We head off to Devon the day before my birthday. Herbert picks me up from work, Bert in the back of the car, and we drive to Winchester where we’ll stay with friends for the night.
The next morning, I realise that I am truly 38 when I volunteer to delay opening my presents until lunchtime. Instead, we set off early so that I can undertake my grudge match against Foreland Point, which defeated me on last month’s walk. Bert is following on later in our friends’ car. We are – unusually, deliciously – alone.
I would never have guessed that walking together would be one of the losses I’d tot up when Bert arrived, but it’s actually one of the most profound. I started walking with H when I was at university; we bought a book of pub walks and truly believed we’d earned a few pints after a 3 mile circular stroll. On our honeymoon, we got lost on Dartmoor with no map or compass when a thick fog descended. It was a formative experience. That same week, we noticed signs to the South West Coast Path while we were clambering down the rocky path at Gara Rock, and the obsession began. To this day, I remain in awe of a path that takes you somewhere so beautiful and difficult and remote. I’m amazed that it even exists.
We pass Minehead, where last month’s walk started, and soon we are driving through the distinctive Exmoor landscape of yellow gorse and purple heather. H suggests that we park in Countisbury, the other side of the headland that proved my nemesis last time.
‘No,’ I say, ‘I’m going to start where I gave up.’
‘But you walked the extra miles when you got lost. There’s no need.’
‘I don’t care.’
‘Well, we can’t park there. We’ll have to walk an extra mile just to get to the right place on the path.’
‘Fine by me. I’m not going to start skipping bits for the sake of fifteen minutes’ walking.’
Herbert is not a natural long-distance walker. His size 13 ½ feet are – in the words of the orthopaedic surgeon he saw after breaking a metatarsal – ‘constructed like flippers’ and ‘just within the range of normal.’ Apart from being hilarious phrases to periodically taunt him with, this means in practice that he gets awful blisters every time we walk. We park up, and he fusses with two pairs of socks and various tensions of lacing. I know he’ll stop in a few metres anyway to start the process all over again. Still, the sea is pale blue and spotted with the shadows of clouds, and the bracken is already turning the hills rusty. We set off.
First of all we zigzag down the road to the coast path (H stops twice), and then climb up onto the headland. I can’t remember how far I got before I turned round and gave up, but I can now see that I’d done the worst of it. I wish I’d had the faith to push on before, rather than doubting that I could cope. I could have at least reached Countisbury, and that would have felt like somewhere, instead of a roadside.
Up on the high moor, we pass a herd of Exmoor ponies grazing on the stiff grass, and step over shiny black beetles. The air is full of birds that I wish I could identify. It takes an hour and a half of moderate walking to reach Lynmouth – nothing, really, but too much last time, with all my energy spent. We sit in the garden of the Rock House Hotel and toast my birthday with pints of Tribute and a bag of crisps. Soon, Bert is running over the West Lyn footbridge to greet me, shouting ‘mummymummymummy!’ and everything is set straight again.
Tomorrow, I’ve got 14 miles planned with my dear friend Beccy; but I’ve got a night in a tent to endure before then. Granted, a very posh tent, but still. Nothing says ‘not quite where I hoped to be at 38’ like a night in a tent on your birthday.
(Part 2 tomorrow, in which I attempt 14 miles in one go…)