…We just sit tight while wind dives / And strafes invisibly. Space is a salvo. / We are bombarded with the empty air. / Strange, it is a huge nothing that we fear. – Seamus Heaney, ‘Storm on the Island‘
The whole country battened down the hatches for Storm Hannah overnight and today. Had we assayed the coastal route today we would have been contending with winds gusting up to 60mph, but we decided last night that we were going to travel inland to stay safe.
Stephen used the OS mapping website to re-plan the route for today. He managed to stitch together a series of green lanes connecting Bude with Hartland, which meant that we had minimal road to walk. We started from Bude seafront in winds that were almost too exhilaratingly powerful to stand in, and headed up a path on the clifftop which was well away from the edge. We had to dig in with walking poles to stay stable – like ambulant tripods.
Very soon we turned away on our diversion, past a staggeringly beautiful farmhouse backed by the incongruous GCHQ listening station on the hill behind; an anachronistic pairing.
The path turned inland and dropped down into Stowe Wood, a managed woodland which links several connected coombes each with its own little stream. Today it was an enchantingly beautiful other world in which we were the only human beings. We entered through a kissing gate by an ancient stone wall topped with wild garlic, and walked, almost stunned, through spring woodland at its most glorious.
The beach trees were stretching out their freshest green leaves to catch the spring sun, and in the dampness at the edges of the path grew black wood melick, and pendular sedge. But back from the path edges there was an astounding carpet of wild garlic, looking as though you could wade through it.
Where the garlic had left an inch of space there were bluebells, and the trees were full of calling chiff-chaffs. Orange tip butterflies displayed on the rides.
This was our introduction to an extraordinary route which we would have missed out on completely had Storm Hannah not howled in.
There are corridors of green – ancient rights of way – which still exist much as they have done for centuries.
They all have thick, high hedges, some are roofed over with branches which have met in the middle, and others wind along the bottom of coombes. They must have been the way people walked between towns and villages for hundreds of years, who were not travelling by stagecoach on the roads. They feel ancient and unchanged: we would not have been surprised to have met Tess of the D’Urbervilles coming in the opposite direction.
Many are sunken or ‘hollow’ lanes, and some, over the years, have been metalled.
Effectively these green lanes are a corridor through the landscape, almost an open-air secret tunnel, and they all shielded us completely from the gale which was blowing a foot or two right above our heads. We were able to walk 24km, through a named storm, wearing walking t-shirts. We were walking under the wind.
In the standing water in the ditches and the boggy parts of some of the lanes we saw mats of spurge, and mint and brooklime (which has one of the best Latin names: Veronica beccabunga). The first orchids are coming out and I think the ones we saw today were marsh orchids, but I don’t know what kind.
When we were out of the lanes we walked along woodland paths, including beech woods with soft mossy fallen trees and ferns in the understory. The dog’s mercury is coming into flower, and the enchanter’s nightshade. One beautiful wood was a reserve owned by the Devon Wildlife Trust in which we crossed the border between North Cornwall and North Devon.
We were hoping the that village of Shop would have a café where we could stop for something, but after following a sign for a tearoom for 50m we asked a man locking up the village hall and he said it was about a mile and a half away. It’s a very expensive place anyway, he told us; cream teas for £8! We didn’t fancy walking a mile and a half out of our way and back again just for a cuppa so we sat in the village bus shelter which faced out of the wind, and revived ourselves on beef jerky and other trail snacks, and rested our feet.
We got to Hartland at 4.15, where my lovely cousin Siriol came to meet us, and drove us back to their house in Instow where we are staying for four whole nights, being ferried to and from the start and end of our walks. She and Neil pampered us rotten.
All in all a pleasant day’s quiet walking, mostly in full sun, and unless we were walking through an actual village, we met no one. Peaceful. But one thing we did remark on, was that we missed the sweeping panoramas of the coast where you almost always have a visual sense of where you have been, and where you are going. Places and the relationship between them are connected in your mind. Today it was as though we were walking blind, in a perpetual present.
NB. My two favourite poems about wind are by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes: ‘Storm on the Island’, and ‘Wind’ respectively.