I walk down the track towards the Start Point lighthouse. It’s a long way – at least a mile. The track is so narrow, I have to stand pressed against a wall to allow a small car to pass. The occupants roll down the window to apologise. They explain they are going to open up the lighthouse.
The photo is of Hugh – not the lighthouse keeper – Hugh is the lighthouse tour guide.
I don’t usually stop to look around the various buildings I come across on my walks, but with plenty of time for my walk today, I reckon I can easily spare 20 minutes or so.
Over an hour later, I have to make an excuse and leave the tour early.
Actually, the tour is really interesting. Hugh is very knowledgeable and good with children. He explains how the lighthouse was staffed by keepers and how lonely their wives and children were, only connected to the mainland by a dangerous sheep trail. They grew their own vegetables, kept pigs and chickens, and the older children had to be boarded out in Kingsbridge so that they could attend school.
Nowadays, there are no resident light-keepers in the UK. All functions are automated and controlled by Trinity House from their base in Harwich, Essex. Wires and cables run throughout the light house.
The interior of the lighthouse is spick and span. There is one room on each floor, including a kitchen, linked by a spiral staircase.
The best part of the tour is seeing the actual light itself and the view from the top.
Start Bay is notorious for ship wrecks. I could imagine how the wind would howl and the rain lash against the glass panes in a winter storm.
Apparently, apprentice lighthouse keepers had to prove they were good enough by climbing out a hatch at the top of the lighthouse and working their way down the outside of the tower.
Heading back up the lighthouse track, I find the South West Coast path leading up and over the ridge to the other side of Start Point. From here, there is a very narrow path, leading downwards along the rocky coast.
I stop and look back, taking a few photographs of the lighthouse on its lonely point.
The cliffs in this area are made of red sandstone with a cover of green vegetation, and grey granite rocks below. It is a very appealing colour combination.
Every now and then, I come across coves and beaches, tucked away in the folds of the coast.
This is the first, little beach, unnamed on my map, but I think called Mattiscombe Beach. Completely unspoilt, there are no facilities and access is via 1/2 mile of steep path from the Start Point car park above.
A little further on I see a group of young people in bright yellow helmets and orange life jackets. They are clustered around a pool in the rocks. As I walk closer, I realise they are jumping in and out of water. It looks fun.
Further along, I come to Lannacombe Beach. There must be a track leading here, because there are a few cars parked and a couple of residential buildings. What a lovely place.
I come across a plaque on one of the rocks, explaining this is Woodcombe Point and the land was given in memory of a couple called Ernest and Dula Rose. Who they gave the land to, and who is responsible for it now, isn’t clear and I can find no reference to this on the Internet. Woodcombe Point is not even marked as such on my OS map.
The path is rather a scramble – winding up and down around large boulders, with loose stones underfoot in places. Very enjoyable. Slightly treacherous. And almost deserted. I am glad I have good walking boots and my poles.
After a mile or so of complete wilderness, I suddenly come across a grand house, set on lawns with woodland behind, close to the shore and overlooking the sea. As soon as I saw it, I thought ‘It’s Manderley!’
Manderley is, of course, the fictional house that forms the setting for Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier. Although I believe du Maurier had a rather grander mansion in mind – it is the setting of sloping lawns, the sea view, the lonely air, and the general remoteness of the location, that make me think of the novel.
Actually, according to my map, this is Maelcombe House. I wonder what it is used for – holiday lets? I see nobody around.
The footpath follows a wide, grassy walkway along a fence at the bottom of the garden. There is a short drop down to rocks and a tiny sandy beach. Below is a photograph of the view, looking westwards towards Langerstone Point.
I see other people out for a stroll the first walkers I have seen for a good half hour – and I realise I must be near the village of East Prawle. To get to the village, I have to leave the official South West Coast Path and trek a mile or so inland – this is what I call ‘wasted walking’, as it takes me no further along the coast. However, there is nowhere else to stop for lunch along this deserted stretch.
From here, I take a footpath inland, crossing through farmland. There is a harvester out in the cornfield and I love seeing the golden field with the blue sea and sky beyond. As I climb higher, I can look back along the way I have come this morning, although the Start Point lighthouse is hidden from view, behind the headland.
If you are ever walking up from Maelcombe House to East Prawle, I suggest you don’t take the footpath that, according to the OS map, takes the shortest route. This path cuts across a field, going up an incline that feels like a 1:2 gradient. Even on dry grass, with poles, it is very hard work! And at the top there is a steep climb over a high stone wall, from which the foot holds seem to have vanished.
