One Direction

Taking time out of work can fill your head with big ideas. For the most part this is exactly the kind of reason I am taking a short career break and it’s therefore an entirely good thing that I have decided to fulfil a modest ambition later this summer and walk one of the national trails. Of course having an idea and executing it are two different things – you have to actually make it happen.

My trail of choice is to be the Cleveland Way, for the following reasons:

  • The route takes in a variety of scenery with moorland and then coastal path
  • The North Yorkshire Moors ought to be at their colourful best with the heather in bloom
  • It is one of the shorter novice-friendly national trails covering 110 miles over moderate terrain

Logistically I know what I need to do in terms of planning the walk but there remains the thorny issue of fitness. An average of twelve miles a day holds no fear for me whatsoever. Twelve miles for 9 consecutive days while carrying a fully loaded rucksack takes me into territory I haven’t entered since 1984 when, as a fit 15 year old, I undertook an 10 day 100 mile walk in the foothills of the French alps. My 16 year old walking buddy Andy and I were gunning for our Explorer Belts and as we set out from our Venture Scout base in Grenoble we were about to learn a few lessons, including:

  • If you struggle to lift your rucksack it probably contains far, far, far too much crap for an 11 day walk
  • Blisters can kill a walk. Prepare for them if you want to keep moving
  • When planning a sub 3000ft walk remember French maps are metric – 6k in the midday sun isn’t any fun.

There’s a nostalgic blog in this one day but with these lessons at the back of my mind and the aches and pains of my increasingly fallible body at the fore I’m eager not to repeat any of these mistakes. What I need is a trial run to re-familiarise myself with the realities of linear walking…

Fast forward three decades and my re-education is about to begin with a two day 30ish mile trek from Exmoor to Croyde Bay, or in my fears some terminal strain near the start followed by a 29 mile taxi ride. With my rucksack (the one I used in 84) packed to roughly simulate the load of a 10 day walk I leave my car in Croyde and catch the 308 bus to Barnstaple, then the 310 bus to the quaint but tiny village of Parracombe within the boundaries of Exmoor.

No turning back...
No turning back…

I alight the bus at 9:25am. As it leaves it occurs to me that I really am going to have to walk back now. No problem. The sun is out and on a less purposeful day I would spend awhile poking around the three streets of this oh-so-sleepy village – the epitome of olde Devon where time runs as slow as clotted cream from an upturned scone.

Parracombe - still in sepia even today
Parracombe – still in sepia even today

As I climb the main road it’s a struggle to see how the bus morphed its way through the narrow street. I’m a man on a mission and while there is no rush as such I want to get on with it and arrive at tonight’s destination in time to enjoy an evening of sorts.

Leafy Heddon Valley footpath
Leafy Heddon Valley footpath

With only a couple of hundred yards on the clock a well-meaning elderly gentleman emerges from his garden to ask if I’m lost – probably less because I look lost but more a question of why I would be at this remote place. Then fifty yards later an enthusiastic collie dog attempts to round me up before an accompanying farmhand persuades the fellow that I’m not a sheep. Once disengaged the footpath leads me over fields that descend into the lusciously leafy Heddon Valley where the forested riverside path affords cool protection from the suns early rays.

Cottage near Heddon Mill
Cottage near Heddon Mill

The odd cottage materialises from nowhere and I wonder what life is like for the lucky occupants. Do they know or care about the pressures of modern urban life? As if to accentuate the placid stillness of the valley a heron floats gracefully over the trees. The trail crosses a wooden bridge and onto some old farming track now carpeted in green through years of disuse. A shadow breaks the skyline and I look up just in time to catch the extensive outline of a buzzard drifting on the wind, eye’s focussed no doubt on some unsuspecting prey. Not me I hope.

Green carpet
Green carpet

The path emerges near Hunters Inn and with a few miles on the clock I take a quick break to assess the state of play. My rucksack is pulling to one side so a few strap adjustments are needed. A couple of items are badly stowed for access and weight distribution so I move them. I’m learning.

Climb to the coast
Climb to the coast

So far the route has been gentle, soft, kind. It had to end and what a sobering way to end. A relentlessly long and steep ascent north out of the valley exposed to the full heat of late morning. That woke me up. Another lesson – when carrying a full load you need to take small steps on steep ascents in order to retain stability and reduce leg/back strain.

