The valley of Marsland Mouth is remote and beautiful, with little tumbling waterfalls among green slopes. But the low sun creates problems with shadows and I am unable to take a decent photograph. Shame.
At 12:40pm, I cross the footbridge over the pretty stream and pass into Devon.
The climb up the far slope of the valley is as hard as I feared.
Halfway up I come across a little stone building. Another hut? It’s the second one today. This one has large windows with glass and I assume it is a private summer-house.
What a wonderful place to sit. The views are gorgeous.
Then I notice the door is open. So I go inside. Well, wouldn’t you?
And here is a little desk in front of large windows. And notepaper, pens, water, glasses. It looks like a study. Somewhere a poet might work. A modern “Hawker’s Hut”.
And then I discover it is a poet’s hut.
After Ronald died in 1982, the hut was restored by his daughter, the sculptor Briony Lawson, with the help of a local man, Tim Neville.
They leave it open for walkers to use and even provide bottles of water. (There is no supply of drinking water for miles along this difficult section of coast.) This is such a lovely and generous gesture, I want to find Briony and hug her.
The last entry was by someone who signs himself “Papa Ferret” and who passed through at 5:50am this morning.
Hang on. Let me read that again. He set off from Bude at 1am. In the middle of the night! Why? And how could it only take 4 hours to get here from Bude? And in the dark?
[Later I find Papa Ferret on the Internet. He is an endurance runner. Must have had a head torch.]
I get to the top of the hill and almost immediately I face another plunge down, into another river valley. This is Welcombe Mouth, and I think it is even more beautiful than Marsland, but somewhat spoiled by having road access and a car park.
The climb up the other side looks even worse than the one I’ve just done. And my right knee is giving me some serious pain whenever I go downhill.
Looking across the valley, on the far hillside, I can see two walkers making their way down. They look like tiny ants. But I can see they have poles and a dog with them. The first proper walkers I have seen all day.
Later, as I get close down to the bottom of the valley, I meet the walkers coming up towards me. A man and a woman. They tell me they set off from Hartland Quay two hours ago, and are heading for Morwenstow. But this walk is easier than they expected and now they think they might carry on all the way to Bude.
I tell them the next stretch is tough, privately thinking they are unlikely to get to Bude before nightfall, even if they walk at twice my pace. Less than 4 hours of daylight left.
Down by the shore, I stop to admire the beach. It’s not really somewhere you would want to go swimming. But the rocks are very dramatic.
The stream tumbles down in a waterfall to the beach. There are artificial stepping-stones to help me get across the running water. A couple of young children are jumping over the stones, with an excited dog who keeps falling in.
I stop and watch the children playing and the water flowing, until I realise I have spent 20 minutes down here. It is nearly 1:30pm and I really need to get on with my walk. I have been, of course, putting off the climb out of the valley.
The slope is tough. Luckily my right knee, which gave me so much trouble on the way down, doesn’t seem to mind going uphill. Near the top I pass a young man coming down. He has a pony tail, a rucksack and poles. Another proper walker.
The hill just keeps on going. Even when I get to the crest, I am not at the top. The incline is less steep but it continues, relentlessly, all the way up Knap head.
There are great views. I take a photograph of cliffs where the land has slipped to expose russet-coloured soil. Looking over Gull Rock (another Gull Rock!), I can see a white building in the distance, low down, just above the sea. Is that my destination, Hartland Quay? It is the only visible building on the coast. I think it must be.
From Knap head, the path continues upwards to Embury Beacon, the site of an old Iron Age fort. 150 metres above sea level. I climb over its grassy ramparts to enjoy the view, not realising what they are.
My knee has settled down and I walk in a steady rhythm along a flattish section of path along the top of cliffs. Fields to my right. The sea to my left. I pass around the edge of Broadbench Cove and reach Nabor Point above Gull Rock. The path joins a road for half a mile. I don’t like walking along roads but I meet no traffic – not a single car – until the path branches off to the left, across fields.
Now I am back on cliff tops, high above the sea, walking along the edge of agricultural land. Lundy Island for company.
