South West Coast Path: Combe Martin to Woolacombe

In which: the weather starts fair but deteriorates ● a delightful natural harbour is passed ● I get familiar with zigzags ● the bright lights of Ilfracombe tempt me ● there is a turntable for cars ● the path has even more ups and downs ● I swap the views of south Wales for north Devon ● the journey comes to an end, for the moment

Date: 13 April 2009
Time of walk: 0915 to 1650
Today’s walking: 24.0 km
Progress along SWCP: 22.1 km
Estimated ascent: 1270 metres

Breakfast was good but rather slow. The initial part of the walk was a little uninspiring, though it was interesting to find that the South West Coast Path around Sandy Bay had been rerouted due to cliff-falls. The larger part of the Old Coast Road was open, however, and led me to an attractive campsite, after which it was the delightful Water Mouth, a natural harbour. Part of the Coast Path alongside Water Mouth was underwater because of the high tide. A circuit of Widmouth Head gave good views back to Water Mouth.

Looking back to Lester Cliff, Little Hangman and Great Hangman
Looking down through the (closed) camp site and on to the natural harbour of Water Mouth
Watermouth Castle
Boats in Water Mouth
The hamlet of Widmouth as I head for Widmouth Head
Looking back into Water Mouth from near Widmouth Head
Asccending Widmouth Head, with flowers lining the south-facing bank of the trough that safely carries the path between steep slopes up and down.
Caves below Rillage Point across Samson’s Bay.

From above Rillage Point there were views across Hele Bay to Hele and Ilfracombe. I took advantage of the walk passing through a town in the middle of the day to have an early lunch in a café followed by a nice ice-cream, and wandered along to the old chapel.

The view to Hele and Ilfracombe
Hele Bay
Beyond Hele, the path zigzags extravagantly, taking seven hairpin turns to gain height rapidly
Near the top above Beacon Point, there is a splendid view of Ilfracombe
Approaching the harbour at Ilfracombe, with its ancient chapel standing on the promontory
Although there is a predominance of leisure yachts in the harbour nowadays, it is still a working harbour with several fishing boats
Ilfracombe was full of places with names like Neptune’s Cave Café and Sunspot Amusements, but I thought that Smugglers Needlecraft was taking things to extremes.
The Landmark Theatre is certainly a landmark, though whether a good one is a matter of opinion – my guidebook accurately described it as being like two upturned buckets.

Eventually escaping Ilfracombe by way of a long series of zigzags up Seven Hills, I then joined the old road from Ilfracombe to Lee. The weather which had been largely sunny this morning, gradually deteriorated, and I put my coat on ward off the wind, then as I descended towards Lee Bay it became too hot. I was able to help out a couple of lads whose football had become lodged high in a hedge by using my trekking pole to pull it out.

There were views to Lundy, looking more hazy as the weather clouded over, those clouds darkened and the wind picked up from time to time, with occasional spots of rain. Particularly on a route which is all up and down, some sheltered and some not, this produces the classic walker’s dilemma – what to wear. The coat was on and off twice this afternoon before it was finally donned for a third time. Just as when leaving Hele, the path from Ilfracome also zigzags a lot to gain height, with five levels visible at one point.

I’m intrigued by this stile. If the height where the human has to climb over is sufficient to stop animals straying across the boundary, then while make it higher at the sides?
The Coast Path is generally very well signed: this is the minimalist version (the acorn being the National Trail symbol).
The Coast Path has now joined the route of the old road from Ilfracombe to Lee: looking back towards Ilfracombe, the grooves in the bedrock have been cut to aid traction in climbing this slope.
Continuing along the old road to Lee, with Lundy still on the horizon, promising that the rain may hold off a little longer. Although the weather was coming from the west, the wind at ground level was coming from the south-east: no doubt there is something significant in this, but at the time I didn’t know what it was.
It was a very steep descent to Lee Bay, but I found a delightful scene there – a lovely attractive little settlement, an outlier of the village of Lee, with the Mill House on the right, and a small hotel behind me.
The beach at Lee Bay, with the tide out.
A steep ascent included what looked like a turntable for cars, which was something I’d not seen before.
The walk from Lee Bay to Bull Point was surprisingly busy, and tiring with lots of ups and downs and little chance to stride out. My knee was largely behaving itself, but I was suffering from a blister on my left heel.
The lighthouse at Bull Point, looking rather diminutive from this aspect, but still doing its job well above the sea. From Bull Point to Morte Point it was quieter, but still a fair few people were about, and I began to grow rather weary after four taxing days and with the blister giving me more trouble, and the terrain still being fairly demanding.
Rockham Beach, where my guidebook said I might spot my first seal, but either they weren’t out playing or I wasn’t looking properly.
Looking back across Rockham Beach to the lighthouse on Bull Point, with the Gower Peninsular in south Wales just visible on the horizon.
Morte Point, a major turning point of the Devon coast line. The coast of south Wales, my companion for three days, suddenly disappeared and most of the rest of north Devon (round to Hartland Point) was suddenly revealed. And after three and a half days on north-facing coasts, suddenly I was on a south-facing slope. The sea pinks were out in force along with other flowers I couldn’t identify. Woolacombe was also in sight, and I found myself full of energy again.
Woolacombe is visible on the left; the coast is clearly visible around Morte Bay to Baggy Point, and the rest of the north Devon coast across Bideford Bay to Hartland Point is just visible on this photo – that would be four days’ walking.
Woolacombe and sea pinks
A multistorey car park, undisguised – somewhat surprising in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
The huge expanse of Woolacombe Sand, largely deserted apart from few hardy (and optimistic) surfers. Well, it was raining increasingly by this stage.

It was still a fairish walk into the centre of Woolacombe and then around its extensive developments and up the hill away from the centre to get to the B&B, called Bellacombe. The directions said that it was ¼ mile up the hill, but I measured it at 710 metres (0.44 miles). It was a family home, with just me staying. By good chance, the man of the family is also the local taxi driver, so I sorted out him to take me to Barnstaple tomorrow, and after a rest he dropped me back down in the centre of Woolacombe for something to eat.

That proved problematic as the place I’d selected was packed with no free tables, and the second place had failed to take my order after 15 minutes and I wasn’t impressed with it. I found a pub up a side street that gave me a passable burger, then plodded back up the hill to the B&B.

And so came to an end my second Easter holiday walking the South West Coast Path. It has been enjoyable again, if hard work at times, particularly because of my knee. The weather has been much kinder to me than I had expected when I left on Thursday, when at least some rain was predicted for every day.

Breakfast at Bellacombe was very good, and the only morning of the five when I’ve had a sea view from the breakfast table, which made it even better. The chap took me in his taxi to Barnstaple station, where we arrived almost 50 minutes early. A small part of me wondered whether the enthusiasm for an early departure wasn’t just the worries about traffic that didn’t materialise, but also to fit in with his other bookings. That may be totally unfair, and whatever the reason, it wasn’t a problem as there was a decent cafe where I bought a drink and a paper, and sat there reading, which is all I would have done in Woolacombe. The train journey back to London went well, and as last Easter I was left pondering whether I’ll be back, and if so which section will be next.

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