South West Coast Path: Hartland Quay to Bude

In which: I forget my trousers ● Ronald Duncan provides brief shelter ● Cornwall welcomes me with rain ● Hawker’s Hut stares out to sea ● there are dishes galore ● Sandy Mouth is a welcome sight ● shoes beat boots ● I sleep in an unexpected bed

Date: 23 August 2013
Time of walk: 0845 to 1700
Today’s walking: 24.3 km
Progress along SWCP: 24.3 km
Estimated ascent: 1010 metres

I slept well, with the noise of the waves heard through the open bedroom window. I went out before breakfast and had a good wander around – sadly yesterday’s sunshine had gone but at least it was dry for the moment, though the forecast suggested some showers this afternoon. Breakfast was the usual fare, with me on a very wobbly table for one, sat facing the door rather than the rest of the room, so it felt a little odd. The bacon was quite decent but the rest of the offer was typically mediocre.

I got away in reasonable time as breakfast started at 8.15 – personally I would like to have breakfast rather earlier on these holidays, but most B&Bs, guesthouses and small hotels seem to want to start serving breakfast quite late, presumably in response to demand though I’m rarely asked if I’d like breakfast early. Still, the pre-breakfast wander around the hotel grounds was pleasant.

Today was to be a long day – my guide book said that today’s route “is one of the most scenic and dramatic stretches of the South West Coast Path, but also one of the toughest … in places it climbs steeply only to descent steeply, over and over again.”

Today was the first day on which I’d done this sort of walk (rugged as opposed to easy lowland) in walking shoes rather than boots. Although in principle walking boots seem better, and if I twist my ankle in shoes then I may regret the choice, in practice I’ve found that my “new” pair of boots (about 18 months old now, I think) have never fit very well despite being nominally the same as my previous pair and thus I’ve found they can give me blisters, and I can still end up with wet feet on a rainy day. I soon found that the lack of a stiff sole made a noticeable difference whenever walking on stony or rocky ground, but were noticeably lighter.

It was also the first day on the SWCP I’ve done in shorts. I’ve done a fair bit of walking in shorts this summer: overheating has often been a problem with me when walking (particularly when there is much ascent, as there will be today). Of course, there is always the risk of getting cold, but that doesn’t seem as much of an issue in August. There is also the problem of suddenly encountering brambles or nettles, which has previously encouraged me to stick with long trousers, but I’ve decided that as I always carry my waterproof trousers with me, that provides the option of a covering-up in case of unpleasant vegetation, or indeed particularly inclement weather. However, I realised soon after I’d set off that I’d left the waterproof trousers in my bag at the hotel, ready to be moved on to tonight’s abode, but not soon enough to decide to go back for them, particularly with a long day ahead. Fortunately I did have my waterproof coat with me, so I decided to keep my fingers crossed that the cliff-top walking would be sufficiently exposed that my legs wouldn’t regret that decision.

The day’s walk began as most South West Coast Path walks do, with an ascent, but a pretty modest one, leaving me time to admire the rugged headlands ahead, with the thought that I was going to have to climb every one of them. A little bit of sunshine poked through a few gaps in the clouds.
After passing a delightful tall waterfall, the official route takes a little valley up the back of Swansford Hill, and I decided to conserve my energy by doing the same rather than taking the alternative cliff-top route – after all, there are plenty more cliff tops to come. A sign warned of pregnant ewes and that dogs must be kept strictly on a lead at all times or dog owners may face prosecution: yet again it was a permanent sign screwed into the gate and not reflecting the fact that not only were there no pregnant ewes (unlikely in August) but in fact no sheep of any description, and an inaccurate summary of the legal situation on a public right of way.

At the top of the gentle but long rise, I stopped and took off my long-sleeved t-shirt and put on a short-sleeved one. I swapped my stiff-brimmed but hot hat for my floppier but cooler hat, which has a UV-protective mesh for the top and thus good ventilation. If the wind gets up, the floppy one can be annoyingly floppy, and has the risk of being carried away by the wind, and if it does get windy I can change back to the stiff hat which has a chin-strap, hoping that the wind will mean that overheating will be less of an issue. A fresh search for a hat which meets all my needs may be called for when I get home.

On the path this morning there were lots and lots of butterflies, something I’ve also noticed on recent walks in Suffolk – I don’t know whether it is a particularly good year for butterflies, or whether I’ve just noticed them more, but today they were dancing round me and round each other, and I played chase-the-butterfly with several who didn’t want to be pushed off the path, and kept flying a few metres forward, settling on the path or nearby vegetation, and then moving on again when I came close.