It is just past 3:00pm. After the ups and downs of this morning I find this section of the walk is somewhat boring in comparison. I remember the couple I have just met and their plan to go on to Bude, understanding how they might have miscalculated the difficulty ahead because of their easy progress along this path.
Somewhere above Gunpath Rock, I come across a bench – a rare sight on this part of the coast. I stop to read the inscription on its plaque, and so I discover that the bench was built from timbers reclaimed from the wreck of the Green Ranger, which came to grief on the rocks below.
I peer over the edge of the cliff. The rocks here, like all those along this section of coast, form a series of jagged ridges thrusting out into the sea.
At first I don’t see any signs of wreckage. Then I spot some pieces of metal, hard to distinguish because they are the same colour as the rocks. You can see them on the far right of the photo below.
It is 3:30pm. I am on Milford Common and approaching Swansford Hill, when I see cows ahead. Cows with calves. Oh dear.
There is no way around. The route of the South West Coast Path crosses the field.
On a gate leading into a neighbouring field, there is another even more ominous sign.
Bull. Keep out.
Climbing over the stile, keeping my head down and swinging my poles like a mad woman, I walk between the cows. They leave me alone.
I ignore the footpath sign that offers me another route through the bottom of the valley. And I leave the official South West Coast Path, which seems infested with cattle, keeping closer to the coast and climbing to the top of Swansford Hill.
My reward is a series of wonderful views. The landscape is golden in the low sunlight. There is a mysterious pyramidal hill ahead. I can see the path winding around the side of the slope and I realise the white building peeking over the edge must be Hartland Quay. I am nearly there.
This is possibly the best bit of today’s walk, only slightly spoilt by a couple of strollers emerging from between some gorse bushes and walking down the path ahead of me. They are wearing sandals and the woman is wearing a skirt, which makes me look both overdressed and somewhat ridiculous. And my knee begins hurting again as I head downhill.
The ground flattens out at a valley formed by another stream. This is Speke’s Mill Mouth. There must be a car park nearby because quite a few people are walking around in the valley.
The stream empties into the sea via a waterfall. I am unable to see the falls, but I hear the noise and take a photo of the pool above. [Later I learn that Speke’s Mill Waterfall is truly impressive and drops over 50 feet in a series of cascades. I couldn’t see any of this from the top.]
My map shows the SW Coast Path crossing over just above the pool. But the bridge is ruined and the water looks too fast-flowing to risk wading across. The annoying couple are already on the other side, but I didn’t see how they got there. I walk back up the bank, making my way with difficulty through dense shrubs and gorse bushes, until I find another bridge.
The weird pyramid is drawing closer. I check my map. It’s called St Catherine’s Tor and rises 80 metres high above sea level. Although it looks manmade, it seems to be a genuinely natural feature of the landscape. Spooky.
From the base of the Tor it takes me some time to find the path again. For some reason, I thought it would go straight up the hill, when I should have remembered I saw it winding around the edge of the coast. (It is 4:30 pm and I am both tired and hungry.) There is another steam to cross.
Although I missed seeing the Speke’s Mill waterfall, I do get a good view of the waterfall on the other side of St Catherine’s Tor.
The sun is very low in the southwest. I manage to take a reasonable photo, despite the difficult lighting conditions.
I follow the path as it rises gently around the headland. A the top I find myself looking down on a car park above Hartland Quay. My husband is waiting for me.
The last few steps of any walk are always the most difficult, and my right knee is protesting painfully as I come down the final slope. Despite this, I manage a cheerful smile.
I see the pony-tailed walker, the same one I met earlier. He must have returned by an inland route from Welcombe Mouth.
The sun is very low and I look back along the cliffs and see all those fingers of rock: Longpeak, Gunpath, Gull Rock, Knaps Longpeak, Gull Rock again…
No wonder this section of coast is famous for its shipwrecks.
Walking to the other side of Hartland Quay, I find no quayside, just a lovely bay. I take a photo of the walk ahead. More dramatic cliffs, glowing in the setting sun.
We eat a very late lunch in the Wreckers Retreat Bar at the Hartland Quay Hotel.
Walked today = 9 miles
Total distance since beginning of my trek = 1,336 miles
Vertical distance climbed since Bude = 4,300 feet