After an extremely comfortable night we stayed in bed as late as we could before pottering down to breakfast. The owner, who also runs a shop and a surfing hire business, made us a packed lunch which included cheese and marmite sandwiches and we set off in long trousers to find our way back to the path. Today was a sunny, clear one and Croyde Bay was full of early-bird surfer dudes scanning the horizon for big waves. We found a footpath which took us in a fairly straight line to where we wanted to go and, after just a few feet of the path, decided shorts were the order of the day and changed into them. The first bit of the path was a bit of a challenge as it ran across rocks leaving Croyde Bay and then climbed the side of a headland by means of a narrow path through brambles. The last section of Croyde Sand was marked by a few enthusiastic holidaymakers soaking up the morning sun and one woman, not expecting footpath users to emerge from the dunes behind her, valiantly trying to change behind a windbreak’s privacy. The path round the headland was a nightmare as we were the first of the day along it and it was criss-crossed with dozens of spiders’ webs full of big, fat spiders. Andy had to go first armed with a stick and even he was freaked out. Not to mention the brambles.
Round the corner was the fabulous Saunton Sands hotel. It’s a five-star one, with tennis courts, sun balconies and a swimming pool and we can’t believe a single walker passes without thinking what it would be like to throw down their rucksack, stroll into reception, check in and, half an hour later, be drinking cocktails by the pool. It’s a huge white building perched right on the top of a headland and it looks partly as if it should be by the Mediterranean and partly like a health resort for convalescents and TB sufferers. The path goes round the side of a tennis court before descending into a car park. Purists can then disappear into the dunes of Saunton Sand and then Braunton Burrows for three hours or so but it was a nice day and, mindful of a previous experience at Cromer where we spent hours trailing along behind a 10-foot shingle ridge and never once saw the sea, we decided to walk on the beach this time. The car park heralds the return of surfer paradise and is stuffed full of vans selling ice creams, hot dogs, strange unguents and body boards, as well as hiring wetsuits and surf equipment. But the activity was concentrated in a narrow section at the top end of the beach and we had soon walked a surprising distance beyond it and the swimmers and surfers, imprisoned between the flags marking out the area patrolled by lifeguards, were masked in the heat haze. Stopping for lunch, we had a brief paddle, a read, listened to the one o’clock news on a miniature radio and ate our cheese and marmite sandwiches before walking on.
Now we were too far along to meet any other holidaymakers and the scenery began to subtly change. The beach is sometimes used for the army to practice in case they need to do a re-run of D-Day and we wondered whether we would suddenly find ourselves the subject of an invasion. The beach got dryer, sandier and more and more industrial-looking as it became scattered with wrecked bits of metal we can only assume were someting to do with the military. Also three hours or so of walking along this beach had turned us a bit funny in the head, there was a low-hanging heat haze and the whole experience was becoming a bit surreal, frankly. By now we were approaching Braunton Burrows, a national nature reserve, and the start of the Taw and Torridge estuaries. Suddenly, as we neared a car park, there were people everywhere once more. We cut into the dunes, joining the “official” route once more, and suddenly saw one of those sights we dread on walks: the prominent landmark you will not be able to lose for the next four or five days, allowing you to exclaim “Blimey! Look! It’s still there and we’ve walked all these miles since! Seems like nothing when you look back at that…” and then get thoroughly disheartened. In this case, as we left the grassy, sandy dunes and their car park, and took a path along the side of the estuary, we encountered a building labelled on the maps as “the White House”. It was easy to see why. Clearly a house. And clearly white. And because of its colour and positioning, clearly visible for days to come.
We passed further along the estuary and then down the side of a long culvert or inlet, onto tarmac roads and Braunton was visible tumbling down the side of a hill. We also got our first sight of the ubiquitous cycle ways which criss-cross this part of the world, following a railway long ago closed by Dr Beeching. We wandered round the village for a while searching for our B&B and dived into the first newsagent we saw to empty a couple of cans of drink each down our throats. It was strange to be in a town that wasn’t dominated by sea or tidal estuary for the first time since Exeter. The B&B, right in the centre, was very cosy and welcoming and all we wanted to do that evening was crash out, have a bath and relax, although we did explore Braunton a little and positively skipped along the streets without our great big rucksacks.