I arrive in Aveton Gifford to resume my walk and realise it is high tide. Although the village is three miles from the sea, the river Avon runs close by and, at high tide, the little road that runs down the west side of the river becomes flooded. This morning, sure enough, the road is impassable.
By walking along a grassy bank, I find a way round to the other side of the flooded area, but before I can congratulate myself on finding a way around the water, I realise the stretch of road ahead is also flooded. If it wasn’t for a line of wooden poles marking where the road runs, it would be impossible to tell that there was a road here.
This time there is no easy way around.
A footpath sign gives me hope. According to my map, there is a footpath leading up to a tiny village called Waterhead and from there I can walk on higher ground until I reach the coast.
I walk across a squelchy water meadow. The grass is springy and I realise I am walking on a mattress of grass, floating on several inches – or more – of water. If I stop still for too long, I begin to sink. I know my shoes are waterproof, after my experience of wading through water on my previous walk. If I sink below my laces, however, the water must surely pour into my boots over the top of my flaps. To avoid sinking, I walk quickly, taking long loping strides. Pleased that I am making progress, I splash on with confidence.
But what’s this? The path disappears, dipping under the surface of a brown lake of water, and emerging on the other side.
This water is definitely too deep to wade across with my shoes on. I am defeated. I turn round and, retracing my footprints in the soggy grass, I head back to where I started – the car park by the pub in Aveton Gifford. There is nothing else to do, I have to walk along the main road.
I head northwards along the A381 and find a footpath running high on a bank on the right hand side of the road. This is much better than walking along the busy road. After a short distance, I leave the footpath and head down a narrow country lane, towards Waterhead.
At one point I could take a ‘shortcut’ down a farm track, at the end of which a public bridleway would take me back to a road, cutting out a mile or more of road walking. But what if the bridleway is impassable due to mud? I decide not to risk adding wasted miles to my already extended walk. Later, when I walk past the far end of the bridleway, I see the surface looks firm and stony. I could have taken the short cut after all.
I walk through the small village of Bigbury and head along the road towards Bigbury-on-Sea, where the River Avon empties into Bigbury Bay. According to my map, there is a wide, sandy beach at Bigbury-on-Sea, with Burgh Island lying just off shore and connected to the mainland by a strip of sand and shingle.
When I walked along the other side of the mouth of the river Avon, I had seen Burgh Island as a vague shape in the mist. The weather is better today and I am looking forward to getting a clear view of it. In the meantime, I keep walking along the seemingly endless road.
Coming over a crest of a hill, I am rewarded with this lovely sight ahead: blue sea, clear sky with some puffy fair-weather clouds near the horizon, and the sunlit mound of Burgh Island.
In the summer I imagine the area is popular with tourists – but it seems pretty deserted on this November day. I walk past a near-empty car park, with a hopeful sign proclaiming ‘economy’ parking at £1 for a day and an honesty box.
I head down to the beach and walk along by the sea, clambering over rocks and slipping on seaweed, glad to be off the road, away from the river, and back on the coast again. This is more like it.
I had checked on the Internet and there is a cafe at Bigbury-on-Sea, open all year round. I had come across a Venus Cafe before, at the end of a previous walk when I arrived at Blackpool Sands. I am going to have lunch here.
I walk in through a door and find I have stumbled, inadvertently, into the cafe’s kitchen. There is no inside eating area. Only outside benches. Ah well, at least the sun is shining. I order a hot Devon pasty (very nice) and a cup of tea. There is a cold-looking family sitting outside eating chips, an elderly couple with a dog, and a young trendy couple (she is wearing high heels and faux fur) who turn their noses up at the various pasties, chips, sandwiches, burgers and other tempting lunches being offered. I don’t know what they were expecting, but not this, obviously.
As I eat my excellent lunch, I look over the bay and see Bantham Beach. On this sunlit day, there are kite surfers out on the rolling breakers. Last time I was there, on my walk from Hope Cove to Aveton Gifford, the beach was misty and deserted except for some hardened dog walkers. I wonder if I could come back and do that particular walk again? It would be a spectacular walk in the sunshine.