Near Dixon’s Well the route takes to a road for a few hundred metres, though I went further than I should have as the return through the hedge wasn’t signed and had almost disappeared with hedge growth.

At Embury Beacon there are the eastern remains of an iron age hill fort from around 200BC, most of the rest having been lost to coastal erosion, but there are some earth ramparts still to clamber on. Apparently excavations in the 1970s suggested a rectangular building within the site, and whetstones and spindle whorls were found.
One of the first signs in Devon for those heading north proclaims that they have only 4 miles to go to their beds at Hartland Quay, but it is sadly deceiving them as I measured it at 5.2 miles. The sign told me that it was a quarter of a mile to Welcombe Mouth, the view making it clear that it was a steeply downhill quarter of a mile.
I found someone making some welcome repairs to the steps near the bottom of the slope, and started on up the ascent on the other side.
Almost immediately there was another descent, into the Marshland valley, and it started to rain, initially only a few drops but gradually becoming more persistent. Perched above the valley is Ronald Duncan’s hut, and I took shelter for a few minutes. Ronald Duncan was a writer and built the hut in 1962 on the remains of an Admiralty hut used in the war, and he used it as a retreat. It was rebuilt after his death in 1982 by his daughter Briony Lawson and fellow local Tim Neville, and is open for visitors to sit for a few minutes and enjoy the peace and the view. I briefly contemplated pausing to see if the rain would abate, particularly with my error in my morning packing leaving my waterproof trousers in my suitcase, now hopefully en route for Bude. However, I decided that the rain looked set for a while, and marched down the steps to the stream, protected by my excellent waterproof top but with gradually dampening shorts.
Cornwall continued in similar vein to Devon, with lots of rugged remote cliffs, and a good deal of down and up to get across valleys and back onto the cliffs.
A short diversion took me to my second hut of the day, Hawker’s Hut – a wooden hut built of driftwood and topped with turf. The Reverend Hawker was vicar of Morwenstow for 40 years, and he used the hut for meditation, poetry writing and taking opium.
From the old to the new, or relatively new, the path passes GCHQ Bude, a satellite ground station on the site of RAF Cleave operated by the signals intelligence service GCHQ with staff also from the US NSA. There are twenty-one satellite dishes, some over 30 metres in diameter, monitoring various bands and satellites, and an undersea cable landing nearby is considered a critical infrastructure resource by the USA, one of only a few on foreign territory. And the SWCP goes subtly and quietly right next to the site, though no doubt I was being carefully watched by someone.
A long line of beaches looking almost due south runs all the way to Bude, but my route is slightly more demanding along the cliff tops
By the time I reached the beach at Sandy Mouth, the intermittent rain which had lasted most of the afternoon, had finally given up. Surfers were likewise giving up and carrying boards back to cars. But for me the main feature after seven hours of lonely walking was the café, from where I got an ice-cold Diet Coke and a gorgeous yum-yum, the two together reinvigorating me for the final stretch into Bude.
Crooklets Beach on the northern edge of Bude
After the hard work earlier in the day, the last stretch was fairly easy going over Maer Down and above the beach with its large (over an acre) sea-water swimming pool.

I walked round the corner to my stop for the night, the Atlantic House Hotel. When I went in, I was greeted with a “You must be Mr Dawson”. The woman at the counter explained that there had been a double-booking mix-up – reading between the lines, the fault was the hotel’s rather than Contours who had made the booking for me, because this woman had booked me into the Hartland Hotel just down the road and said to the receptionist there that she would bring the cash round later.

I showered and rested, and though I didn’t feel hungry went out later for an exploration of the town, once I’d recovered from the effort of undoing the zip of the top pocket of my rucksack, which had got stuck containing the keys for my suitcase – it was quite a challenge to get the zip undone and just added to the tiredness after a fairly long day. I found a useful supermarket for the morning’s re-provisioning (I’d brought today’s food from Suffolk) and a healthy meal of chips from a fish and chip shop, followed by ice-cream from the Co-op, all eaten on a bench overlooking the River Neet and the sea, with the canal just visible in the distance awaiting closer inspection in the morning.

I decided that the walking shoes had been a definite success, and my boots should stay in my hotel bag for another day. The shorts had also been a good move, though my delicate legs had been lucky not to need any protection from the waterproof trousers.

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