Very early next morning I am surprised to see people already up exploring the rock pools of Lee Bay.
I stand and gather my wits for a few minutes, adjusting my rucksack and making sure I have the triumvirate of camera, phone and purse all in the right place. I then follow the signs up onto Damage Cliffs, the path widening out into a broad grassy track.
The map tells me there should be some standing stones off to the left but I see no sign of them. After 40 minutes or so of quite gentle walking I see below me the roof of the lighthouse at Bull Point.
I’m hoping that I may be allowed to visit the lighthouse but the complex seems to be gated off and although the lighthouse is still in use I discover that the cottages are holiday lets.
Heading south towards Rockham Bay I see two large dinghies arrive and stop close to the rocks below. They remain bobbing up and down on the water for about 10 minutes before turning round and speeding back to Ilfracombe. A couple ahead of me are watching them, peering down the cliff and they tell me that this is supposed to be a favourite spot for basking seals. I’m sure nothing can get close to my experience of a large pod of seals that Damian and I walked into on a beach in Norfolk – there were at least 30 of them and the smell lingered in my nostrils for a while afterwards.
About a mile after turning the corner at Morte Point I climb up to a point where I think I can see the outskirts of Woolacombe – but no, what I can see is the village of Mortehoe, where I follow a sign that promises to take me to Woolacombe, avoiding the tarmac road. Another steep climb and I find myself confronted with several narrow tracks that wind their way down through ferns and bracken to end up in Woolacombe. I take one of them.
This is where I now take the bus from Woolacombe, back to Ilfracombe to collect my things and then on to Combe Martin to deposit half of my rucksack. I promise I will not mention these tedious arrangements again but I think it’s about time I pointed out the coast path is not always a straightforward paddle along endless stretches of golden sand.
It is said that Combe Martin has the longest village high street in England but this is a myth as the longest street is in Stewkley in Buckinghamshire. Nevertheless it is a mile and a half long and what maybe another myth is that it was on Concorde’s flight path so the pilots knew they were heading in the right direction out of Britain!
I start my second walk at the small beach on which a row of colourful kayaks are lined up.
The first part of the route follows the main road but in places it is possible to veer off onto short stretches of shady lane.
It is easy walking, quite flat, and I soon reach Watermouth Harbour and Bay where the track walks me through an extensive camping site with all manner of voluminous tents equipped with “everything but the kitchen sink” .
The bay beyond is stunning ……I have never been to Thailand but I’ve seen pictures a bit like this.
At Hele Bay I follow a track up into the woods, taking me up to Beacon Point.
The path is steep and my calves are screaming at me to stop but I want to get to Ilfracombe before I rest.
At last I turn a corner and see Ilfracombe beneath me. I suddenly realise that I had previously only seen the west side of the town. Walking down from the east takes me to the harbour.
…………..and at the entrance to the harbour the infamous statue of Verity, created by Damian Hirst, on loan to the town for 20 years. This controversial piece of public art has brought in revenue to the town but there are mixed opinions about its aesthetic value.
On the left side, looking out to sea towards South Wales, we see a strikingly defiant pregnant woman, sword in one hand, the scales of justice in the other. On the other side, which you can only see by walking down to the end of the harbour wall, she is stripped of her skin covering, her internal anatomy and foetus brutally exposed to the elements.
Hirst describes it as “an allegory of truth and justice” but I’m not sure the anatomy lesson is necessary, I think the work is powerful enough without it.
Anyway, on a more prosaic note I realise I need to eat so following the footprints in the tarmac that the considerate citizens of Ilfracombe have planted all through the town, I make my way back to the other side of town for fish and chips.
After supper and a shower I still have time for more exploring, so despite the fact that my feet in sandals feel quite unstable, I head for what are known as the Tunnels Beaches.
In 1823 a team of hundreds of Welsh miners hand carved through the cliffs to allow easy access to an existing cove, a frequent sanctuary for smugglers. They subsequently built three tidal bathing pools – two for the women and one for the men. Nowadays there are only two and when I visit the men’s pool is closed off for a wedding – there is a cafe/restaurant above the pool.
Here are some pictures….
Some years later the Ilfracombe Sea Bathing Company erected an elegant new bath house where both hot and cold water sea water baths were available for health and hygiene. Sea water was fed from the Tunnels Beaches via a wood fuelled boiler that in turn powered a pump.
There is a priceless quotation in the information leaflet taken from an article written in 1867.
Ilfracombe and its baths are ideal for invalids, waifs and strays from the heat of India, worn out clergymen…….and to people, whether young or old, whose ailments arise mainly from want of stamina and general lack of tone”
And I think that’s enough of Ilfracombe for the time being.
Distance: 13 miles