After lunch, I head down to the beach. If it hadn’t been for my detour, I would have walked around Burgh Island itself. But walking time is short in November and daylight will be fading in 3 hours time. I must press on. Interestingly, I see no evidence that Burgh Island becomes cut off at high tide, as I thought it did, because the connecting sand looks dry. Down near the sea, the sand on the beach is amazingly soft. My shoes sink right in. Walking is hard work.
Unfortunately, I can’t continue my walk along the beach. I take to the road and follow a path that leads over a low cliff area (Warren Point on my map) and down into the neighbouring bay of Challaborough. This bay has a gorgeous horseshoe-shaped cove with another lovely sandy beach and long, rolling breakers.
Unfortunately, Challaborough itself is not very interesting and gives the impression it consists mainly of holiday camp accommodation. I walk quickly on, picking up my pace.
The next part of my walk is along the South West Coast Path and is truly wonderful. It makes up for all the slog of road walking. The path does, however, follow a roller coaster type route and it is fairly challenging. I worry constantly about the time.
After Challaborough, I walk up to a high area – called Toby’s point – and then a steep descent down a grassy slope takes me into the beautiful, and deserted, Aymer Cove.
A footpath runs from Aymer Cove up to Ringmore village. This is my last chance to leave the coastal path. After this point, I must continue all the way to Wonwell beach and Kingston village beyond, where I am supposed to meet my husband. It is only 4 miles. On the flat, that would take me just under 2 hours. But it is not flat. And the time is now 3pm.
I decide to phone my husband and ask him to meet me in Ringmore. But I can’t get a signal. I take out my trusty piece of measuring string and my map. I measure my route again, check my watch, do my calculations. Two hours of daylight left. Four miles of up and down walking. No mobile signal. I am wasting time. I have little choice. I carry on.
The next little beach is called Westcombe Beach. The sand here is grey. The rocks are jagged. The walk up the other side looks terrifyingly steep and the path zigzags like a sheep track. There is nobody about.
The climb up the other side of the bay is, indeed, very steep. I can’t afford to stop for rests and am glad there is nobody on the path to hear me puffing and panting. The view from the top is wonderful. I can see all the way back to Burgh Island and the undulating route that brought me here. I have made good progress in the hour and a quarter since I was down in Bigbury-on-Sea.
It is 3:30 pm. I have 90 minutes of daylight left. The light is in my eyes and I don’t have time to stop to admire any more views. With relief, I get to Beacon Point, round the corner of the headland, and can see the easy grassy path stretching ahead. This will lead me to the mouth of the River Erme and Wonwell Beach. And it is downhill from now on. My hip is hurting.
When I reach the mouth of the Erme, the sun is very low and the sands and water are lit up with the rosy glow of sunset. It is beautiful. I stop and take photographs.
From Wonwell Beach, there is a track leading up to the village of Kingston. At least, there is according to my map. But I never find this track. Instead, I arrive at the point where the South West Coast Path crosses the mouth of the river. At low tide you can ford the river at this point, wading across. The alternative is a 6 mile detour up the river to the nearest public bridge.
The tide is very low. I can see people on the sand on both sides of the wading area. It looks moderately tempting. But nobody is crossing and I realise the water will be very cold and, with the recent heavy rainfall in Devon, the river might be running higher than normal. In any case, I have arranged to meet my husband on this side of the water. I still have no mobile signal and can’t make alternative arrangements.
I take a photo of the opposite bank, in the light of the setting sun. So near and yet so far.
There is another mile and a half of road walking before I get to Kingston and to the pub where I am meeting my husband. I see signs for a footpath, leading through woods, taking a short-cut to Kingston. I start along the path but, as soon as I get among the trees, I realise it is very dark. In the fading light I risk getting lost or, even worse, tripping over and twisting an ankle.
I turn back and follow the road to Kingston. The sun has set by the time I get there. It is dark and cold. The pub is closed. But my husband is waiting for me, with the car, and I am pleased this walk is over. It has been wonderful – but very tiring – and my constant worry about being caught in the dark has made the last few miles rather stressful.
Miles walked = 12
High points = Burgh Island in the sunlight and the lovely walk along the coast.
Low points = inland detours and road walking and constant worry about the fading light.