London to North Hill, Minehead
Planning for this opening stage of the South West Coast Path, Britain’s longest and most challenging national trail, started a few months after the conclusion of our previous walk along the North Norfolk coast path. We’d left it long enough for the worst blisters, the most acute joint strains and the most painful memories to have worn off.
“What can we do next? I know, why don’t we…” This germ of a crazy idea, initially planted by that most famous of coastpath walkers Mark Wallington, was watered plentifully when we found the South West Coast Path Association guide book on sale in a Dartmoor visitor centre while on holiday one year. Next came membership of that organisation (highly recommended) and purchase of the National Trail Guide detailing the Minehead to Padstow section. Trouble is, reading’s no substitute for experience, as we were soon to learn, especially when walking across terrain of the kind offered by Exmoor. We didn’t learn our lesson for years, however, going on to trump this by buying a yacht on the strength of a fondness for the books of Arthur Ransome. But that’s another story…
The time came to stop talking, to stop planning and to actually set out on this great adventure. We packed and re-packed our rucksacks the night before, trying to pummel them into a manageable state – and had much trouble accommodating bulky sleeping bags and camping gear. But at least they seemed to be in a better condition than on previous attempts, when we had despaired of even lifting them. To add to the stress, our train tickets were all pre-booked Super Apex fares for maximum cheapness – which meant we couldnâ€™t miss our train. We were very hot and bothered by the time we got to the station and caught the blessed commuter service for the first part of the journey with just a few minutes to spare, only to spend most of the next 40 minutes continuing with the absorbing task of trying to beat our rucksacks into submission.
Modern life is rubbish
In this happy state of mind we arrived at Reading for our connection to the south-west and found ourselves unable to discover which train or platform we should be on. At this point panic really set in because (as already mentioned) we only had valid tickets for the one train. After running up and down escalators in a desperate hurry, and encountering legendary unhelpfulness from the station staff, we took a gamble on one service that we saw pulling in – fortunately proving to be right. In a state of near-hysterical relief we settled down for the journey with a big bag of goodies from the buffet and a couple of good books to try to make the best use of the hours ahead – and also to fend off the usual funny looks from one’s fellow man and woman that are inevitably associated with backpacking.
A mercifully uneventful journey and arrival at Taunton presaged a short walk over the road to the familiar bus stop for Minehead. However, this time we got off early for a treat – joining the West Somerset Railway at Bishops Lydeard to make the last part of the journey in style. The bus driver waited very helpfully while we dealt with our rucksacks. We caught the bus in drizzle and arrived in rain. Was this a sign? The short answer was yes, emphatically yes…
An affinity for diesel
The stress didn’t stop there. We arrived at the station to discover a keenly-attended enthusiasts’ diesel weekend in progress instead of the steam trains we had been expecting with childish anticipation – how could we not have known, the man in the ticket booth wondered – and then got sold a return ticket instead of the singles we actually needed. This comedy of errors was, we soon decided, a classic case of not leaving work at work when first going on holiday and therefore being utterly unable to relax or chill out for at least the first three days. Or perhaps we were more nervous about the forthcoming walk than we had realised or admitted. After all, the WSR’s line and carriages still have all their charm whether you have a steam or a diesel engine pulling the carriages, after all – but there’s something so special about a steam train, as anyone who has ever travelled on one will confirm.
Arriving at Minehead we found the the rain by now so severe that we dived into a seafront diner for a big heap of fried food, dallying as long as we could justify. Then it was on with the waterproofs to be greeted with blank stares from the other diner occupants and the teenage staff, and off up the hill we went, finally under way with this ludicrous walk. Not that we would be going all that far.
Tighten those straps
We walked along to the harbour and paused for a period of rucksack adjustment and consultation of the map board there. It was hard to believe that, after all the stresses and petty annoyances of the journey, we were finally setting out but we were soon climbing steeply up a zigzag track, cheered to go past the sign which announces the boundary of Exmoor National Park. We were surprised to find ourselves passing through some parts of Minehead we had still not discovered after years of holidays there – something we later learned is often a delight of the SWCP, taking you to areas you never imagined existed.
We were climbing through scenery which was almost tropical with dripping vegetation and rhododendrons mixed with native trees as we climbed high above the town – and learned a few essential truths about why breathable waterproofs are well worth the money. As the path advances up North Hill it starts to go out along the coast but we had a very odd walk with the sea screened off entirely by fog during which we could hear it quite clearly but not see so much as one white-crested wave. We followed the path for some time before taking a long diversion inland to reach a favourite haunt of old, the Camping and Caravan Club’s North Hill campsite, our intended location for the night and the perfect place from which to get an early start for our walk to Porlock, some 9.5 strenuous miles up the coast.
A fine view from the top
It was comforting after our stressful journey to find the familiar site pretty much unchanged as were the (since-retired) couple who ran it. We popped over to the shop to book in, make telephone calls and stock up on supplies but were worried about the possibility of heavy rain and so were eager to get the tent up as fast as possible. After some procrastination over where to put it we chose what seemed like a desirable spot between two bushes, got inside the tent and wriggled into our caterpillar-like sleeping bags feeling pretty satisfied not to be out in the rain any more. That evening’s rations were some strangely-reconstituted almond curry with rice made from powdery stuff in a tinfoil pack that was very nice indeed but had not the slightest hint of curry about it. Ah well, it’s all hot food, innit. Unfortunately we learned round about this point that we had pitched the tent on quite a sleep slope so gravity ensured two people and two rucksacks all slept on the same spot. The perfect end to a perfect day. We shouldn’t have been let out on our own, should we?