This morning I decide to accomplish yesterday’s mission. I will climb to the top of Holdstone Hill. At 349 metres, it is the highest point around. And so I ask my husband to drop me off at the car park giving the nearest access to the summit.
The path is well-worn. There is a cairn and a trig point at the top.
I balance my camera on the trig stone and set it up for a self-portrait. But the pile of stones is too high and too unstable to risk scrambling up during the brief time-lapse allowed, and so I decide to take a photo of myself adding a rock to the cairn.
My resulting photo shows a Livingstone holding a stone on top of Holdstone Hill. (There is an amusing symmetry to this sentence.)
But this is something I rarely do – add a rock to a cairn. And I feel strangely reluctant, even though I know it will make a good photograph. In fact, I have to overcome a strong aversion before I do it. Why? (I ponder this question for much of the rest of the walk.)
From the top of the hill, another path snakes down through the bracken. I follow it and soon end up back on the South West Coast Path.
From the high ground, I get a hazy-blue view across the Bristol Channel, where large container ships can be seen gliding along. Yes, that is Wales on the other side of the water.
I walk through heathland and then along the edge of fields. Ahead my next way point is Heddon’s mouth.
It is an isolated area. There is a permissive footpath linking to the minor road inland and the path looks well-trodden, but I meet no other walkers for the next couple of miles. Only the sheep for company.
I note the names on my OS map. North Cleave, High Cliff, West and East Lymcove Beaches, Ramsey Beach. As I approach an area called East Cleave, I see other people walking. Here the SWCP divides into two. You can go straight over the hill on a grassy track, or take the rocky path around the edge of the cliff, close to the sea.
I choose the rocky route, of course.
On the way I meet a local man. He is sweating as he climbs the path towards me. He is big, burly, looks like a farmer, in his sixties. He is wearing ordinary clothes, a suit jacket flung over one shoulder, as if he was going for a stroll around a town. But his boots are robust and he carries a single walking stick.
We stop for a chat. He is local and often walks this way. He warns me that there is a steep scramble further along and looks disparagingly at my walking boots. “Not much ankle support there.” With this information I begin to worry, as I always do. Perhaps I should have kept to the easier path? But where would be the fun in that?
Further along and I meet an Australian couple, picnicking on a high rock overlooking the sea. They are from Australia, but live in Woolacombe, and regularly walk in this area. They tell me about their favourite routes. Then I remember I have walking to do, and I move on.
From here the path turns inland along the side of a river valley, and slopes down to where a bridge crosses the stream at the bottom. On the way down, I turn around and take a photo of the Australian couple. They are packing up their picnic.
Away from the sea breeze, and passing through trees and bushes, I begin to be pestered by flies. This time I am ready for them. I have insect spray in my rucksack. It makes everything stink but doesn’t seem to do much good. The flies follow me.
There is a difficult scree of slippery rocks to negotiate. My old farmer-walker was right. It is a scramble, but luckily the tricky bit is soon over.
And then I am down in the bottom of the valley and looking for the bridge. It is cool among the trees. I hear the sounds of running water and the shouts of excited children. Children? There must be a car park nearby.
A signpost directs me to Hunter’s Inn, where I know there is a pub, but I am meeting my husband further along the coast path at Lee Bay – and it is too early to stop for lunch.
I find the bridge, cross the stream and join a wide track heading back towards the sea. A group of very young children run past me along the path, shrieking. Stop, stop, their parents yell. But they take no notice and one has a tumble. The shrieks of joy turn to cries of pain.
Further along, the South West Coast Path leaves the track and I have a steep climb up the slope. From a high point – fittingly known as Highveer Point – I can look down onto Heddon’s Mouth and realise why the children were so excited. There are people on a small beach below. It’s rocky, but definitely a beach.
My path continues climbing, running due east along the slope of the cliff. There are other walkers ahead and behind. In the distance is a grassy plateau above Lee Bay and beyond are the high hills around Lynton.
Along here I meet my husband. He walked from The Valley of Rocks, near Lynton and we were supposed to meet at Lee Bay, but he gave up waiting and wonders why it took me so long to get here. I have no idea why I walk so slowly.
He has information. The good news is that The Valley of Rocks is wonderful. The bad news is that the café in Lee Bay is closed. Lee Abbey is a Christian community and it is Sunday! Luckily I have brought some snacks with me.
Around a corner and we come across a wonderful waterfall. It ends in a small stream that flows across the path. It is beautiful and cool and magical.
And, of course, I have to stop to take photographs, while my husband waits impatiently.
This is why I take so long to get anywhere! It’s not just that I walk slowly (although I do), but it’s because of all the lovely things I have to experience, look at and photograph.