I am exhausted by the time I reach East Prawle, where I am pleased to find the Pig’s Nose Inn – and my impatient husband waiting. It is nearly 3 o’clock and the pub stops serving lunch at 3pm. To beat the deadline, he has already bought me a ploughman’s lunch.
We discuss why it is that so many British pubs still operate cut-off times for lunch – even for food as simple to put together as a ploughman’s. And I thank him for his foresight in ordering the food.
While we eat, the sky clouds over. Maybe it will rain? I would like a longer rest, but I must get moving again. The next stretch of coastline is equally isolated and my husband is planning to meet me after a ferry crossing to Salcombe, where my walk today will end.
The next 3 hours is the best walk of my life!
I take the longer footpath down to the shoreline – not being able to face the steep field again. This is a lovely walk down a bridleway until I join the South West Coast Path again.
Across the bay, from Langerstone Point, I see Prawle Point with its rocky archway and lookout station above.
After Prawle Point lookout station, I see no other human habitation – or any other human being -for some miles. I feel quite isolated when I realise I have also lost my mobile signal.
It is a wonderful walk. The path runs high above the sea, up and down along rocky ledges, and across steep grassy slopes. The next rocky point I will come to is called Gammon Head.
I feel rather anxious – on my own, nobody around, mobile phone not working – what if I twist an ankle or take a tumble? Luckily the weather stays dry, although the sky is full of dark clouds.
I come across an unexpected waterfall.
I stop on a high stone outcrop on the top of Gammon Head to have a snack.
Later, I decide this is the best day of coast walking I have ever done.
My wonderful artist-in-residence, Tim Baynes, has captured the wildness of the scene in his painting below.
From Gammon Head I walk past Ham Stone and Pig’s Nose – there is a definite pig theme here, although the only animals I see are sheep. The path is very narrow in places, with a steep drop below. I watch the sheep, agile as mountain goats, leap up and down the slopes.
Rounding a headland, I see a beach ahead and, beyond, the mouth of the Kingsbridge Estuary. For the first time since the lookout post, I meet a group of walkers – a family – coming up the path towards me.
The beach ahead is the Gara Rock Beach. As I arrive, large drops of rain begin to fall. Young people, some carrying surf boards, begin to run up the steep path from the beach towards higher ground above. I check my map. There is a hotel marked on the map – The Gara Rock Hotel – it should be just above me at the top of the beach path.
I am tired and it is raining. I am worrying that I will be too late to catch the last ferry over to Salcombe and will end up stranded on this side of the estuary anyway.
Enough is enough. I decide to climb up to the hotel where I can stop and have a nice drink, and there will undoubtably be a mobile signal at the top so that I will be able to phone my husband and tell him I have cut my walk short.
It seems a very good plan
The path up to the hotel is really steep. Huge raindrops are falling around me. But after I finally get to the top, my heart sinks. The hotel is closed, covered in scaffolding and appears to be in the process of being renovated. There is no sign of a proper road or car park. The young surfers are hurrying away on foot along a track.
In any case, I still can’t get a mobile signal and my husband will still be expecting me to arrive in Salcombe.
I decide I have no choice but to carry on with my walk. And now I am cross with myself. I’ve wasted time – and effort – climbing this wretched hill, only to find there is no hotel and no phone signal.
Trying to look on the bright side – I note it has stopped raining.
The next few miles of the walk are punishing. I walk across common land, above the sea, and then through woodland along the estuary. I meet people out for short walks. I cross a lovely beach. I pass cars stuck in the sand. I don’t have time to enjoy it all. I hurry on. I worry about missing the last ferry.
I’m heading for East Portlemouth – a village so small it doesn’t appear to have a pub. I can see Salcombe, temptingly near, but on the other side of the estuary.
It is getting late. I keep checking for a mobile signal. There isn’t one. Then my phone battery dies.
And, finally, I come across a sign for the ferry. Great news and great relief. The last ferry is at 7pm. It is only 6:20 now.
There is a slipway leading down to the water and a motor boat on the other side of the estuary, heading my way – it must be the ferry.
I am the only passenger heading back to Salcombe. The ferry man, unusually, demands money before he will take me. Luckily I have some change.
And sitting on the far quayside, waiting patiently, is a man in a white t-shirt. My husband.
Miles walked: 11 miles.