An epic day which illustrated just about everything which can go wrong while you are long-distance walking. To draw the most important of many lessons from it: if you’re walking all day, eat. Our massive fried breakfast – we thought – could have kept a Roman legion going for a week. In fact, it was only enough to take us through to the early evening as we failed to make sensible arrangements for lunch. After that we ran out of steam with a serious hill left between us and our destination. Not clever, don’t try this at home, kids.
We stood at the door and glared out at the pouring rain but it was not intimidated into stopping. So we swathed ourselves from head to foot in waterproofs and ventured out. Despite the earliness of both hour and season a few of the village shops were open and we stocked up on chocolate and a waterproof map-case before setting off for Culbone. Unfortunately we didn’t stock up on lunch, despite the offer of a pasty from a shopkeeper who looked at us dubiously when he declined. “Well,” she said, “if you’ve had breakfast you should be alright.” But she didn’t seem convinced, and looked as if she expected us to be dead by nightfall.
We had done the walk to Culbone before and it should have been great – climbing slowly up onto wooded cliffs which drop steeply into the sea before arriving at the country’s smallest church. Every step, however, was miserable, with driving rain that soon broke through every last bit of waterproofing. We found sanctuary in the church for a while, then fled to the hikers’ hut nearby, which was less spiritual but did have a tea urn. It was the sort of rain best viewed through double glazing, the sort you very rarely encounter outside or have to walk through, and we hid there for hours carefully not looking into the darker corners in case we saw the spiders which were undoubtedly there. We drank lots of tea, stripped off and dried our clothes, re-packed our rucksacks with binbags as liners, and drank more tea. If the people who look after that hut are reading, a heartfelt thank-you to them. We didn’t time ourselves, but we must have spent at least and hour and a half, and perhaps three hours, there. It seemed sensible at the time, but we paid for it later.
Emerging into the dripping woods, we splashed through Culbone – its paths now muddy rivers – and started the time-consuming business of walking round the heads of Culbone Combe, Withy Combe and Silcombe before emerging at Silcombe Farm. The path was on a long inland diversion to avoid the dangerous slopes after Culbone which keep slipping towards the sea. It added about three miles to our planned day storing up yet more trouble for later. In this section the path stops being sylvan and becomes distinctly agricultural, proceeding along farm tracks and through steeply-sloping sheep fields. It’s boring, it’s bad for the spirit, and it wasn’t at all what we had signed up for due to its distinct lack of stunning coastal scenery. It started raining again, too (though fortunately not nearly as badly as earlier). Finally the path plunged into thick trees once more at Yenworthy Wood. You can’t see the coast, but at least it feels like you’re back doing what you set out to do.
This section could make for really pleasant walking in certain conditions but seems relentless if you are trying to cover distance. Because there is not much scenery visible to help mark off the miles it was like walking on a treadmill. By now it was early evening and we knew we still had to cover nearly eight miles before we reached Lynbridge, a village with a camp site high above Lynmouth. We were at a very low ebb when we stopped at Sister’s Fountain for a drink and a snack near the top of the path which leads off to County Gate.
But the sun started slanting through the trees and our spirits picked up amazingly almost certainly because of the extra sugar. We picked up our rucksacks and went on, certain we were up to the challenge of reaching Lynbridge, although we weren’t looking forward to pitching the tent. This mood of optimism, although a bit unrealistic as it turned out, carried us most of the way there. It carried us past Old Barrow Roman Fortlet bathed in glorious, golden evening sunshine. It took us down steep slippery fields and around cliff paths bordered close on each side by rhododendron bushes, which in retrospect were one of the high spots of the week, and it lasted right up to Foreland Point. “One last push and then it’s a short run downhill into Lynmouth where we can get something to eat.”
Wrong… someone had added a valley before Foreland Point which failed to properly advertise its presence on the map and which nearly finished us off physically and mentally. When we’d finally beaten it, and emerged panting over Foreland to Countisbury, Lynmouth seemed a horribly long way off still. And a horribly long way downhill. And it was getting dark. Given that the campsite was a two mile uphill walk from Lynmouth, we just wanted to sit down and cry. But there is only one way to ensure you arrive somewhere – setting off for it and keeping on going no matter how awful you feel.
The journey down into Lynmouth does not bear close examination but we arrived in the village at 10pm certain we were staying there the night, and tents and Lynbridge be damned.
So all that remained was to find somewhere we could eat and sleep. Most places were closed or full but after a few false starts we found a harbourside hotel with a vacancy sign where the barman sold us packets of crisps, then told us the place was full. So we poked our heads into the kitchen as we left and said to the owner: “You’d better turn that sign around. It says you’ve still got vacancies.” The owner said: “That’s because we have” and we were led off to the bar and fed and watered before being tucked up in bed for the night. The management are used to rescuing walkers and cyclists with legs so weary they ask for beds on the ground floor. We have been back since and are delighted to report that they really were every bit as nice as they appeared that night – although, regrettably, the 25-year-old Lagavulin they had behind the bar had been finished by the time we got back.