Note: this walk took place in February and I am very late in writing it. Sorry. Have been massively busy *grovels*.
I’ve noticed that my SW Coast Path walks have become less of a leisure activity, and more of a gruelling contest against my own soul. I’m sure this wasn’t what I imagined when I dreamed up this whole thing.
To be fair, it’s not the path’s fault; it’s the winter’s. The path remains lovely, if exposed and extremely damp underfoot. I had been hearing about high winds and flooding in the South West for the last couple of weeks, and the effect of this is plain as soon as I leave Appledore. The ground is sodden. Northam Burrows is one great big puddle. A beautiful, crow-blown puddle, but also pretty much impassable. I divert onto the road.
Rounding the corner at Westward Ho! (the only place in the UK with a native exclamation mark, which makes me unaccountably happy!), my heart lifts a little. Granted, I had expected such a grand name to signal a town that was a little less desolate, but the roar of the sea is everwhere, and I glimpse the white-horsed thunder of the waves from between buildings.
Shortly after that, the ground begins to roll, and I fall back into my familiar climb-and-descent, spluttering at the effort. Except today, the path is so wet that the slopes are like treadmills, gliding my feet back to their starting-place at each step. My legs quickly become coated in thick, brick-red mud, making my trousers heavy and sticky.
At the top of one hill, I pause to watch a waterfall and then turn to see a descent so steep that I’m certain I won’t ever get down it. The path has other ideas; as I am standing, wondering what to do, I begin to slide spontaneously towards the bottom. I have never been skiing, but I hope it’s more enjoyable than this. My arms windmill about me as I attempt to grab on to anything that will steady me, but all that’s on offer is gorse, brambles and barbed wire. I opt for the lesser of three evils and grasp at the gorse, which means I am picking thorns out of my palms for the next fortnight. Despite this, I still manage to fall on my backside (twice), and land at the bottom in what can only be described as ill humour.
This mood is not improved when I turn the next corner to see a waymarker for my destination, Peppercombe: 5 miles. Due to my habitual crapness at map-reading, I thought the whole walk was 5 miles. Apparently not. I have 5 miles to go, I am mud-caked, and the sun is due to set in roughly an hour.
Muttering under my breath, I press on, clambering down onto a grey-pebbled cove on jelly legs. I am mentally composing letters to The Authorities: the first tackling the idiotic use of barbed wire alongside walking paths; the second bemoaning the sheer bloody-mindedness of a path that has to dip down into every fucking cove when there’s a perfectly good route around the top of the cliffs. Just at the moment, I spot what looks like an exotic seed-pod on the beach, a giant star anise the size of a hand, perhaps washed in from Zanzibar. On closer inspection, it’s a vertebra, washed brown by the sea. I’m delighted. It must surely be from a whale. I slot it into my backpack and press on. I can’t wait to show it to Bert.
There’s miles to go from there – more rise-and-fall, and much more mud. I finally arrive at Peppercombe in near-darkness, and bad-temperedly trudge the extra half-mile onto the road, convinced that H could have driven down to get me. But the gate at the top of the path is locked, and Bert is running along to meet me. I’m too exhausted to speak. I sit in the open boot and strip off my trousers in full view of passing cars. I don’t care. At that moment, nothing feels better than clean leggings and the warm blast of the car heater.
The next day was a little better: 7 miles on to Clovelly through deep, mossy forest. I mostly only glimpsed the sea, and spent a great deal of time traversing fields so saturated that I had to detour along their uppermost edges.
I could have gone further, but I didn’t. When I reached the car, Bert was asleep in the back. They hadn’t had lunch yet; they were waiting for me, and I was late, as ever. Bert, I knew, was desperate to swim in our holiday camp’s pool, and yet he’d been out all day so that they were able to pick me up. It was Valentine’s Day.
I suddenly had a sickening vision of myself as a demanding child, expecting everyone else to work around me while I walked in remote places, and got muddy, took time to myself, and complained about it. I was wet, and uncomfortable, and tired, and muddy, and lonely, but most of all, I was being indulged. I hated that feeling. I hated the path. I hated my instinct to turn everything into a big, difficult challenge, when we could just as well be having fun together, somewhere warm.
I decided to give up walking for a couple of days, while I worked out what to do next.
I’ll finish the story tomorrow. In the meantime, that vertebra in full: