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Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Walk 180 Minehead to Watchet (Somerset)

Walk 180 Minehead to Watchet (Somerset)

(Third leg of English coastal walk – Lands End to Bristol)

Map: L/R 181
Distance: 7 miles or 12 km approx
Difficulty: Easy, mainly flat
Terrain: path and some road
Access: Parking at both ends
Public transport: Steam train connects the two places, also buses.

Walk out of Minehead past the Butlin's complex and alongside the golf course.

Near Dunster Beach is a World War 2 pill box made from pebbles from the beach and bonded with concrete. A mile or so inland is Dunster with its impressive castle. The well preserved medieval village and National Trust run castle are both worth a visit. There are superb views of the coast from the castle. Dunster was the birthplace of the hymn 'All things Bright and Beautiful', written by Cecil Alexander when he was staying there. On the beach are chalets and the mouth of the River Avill – there used to be a harbour here from Saxon times where wool was exported.

Further along is Blue Anchor. A pleasant enough beach overlooked by caravans on the other side of the road. Presumably named after the pub here. After the path leaves the pavement it soon starts to go inland for much of the walk to Watchet. The final bit of the walk can be along the road or along the pebbly beach which was rather hard on the feet but you can admire the interesting rock formations on the land side.

Watchet is a pleasant, interesting place. The Vikings once sailed into the harbour and later it became a busy port dealing in iron ore. Trains, on what is now the heritage steam railway, carried the ore mined in nearby hills to Watchet Station and then it was carried to the quayside, then on to Wales. It was eventually closed when cheap iron ore was imported from Spain. The harbour was once so clean that cricket was played on the sands when the tide was out – it is more muddy now. With plentiful supplies of wood in the nearby Quantock Hills paper making has been a feature of the area since the 17th century.

Look out for the local church dedicated to Saint Decuman (a new one to me) who is thought to have died here in the eighth century. Sammy Hake's Cottage is another interesting building with a front door only 5 feet high. He was a local character. If it is open, Watchet Market House Museum is worth a visit to find out more about the area. There is an old 'lock up' at the rear. Local traditions include the yearly Lantern Festival involving children with candle lanterns made out of such vegetables as mangel-wurzels and swede.

Further along the sea front at Watchet is a sculpture called The Ancient Mariner - in memory of the poet Coleridge who lived at nearby Nether Stowey. (His house there is National Trust and an interesting visit). He was inspired to write The Ancient Mariner when visiting Watchet Harbour and chatting to an old sailor about how boys on ships trapped albatrosses when they were at sea.

Try to make some time to look at Watchet Station with its iconic original platforms and steam trains.

Photos show Dunster Beach and The Ancient Mariner sculpture at Watchet.


Thursday, 19 May 2016

Walk 179 Porlock Weir to Minehead (Somerset)

Walk 179 Porlock Weir to Minehead (Somerset)

(Third leg of English coastal walk – Lands End to Bristol)

Map: L/R 181
Distance: 9 miles or 17 km approx
Difficulty: One very steep climb but the rest less demanding
Terrain: coastal/cliff/road
Access: Parking at both ends (paid at Porlock Weir)
Public transport: No 10 bus goes every two hours between the two places.

Follow the beach walk out of Porlock Weir – take care on the large pebbly rocks with their potential for twisting ankles. The path passes over marsh land. Look out for the memorial alongside the path near to Bossington . This remembers an American Air Force plane which crashed here during bad weather in 1942 killing ten crew. Out towards the sea are what I assumed were wartime defensive buildings (there are a few WW2 pill boxes) but most are the remains of lime kilns. Limestone from Wales was burnt to produce lime which was used as a fertilizer on local farms and for mortar in local buildings.

The path arrives in the attractive village of Bossington much of which is owned by the National Trust. Thatched cottages and buildings with tall chimneys feature here.

Follow the walk out of the village and along to Hurlstone Point, a windy place in my experience. There are good views back to Porlock Weir and, on a clear day, I understand that the cliffs of Glamorgan can often be seen across the sea. The tower here is an old coast guard lookout.

