After my first day of walking, I do not choose to go to sleep; rather, sleep singles me out for some special attention at 9pm.
Except that, just as I’m drifting off, I’m woken up by the jangling of my own sore limbs, which then conspire to ache for most of the night. I solemnly promise to take two ibuprofen before I get into bed tomorrow night, but this does little to appease the gods of inflamed tendons and lactic acid. When Bert wakes us up at 7am by falling heavily out of bed, I discover that I’m so stiff I can barely stand. I hobble back to bed and watch Ben and Holly until the hotel starts to serve breakfast.
The weather is not looking good, and I have 12 miles planned today: a neat 6 in the morning, a long lunch, and then a triumphant romp to Lynmouth in the afternoon. That’s how it seemed on paper, anyway. H drives me back to Porlock Weir, and we make arrangements to meet up at a walkers’ car park on Exmoor, around 12pm.
I feel a little lonelier today. It’s colder and greyer, and my feet are sore. H was playing Marlene Shaw in the car as he dropped me off, and the air seems pale without her. Still, I’m surprised how well my legs warm up for the trudge uphill to Culbone, past a gated toll road and a tiny, remote church. I pass into woodland, where a sign reminds me of the dangers of Lyme Disease, and I make a note of how to remove a tick, should I have the misfortune to acquire one.
It’s all going rather well; I even have no problem identifying the short path up to the main road where H will be waiting for me. I’m worried I will be early. But then, the short path reveals itself to be a steep, zigzagging track that takes me the best part of an hour to climb. Ten minutes in, it begins to rain, harder and harder until I have to stop to put on my pack-a-mac. I start to climb again, leaning into the slope, panting hard. Rain and sweat are dripping off my face. At that point, I realise that I am muttering to myself, cursing the world under my breath.
Perhaps I’m hungry, I think, and haul a cereal bar out of my backpack, choking it down as I continue up the path. By the time I reach H, I am capable of no more than a zombie stagger. I lurch into the car and groan. Bert is asleep in the back. The windows are steamed up. ‘Not great?’ say H. ‘Fucking awful,’ I say. We find a pub for our lunch, but I’ve got no appetite. I’m just cold and tired. It’s still pouring down outside. We pay up and get back in the car. Bert, having sampled the delights of the West Somerset Steam Railway that morning, is now petitioning for Crazy Golf. H drives me back to the car park where he picked me up, and says, ‘Chin up. Just keep the sea to your right and you can’t go wrong.’
It takes me a dispiriting half-hour to get back onto the SW Coast Path, and I need a break nearly as soon as I’ve found it again. I cross over a gushing combe, swollen by the rain, and then sit on a wet log beside some steps and drink all the tea in my flask. As an afterthought, I decide to indulge in my favourite woodland pastime of taking a Nature Wee, making my own little combe down the drenched steps. Then, I stand up, and immediately slip over in my own piss. I stay on the ground for a few moments, examining the grazed palms of my hands, but nothing is really amiss. Back on my feet, I begin to tread gingerly over the sodden path, which is now only a foot wide, with a vertiginous drop to my right. I’ve already proven myself unsteady; I begin to feel genuinely at risk. I cross over five more combes, and a little ritual seems to introduce itself, whereby I have to dip my hand into each stream I cross and anoint my forehead with the water. I feel as though I must pay my respects to the rivers for my safe passage. The backs of my knees begin to ache with the stress of bracing myself to stay on the path. I text H to tell him to meet me at Countisbury instead of Lynmouth; it’s a couple of miles closer, maybe less than that. I can catch up tomorrow. I’m at the bottom of my resources here. Checking my map, I find I’ve reached Desolation Point, close to a hamlet that is simply called ‘Desolate’. I allow myself a grim laugh.
H doesn’t reply to my text. After half an hour, I call him and leave a voicemail. By then, I have reached the start of Foreland Point, which juts out into Lynmouth Bay. I walk on down a steep, tarmac road, hoping he will get back to me. He doesn’t. When I reach the end of the Foreland, having missed my path by half a mile, I lose my temper entirely and fire off a text which I can only be grateful that my phone failed to send. I turn back and start to climb the hill again. It’s getting dark, and I had arranged to be in Lynmouth by now. It is only once I have climbed the best part of 400 feet onto the top of the headland that my phone rings, and I get a panicked H on the end of the line.
‘You are not my favourite person,’ I say.
He’s been trying to get a signal for hours. I attempt to explain where I am over a crackly line, and then walk back onto the tarmac road, where I sit on my backpack and wait. It is only then that I check my map and realise that I had only been ten minutes from Countisbury, and also that I have probably added an extra two miles to my route through wrong turns and that stupid deviation for lunch.
I expect to be angry with H when he arrives, but even as I hear the diesel chug of our Skoda rounding the bend at the top of the hill, I know that I’m nothing but grateful. I have a support team, albeit one with an intermittent mobile reception.
‘You did the right thing,’ says H. ‘It’s dangerous out there.’ I look up and see that we’re encased in thick fog, so dense that I can’t make out the sides of the road. And, despite being a couple of miles short of my target, I’m almost high with relief.
‘You’ve covered 20 miles,’ says H. ‘People do a couple more than that, and call it a marathon.’
‘They’re running,’ I say.
‘Some of them are walking.’
‘God, I’m unfit. I’m ashamed of how unfit I am.’
‘You know the only way to get fitter?’ says H. ‘Doing the kind of walk you just did. It’ll be easier next time’
Bloody eternal optimists. The weather was no better the next morning, so all I know is that I now have a grudge match with Foreland Point in September, on my birthday weekend. And this time, I’m going to win.
(Quite aside from my self-pitying mood, Somerset and Devon really are the friendliest places on earth. Here’s my brief guide to what we did while we were there).