Magnificent views! Of Port Talbot...
Magnificent views! Of Port Talbot…

Now I’m where I want to be – on the South West coastal path with the views I have been eagerly anticipating. The southern coastline of Wales dominates the horizon 25 miles over the Bristol Channel. Through my binoculars the industrial mass of Port Talbot pierces the haze, so I hastily put them away. I’m really enjoying the walk and no parts of me have fallen off yet which has to be good news. The path west of here is well worn and mercifully gradual. Until the approaches to Great Hangman, site of the highest cliff in Southern Britain…

Gre_t H_ngm_n
Gre_t H_ngm_n

My O/S Explorer map has readied me for a severe descent/ascent but you don’t walk on paper. Like many walkers I prefer uphill to down and the steep drop tests my football-weathered knees as they contend with the weight on my back. Tiny steps. The climb back up is steep and hard going but it’s not a race and I know my Cleveland Walk legs will be under no pressure of time. By now I’m soaking wet due to the exertion and regretting the fact I forgot to pack my sunglasses.

Route to Little Hangman. Surely he would be useless at his job.
Route to Little Hangman. Surely he would be useless at his job.

There’s a more gradual descent and then a climb to the charmingly named Little Hangman and a welcome set of erosion-formed footholds to walk in. The English countryside is rife with odd and quirky place names and North Devon especially so. I love maps and from time to time I stop to take a breather and look out for place names that amuse me. That’s how I roll.

Atop Little Hangman
Atop Little Hangman

There are surprisingly few walkers out today so when one or two start to materialise I know civilisation must be nearby. The drop into Combe Martin is most welcome as my feet are very hot and sore now. Lunch fittingly is a pasty and I take a while to soak my feet in an icy rock pool, assess their state of health and apply various creams.

Pack o' Cards public house built around 1700 by George Ley. Reputed to have been funded by his gambling successes, it originally had 52 windows, 13 rooms and four floors
Combe Martin’s Pack o’ Cards pub originally had 52 windows, 13 rooms and 4 floors

Rejuvenated but with some reluctance I haul myself back up and leave the bay behind along with its bathers, surfers and rock-pool tinkers. I am no longer in Exmoor and the coastal path follows a lower trajectory now, albeit still steep in places. One of the benefits of walking a major route like the SW Coast Path is the superior signage that minimises the need for map and compass.

Fortunately it is low tide
Fortunately it is low tide

At Water Mouth the low tide enables me to take a shortcut through the boat yard and I grab the opportunity for a mid afternoon breather as I’m doing well for time.

Sitting in the dock of the bay
Sitting in the dock of the bay

As I leave the bay and look back the extent of tidal range is striking and I can only conclude that the moon has an unusually close relationship with North Devon – a theory backed up in other ways I might add…

Water Mouth Bay
Watermouth Bay

The path takes in a number of isolated rocky inlets and this walk is providing plenty of visual variety, not to mention excuses for breaks

On the rocks again
On the rocks again

I’m glad of this stimulus plus the distraction of music as it takes my attention away from my increasingly sore feet.

Playing music to drown out my feet
Playing music to drown out my complaining feet

As the evening stop-over of Ilfracombe draws near the phone signal re-surfaces enabling me to catch up with the sporting attractions of the Saturday football programme plus the action from Durham in the 4th cricket test match. It has been raining at the other end of the country in stark contrast to the unbroken sunshine here and it seems I strange to think that I was walking 600 miles north of here but a week ago.

Check-in to the Ocean Backpackers hostel is shortly followed by the most welcome shower in living memory. Time for a health check:

  • Feet: sore, mild blisters, generally unhappy with their treatment
  • Back: oddly fine despite recent chiropractic attentions
  • Legs: glowing healthily

It is only as I head out for the evening that I realise my left leg no longer bends beyond 15 degrees. For some reason I find this unaccountably funny and pedestrians on Fore Street at around 7pm on Saturday 10th August will have seen a laughing limping loon oblivious to the world. Sorry.

The evening? So-so tapas, a nice ale in the renown Ship & Pilot real ale house and a surreal end to the evening chatting to a smorgasbord of larger-than-life locals in the rain after a small time basement gig. Best of all my left now leg bends again which I put down to the medicinal effects of beer. Seventeen miles on the clock. A functioning body. A successful day.