Prepare yourself for a steep demanding walk which gets a little bit easier nearer Selworthy Beacon (1013 ft above sea level) but goes up for a long distance and took me about 45 minutes. Not advisable in wet or very windy weather.

From here it is a few miles walk into Minehead. Near the end there is an option to go on the lower walk which passes through parkland. The first part of Minehead is the harbour. It is over 1000 years old and belonged to the son of Lady Godiva. A nice pub here – The Old Ship Aground - for some liquid refreshment and food. On the road along the sea front look out for the old thatched cottages. There were once many more but a fire in 1791 was caused by a miller who lobbed a blazing barrel of tar out of his door and into a stream only to set fire to the thatch of surrounding buildings. Ninety of them were destroyed.

Near to the cottages is a large metallic structure of hands holding a map. This marks the end/start of the South West Coastal Path. Looking ahead are the tent like buildings of Butlins. Opposite the sea in the main town is the terminus of the West Somerset Railway - the longest heritage railway in England. It was originally opened in 1874 and closed in 1971. Well worth a trip e.g. to the pleasant seaside town of Watchett.

An age old custom of Minehead is the ceremony of the 'obby 'orse which, on Mayday, goes down to the quay to the accompaniment of accordions and drums. Legend has it that a Viking pirate was frightened away from the town by the mask of a horse.

Arthur C Clarke, the science fiction writer, was born in the area.

Photos show: Minehead Harbour with The Old Ship Aground; the sculpture at the start/end of The South West Coast path; the old coastguard lookout at Hurlstone Point.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Walk 178 Lynmouth (Devon) to Porlock Weir (Somerset)

Walk 178 Lynmouth (Devon) to Porlock Weir (Somerset)

(Third leg of English coastal walk – Lands End to Bristol)

Map: L/R 180 and L/R 181
Distance: 12 miles or 20 km approx
Difficulty: Demanding in parts, overall moderate
Terrain: cliff paths
Access: Parking at both ends – can be difficult to get space at Lynmouth.
Public transport: Not viable. Takes hours with many changes. I used a taxi from Millers, the hotel I was staying at in Porlock Weir.

Start on the main street in Lynmouth alongside the bay. Before joining the coastal path stroll up to the River Lyn Valley Gorge. It is worth visiting the museum here to learn about the devastating floods of 1952 which killed 34 people and the new flood barriers built to prevent a repeat of the disaster. You can also learn about the power station and have a go at some interactive stuff outside which helps to explain things. Look out for the memorial hall which marks the site of the former lifeboat station which was washed away in the floods.

Walk back towards the sea where, on the left, the cliff railway to Lynton is situated. It was very busy with long queues when I went. The railway was opened in 1890 and, when built, was the steepest railway in the world – a gradient steeper than 1 in 2. It works using the weight of the water in the downward car to power the upward moving one at the same time. In its early days it carried freight and even cars.

Before crossing on to the main coastal path take a while to admire the attractive bay. Painters and poets have visited, including Southey who likened it to a Swiss village and Gainsborough who described it as the most delightful place for a landscape painter this country can boast. Before becoming a visitor attraction Lynmouth was a port dealing in coal and limestone from South Wales.

It is a long steady climb out of Lynmouth giving good views of the sea. When the path levels out the outstanding landmark is Countisbury Church, dedicated to St John the Baptist and built in the 18/19th centuries. It is on the site of an earlier church.

The views continue to Forleand Point – make the most of them as the path goes through woodland from this point with only occasional glimpses of the sea. This headland is the most northerly point of Devon and is owned by the National Trust. A separate path goes off to the lighthouse which was built in 1900 and became automated in 1994. The keeper's cottage is now a holiday home.

The walk through the woodland is not without interest. Look out for fungi (I spotted bright red spotted ones, perhaps best not to touch), some rather strange dilapidated graves near to the path and pleasant waterfalls.

