This post follows on from Days 11 & 12: Appledore to Clovelly – probably best to read it first
After a couple of days, my friend Beccy (who you have met before) joins me. I rush like a child to show her the vertebra I found earlier in the week, and she turns it in her archaeologist’s hands, declares, ‘Bovid, first cervical,’ and then sniffs it and says, authoritatively, ‘Bronze Age.’
‘How on earth did you smell the Bronze Age?’ I say.
An incredulous stare. ‘I didn’t. It’s come out of peat. That’s how I know it’s Bronze Age. Why else would it be brown?’
‘I don’t know. The sea?’
On balance, though, it’s a win; it may be cow rather than whale, but it’s old enough for people to be paid to reverently dig it up (although not Beccy; it’s pointlessly recent as far as she’s concerned).
I spread the map out over the floor of our holiday lodge and pretend to trace our route while I spill out my feelings: I’m failing, managing only 10 miles a day when I need to do 16; I’m never going to achieve anything like the mileage I hoped for, and I might as well give up; everyone’s running around after me; it’s financially ruinous; I’m selfish. All I ever wanted to do was walk the South Hams of Devon again, and I’m hundreds of miles away from it. I don’t want Cornwall. I don’t even like the idea of it. I’m sick of walking. It’s no fun.
I receive, in return, a stern talking-to. I am not engaging with the simple realities of the weather, nor of 20 minutes per mile + 5 per contour. ‘It’s winter,’ she says; ‘you need to make allowances. Nobody could go much faster than you’re managing.’ We sketch out a sensible itinerary from Clovelly to Hartland Point, and I grudgingly agree to give it another go.
We set off the next morning in Beccy’s little van, having brushed icicles off the car. Winding along the amusingly-named Atlantic Highway (which is definitely not the one namechecked by the B52s), we are assailed by sleet. ‘Oh god,’ I say, and make an early start on my emergency bag of M&Ms.
However, once we set off, blue skies break out, and we enjoy a level stroll through parkland and open fields. After a couple of hours, we glimpse the radar tower at Hartland Point, and by midday we’re sitting on a picnic bench in its shadow, eating our sandwiches.
‘What time’s our lift?’ I ask.
‘Five,’ says Beccy.
‘We’d better text H, then, and get him to pick us up somewhere else.’
We unfold the map, and estimate that it’s an hour or so to Hartland Quay, and so make plans to go past it to Welcombe Mouth. I marvel at Beccy’s ability to estimate distances so well, and I get the stare again.
‘I’m just using the grid. You…you do know that each square is a kilometre, don’t you?’
I have to confess I do not, but I thank her gratefully for the information, and then never hear the end of it. We set off again, entering a new landscape where waves crash onto dark rocks with unbelievable force, and the familiar patten of climbs and descents begins again. Except here, there are waterfalls to find at the high points, flooding down into the waves, and the valleys between them are lush and green, with trickling streams and concealed, higgedy cottages.
We begin to agree that the path is agonising in its commitment to clinging to the far reaches of the shore, but now it’s also breathtakingly beautiful, in a way that’s almost unfathomable. Beccy suggests that, when she dies, instead of a memorial bench, we should erect a bridge in her name that saves walkers some particularly brutal climb-and-descent.
‘Or,’ she says, ‘We could erect one of those benches and then ritually burn it, because they’re bloody useless.’
The walk to Hartland Quay takes three hours instead of one, but they were heart-stoppingly beautiful hours in which we repeatedly stopped to catch our breath and gaze at the land: high, exposed ridges; cathedrals of stone jutting out of the sea; valleys so calm as to be otherworldly. It helped, of course, that all of it was set against a periwinkle sky, and that I had great company. But it also reminded me what a privilege it is to be coming back again and again to struggle along this path. It’s extraordinary.
‘I ended up making the same mistake as you,’ says Beccy as we sit in the hotel bar at Hartland Quay. ‘I suddenly thought I could walk on forever.’
The next day starts greyer, and the weather grows steadily worse. The valleys become stranger and more beguiling, and the climbs steeper and more wild. We are followed wherever we go by ravens, warning us off their cliff-edge nests with low croaks, and we watch larks rising above the fields, letting out their strange, mechanical song. Really, a unicorn wouldn’t have surprised us.
The winds rise, blasting squall into our faces, and we stagger through it, past a cliff-fall so deep that some of the path has been lost.
‘This is awful,’ I say.
‘The problem with you is that you take the weather personally.’
It’s true, I do. But that doesn’t make it any less dreadful. Soon after, though, we cross a bridge and find ourselves in Cornwall, finally. I’ve walked the entire northern edge of Devon, and it feels incredible. I take a gurning selfie of myself in a hat I’ve borrowed from Beccy, and marvel at what a geek I look. I completed my first walk from Minehead to Porlock in lipstick; now, I am creating wind-blown evidence of myself in terrible headwear, and I don’t care.
Eventually, we stagger inland into Morwenstow, having taken all day to walk a paltry 7 miles. They were undeniably awe-inspiring miles, though, and even I would struggle to argue that I’d rather not have walked them. Besides, Morwenstow is full of snowdrops and wild garlic, and the churchyard has a celtic cross to admire, and a ship’s figurehead commemorating the lives of sailors who were wrecked on those extraordinary rocks. It feels only right to labour to get to a place like this.