The South West Coast Path – Part 11
Ohh how it rained. Everything was soaked. Luckily I had learned on the Appalachian Trail that you need to keep your key items dry at all costs, so I had a change of clothes and my quilt tucked deeply in a dry sack inside my pack. By the time I traipsed through the boggy path to the evening’s campsite at East Prawle I was delighted to find that my efforts to keep something dry had worked! I set up my tent in the mizzly evening and headed straight to the pub with Paul for a warming drink or two. We had decided to camp in a field owned by a local lady who opened it for the summer months. I had set up my tent far away from any others as I’m such a light sleeper but lo – when I came back from the pub at 11pm an entire Glastonbury of tents had set up around me, as a huge group of 25 people with their vans and marquees thought that it would be nice to set up in the quiet spot with me. I could hear them before I saw them, and so with a wan smile and heavy heart I dismantled all my wet gear in the darkness and moved across to the field entrance to re-pitch in a quieter spot and try to sleep. A bit of a disaster if I’m honest as the group partied all night. Such is life when you try to obey the wild-camping rules during the post lockdown frenzy of holidaymakers!
I lost Paul the next morning – he had enjoyed the pub’s hospitality deep into the wee hours and although we set off together, he fell behind and then later messaged that he was struggling and had to stop for regular cold swims to avoid the worst of his hangover catching up with him. I wasn’t to see Paul again after that morning, but it had been lovely to spend a few days hiking with him. That’s the strange but wonderful nature of these thru hikes – you meet people you really like, but it’s very easy to fall out of step and then be lost to each other on trail. It makes you appreciate the fun times you have and teaches you not to hold on to any status-quo too tightly! I was totally unaware of how beautiful this piece of coastline would be.
As the morning mist lifted I saw Start Point in the distance and set about weaving through sheep, wild-flowers and the occasional camper van parked in a cove, with still-sleeping occupants and steamy windscreens. The lighthouse at the end of Start Point looked dramatic with the deep-grey skies of an offshore rainstorm behind it.
I was luckily spared further rain, and was able to pause at the ruined village of Hallsands to see the remnants of houses clinging to the cliffs below. I was learning a lot through this stretch of coast path – ever more than at my next stop of Slapton Sands. I hadn’t realised it before, but this was the site of ‘Operation Tiger’. This was a 1944 rehearsal for D Day that ended in terrible tragedy, when the Allied naval convoy running through manoeuvres were spotted and attacked by Nazi E-Boats, who happened to be cruising past at the same time. At least 749 American troops were killed, with the real death toll likely to have been much higher. It was sobering to learn this information whilst hiking through that very spot, and the story has stayed with me since.
Next I enjoyed the delights of Strete and Blackpool Sands (nowhere near Blackpool of course) before reaching Dartmouth and finding the only spot left in the whole town for the night – a sweet B&B overlooking the harbour. After a hot shower I made my way to the laundrette with my face firmly covered and gave my belongings a thoroughly good wash. One hearty meal and a good night’s sleep later and I was off on the ferry over the river to Kingswear. I didn’t mind the still-grey skies because it kept things cooler, and the wooded stretches were awesomely atmospheric. I interrupted a stunning group of wild horses grazing on the pathway and enjoyed watching them as they loped and ambled out of my way, thoroughly unhurried and extremely graceful.
My enjoyment of the wilds of nature didn’t last much longer though, as I descended into Brixham and was stunned by the amount of people on the streets. I couldn’t get through at any faster than a snail’s pace which was so frustrating after the my free strides on the cliffs, and one small boy clinging on to his mother squidged his ice-cream onto my bare legs a number of times before I was able to extract myself from the herd. I realised quite quickly that it was time for another section-skip. Brixham, Paignton and Torquay were all up next in quick succession, with concrete promenades and many more ice-cream brandishing children to weave through. Nope. I bought a ticket for the ferry to Torquay and jumped aboard, not feeling even slightly guilty about my route change.
For thirty blissful minutes I watched the cliffs scroll by from a new angle, and delighted in the pods of dolphins that seemed to follow the boat as we cruised across. I was very happy with my decision! From Torquay onwards the cliffs turned into stunningly deep red clay, bleeding into the sea and looking startling from afar. I had been excited to see such a geological change and here it was! Teignmouth and Dawlish were next which for me, as an avid train lover, was magical. I have travelled on the train to London countless times and everyone’s favourite part is also my own – whizzing past the sea at Dawlish and through red cliff tunnels. How special it was to walk next to those same tracks and see the coast at a slower pace, taking time to study those things that had previously only been glimpsed and wondered about. As I hiked, the trains came shuddering past and fresh rain beat down upon me, but I could only feel a childish glee that I was still going strong, still pushing through the elements, and still loving every moment.