We’d listened to this morning’s forecast with dismay. So far on our October trip we’d been lucky with the weather; now it seemed our luck was about to run out … at four o’clock to be precise. If we wanted to avoid being out on Exmoor in a torrential downpour – and we did – then an early start was imperative.
Not that either of us was feeling hugely energetic this morning. We’d enjoyed a veritable feast at the Taj Mahal last night when we’d taken the unusual step of ordering the ‘we’ll chose for you’ three-course menu. Having paid a pretty reasonable £17.95 per head, we were astounded by the amount of food placed in front of us: poppadoms and dips, delicious starters and a mixture of medium curries (lamb, chicken and vegetarian) plus pilau rice and naan breads. Though we did our best to clear our plates, we came home with almost as much food as we’d eaten.
A night of good food and wine had left us feeling rather plonkerish this morning, thus it took a huge effort to rouse ourselves and get out of the door at a reasonable hour. The main road in these parts is the A39 and if you’re travelling to the other side of Porlock as we were, then you have two options: if your car is up to it and you’re not towing a caravan, you can stick to the A39 and follow tortuous twists and turns up the horrendously steep hill out of Porlock (the gradient reaches 25% at one point) or, as those towing caravans are advised to do, you can follow the 4.2 mile toll road which offers a more gentle alternative and costs £2.50 per vehicle.
Harri decided our ten-year-old Hyundai Matrix was up to scaling the infamous Porlock hill (it’s so bad it features on a website called Dangerous Roads), but as our ears popped and our automatic worked its way down the gears I feared he might have been over-confident. After a nerve-wracking few minutes, we emerged on the top of the cliffs into very different weather conditions to those we’d left at sea level. The scenery was no longer picturesque but stark and bleak; the sweeping hills to our left were shrouded in low-lying clouds and we could feel the crosswind blowing across the moorland from inside the car.
By the time Harri pulled up in the free car park at County Gate, it was all I could do to drag myself from the warmth of the car and step out into the blustery conditions. And it was raining. Six hours ahead of time! I was not amused.
Battling against strong winds and rain, we set off along a narrow footpath which meandered around the hillside just below the high ridge. Goodness, it was cold. Harri was certain the wind was coming off the land, a good omen, he felt, for our afternoon’s coastal walking. I couldn’t care a jot which way it was coming from; my feet were soaked and my ears ice-cold. At that moment, all I wanted to do was drive back to our lovely, dry cottage in Periton.
Exmoor National Park straddles Somerset and Devon and County Gate stands right on the border of the two counties; for the first time this week we’d be walking in Devon. Despite the weather, it was difficult not to be impressed by the spectacular landscape and the autumnal colours of the Doone and East Lyn valleys. It stopped raining and we began to descend to the village of Brendon along a footpath that had been badly churned up by horses’ hooves. We thought it must be a popular horse-riding route until we spotted the real culprits – a group of wild ponies grazing on the lower reaches of the slopes.
In the valley, the weather was (slightly) improved and we joined a good quality path along the beautiful East Lyn river which was in full flood. It seemed everyone was seeking to avoid the hills today, because the riverside path was itself awash with walkers. Our undulating route was enchanting, leading us through light-dappled woodland past moss-covered boulders and cascading waterfalls.
We passed through Watersmeet where the East Lyn river meets Hoar Oak Water. The old fishing lodge here was turned into a tearoom in 1901 and, predictably, it was thronging with people who wanted to enjoy a cuppa and a cake in beautiful surroundings. We soldiered on a bit longer through a narrow gorge section before finally stopping at a riverside picnic bench for late elevenses. On both sides of the river the valley sides rose dramatically; we passed one place where there had clearly been a series of large rockfalls, which had either stopped just short of the riverside footpath or had been since cleared.
We were nearing Lynmouth when the heavens emptied on us again. It was a shame because this place where the East Lyn and West Lyn rivers meet is incredibly pretty and I wanted to take photographs.
