5495 miles already walked

Going Forward and Looking Back

A striking 12ft sculpture in galvanised steel, created by Owen Cunningham and designed by A-Level student Sarah Ward, marked the start of my 630-mile walk along the South West Coast Path. 

The SWCP as it’s affectionately known, is England's longest waymarked National Trail. It starts in western Somerset and moves to North Devon before crossing into Cornwall, where it completes the county’s whole coastline; it then enters South Devon and finally ends at Poole in Dorset.

Shortly after clambering uphill out of Minehead, the beauty of Exmoor National Park began to unfold before me.  I opted for the higher of two routes which took me over the tops via Selworthy Beacon.  These routes later converged at the base of an almost vertical hill at Hurlstone before taking me into picturesque Bossington, a tiny village that sits behind Porlock Bay’s shingle ridge.

Over 20 years ago Porlock’s high shingle ridge was breached by the sea, behind which fields were flooded by seawater. Today, it’s possible to see the remains of trees that were inundated and continue to be overrun at high tides. Above the high tide mark I came across a memorial to eleven American servicemen who lost their lives when their Liberator Bomber crashed in the marshes in October 1942.  One crew member survived, and I wondered if he went on to play his part in the D-Day events in Normandy, just under two years later.

Although we don’t have a television in the Victory Van, we do make use of the radio. On 6 June, 2019 we made time to listen to the emotional 75th anniversary commemoration events that were taking place in Normandy. I think many people were moved by the words of our Prime Minister who highlighted the sheer scale of sacrifice made by so many young men. 

Those words stayed with me that morning as I left Porlock Weir to walk through some of Exmoor’s oldest oak woodlands on my way to Culbone’s remote church.  This is claimed to be the smallest parish church in England and can seat about 30 people. Perhaps what made that morning walk more poignant was meeting a policeman and his search dog trying to locate a missing person: a suicide note had been found in a woman’s car nearby.  I thought of the sacrifice made in 1944 by those young men, with their lives ahead of them, was at odds with a distressed person wishing to end her life early. Such a tragedy.

Later in the day I crossed into Devon and had a wonderful walk along high cliff paths bordered by brightly coloured rhododendrons. Before one of my last climbs of the day, I came across a ‘Honesty Café’ placed beside the cliff path.  A table, two chairs, an array of mugs, a cool box and a hot water flask had all been neatly laid out with a handwritten note.  The cool box trustingly contained fresh fruit, crisps, chocolate bars, packs of biscuits, cans of drink and fresh milk.  Its positioning was ideal, and I made use of this thoughtful facility, noting that others had done so too.  I placed my money in a tin, writing a note of thanks in the Comments book – also stored in the cool box.  Faith and trust is alive and well.

High on Countisbury Hill I was rewarded with stunning views towards Lynmouth and its twin town Lynton. I overlooked the village of Countisbury where in days of stage-coach travel, six horses were reputedly required to pull coaches up the village’s steep hill. This will give readers some idea of the gradients I’ve been tackling this week! These were apparent again when I stood on Lynmouth’s Esplanade looking 500 feet directly upwards to Lynton. The town’s famous funicular cliff railway opened in 1890 and is the highest and steepest totally water powered railway in the world.

Water is something Lynmouth knows well having suffered devastating floods in 1952 when thirty-four people lost their lives, following a cloudburst on Exmoor. Next morning when I returned to Lynmouth to start my walk to Combe Martin, another cloud burst above me.  Even before I left the lower town, pavements and footpaths were awash with surface water.  Knowing I couldn’t be retrieved by the Victory Van on this walking leg I had no choice but to push-on to Combe Martin. There wasn’t a hope of taking any photographs, which was a shame as this section offers some of North Devon’s most dramatic coastline, including the Valley of the Rocks.  Instead, I sloshed along carefully watching where I trod on uneven paths overflowing with water and debris. I couldn’t afford to take another tumble . . .

The ascents and descents through Lee Bay, Woody Bay, Heddon’s Mouth, East Cleave and Sherrycombe to name but a few, certainly tested the Victory Walker in the foulest of conditions.  Later, when I just had to stop to eat, I was reminded of one of the Royal Marines’ original core values - ‘Cheerfulness in the face of adversity’.  With rain lashing down in stair-rods, no shelter and nowhere to perch, I started to laugh!

Retrieving a sandwich from my rucksack, I tried to protect its contents from getting soaked.  All was in vain. As I leaned forward, water streamed off the peak of my waterproof jacket, straight into the pack and my food resembled pulp. Meanwhile, I poured hot coffee from my flask into a lid, only for the rain to overfill and cool my drink.  That was when I stopped laughing.  It was a relief to reach Combe Martin and leave Exmoor behind me.

Next day, the sun shone when I entered a bustling Ilfracombe, where Lundy Island’s supply ship, MS Oldenburg, was moored close to Damien Hirst’s ‘Verity’ sculpture. This statue holds a prominent position at the harbour mouth and takes the form of a heavily pregnant woman holding a sword aloft.  Ilfracombe is a lively town built on steep slopes and I wandered into High Street where I met a former Wren, Jill, and her husband Mick who kindly fed me at their cafe.  I seem to have done a lot of eating this week!  Later, when I reached Woolacombe we had a personal delivery of home-baked chocolate buns by another ex Wren and close friend visiting the area – a lovely surprise.

Woollacombe, like nearby Croyde, Saunton Sands and Braunton Burrows all played a key part in D-Day rehearsals for thousands of American troops.  Today, this area is a surfing mecca: people of all ages clad in wetsuits, wandering around with boards or riding the waves, mingled with young families carrying buckets and spades. Passing through Braunton I noticed that it is home to the Museum of British Surfing. Today, this entire area would be totally unrecognisable to those GIs of 1944.

Braunton was where I joined the Tarka Trail, which also doubles as the SWCP: the Tarka Trail was inspired by Henry Williamson’s novel ‘Tarka the Otter’. Making use of the former Barnstaple to Ilfracombe railway line, the route led me alongside the banks of the River Taw into Barnstaple. Later, I followed another disused line down the opposite Taw bank, through Fremington and Instow where, had the tides been right, I could have caught a small ferry across the river Torridge to Appledore. Instead, the expanses of sand told me I’d have to continue down to Bideford, where I crossed the Torridge to end my walking week, clocking 4,800 miles. 

I was able to celebrate this achievement with the Royal Marines at Instow who kindly allowed us to stay at their base.  My Support Team is delighted to be back among Green Berets again!

See Photo Album No 77 – Going Forward and Looking Back