After a few miles of walking, during which the Devon/Somerset border is crossed, you arrive at the isolated Culbone Church. It is well worth stopping here to look inside what is claimed to be the smallest parish church still used for services in England. (35 feet x 12 feet – seats 33 people). It was built in the 12th century and is dedicated to St Bueno, a Welsh saint. Information in the church will tell you about some of the old parts including a few from Saxon times which were part of an even older church that once stood here.

The walk finishes at Porlock Weir, another attractive old seaside place. It was once a bustling port sending tar, charcoal and pit props to South Wales. There are many old listed cottages including the thatched Bottom Ship pub. Coleridge once stayed in Porlock (the main village is a mile or so up the road) and composed some of The Ancient Mariner here. The back of the coastal path comes around the back of Millers, a 200 year old building now a hotel. It is full of antiques and curios. I know because I stayed there. I believe this is the same Miller who publishes antique guides.

Photos show: Lynmouth Bay; red mushrooms on the woodland walk; Culbone Church; The Bottom Ship Pub at Porlock Weir.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Walk 177 Coombe Martin to Lynton (Devon)

Walk 177 Coombe Martin to Lynton (Devon)

(Third leg of English coastal walk – Lands End to Bristol)

Map: L/R 180
Distance: 13 miles or 22 km approx
Difficulty: Challenging and demanding. I found it easier to split the walk into two by getting a taxi (twice) to Woody Bay and doing it at a relaxed pace over 2 days. If doing it in one day allow a full day would not recommend it in wet or windy weather.
Terrain: cliff path
Access: Parking at both ends.
Public transport: Not a sensible option as buses involve a change and around a two and a half hour journey. Lynton and Combe Martin have buses to a few locations - check Traveline.

Follow the path up Lester Cliff. Wild Pear Beach can be seen from the path, it is evidently very difficult and dangerous to get down on to the beach thus making it a popular haunt for naturists!

A little further along is Little Hangman cliff which is a warm up for its mighty brother Great Hangman. This is the highest and steepest point on the entire South West Coastal Path and involves a demanding climb and care when descending. Its first mention as Hangman Hill was in the 18th century. A local legend says that it got its name from a sheep stealer who stole a ewe and got the rope attached to the animal trapped around his neck and was strangled by it. On top of the hill is a large pile of stones continually added to by walkers and others. The landlady at the guest house I stayed at said she has had a group visitors who believe the hill has alien visitors while others claim mystical or religious connections.

The path cuts inland after the Great Hangman and about a mile further along is Sherry Combe. The two sides of this are steep, demanding going up – care needed when going down.

The demanding steep walk continues along to Heddon Mouth and Highveer Point. If it is a clear day you should be able to see Wales across the sea. The path goes inland and crosses the River Heddon. Near here there was a Roman signal station where legionnaires kept a constant watch out for possible invaders. Look out for the waterfall at Hollow Brook, probably the highest one in Devon.

The walk continues to Woody Bay, a very pleasant spot which was planned to be a busy holiday resort in the 19th century to rival the nearby towns of Lynton and Lynmouth. A hotel and golf course were built together with some villas on the wooded slopes. New roads and a railway station were constructed (now the base of the current Lynton and Barnstaple steam railway) and a pier was started.. Unfortunately, it all went wrong. The pier was washed away and the solicitor was declared bankrupt. He was jailed for 12 years because he used his client's money to try and prop up the failing resort.

Either finish here as above  and continue the next day or carry on along the path which is also part of the Tarka Trail, mentioned in earlier walks. Lee Bay lies at the bottom of what is known locally as Fuchsia Valley.

You will know when you are nearing the Lee Valley Community when a sign of the path asks you to 'Enter his gates with thanksgiving'. The path continues along the road and through the abbey toll-gate (the toll seems to operate on an honesty basis). The Lee Valley Community was founded in 1946 and is home to about 80 Christians of all ages. The abbey hosts retreats, conferences and breaks in the Beacon Activity Centre which opened in 2004. They are very strong on environmental management and sustainability.

On leaving the road be prepared for some striking rocky scenery in the Valley of the Rocks – some with interesting names such Ragged Jack and The Devil's Cheese Ring. This area is mentioned in the novel Lorna Doone and includes the character Mother Meldrum who is said to be based on an old lady who lived in a cave. A visit to the valley by the Australian composer Miriam Hyde led to the 1974 piano composition 'Valley of the rocks'.

