My spirits grow dull, and fain I would beguile
The tedious day with sleep. – Player King, Hamlet
We had ended yesterday’s walk off the coastal path in the middle of the village of Hartland. We started there today, and joined the coastal path by travelling east, up ancient lanes and over farmland.
Yolk leaking from a smashed blackbird egg by a gate was a pathetic sight, and signalled our entry into one of those farms where you feel you have to be really quiet and tiptoe through, with heaps of filthy straw, dung and effluent all over the ground, and rotting machinery and heaps of old silage plastic and feed sacks strewn about the place. Some cows set up a mournful lowing from a filthy barn as we passed.
Things cheered up a little after that. We came to the beautiful old buildings of National Trust farm Brownsham, with early purple orchids growing on the top of an old wall, an apple orchard in flower, and a long, lush wood: damp spring loveliness. On the edges there was evidence of deer and pheasant shooting, in feeders, fences and stalkers’ platforms.
We passed high above Clovelly, thankfully without losing any height, when we joined the coastal path just beyond Clovelly Court. This preternaturally perfect little village was too screened by the bird cherries growing on the slopes of the steep valley to photograph well but it was clear some form of garden police maintains the high standards.
The coastal path runs through the Clovelly estate. It is pristine and sanitised, and was monotonous and enervating: an hour’s unchanging, unremitting trudge on The Hobby’s unforgiving cobbles. I mostly walked in the leaf litter swept neatly to the side of the road by estate workers, as it was softer underfoot. There were dreary partial views down to the silent, flat, sea, looking as devoid of energy as we felt. Peering out between almost leafless branches we could not discern a clear line between sea and sky. All was the same washed out grey. We had been quite looking forward to seeing Clovelly, but it turned out to be really, really boring.
We passed the time listening to Peter May, who jollied us along with a grisly autopsy of the murder victim described in minute detail. And at last the road ended. There was a baffling loud buzzing noise coming from the bluebell wood, which resolved into a trial bike tournament, riders testing themselves up steep stony streambeds and down bluebell banks, negotiating three-quarter turns around tree-trunks.
The lasting impression of the next part of the walk were the trees. This was Woodland Trust land: unique, ancient habitats which benefit from the charity’s stewardship. It was good to see that our subscription maintains such special places.
At the edge of the first wood we found a friendly tree on which to sit and eat half of Siriol’s smoked salmon and cream cheese sandwiches to celebrate the end of the abysmal Clovelly estate, before winding on through the swathes of bluebells under spellbinding oaks, heavy, twisted horizontal branches covered in moss and hosting whole ecosystems of their own.
The oak woodland was completely different in character from the graceful beeches, under which little grows, throwing all the attention onto the flowing shapes created by their branches.
Stunted oaks covered in lichen characterised the rocky climb up from the hamlet of Buck’s Mills, and I nearly missed them because my eyes were of necessity so fixed on the path (where they stayed most of the day).
The damp and dripping woods eventually ended, and we emerged into the open air onto the more familiar coastal path habitat. It was still raining. The path narrowed and wound steeply up and down through blackthorn brakes which would have benefitted from some more clearing: we had to take the greatest care to prevent our waterproofs from snagging on the wicked thorns.
It was more than an hour’s walk of pointless up and down the coastal cliffs, slogging through the mud and sweating up slippery wooden steps, precarious descents dragging our spirits down with them. At one point we descended all the way to a bedraggled beach, stumbling over the sodden driftwood and cobbles to the broken steps up which we heaved ourselves to more thankless plodding through viewless scrub.
We came across Peppercombe bothy, which gave us a roof over our heads and a sheltered picnic table to eat the second of Siri’s miraculous sandwiches, apply more Compeed, and be pepped up by some enthusiastic walkers who injected some spirit into our dull day.
Eventually we turned off the South-West Coastal Path for the last time. We have had so many glorious days on this path, it was a shame that the last day was so eminently disappointing. It was still raining. On we went, two hours of tarmac, into and through Bideford, Peter May’s gripping tale taking our minds off our beaten-up soles.
Wistfully we passed the Bideford Foot Care Clinic (closed on Sunday) and hobbled down to the old bridge across the wide River Torridge, noting the statue of Tarka the Otter.
A cinder track took us all the way to Instow, mercifully on the level, past rusting hulks and sailing boats anchored high and dry on the mudflats.
We stopped to rest feet at every rare bench, and ate the chocolate provided by dear Sue from the Sunset Guesthouse. Neil came out to meet us and cheered us along the last ten minutes home.
A long, dreary and draining day – but one which we will never have to do again. 32 km closer to John O’Groats, and a rest day tomorrow!
Stats for today
Interesting fauna: 2 cows with faintly amusing horns
Interesting flora: 0
Interesting birdlife: distant sound of 1 oystercatcher