Along the coast of North Devon
This morning was distinctly brighter when I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and found the sunshine flooding the room. I had something before me, I thought, as I lay abed musing over my future plans. Here was Wednesday; by Friday night I must be at the foot of Snowdon to keep an appointment. A boat from Ilfracombe to somewhere in South Wales would make that comparatively easy, but then I should miss Lynton and Lynmouth, so I decided that a boat from, say, Minehead, tonight, would nicely fill the bill. So I must get to Minehead for an early boat.
As a stubbly crop had appeared in some density on my chin, and as I did not desire to be taken as a real tramp, I decided to patronise the first barber’s shop I came to. That barber was a traditional one as regards chinwag, but he ‘knew his Bideford’, and told me how he had followed ‘Westward Ho’ and all its characters all through North Devon. He had traced Amyas Leigh and his family and found them true characters, Salvation Yeo, Captain Oxenhope, Charles Carey of Clovelly, and many other old sea dogs he ascertained had actually once lived and undergone experiences just as exciting as Kingsley tells of, though, the barber told me, Carey was only 12 years of age when Kingsley credits him with crossing the Spanish Main. He was an exceedingly interesting and well informed man, was that Bideford barber. Owing to a burnt-up complexion, my adventures with the razor were just as exciting and painful as any of those buccaneers of the Main.
I came to Bideford Quay, where young Amyas heard Salvation Yeo exhorting his hearers to cross the Main with him and to:
“Fill his pockets with the good red gold
By sailing on the sea-oh!”
and where he had seen the marvellous hieroglyphic chart. Bideford Quay is just what anyone expects in an ordinary fishing town, for all the old picturesqueness has gone under the pressure of more modern needs. A statue of Kingsley stands at the end of the quay. Crossing the bridge, I joined a road that ran by an estuary of mudbanks, then ran across country on an uninteresting, hot, and dusty road to Barnstaple, which is called ‘Barum’ on the milestones for short. This place is similar to Bideford in style and ordinariness, but retains some slender hold on the past by the possession of an old council house or something; beneath its verandah are displayed in miniature all the coats of arms of the well known local families of bygone days. In a cage-like affair there stands the bartering table that did service at ‘Barum’ market centuries ago, and a big notice propounded to all and sundry the points of interest in the neighbourhood. The rivers Torridge (of Bideford) and the Taw (of Barnstaple) join forces here ‘ere they empty their muddy treacle into the bay at Appledore. Again the road was level and almost featureless for some miles, until it ran along a pretty little valley and then, evidently deciding that it would have to shape if it wanted to be called a Devonshire road, it climbed a big hill. The top on the other side was down an exquisite little valley that precipitated me into Ilfracombe.
Now I am not going to run Ilfracombe down just because it happens to be unfortunate enough to be popular and modern, for even I would not mind spending a day or two here-abouts for the sake of exploring the coast. The coast is great, and the setting is gorgeous, but the rows of classy shops and the big hotels and the band playing popular airs on a huge mass of rock that cuts the bay in two are liable to frighten away a mere cyclist. I enquired of a boat for South Wales, but found that, owing to the coal shortage, pleasure boats only sailed on Thursday afternoons, so I left Ilfracombe alone in its glory. Still, if I could not get a boat till then, how on earth could I get to Llanberis in time? I am not addicted to thinking for long at once, however, and ceased pondering with the thought that somehow or other I should manage it. I saw a cliff path zig-zagging up some steps, was fascinated with it, sweated up it, and arrived on the very road that I wanted, more by good luck than good management.
A swoop down brought me back to sea level at a tiny, almost cliff-bound bay which was ruined by a housing scheme and bathing vans. The long climb onto the cliffs again made me feel that lunch was an urgent problem. The view was absolutely great. The reddish cliffs, the green sea and the jutting headlands were finer than I had ever seen, finer than my imagination had painted them. I dropped down to Combe Martin, a famous beauty spot with a tiny, quaint harbour and a long straggling village leading up the combe. Here I had dinner of strawberries and cream at a café that proclaimed its nature to me as soon as I got inside. Tiny, painted teacups and wafers of bread are of little use to a hungry cyclist. The waitress opened her eyes when I called for plateful after plateful; then when the bill came I opened my eyes – and ‘paid through the nose’.
The belated heat-wave had returned with renewed vigour when I started again, so I decided that I deserved a rest and bought a newspaper and some postcards, stopping beyond the village to read and write. But something else had a say in it, for I was driven away by those ferocious, man-eating vipeds, the Midge family, which were undisturbed by dense columns of Woodbine smoke by which I sought to defend myself. Followed a long, long tramp uphill through deep, hot woods, with never a sign of water where I might quench a long-standing thirst. When I reached the top, I saw a lane leading towards the sea, and caring not whither I went, I followed it. I led me to Trentishoe, a tiny hamlet with an ancient church, then over a heath with a view of a great shining sea. A heat haze robbed me of the views of South Wales. A fork road that I took deteoriated into a track and ended in a farmyard at the head of a little dell, but by enquiring I was shown a path that led me down the dell into exquisite woodland scenery – and to a stream where my thirst was temporarily banished. The dell ran into a magnificent combe whose steep sides were clothed in woods, and I joined a narrow road at an hotel called Hunters Inn.
