I look back along the route I’ve just walked, back up the sandy banks of the River Taw, where a lone man is walking his dog. In the distance, around the bend of the river, is Barnstaple.
I end up bogged down in soft mud and pick my way, with care, back to the shore. The official South West Coast Path follows the edge of the dunes, before turning north and across the vegetated dunes of Braunton Burrows, towards Saunton. But I want to head out along the spit, to wherever the sand leads me.
There is a wrecked hull on this shore too. People are taking photographs of it. Looking at the sand piling up around it, I wonder how long it will take before it is completely buried.
Not all the boats are wrecks. There are some moored here that look as though they are in regular use. I wonder if the owners have to pay any fees to leave them here.
The yellow helicopter from Chivenor has been flying around. I have been aware of its distant buzzing for some time, but now it roars past, almost overhead. RAF rescue painted on the side. I wonder if they are out on a genuine rescue mission, or just patrolling the coast as part of a routine exercise.
I walk to the end of the spit, where there is a beacon light perched on a pile of rocks. Across the water is Instow and Appledore. Now, at last, I make sense of the map. This area is coloured yellow/orange, as a beach. I had mistakenly thought it would be submerged, but it is actually above the high tide line and forms a permanent curve of sand dunes, called ‘The Neck’. The tip, where the beacon sits, is Crow Point.
Less than half a mile of estuary separates Crow Point from the South West Coast Path on the other side of the estuary. I can clearly see the old jetty with the wrecked ship, where I walked yesterday. It looks deceptively near.
I remember walking around estuaries in Essex, and ending up only a few hundred yards from where I’d been standing many days previously. So much walking, so little progress.
Having reached the farthest southern point of Saunton Sands, I begin walking northwards, up the beach. The sunshine and nearby car park make this an attractive place for visitors, and I pass walkers and families out for a day on the beach.
I come to an area where wooden posts stick out of the sand and form lines marching down the beach. This must be all that remains of ‘The Groynes’, as marked on my map.
A young man has strung a tightrope across between several of the posts and is practising his wire walking. I watch him for a while. There are other people around, but nobody takes any notice. In America, I imagine he would have drawn a crowd. But this is England and we tend to ignore eccentric behaviour.
An off-shoot of the official South West Coast Path (SWCP) comes down to the beach at this point. But, looking at the dunes, I can see no evidence of well-worn path. In any case, I plan to walk to Saunton along the flat sands. A section farther north of here is marked in red as a ‘Danger Area’, but it is possible to pass below the high tide mark – and I see no signs of army activity today.
The beach stretches into the distance. Almost empty.
The shore curves gently, and it is some time before I see Saunton ahead. It looks a long way away. The sand is soft and unspoiled, rippled by the waves, and difficult to walk across because it is very soft in places.
I stay as far away from the dunes as I can and walk close to the sea. The waves are gentle and muffled by the soft sand. It is very quiet and my ears become tuned to the slightest noise. A thundering sound behind me makes me turn, only to see a small piece of dried seaweed tumbling along as the wind blows it across the ridges of sand.
It is a long way to Saunton. Three miles of walking across a flat surface, with only the occasional glimpse of people in the distance, make it difficult for my brain to get an idea of how far I have come and how far I have yet to go.
Finally I draw closer to Saunton. The long white building perched above the sea looks like a hotel. The insects on the beach turn out to be people.
To me, this section of the beach seems crowded, but in reality it is amazingly empty.
The sea is far out. A long walk across the sand. And with only the merest hint of waves. But it is marked as a surfing beach on my map and there are families heading out, optimistically, with their boards.
It is two hours since I set off from Crow Point and past 4pm. I am feeling hungry and thirsty and am disappointed to see no sign of a café on the beach. But a few yards up the road, and I find the ‘Sands on the Beach’ café. It is rather pricey, but the food is excellent and they don’t seem perturbed when I leave sandy footprints across their carpet. After a wonderful meal, I phone my husband to let him know I’ve reached Saunton, and head up the access road to meet the car.
As I climb up the road, I get a wonderful view of the Braunton Burrows. It is an immense area of vegetated dune, the largest in England. And I can trace the path of the official SWCP and see people walking along it.
Part of me always regrets the path not taken. I wonder what it would have been like to walk through the dunes. What weird plants and animals I might have seen. But I have experienced the most amazing few hours of beach walking, and I wouldn’t have wanted to miss that either.
There is a walker I know on twitter (@GaryHolpin) who walked the whole distance of the South West Coast Path, and then turned around and began walking it all again. I understand the urge to do that.
Miles walked today: 9 miles
Miles since walk began = 1,392