Don’t ever be deceived into thinking places that look idyllic are necessarily filled with pleasant, peace-loving people. This morning we got a glimpse of the darker side of village life, i.e. the disdain some local people feel towards visitors, when Harri decided to get petrol and pulled off Porlock‘s main street into one of those nearly-extinct petrol garages where someone actually comes out to serve you.
It was an extremely tight right-hand turn and, having never visited this particular garage before, Harri slightly misjudged the angle necessitating a small amount of manoeuvring before our car was lined up with the petrol pump. There was no reason for me to get out of the car but I was suddenly roused from my happy thoughts by the loud, domineering voice of a local woman. Afterwards Harri told me that she’d been tailgating him all the way into Porlock and when he’d turned right she’d just followed him (apparently there’s a small locals’ car park behind the garage). Had she so much as glanced at the road ahead, she would have noticed the articulated lorry heading towards her as she waited on the wrong side of the road. Fortunately, the lorry driver was looking and a collision was avoided; however, this horrid, self-opinionated woman then decided her near-miss was Harri’s fault. And boy, wasn’t she going to let him know it! Thankfully he’s a decent soul and he refused to rise to the bait. When she finally stormed off, all red in the face, the garage owner turned to Harri and apologised profusely. He said the woman was always in a rush and left it at that but I suspect she’s verbally attacked his customers on many occasions.
With the adrenaline pumping, we left the garage and set off to Lynton. Once again the weather forecast was proving inaccurate. Rather than dry and windy weather, it looked like we were going to get another soaking. We’d based our day’s walking plans on fine weather (and had planned an all-day walk of about 13-14 miles); now the prospect of another rainy day on Exmoor loomed and we were having second thoughts.
Fortunately, the route Harri had planned had several ‘opt out’ points so we decided to set off and see how things developed weather-wise. On our steep drive down into Lynmouth, Harri was amused by a sign saying cyclists were advised to walk. It was a 20% gradient with lots of bends but not really a problem for an experienced cyclist … we thought the majority might be more inclined to get off and walk if they were travelling in the opposite direction, i.e. uphill.
Lynton itself is perched on cliffs high above Lynmouth. The two small towns are close geographically but are separated by steep cliffs which no-one is keen to climb. Before the cliff railway opened, people used to get here by pony or donkey at 6d a journey; those who could afford it travelled by horse-drawn coach – unsurprisingly, those poor overburdened horses had short working lives!
Harri always likes to identify the toughest climb of the day and today is was the steep climb out of Lynton. It gives you some idea of how high the cliffs are in these parts when you consider that Lynton itself is around 550 feet above sea level. Eventually the lane levelled off and we were met immediately with strong gusts of wind and spitting rain. To our left, Exmoor looked bleak and misty, and yet the air wasn’t cold enough for coats.
I’m beginning to think that if you’re walking on Exmoor, you need to ignore the weather forecast for Minehead because the sheltered coastal resort appears to enjoy a completely different climate to the one we were experiencing on the high cliffs and moorlands. Once again, we were battling strong winds coming off the land and sheeting rain as we forged forward on exposed country lanes.
When it was clear the weather wasn’t going to improve, we agreed to cut our walk short and head straight down to the coast somewhere west of Woody Bay. It was the right decision for as we approached the coast the skies above brightened and the wind died down.
Soon it stopped raining and, for a while, we walked contentedly along an almost traffic-free lane high above the coast and looking down on densely wooded slopes (hence Woody Bay!).
By the time we reached Lee Bay (not to be confused with the larger Lee Bay between Ilfracombe and Woolacombe) and stopped for late elevenses, it was surprisingly bright and sunny. The geology here is very interesting. What at first glance appears to be high coastal cliffs is, in fact, a moraine; glacial debris was deposited here during the last Ice Age and is now entirely covered in vegetation. After the morning’s dismal weather, we lingered in this pretty sheltered spot awhile, basking in the unexpected sunshine. There’s very little to see at Lee Bay itself, although the houses at the top of the beach path are very pretty with ornate wooden trimming on the eaves. There are limestone kilns here too and the bench we sat on was built to look like one.
We eventually dragged ourselves away from the bay and headed up the Toll Road (free for walkers and – it would seem – several car drivers who drove past the ‘honesty’ box without stopping). I suppose whether or not you feel obliged to pay a toll to a probably-wealthy landowner depends on your politics. It was somewhere around here that we once photographed a sign saying ‘On this spot on April 1 1780 nothing happened’ but it seems to have disappeared – perhaps the joke has worn thin.
Lee Abbey is certainly not the sort of property you’d expect to find in this isolated coastal spot. For a start, it’s enormous with lawns that sweep impressively down to the bay we’d just left. I’m not sure how much of the turreted facade we could see from the toll road is original but it’s hard to take your eyes off those Gothic windows. The property is a Christian retreat, holiday and conference centre. I’ve just had a quick look at their website and it looks a truly fantastic place … if you’re a Christian (which I’m not). There are all sorts of volunteering opportunities, plus outdoor activities and crafts events.
The highlight of today’s walking had to be Valley of the Rocks: a valley high above the sea and without a river. I found this great little film which theorises why this might be. As always when there’s a car park in close vicinity, the valley was teeming with people. The South West Coast Path runs through the middle of the valley before directing you along a wide tarmac coast-hugging path where wild goats graze cling precariously to vertical cliffs, apparently unfazed by the constant flow of visitors.
By now, the weather was souring so we were glad our shortened walk was coming to an end. Back in Lynton, I hung around on a bridge waiting for the Lynton-Lynmouth cliff railway to pass below. The railway is an incredible feat of engineering, built to link Lynmouth in the valley with Lynton high above, but what’s most intriguing is that the original idea for the water-powered railway came from an anonymous letter to the Lynton & Lynmouth Recorder newspaper in December 1881. The seed was planted, but these things don’t happen overnight and it wasn’t until Easter Monday 1890 that the first cars travelled up and down the towering embankment. There’s more fascinating information about the building of the railway on its website.
Our short jaunt to the West Country had come to an end; however, we’ll be returning to Exmoor again before too long … perhaps in summer next time!
At 13 km, our eventual route was considerably shorter than we’d planned. If you’re interested in doing a shorter coastal walk in Exmoor here’s the link to the route.