Areas of outstanding natural beauty are sometimes a logistical nightmare – this one comes in the shape of the rivers Avon, Erme and Yealm, not to mention Plymouth Sound. All of these stretches of water have to be crossed, one way or another and I suppose I can count myself lucky that it’s the summer season when the ferries are actually in operation. From the wonderful Sloop Inn I head down the walkway to the Bantham Ferry which consists of a small wooden boat with an outboard motor. The ferryman appears and heads off in a rubber dinghy to fetch the boat and bring it in for me to board – the crossing takes three minutes. I hop off onto a sandbank and wade through shallow puddles until I’m at the foot of Mount Folly Hill, which isn’t as strenuous or as daunting as it looks and sounds.It is a beautiful day and after my climb up I am rewarded with a wonderful view of the estuary – three or four different shades of blue water swirl around in the morning sunshine, gentle waves lap lazily on the honey coloured sand. Just before this sign for the coast path I walk past a field of tents and caravans, the sound of children playing happily outside, the smell of breakfast bacon sizzling away on camping stoves and it makes me nostalgic for the camping holidays of my childhood. Walking sometimes makes me very sentimental……. ……..although when I reach the beach at Bigbury- on-Sea I can’t wait to get away from the holiday makers and up onto the cliff path overlooking Burgh Island. Close up, the hotel, with its art deco features and famous guests, does not seem to promise the grand isolation I previously associated it with – perhaps because when I saw it before the tide was in and the only means of access was a sea tractor.
Walking on I pass the beach at Challborough and from now on the landscape gets wilder. Hidden inaccessible coves down below and spectacular rock formations – slabs of limestone standing proud in the sea, reflecting the light like massive solar panels. Despite some steep ascents I am making progress and by midday I emerge from the shrubs of a narrow path down the cliff onto the sands of Wonwell Beach. There are a few walkers here before me, munching sandwiches and taking in the beauty of the mouth of the River Erme. There is no ferry across the estuary but at low tide you can wade across – the water either comes up to your ankles or your waist depending on who you talk to. It is high tide now and I have no sandwiches, only a fast decaying, day old salad and no fork, so I decide to carry on and reach my bed for the night in Kingston. Here I can empty out half my rucksack and after a bite to eat, get someone to take me round the estuary to carry on walking for the rest of the day – it is too early to stop now.
Reluctantly, as I would have liked a snooze in the sunshine, I turn inland and follow the east bank of the river until I find the very steep path to Kingston which takes me through some lovely woodland, a cool green refuge from the glare of the midday sun. Panting with exertion, my mind’s eye glued to visions of tall glasses of iced fizzy water, I stumble out onto the tarmac road that leads into the village. Past some pretty cottages and here is the Dolphin Inn where I am staying the night.Sprawled on a chair outside, with the dregs of a pint in his hands, is a rather large, unsavoury looking character who gleefully informs me that the pub is closed til 6 pm. “But…but…” I splutter, “I have a room booked for tonight” …..the man looks at me for a long two seconds, slowly stubs out his cigarette on the tarmac and then heaves himself up out of the chair, only to disappear round the back of the pub presumably looking for the landlord. Two minutes later the proprietor appears – a friendly relaxed man who sorts out a drink for me, shows me to my room and after numerous phone calls, manages to arrange a taxi to take me round the estuary……he apologises for no food but provides me with a bag of crisps and a fork. I am content and grateful.
An hour later I am being dropped at a spot on the coast which I have calculated is a two hour walk east of Mothecombe, from where I will walk back arriving in time to wade the Erme and make my way back to Kingston for the night. The path back to Mothecombe is easy walking through woodlands and on high ground above the sea, overlooking yet more imposing rock formations. It is late afternoon now and I meet no-one on the path – I stop to have a chat with a beautiful little calf. Moving on I suddenly find myself worrying about walking alone in an area of no mobile signal (of which there are many down here). Twenty minutes later, I stumble on something or other, my right ankle gives way and I find myself on the ground. Cursing, and feeling a little foolish I warily take a step to assess the damage – it’s not bad – but I remember the same thing happening in Lulworth Cove and when I got to take the boot off, the ankle doubled in size and I couldn’t walk. Lets hope the same thing doesn’t happen again. I am now a firm believer in the self-fulfilling prophecy.Half an hour later I arrive at Mothecombe Beach, a lovely stretch of soft sand backed by woodland. Another short stretch and I would be on the west bank of the Erme facing Wonwell beach where I was this morning. I have covered more ground than I expected and low tide is two hours away. Even if I was to wait and try to wade the river, I would have another forty minutes of walking to the pub in Kingston and my ankle is quite sore.
A few families are packing up for the day and I ask them if there is a telephone box or anywhere I can call a taxi in Mothercombe……I am directed to a box but it’s derelict. Wandering around the village I spy a man cleaning his car and ask him for information about local taxis – he leads me down to knock on the door of the village taxi service but there is no reply. To my astonishment (and secret relief) he offers to drive me himself. It is a twenty minute drive and he refuses my money. Some people are just nice.