My road was now all uphill, and was motorised to the point of exasperation. In the hot rays of a merciless sun I padded the hoof round and round and in and out with many a stop for water until I reached the edge of the cliffs again. Glorious Devon ! Oh, who could traverse this part of the English wonderland and see those iron-bound cliffs, those jagged rock-teeth, that sapphire sea and those distant headlands, one beyond the other, without being affected. The miles of hard-riding and walking behind and before me were limmed into delightfulness at this magnificent vista. Here, now, was the time to sit gazing over it all and let ones thoughts soar to realms beyond the world. Here was the place where to be alone was most desirable, for, though I like to share these delights with a companion, there are times when I would rather be alone in my communion with nature. A companion whose whole mind is in sympathy and is toned with one’s own is rare, and of all my friends, only one I know finds the same delights and feelings as myself.
Walking and stopping every few minutes was my mode of progress along that cliff road. I left the motor-road and kept on a cliff path, eventually running down between over-hanging bushes of bramble and golden gorse to Woody Bay. It is a woody bay; here the cliffs are hidden beneath a dense growth of bushes, and right from the waters edge one sees nothing but green and gold bush, first sheer, then in a gradual upward sweep to the summit. Beyond here the red cliffs again took precedence, then after a dip into another attractive little combe (I forget the name) I climbed over a golf course in which was an old mansion made into a hotel (Lee Abbey), and reached the Valley of Rocks. This, in direct contrast to Woody Bay is entirely devoid of trees. Here rocks are piled up in all conceivable shapes, some great solid masses, some delicately pinnacled, and some finely balanced. The narrow path wormed in and out of the rocks then ran on the edge of the cliffs, showing the same magnificent coast views as before, and I eventually reached Lynton, which is upper – and modern Lynmouth.
I was hungry, but couldn’t find a place, so I dropped down to the Ilfracombe-Minehead road, which here consists of mud, ruts, and contortions at a gradient of one in five; Beggars Roost by name, and said to be the most dangerous main road hill in England. At its foot is Lynmouth, another of those quaint fishing villages amid surroundings of breathless beauty. Then, on an empty stomach I started up the two mile, one in seven Countisbury Hill. If you intend to go up Countisbury, have a feed at the bottom. It is worth it. Half way up I met some Manchester CTCites, and had a long chat with them. They put me wise to a good place at Watchet, eight miles beyond Minehead, of which more later. Just near the summit, when my eyes were glazing, and I was sinking fast for want of food, I spotted a farmhouse with a ‘teas’ notice inside the garden, so in I trooped. I found it the tea-place of my dreams. A real Devon tea it was, with strawberries and thick butter-like cream, all kinds of fruit, and eggs and delicious bread and butter and cake – it was a right blow-out. My afternoon mileage was fourteen !
Within two miles of Countisbury, Devon, glorious Devon was behind me, and I was back in “Zummerzet”, and on the sea-edge of Exmoor Forest, wherein are wild red deer. I saw none. Aided by a strong breeze, and the cooler air of evening, I was able to make great headway over the ups and downs, and was often rewarded with views of the glistening sea away on my left or rolling moors and wooded combes on my right. Then the Porlock fork road was reached, and I took the toll road – the main road descends one of the worst hills in England at a one in five gradient. The view from the edge of Exmoor, over the vale, and the golden bay of Porlock was magnificent, holding me for a long time. The descent on the toll road to Porlock village afforded me many fine views both seaward and landward, and the neat, whitewashed village was a picture in itself. Followed a fairly easy run between the hills, with the setting sun behind throwing a crimson glamour on the even sea, and the ‘evening glow’ spreading over the countryside, to Minehead, a pleasant enough seaport. No boats would leave for Wales for a week !
Hm, the position was getting more complicated ! If no boats were available, my only way was by the Severn tunnel, which would mean a ride to Llanberis of about 380 miles, obviously an impossibility in two days. I decided to try that place at Watchet, so, as the time was 9.45 I ‘did a blind’. Then I saw a signpost pointing to Dunster, which, I had heard, was worth seeing, so off I flew up a secluded lane. Dunster is a wonderful little place, hidden from the rest of the world, and passed by, unnoticed by the roar of modern traffic. Old fashioned, overshadowed by the wooded hillsides, sweetly scented by the creeper roses adorning the walls, and quaint, with its ancient little covered market, it demands a place amongst the foremost of England’s prettiest villages.
Another blind down another lane from the main road landed me in Watchet, and I soon found the recommended place, at 11.10pm ! At supper I had a table fit for a duke, with food that would make the same duke green with envy. Mine host promised to find out if a boat crossed the Channel from Weston-super-Mare, informing me that had I been a little earlier I should have got a chance of spending a night in a fishing smack, reaching Barry Dock for breakfast next day. That would have been OK ! Anyway, I consoled myself, one can’t have it both ways.