A new day, a new breakfast and time to tackle the estuary. We left Braunton and started walking on the tarmac cycle path which would occupy us for the rest of the day. We hit the side of the estuary pretty quickly and soon walked past RAF Chivenor where the air sea rescue helicopter is based. We had seen it out and about often while walking and it was nice to see it at home so to speak. Andy spent a lot of time wishing he could see it take off. Yesterday had ended with warm sunshine but today was overcast and we were watching the sky for signs of rain. We pointed our feet towards Barnstaple and kept walking until we got there. That’s really all you can say about it. On our left was a hedge, on our right the estuary. Being a weekday it was still a bit quiet for cyclists but it is a design fault of the path that it is hard to accommodate walkers alongside them. Instead of the quiet coastal footpaths and tranquil beaches which you have become accustomed to, you are suddenly dodging people who come up behind you in complete silence and whizz past at the speed of light – sometimes within inches. To make matters worse, you are encumbered with a rucksack which confuses your sense of balance at the best of times and must constantly suppress the reflex action of launching yourself plus pack bodily into the undergrowth. We are perfectly aware of the pleasures of cycling this path having done it before and enjoyed it greatly. But we often wished there were some separate, tarmac-free arrangement for walkers and hiked this section in strict single file while peering over our shoulders and around our rucksacks.
Our second visit to Barnstaple this week held all the pleasures of the big city – banks, fast food restaurants and indoor toilets with soap. We had to transact a bit of routine business but then bought ourselves a newspaper as a treat – because we are journalists they are generally banned on holidays – and settled down in a Wimpy to read it and eat veggyburgers. It must have been market day in Barnstaple because the town and the Wimpy were packed and people were queuing for seats. But the staff found us a corner where our rucksacks were not in the way and we sat down to stuff ourselves silly. When replete we heaved the packs on with a grimace – like children you cannot leave them unattended for a moment – and set off on our way. For reasons the specifics of which now escape us, Andy made a point of searching out the manager before we left to praise the helpfulness of his staff. The route out of the town is very familiar because it goes past the station. We had cycled along here in previous years and walked to the bus station on our way to Combe Martin just four days before. It was sobering that it had taken us four days to cover a route which took us three quarters of an hour on a bus. But past the bus station we went, past the station and we were back on the path again.
Barnstaple to Instow was our afternoon itinerary and we got steadily more grumpy thanks to fleets of bicycles, grey skies, spots of rain and unchanging scenery. Eventually, as we neared Instow, we took a scenic detour out onto East Yelland Marsh and Instow Barton Marsh. Slowly the grassy scenery became more and more industrial and we passed signs marking contaminated land and an installation which looked like an abandoned gas works. After walking to the beginning of Instow Sands we cut inland past a cricket ground – sparking an argument about whether there really was such a fielding postition as “silly mid off” – for a walk of approximately a mile to the youth hostel. Instow youth hostel is a converted Victorian house and was the first we had stayed in. We had a twin room booked which had bunk beds and a fireplace as well as a view out over the garden. It was relaxing after the long day’s walking and was followed by a walk into the village to watch the sunset over the harbour before making dinner in a kitchen which reminded us very strongly of our time living in student halls of residence. Instow is definitely recommended – if youth hostelling is your cup of tea.