the least - wellies were a good choice despite the fact that my right boot kept sucking my sock off (why this only ever happens on one foot not both I have no idea). So I slipped, sloshed and glooped my way across the fields which were criss-cross with streams until I reached the top of the tarmacked lane. This was also running with water but at least it was now just wet not muddy. It's a nice steep totter down the hill then into the little village of Lee.

Wet lane down to Lee
It's a shame that when you get to the bottom of the hill you are confronted with the hulk of a large derelict hotel. Lee Bay Hotel closed in 2009 and doesn't show any signs of redevelopment or refurbishment yet. I was tempted to go in and have a nose around but I had heard that it is now used as a police dog training centre and had no desire to leave the place with an Alsatian dog attached to my leg so decided against it. Instead I headed down to the beach. Here was another surprise - a big hole in the sea wall. Seems the storms of recent weeks have taken their toll here too.

Wall damaged in recent storms

Some days the beach is covered in weed - other days
there is none.

The beach was strewn with seaweed which mingled with day-glo plastic detritus washed up on the recent heavy seas. I especially liked the mermaid's purse, of which there were plenty strewn about, containers for the eggs of the dogfish, common in the Bristol Channel. The rest I cannot identify, but I loved the variety - from clumps of green leaves to alien looking tubers. I mentally added 'learn how to identify seaweeds' to my growing list of Things To Do. I love laver, the local seaweed delicacy (fried with bacon and Devon cream it is the best!) but I have no idea what it looks like in its natural state. It seems it's jolly good for you though.

Mermaids purse
Unable to identify this one!

You just can't have too many nets!

The tide was perfect today, I love it when the tide is out at Lee Bay, as it then becomes possible to walk the beach path around the coast to the next beach, Sandy Cove. The path is not easy to find unless you know what you are looking for.
Path between the rocks

Some worn steps carved into the rocks lead off to the left. They are easy to miss if you don't know they are there, but they lead the way over an ancient route, said to be an old smuggler's path to Sandy Cove. It certainly went on here, in September 1820 it was reported that Cook of Ilfracombe landed three hundred tubs of gin and brandy at Lee, a month later a tub of spirits was found buried in the shingle on the beach. I had a good hunt round for any hidden brandy but sadly there was none to be found.

Sandy Cove is one of my very favourite places. I love the way the soft sedimentary rocks have been shaped by the sea; the curve of the beach. At the back of the beach is a beautifully scalloped sea cave with it's front and back entrance at either end of the cave. I sat quietly for a while in the cave enjoying the sound of the distant sea and the screeching of gulls wheeling over the cliffs. Eventually I crept out of the front, frightening the wits out of a small boy and his father who were just coming in to explore the cave. Like me, as the beach was deserted, they obviously assumed there was no-one else here. I made my apologies and left them to enjoy exploring the cave in peace.

Rocks shaped by the sea
Back door to 'my' cave
And front entrance

The rocks here are beautiful, green-grey Morte slate, which has been pushed to a near vertical angle by  tectonic pressure some 350 million years ago. Strewn on the beach are large and small pieces of pink quartz which runs in seams through the slate.

Morte slate

Pink quartz
At the end of Sandy Cove is a steep flight of wooden steps which take you up to the top of the cliff - useful if you've messed up with the tide and missed the exit back over smuggler's steps! From the top of the cliff it's an easy and pleasant walk across the top back to the village. But if you've timed it right and the sea is still a good way out - you can continue round the rocks to the next bay Hilly Mouth. At the entrance to the bay the rocks stand up like stern sentinels supervising your passage through - and beyond are rows of saw tooth rocks. It's no wonder this place was once so feared by sailors. In the eighteenth century ship owners allowed the wooden hulls to decay, for there was often more money from insurance in a ship that sank than one which stayed afloat. Those ships would have stood little chance if they foundered on these rocks.

Rocks at Hilly Mouth

Back on Lee beach

It is possible, with care on the seaweed rocks, to climb up onto the South West Coast Path, which crosses a stream just here. But I figured I still had plenty of time to make my way back along the beach to Lee. By now all the scrambling about had given me a proper thirst so I followed the little path from the beach back up towards the village. Fortuitously, one of the first buildings you come to is the village pub. I believe it unethical to go for a Sunday walk without calling into a hostelry so in I went.

Although the building is ancient, it was a farm until about fifty years ago. Now it is The Grampus, a fine hostelry, good food but not foodie, which welcomes muddy dogs and their owners, cyclists and walkers. My sort of place. 'Grampus' is an old name for the Orca or Killer Whale and there are examples of the Grampus everywhere if you look - from the back gate to the bar.

The Grampus

The bar was cosy with comfy chairs next to the fireplace where a wood burning stove was giving off enough heat to take the chill off. I settled down in one of the armchairs with a pint of Discovery from Hartland Brewery. A chap was sitting nearby tucking into a pint of the same and an enormous plate of roast beef and all the trimmings. He was wearing a tracksuit splattered with mud. He told me he had run the coast path from Woolacombe, five miles down the coast and was planning to run the final three miles to Ilfracombe after lunch.
'I think I would vomit if I ran on top of beer and roast dinner,' I observed. 'Especially on that massive hill that climbs out of Lee.' 'Yes, I was thinking that myself,' he said ruefully. 'I probably will be sick. But I couldn't resist a pint.' A man after my own heart. As I wasn't running I treated myself to a second pint after my lunch. I thought it would give him time to get on and to throw up without an audience.

In the event there was no sign of him or of any ill effects when I finally left the pub and climbed up the hill again. The sun was dropping now and casting a beautiful light across the lush green fields. I made my way back along the track to the top of the Torrs before the final descent down into Ilfracombe.

It's been a glum old winter weather-wise. Thank goodness for days like these.

Bull Point again

Ilfracombe Torrs

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