The path into Lynton was originally constructed in the 19th century for the influx of new visitors. You may be surprised, as I was, by the sudden appearance of a mountain goat on the path. They live on what appears to be a sheer sided cliff. They are feral wild Cheviot goats that have adapted to the conditions.

On the way into Lynton there are good views of the beach at Lynmouth. Look out for the parish church, part of which was built in the 13th century. The Visitor's Centre is situated in the impressive town hall built in 1900. Try to make some time to visit the Exmoor Museum in the oldest building of the town. It includes a ghost room and information about Lorna Doone and the Tarka Trail. Lynton is 600 feet above its partner town, Lynmouth, and a busy lift runs between the two places.

Photos show: the stones on top of The Great Hangman; Heddons Mouth the path at the bottom can be seen; a precarious looking rock in the Valley of Rocks; a Cheviot mountain goat on the path near Lynton.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Walk 176 Ilfracombe to Coombe Martin (Devon)

Walk 176 Ilfracombe to Coombe Martin (Devon)

(Third leg of English coastal walk – Lands End to Bristol)

Map: L/R 180
Distance: 6 miles or 11 km approx
Difficulty: Lots of ups and downs but quite a short walk
Terrain: road and coastal path
Access: Parking at both ends.
Public transport: 301 bus runs between the two places every hour.

Follow the coastal path to Hillsborough which is an area of common land away from the sea. It is a nature reserve and is on the site of two iron age forts. In Victorian times it was used for army practice.

From here the path works its way on to Beacon Point where there are good views back to Ilfracombe. It is only a short walk to Hele Bay. This was the site of the Hele Bay gas works which was once a major employer in the area. Production started in 1905 and finished in 1963. Coal would be brought in by sea to help make the gas. Holiday parks and camp sites have been built here in later years. Look out for the restored Hele Corn Mill which has been here since 1525 and is powered by water. A mile offshore are Buggy Pits where spectacular waves on the reefs are caused by winds blowing against the tide.

This part of the walk is quite rugged and passes near Rillage Point and Samson's Bay- areas popular with bird watchers. Then the path goes inland alongside Water Mouth. The rocks here have smugglers tunnels and caves and sandy beach at the end of the mouth. Trials for Operation Pluto were carried out here in World War 2. As a result, the Pluto oil pipeline was laid across the English Channel to supply allied invasion forces with fuel.

Alongside the beach at the end of Water Mouth is Watermouth Castle and family theme park. The mock Gothic castle was built in 1825 and, I was told, includes smuggler tunnels.

The walk ends at the very attractive coastal village of Coombe Martin. The village dates back to Saxon times and is mentioned in the Domesday Book. It has probably the second longest main/high street of of any village in England, approx 2 miles. Until the end of the 19th century horses, carts and pack ponies were used to carry goods from the ships in the harbour. Mining for silver was once very important and evidence of silver mines and lime-kilns can still be seen.

The museum in Coombe Martin is excellent with people very happy to interest you in the exhibits. One of the things I learnt about was an annual weekend procession concerning a legend about the Earl of Tyrone who fled Ireland and was shipwrecked here in 1607. The procession was actually banned in 1837 due to drunken behaviour but was reinstated in 1970. This reputedly loud event includes a hobby horse, a fool, grenadiers, drummers, music and dancers. The museum has more information.

There are some interesting buildings in the village. These include the church with the unusual name of St Peter ad Vincula (St Peter in Chains) which rises in four stages to 99 feet and has a Norman nave. It is a walk inland up the main street. Near here is The Pack of Cards pub which was built by a man to celebrate his large win in a card game. It has 4 storeys, 13 doors on each floor and 52 windows thus representing a pack of cards. It is a good place for a pint and meal as well. Look out for shops selling local strawberries which, during the season, are much sought after.

Photos show: the beach at Coombe Martin; Water Mouth looking towards the castle.