I am growing tired now and we are both hungry. We are coming down through trees and into Woody Bay. Hubby assures me there is a bench ahead with a wonderful view. It will be the perfect place to stop for a snack lunch. Unfortunately, a couple are sitting on our bench and looking at our view. How dare they! We are still a hundred or so feet away and we stop and wait. Maybe the couple sense our malign glares, because after a few minutes they get up and walk away down the path.
My husband was right. It is a perfect bench and with a perfect view. Woody Bay is below us and we catch a glimpse of buildings in parkland. That must be Martinhoe Manor, while on the other side of the water we have a clear view of Lee Abbey.
After our snack lunch, we continue to the bottom of the slope where the path joins a track.
The area lives up to its name – Woody Bay – and is dense with trees. It is hard to tell exactly where we are, until we come to a signpost next to a dinky little house.
But, rather bizarrely, the signpost points to ‘New Zealand’ and ‘Iceland’.
Just then, a couple of gentlemen come down the path. One of them, it turns out, is from New Zealand. They are very tickled by the sign and stop for photographs.
Listening to their conversation, it sounds as if they have come from Lee Abbey and, finding the café shut, have walked onwards and are looking for a cup of tea. They are going to be disappointed. The nearest watering-place in that direction is Hunter’s Inn, some miles away.
Lee Abbey is set in a lovely position on a flat piece of open land with the sea below and hills above.
My husband is right. The café is shut. But there are public toilets, a car park and a small shop – which is open.
By this time my feet are very uncomfortable and I am struggling to stop myself limping. My newish boots fail to protect my toes when going downhill, I’m not sure why. After the long downward slope from Highveer Point, my feet – particularly the joints of my middle toes – are really, really painful.
There is nowhere to sit. I perch on concrete steps by the toilets and take off my boots, while hubby goes to buy me a diet coke. But it is a “fairtrade” shop and they don’t do diet drinks. Instead, they offer a weird can of cola, full of sugar but no caffeine. But it is lovely and cold. The sugar-hit seems to lift my spirits.
Luckily, the next section of path is uphill and my feet find this easier than going downhill.
Beyond Lee Abbey is a toll road, with an honesty box. And beyond a cattle grid is a shady area under trees and a flock of goats. They are lively and mischevious. Of course, I stop and take lots of photographs.
We are at the bottom of The Valley of Rocks. It is an amazing place and hard to capture with my camera. An open green valley, punctuated with towering clumps of rocks. Lovely.
The atmosphere is spoiled somewhat by the road that winds through the valley and the large car park at the top of the slope. There are people strolling about, more goats, and rock climbers.
My husband goes up the road to find his car, but I arrange to meet him later and continue my walk into Lynmouth.
This section of the coast path is covered in tarmac and designed for easy walking. It twists along the coast, on the seaward side of an impressive ridge of rocks. It should be a lovely walk, but it’s a popular area and, although not exactly crowded, I feel both resentment towards the many casual strollers and a sense of being cheated by the tameness of the path.
The views, however, are spectacular.
After about a mile, the path curves around the headland and enters a wood.
Here the track divides. The higher road leads to Lynton. The lower path is signposted to Lynmouth and I am relieved to see it is a proper footpath, narrow and winding down among the trees. No more tarmac. Deserted. I meet nobody.
The path ends in a steep scramble down onto a wide road. This provides both a promenade and an elongated car parking area on the western side of Lynmouth. People look a bit startled as I emerge from the bushes above them.
I walk along the road towards Lynmouth. The sun is low, the tide is out, and the village is mainly in shadow, so I can’t take any decent photographs of this pretty place. But I don’t mind because I will be back here tomorrow to resume my walk.
Miles walked = 10
Distance from beginning of my coastal walk= 1,430 miles
Additional Musings: I was surprised by my visceral aversion to the thought of placing a rock on the cairn at the top of Holdstone Hill, because I know many other walkers find this a very satisfying thing to do. I pondered my reaction during the rest of my walk and, in the end, I decided I have an attitude and an approach to the landscape that goes like this:
The shape of our landscape tells the story of our history. There are messages in the foldings of our hills and valleys, in the stretch of fields and forests, and in the etched clefts of rivers and streams. We can follow the footprints from ancient settlements, via ports and forts, across bridges and fords, along the connected weave of paths and droves and bridleways. And, we can trace the healing scars of industries long-dead, the disused quarries and old mines, the tumbled stones from kilns and chimneys. And so the saga of the land is recorded in the pattern made by every hill and cliff and curve of land. Each rock tells a story.
And from this attitude, comes an unwritten rule of walking lurking in my subconscious. The rule goes like this:
And so, when I travel onwards, everything I leave behind should remain exactly as I found it. Because moving a stone alters the landscape. It leaves a mark. It changes the place. And I – a mere observer and transient visitor – have no authority to rearrange the shape of history.
So, now I think I understand why I don’t like moving rocks about.
(I must make it clear that I think there is nothing wrong with adding a stone to a cairn. I am just explaining my own strange reluctance to do so.)