He’s not one for big parties or great shows of attention but we couldn’t completely ignore Harri’s 40th birthday this week. There was no need to ask what he wanted to do to mark this particular landmark birthday because Harri’s answer is always the same: go hiking!
So that’s how we founds ourselves in sunny Somerset for five days. Harri found us a quaint two-bedroom cottage in Periton on the outskirts of Minehead complete with wooden beams, a huge fireplace, window seat, stripped panel doors and some wonderful shabby chic furniture. It was delightful and though the decor was a bit old-fashioned, e.g. woodchip wallpaper, it boasted all the mod cons except, horror of horrors, the internet. Well, strictly speaking we did have the internet; however, the speed was criminally slow rendering it useless. Actually, once we got over the shock of not being able to check Facebook (me), emails (Harri), etc, we decided a holiday without constant communication with the outside world was a rather appealing idea.
It was about half past one by the time we’d unloaded the car and grabbed a quick lunch so it was a good job we weren’t heading farther than Watchet this afternoon. If we paced ourselves, the easy, eight-and-a-half mile walk along the England Coast Path would see us arriving at our destination around 6pm, the perfect time to pop into Pebbles Tavern, the wonderful cider bar we discovered on our first visit to Watchet.
From our cottage, it was a pleasant, downhill stroll to Minehead’s seafront. Three years ago, we backpacked along this stretch of coast as a ‘reccie’ for our walk through Wales. We planned to cover the epic distance from Chepstow town centre to Minehead in five days, but due to a miscalculation of distances (on my part) and dreadfully blistered feet (the result of a bad sock/shoe combination on Day 1) we only got as far as Watchet. Of course, every silver cloud … it was as I limped into Watchet on the last afternoon of that ill-fated trip that we spotted Pebbles and became acquainted with its local wares.
Even farther back in our shared hiking history, we started to walk the South West Coast Path, which begins near the harbour in Minehead. For a year we headed down west at every opportunity, including many long weekends, but despite reaching Fowey on the south coast of Cornwall, we never completed the National Trail. Harri thinks we’d have to start again now or it wouldn’t be a proper challenge!
Of course, Minehead is most famous for the Butlins resort which has been welcoming visitors since 1962. The iconic Skyline Pavilion (added in the late nineties) can be clearly seen from across the Bristol Channel and, on a clear day, it helps us pinpoint other landmarks along the Somerset and North Devon coastline.
We left the promenade and followed the coast path past Minehead Golf Club and towards Dunster. We’re used to viewing Steep Holm (which is in England) and Flat Holm (in Wales) from the South Wales coast, so it was interesting to see how their relative positions had now ‘switched’. Viewed from Minehead, the theory that Steep Holm once formed part of the Mendip Hills and was separated from Brean Down by the sea seemed perfectly logical. Across the Bristol Channel, we could make out familiar places like Nash Point Lighthouse, Aberthaw Power Station, Barry and the mountains that form the South Wales valleys.
I do enjoy a spot of level walking, if only because it gives you more opportunity to enjoy your surroundings. There is plenty to enjoy along this wonderful stretch of coast: the sweeping Quantock hills, high cliffs, wide beaches, lines of wooden groynes and the distinctive beach huts. These one-bedroom wooden huts – painted in fifty shades of green – have long fascinated me. Buying a new one back in the 1920s would have been a sound investment too because the first ones built cost only £65 – £75 depending on whether you wanted a verandah or not (just a fraction of the average British house price of £619 in 1926) and they are now much sought-after properties. There is currently one for sale on Rightmove for £130,000, which represents nearer half the average house price in 2017 and far more than the cost of a terraced house in many parts of Newport. Of course, you’d have ‘lost’ your hut temporarily during the Second World War when they were used to house coastal defence workers, but then I doubt seaside holidays were at the forefront of most people’s minds during the war years.
It was low tide and we debated whether to walk along the beach, before deciding to stick to the new cycle path. The level terrain meant we covered the distance to Blue Anchor far more quickly than we’d anticipated. Clearly, those tasked with creating the England Coast Path are having some difficulty negotiating access across private land because walkers are currently being forced onto the beach between Sea Lane in Dunster and Blue Anchor, while a warning sign reminds people that the designated coast path ‘is liable to flooding and [is] impassable before and after high tide with no suitable alternative walking route’. Presumably, the patch of grass we walked across last time is privately-owned and the owners are refusing to budge on the issue of access.
It was change all around after Blue Anchor, because the signposted coast path now directs people away from the road and along the seaward edge of several fields (all freshly ploughed). Predictably, the sun at last emerged from the clouds just as we were facing the only hill of the afternoon: a steep climb to a wooded headland. Harri’s long-time tradition is to wear his shorts until his birthday; having abandoned them a day early, now all he did was complain about being too hot in full-length trousers.
At the top of the hill, our route meandered through pretty woods, before eventually emerging near Daws Castle, which turned out not to be a castle at all but the site of a hillfort, which was fortified or re-fortified (it may have Iron Age origins) by Alfred the Great as part of his line of coastal defences. There’s nothing to see on the ground now, but an aerial photograph shows the extent of the ramparts and ditches that haven’t yet been lost to the sea.
We arrived in Watchet just before five and, though I felt it was a tad early to start on the cider, Harri disagreed. Which was how we found ourselves sitting in the wonderful Pebbles Tavern at tea-time drinking Black Rat cider and chatting to several well-behaved dogs.
When in Rome …