Sunday morning and all is not well. A drunken oaf in my dorm piled in late, turned the light on and then proceeded to snore like a rhino keeping everyone awake. At 3am I slunk down to the lounge and managed a few hours sleep on the sofa. I look and feel like a tramp this morning but the show must go on. A quick check on the hostel rabbits (Mrs Rabbit is due to give birth but has not done so overnight) and off I go again up the next hill.

Off again
Off again

I don’t get far before I realise my feet are also not happy bunnies. Despite my attentions yesterday’s sore spots are rubbing and in a fit of desperation I bind the areas in micro-pore tape. Contrary to expectations this seems to work and without undue friction the discomfort is manageable. The walk today is shorter weighing in at around 13 miles and this is the day I’m expecting to learn more about my state of fitness. Of course I’ve some stiffness and there is less in my legs than yesterday but once I’m under way I’m able to keep moving, albeit at a slower pace than yesterday.

Day two is perhaps less varied than day one but more isolated bays pop up demanding some exploration…

The crabs commute here at high tide
The crabs commute here at high tide

At Bull Point there’s a lighthouse that I was looking forward to seeing but which underwhelms me when I get there. Where is the tower? Where are the red and white stripes?

Less lighthouse, more candle holder
Less lighthouse, more candle holder

Over the years many vessels have been lured onto the rocks on this stretch of coastline and signage says there are several rusty skeletal hulls to be spotted beached at low tide. I don’t see them. Nor do I spot the seals and dolphins that are allegedly visitors to the area. On a positive note I also steer clear of the adders that crawl the long grass around the headland.

If bitten contact the Vet. Stuff the snake - what about me?!
If bitten contact the Vet. Stuff the snake – what about me?!

The little village of Mortehoe pleases me with its quaint pubs and cream tea garden. Most of all I’m excited by this…

I'll have an eel cone topped with fish roe please
I’ll have an eel cone topped with fish roe please

I resolve to return to the accompanying seafood eatery with it’s self-assembly seafood platters (I phoned later to book a table but business was temporarily closed due to family issues – doh!). There’s an old church here and I gaze up at the war memorial with the thought that this particular view hasn’t changed in 60+ years

Mortehoe war memorial has Grade II listed status
Mortehoe war memorial has Grade II listed status

Mentally I feel like I’m almost home now because the remaining 4 miles are pretty much flat seeing as they mostly follow the expansive sand-dunes of Woolacombe. In reality the walking here is tough owing to the problem that on dry sand you expend half of your energy into just shifting it around. I complete the final stretch down on the firm wet sand of the vast beach. It’s quiet here with few holiday makers and just the distant outline of surfer dudes at the far end of the bay. Woolacombe has been rated 2nd best place to surf in the country. Another time, another blog?

When the tide is out surfers need to be walkers
When the tide is out surfers need to be walkers

I traverse the headland towards Croyde Bay and take a single track farm road that will lead directly to my car. I’m feeling drained now and exposure to the sun has left me desperate for a shower again. Fifty yards from my car – yes fifty yards after the previous 30 miles – and I’m almost stumped. The farm track is flooded. A temporary sign says it is knee deep and not to pass, but the alternative is a 1 mile detour. I can almost see my car! An awkward shuffle along the side of the lane – I’m going to do this. Rocks kicked from the verge into the pool for temporary footage. A teeter. A hop. A splash of wet ankles but I’m through dammit!

Walk completed I check into my Croyde B&B. God knows what landlady Gizzy thought as I turned up looking and no doubt smelling like some bleary eyed hedge dwelling tramp. For the second day running I enjoy my most welcome shower in living memory.

Fast forward a few hours and a couple of cooling beers. What can I take from the last two days?

  • Pack as little as you can get away with. Then unpack and remove even more stuff. Lightness is everything
  • Prepare for blisters and treat them before they become an issue

This is merely confirmation of the lessons from my 84 expedition, and since the highest point in the North Yorkshire Moors is 1490 ft altitude won’t be an issue of alpine proportion. So have I taken anything new out the last 2 days? Actually I feel I have reconnected with this style of walking…

If you enjoy walking then the North Devon coastal path and Exmoor will reward your efforts tenfold. And that’s the point of walking – that for all of the hills and hardships, for all of the aches and blisters you might suffer these are but minor annoyances when set against the views, the wildlife, the people, the pleasant surprises and the sheer physical and mental payback you will enjoy for your outlay of time and effort.

Roll on Cleveland Way…

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