Beyond the old lookout tower of Hurlstone Point the footpath continues. This not the official South West Coast Path but, according to my map, the track should loop around the headland and re-join the SWCP on the other side of the peak.
The path is narrow – a ledge really – above a steep drop to the sea. There is a warning sign – Walkers are Advised to Take Precautions when Using Path in Adverse Weather Conditions. What type of precautions? What does that mean, exactly? Luckily the weather this afternoon is fine.
When I round the curve the landscape opens up, remote and rugged. This is more like it. After the agricultural scenery of Porlock Bay, I am suddenly in wild county with no sign of civilisation and nobody in sight.
The way forks. The left path heads down the slope towards the sea and disappears around the shoulder of a cliff. The other path leads upwards. Although the downward trail looks more tempting, my map doesn’t show a footpath going in that direction and I decide to take the uphill option.
The way is steep and the path zigzags. My boots slip on stones and I am glad of my poles. After a while, the path becomes narrow and so overgrown with heather and gorse that I decide I must be following a sheep track. I hope when I get to the crest of the slope I will be able to see the SWCP and head for it.
I come over the top of the rise and find myself looking down into Porlock Bay.
It is such a beautiful view. On the other side of the bay is Porlock Weir, and I can see the long stretch of wooded coastline where I walked yesterday in the rain. The far promontory must be Foreland Point, with Lynmouth hidden just beyond it.
Right below me is the narrow, sloping valley of Hurlstone Combe, with the wide track of the official coast path running along the bottom and rising slowly. I want to join it. But the slope I am standing on is far too steep to walk down and too overgrown with gorse to risk trying the alternative method of descent – a bum-slide.
My head spins with vertigo. I feel like I sometimes do when I’m skiing and find myself balancing on the side of a black slope, wondering what on earth I’m doing up here and wishing I was safe below. My sheep trail has become almost invisible, threading precariously between thorny bushes. I consider returning back along the way I have just come, but decide to walk a little further. I’ll turn back when the path disappears altogether.
The trail runs along the side of the slope, sticking close to the top of the ridge. Gradually it becomes wider, and I realise I am on a proper path after all. What a relief! I begin to relax and enjoy myself. The slope no longer seems so treacherous and I notice it is colourful with flowers.
I know the SWCP divides into two. One route is described as ‘rugged’ and snakes along the side of the cliffs close to the sea. This is the route I want to take. The alternative path takes a more inland course over the high ground of Selworthy Beacon.
In my relief at regaining the safety of the proper path, I forget to keep an eye on the map. And I see no signs that indicate a fork in the path. But, when I look over the fields and realise how far I am from the sea, I know I must have missed the turn.
The track is boring – too wide, too straight, and its small stones make for uncomfortable walking. The hedges on either side restrict the view. A monotonous plod.
I feel cheated and resentful and work myself into a bad mood. I am missing out on an exciting part of the South West Coast Path. Why weren’t there any signs? Why didn’t I check my map earlier? From a walking point of view, this is a boring motorway.
From time to time I catch glimpses of the alternative route. It really does look much more enticing than this one.
Between this path and the other one is a long tranche of farm land with no linking footpaths. In fact, every gate has signs warning that there is no way across. The National Trust appears to own all the surrounding land, but not this impeding farmland.
I take my bad mood out on the cattle I pass, pulling faces at them and giving them fierce predator stares, knowing I am safe because they are on the other side of the fence.
At least I make rapid progress along the motorway. And soon I come to the end of the restricted farmland. Now the ground widens out. I meet a man on a mountain bike and see many groups of walkers roaming across a network of footpaths.
I break away from the SWCP, and head straight towards the sea. On the top of a slope (an area that I think is called North Hill), I stop for lunch. The view is wonderful.
Rain clouds are hanging over the Bristol channel. They move very slowly because there is hardly any wind. At first I worry they are coming this way, but they are drifting in the direction of Wales. Good.
I am nearly at the end of the glorious South West Coast Path and determined to make the most of this final section. And so I can’t resist taking the ‘permissive footpath’ that leads down the hill. At the bottom is Burgundy Chapel (ruins of) and the sea.
The permissive footpath is overgrown with ferns and bushes. I can’t see far ahead. But I’m not worried, because permissive footpaths are usually well maintained and easy.
This one isn’t. It gets steeper and steeper. And narrower and narrower. I slip and slide. I expect to reach the bottom and see the chapel at any moment, but the path just seems to go on for ever.
After a while I know I can’t turn back. I am too tired to face the scramble up. I wonder how long it will take anyone to find me if I fall and break my leg. This path looks little used.
I come to a particularly tricky bit, a shady dip among the trees where the ground seems to be covered in loose slates and it is really hard to keep my footing. Here, unexpectedly, I meet an older man and woman. They ask if there is a good view further up the path. I say there is a wonderful view at the top, but it is very steep.
The man is worrying about getting back to their car before his 2 hour parking ticket runs out. Am I sure the path goes straight up? Oh, yes. It certainly goes straight up, I tell them, and I ask them if they’ve seen the chapel. No, they were hoping it was up there.
Despite my warnings, they head upwards. I keep going down, full of renewed confidence having met some fellow walkers. (Afterwards, I wonder if the scree of loose slates we were standing on were actually the remains of the chapel.)
I discover I am nearly at the bottom of the slope. The path widens and becomes a proper track through trees, with signposts. It’s such a relief to have survived the descent.
The path forks. Down I go. Must be nearly there.