Starting mileage: 16548 km
Day started: 10:30
Day ended: 21:00
What started as another slow day, turns into a long trudging trek through Exmoor heights, as we finally leave Devon and for the first time in almost two weeks enter a shire we haven’t seen before.
The name of the small town of Woolacombe has a distinctly Australian sound – it’s the “Woola-” suffix that you’re much more likely to find near New South Wales rather than the old South Wales – and the beach looks Australian as well, two miles wide and at low tide stretching for hundreds of meters; the sea shallows stretch even further, making the conditions generally excellent for surfing; not today, though. The combination of ebbing tide and easterly winds made the waves flow sideways, almost parallel to the beach. The water was otherwise calm and good for swimming, but for some reason terribly cold, so we only managed a few minutes. There was a much more fun place to splash about on the beach though – a proper “rock pool” left over by the tide among the boulders, vast, full of seaweed, palm-sized crabs and in places chest-deep – and of course, much warmer than the sea itself.
Just to the east of the surfing “combes” of North Devon starts the Exmoor National Park; the second of Devon’s grim highlands, it has a distinct advantage over its southern counterpart, Dartmoor, in that the granite hills and heaths reach here all the way down to the ocean, making them not only more accessible for us, but also creating spectacular views over tall, massive, jagged cliffs. England’s tallest cliff, the Hangman, is here, as is the number of other grand summits. We stopped briefly at the gateway to Exmoor, Combe Martin; the town has little in the way of attractions, and the only beach is quite narrow and grey, but again it stretches far out at low tide, and is flanked by rugged granite edges on both sides, where a few fulmars nest in good view (it is always shrewd to keep away from the nests as fulmars can spit a foul-smelling oil). Despite it being famous for its strawberries, we could find none – only one last punnet in the nearby farm shop.
The A39, the “Atlantic Highway” as it’s called along the Cornish and Devon coast, is one of the most beautiful roads in England, but also one of the most difficult. It winds constantly up and down steep hills and buffs of Exmoor, straining the engines and breaks of older vehicles – like our poor van – to the limits. It’s a good test before any Alpine roads. In places there are toll roads allowing big trucks to bypass the particularly steep gradients – the worst hill is in Porlock, a sheer 25% drop. The views, however, are splendid: at times, there is nothing but a several hundred feet of sharply dropping heath between you and the muddy-blue waters of the Bristol Channel.
The entire Exmoor coast is dotted with sites of national importance and great natural beauty, and it’s a hard choice if you only have time to see one. We headed for the small town of Lynton, which promised us one of the finest, and easiest to get to, vistas of the entire National Park.
Whoever was naming geographical features in this part of the world, ran out of imagination when he got to Lynton. The place we were to visit was called simply The Valley of Rocks. It was undoubtedly a valley, and, fair enough, there was a lot of rocks, but for a place this magical you’d hope for something a bit more epic.
The Valley of Rocks is a deep glen, once carved by a river into the granite tors; the steep slopes are overgrown with fern and tall grass, and topped with sharp rocky outcrops. It’s one of those places that look like straight out of a fantasy movie, and something about the high summits and vast, flat grassland on the top makes you half expect Legolas to pop up from behind the rocks, shouting “they’re taking the hobbits to Isengard!“. And that’s even before you reach the coastal path, from which you can see clearly all the way towards southern Wales.
A special mention must be made of the café at the entrance to the valley, the Mother Meldrum’s – named after a witch from a 19th century historic romance taking place around Lynton – which not only is set idyllically among two gnarled, sprawling trees, but also serves some of the genuinely best cakes I’ve had since leaving London: proper huge slabs of luscious apple and cherry pies and big steaming bowls of rhubarb crumble – or crumble à la rhoubarbe as our friend from Ilfracombe would have called it.
Past Lynton we got back on the A39 and, making only the briefest of stops on top of one of the great Exmoor hills to watch a herd of grazing ponies, crossed into Somerset and embarked on the search of a campsite for the night. It wasn’t an easy task – this close to Weston-super-Mare, and on a day this beautiful, most of the places were full. In the end, with some trepidation, we found ourselves in a place called “Home Farm Holiday Park” in Watchett.
(Along the way we whizzed past the small town of Dunster, which we’d normally visit if we had more time – and I recommend anyone to make a detour towards it if you’re in the area; it has an abundance of memorable sites, including a fine castle (NT) on a clifftop and a medieval market hall).
Almost a small village, “Home Farm” is vast and full of static caravans and tourers, but it has two major advantages over other sites of this sort: it’s perfectly located, between a deep forest and the sea (it has a private beach) and it’s cheap. In fact, the nice landlady only took £10 from us due to late arrival (the normal cost is mere £15 with hook-up!).
NB it would be nice if more sites had the policy of late arrivals paying less. We are being ripped off every day, paying for a full day’s stay, electricity and water, despite us arriving late in the evening and departing early in the morning.