Lynmouth will, of course, forever be remembered for the tragic flood of 1952 when 34 people died. An August storm had deposited nine inches of rain in 24 hours on the already-saturated Exmoor hills and the floodwaters converged on Lynmouth. The problem was exacerbated by the amount of fallen trees and other debris in the rivers; when a dam created by the debris finally gave way a huge wave of debris and water was sent hurtling towards Lynmouth. Over one hundred properties were destroyed or damaged beyond repair leaving hundreds homeless and 38 cars were swept out to sea. The sea wall was badly damaged and bridges were washed away. Electricity, telephones, water supplies, even the sewage system was totally disrupted.
The river has since been diverted around Lynmouth at its mouth, but the town has never forgotten those who died in the flood. A flood memorial hall has been dedicated to the disaster and the free exhibition includes first-person accounts, photographs and a scale model of Lynmouth as it looked before the flooding.
Apparently, there was a small group of houses on the bank of the East Lyn River called Middleham, between Lynmouth and Watersmeet, that was destroyed and never rebuilt. Today, a memorial garden stands on the site and is tended by the local community.
The rain was heavier now so when I suggested we popped into the Village Inn for a quick drink Harri was happy to oblige. We lingered for a while, watching the downpour through the window, reluctant to venture outside to resume our walk. At last there was a brief respite in the weather and we made a dash for it, but we’d barely reached Lynmouth’s shingle beach when the rain started again. With six miles of coastal walking ahead of us, we had no choice but to put our heads down and forge upwards and onwards on a steep wooded path, munching Swedish meatballs to keep the hunger pangs at bay.
Maybe he was trying to keep our spirits up, but Harri was refusing to define the current weather conditions as heavy rain, preferring instead to talk about ‘drizzle’. It was rather annoying. When it’s so wet you have to put your camera inside your waterproof to protect it, I’d say it’s raining heavily. Hours later, Harri voiced the opinion that perhaps we should have got a taxi back to County Gate … if only he’d mentioned this at the time!
Even in the dismal conditions, it was impossible not to be impressed by those bracken-covered cliffs dropping straight into the waves below. Time and time again, I found myself turning to look back at Lynmouth and while the visibility was dreadful the geology and rock formations of this coastline are compelling.
Oddly enough, we passed no other hikers on our bleak coastal yomp with the exception of a primary school group trudging joyfully through the mud a few minutes out of Lynmouth. It seemed everyone over 11 had more sense than to go for a coastal stroll this afternoon.
Of course, it’s when you’re cold and wet and desperate to get out of the rain that you make what turn out to be really stupid decisions. We decided to bypass an optional headland walk and stay high to avoid a long descent followed immediately by a steep climb. This meant leaving the main grassy footpath but we felt certain our chosen path would soon intersect the South West Coast Path route. We were wrong and realised too late that by following the footpath following a field boundary was leading us inland into a narrow valley. We stood on our bracken-covered hill gazing seawards. Rather than joining the main coastal footpath our route was taking us farther and farther away; there was no alternative but to retrace our steps. So much for a short-cut!
We reached Countisbury Cove, where Rodney’s Cottage Walkers Honesty Cafe (a lone and saturated table) offered hot and cold drinks, plus various nibbles, for just 50p or £1. We were tempted to stop for a cuppa but there was nowhere to sit and we just wanted to get back to the car. It was a relief when our footpath led us into woodland where there was at least some reprieve from the relentless downpour. It was here that we passed our first fellow walker since the schoolchildren at Porlock. The poor man was walking in a tee-shirt, presumably in an attempt to keep the rest of his kit dry, and he was carrying a tent! He didn’t stop but from the few words we exchanged as we passed we guessed he was Scandinavian.
The mist was lifting at last and the wind picking up. Within minutes we went from not being able to see the sea below us to seeing the faint outline of the Welsh coastline across the Bristol Channel. With no shelter from the gusting wind, we were starting to feel very cold in our soggy clothes. The final stretch to the car park was tough as we climbed back to the clifftop on a slippery, grass slope.
At just about the time the BBC weathermen forecast the day’s rain would begin, the sun emerged from the clouds and the final few minutes of our slog were almost pleasant had my legs not been covered in mud up to my knees, my shoes soaked through and my body shivering from the relentless rain.
I couldn’t help wondering if any other job existed where you can be wrong almost all of the time, disappoint your ‘customers’ day after day and yet remain in post?
If you’re interested in this 20 km walk, here’s our route. My advice is to wait until there’s a dry spell!