And on the fifth day, I was in Devon.
My running buddy John had decided to come down and run with me over the early bank holiday, and due to some horrid traffic on the M5, had ended up meeting me directly in Axmouth rather than leaving the car in Exeter and running with a pack as planned.
This, it turned out, would be a boon, and part of what would make these 3 days an absolute joy to run.
Starting out together in Axmouth we stowed our gear in his car and followed the path over towards Sidmouth. John had clearly put an order in for good weather and the sky was almost painfully blue and clear, the trails were dry and bouncy, and while there were some really juicy climbs in that 12 mile section, they were more than made up for by long, technical, ridiculously fun descents. Without the weight of the pack it was the first time in days that I’d been able to move completely freely and to do so with a good friend was just pure joy.
We ran, talked nonsense, and enjoyed some pretty spectacular views – still walking the uphills because while this is fun I still have 3 more weeks to do – but generally having a great time of it until his knee started giving him trouble.
On arriving in Sidmouth, we reconvened and discussed the plan. Originally I had pegged that to be the end point for the day, making it a second short one after Seatown to Axmouth, but was feeling way too good and we were at Sidmouth by 1pm, so we agreed that John would take the bus back for his car and he would drive to meet up again just outside of Exmouth, with the plan to camp there.
So armed with a water bottle and my phone tucked into the strap of my bra, off I went and off he went.
The path to Exmouth is about as flat as the Coast Path realistically gets – there’s a big climb coming out of Sidmouth, and another nasty one coming into Exmouth proper, but between them the trails were open, gently undulating and exactly the kind of terrain to just open up the stride and let ‘er rip. Which is exactly what I did.
After 4 days of struggling and often feeling like a complete fraud for how much I’d been having to walk, for barely being able to crawl up the hills, for being too slow and too weak, this was exactly the confidence boost that I had needed to feel like myself again. Sure I’d had to walk. But damnit, I’m still a runner, I can do this and I felt strong.
On arriving at our meeting point in Sandy Bay, we very rapidly realised that this was not a tenting kind of campsite. It was more like a Devon answer to Butlins and the size of a small town entirely composed of static caravans and holiday chalets. It was hell.
So, rechecking Google we eventually managed to locate a campsite that looked more promising and jumped into the car to head up to what turned out to be exactly the kind of quiet situation we’d been hoping for. Tents pitched, civvies on, and we were off to hunt down some dinner after a highly successful first day.
After waking up at 4am to the sound of cows mooing and then again at 5am when some pigeons decided to coo obnoxiously above our tents, we made our plans for the Sunday. John still wasn’t sure about his knee so dropped me off in Starcross to save faffing about with waiting for ferries, and we agreed to meet at the Salty Seadog kiosk in Holcombe, around 4 miles down the path. The running was flat, blissfully so, and went along the sea wall through Dawlish and Dawlish Warren following the train line. I found myself falling in with a local out for his Sunday run and we passed a very pleasant half hour or so chatting away and remarking on how gorgeous a morning it was before I peeled away to climb the headland and make for Holcombe and he headed home.
True to his word, John was at the bottom of the road right by the beach – a very narrow, steep and twisty road with no real turning circle at the end, which I later found out led to some hilarity with a barrel… – so I refilled the water bottle and we ran the next section of sea wall together into Teignmouth. Being honest, the tarmac was as tough on my body as some of the hills had been before and I had to ask to walk a fair bit of the sea front even though it was flat (trail shoes, tired legs and road do not mix well), until we got to the ferry crossing. Not being in much of a mood to wait around for ferries here either, I decided it wasn’t that much further all told to just head up and cross via the bridge and hit Shaldon via the road since that part was all on tarmac anyway. John left me at the bridge where I made a pitstop at a Tesco petrol station for what was dubbed “emergency factor 50” to try and combat the fact I had sweated off all of the sunblock I’d applied earlier, and I ran on to our next meeting point at Maidencombe.
The climbs coming out of Teignmouth towards Torquay were… juicy. Very juicy. Even without the pack and carrying just the water bottle (phone still tucked away in my bra), I was back to the shuffle/pause/gasp/admire the view/shuffle on again game, but at least it was gloriously sunny and the views were pretty stunning.
Maidencombe tagged, water refilled, onwards to Babbacombe. I was getting onto home turf now, running past my old primary school and the beach with the little funicular railway (yes, it’s that steep). John had managed to get chatting to a couple of hikers out for the day and told them what I was doing, so I arrived in Babbacombe to unexpected cheers and clapping which was both hilarious and a bit weird. Again, refill of the bottle, check of the map, and agreed to meet at Torquay railway station as the final stop.
The last few miles coming into Torquay were a mixture of pine woods and tarmac, and again the road hurt, but it was worth it for some pretty brilliant views over Hope’s Nose.
I made it through the shock of Torquay on a sunny bank holiday (hell on earth, if you’re wondering), found John at the station, and from there we headed to my mum’s in Paignton where we’d be staying for the night, agreeing as we went that the Coast Path between the two was sorely lacking in redeeming features other than its proximity to the sea.
My mum was (perhaps surprisingly) delighted to see our sweaty, dusty selves on her doorstep and we were ushered in, fed, and passed a lovely quiet evening before hitting the hay and getting to enjoy a night in a proper bed before our last day of “fast and light” tag teaming.
Day 3 of John’s visit really capped things off. John had managed to find a way of taping up the knee so it was functional, so after dropping me off at Goodrington Sands (we agreed there was literally no point in doing the Torquay -> Paignton section other than pedantic completionism, and being all tarmac…. no thank you) he headed off to get to our meeting point at Brixham harbour.
The entire last few days I’d been getting a slow feeling of being on familiar turf, but coming through Torquay and Paignton seafronts there wasn’t any real emotional connection to the places. It was just somewhere I had lived, albeit for most of my life.
But the moment, the very instant that my feet hit the Coast Path between Goodrington and Broadsands, where I had run so many times with Papa and with my old running club, I knew I was home. Up the hill where my old coach used to live. Past the steam railway. Up the steep steps, one, two, sixty, onto the red clay tracks, bounce round the mud patch, down under the viaduct to Broadsands Beach, it was as familiar as breathing. Along Broadsands beach, up onto the golf course. There, the spot where I used to scramble over the rocks to get to Elberry Cove while my parents walked up above. There, the little arch where I went swimming in my teens. Down to the pebble beach, legs pausing on the shifting stones. Here, where we walked practically every weekend and most days of the school holidays. Up the steep stairs into the woods, left towards Churston. Here, where I learned to dance the trails, where I learned to run, to love where I lived. Over and through, hit the steep steps down where Churston Cove emerges like a jewel between the gaps of the trees. Here, where my feet know the rocks and roots and every rise and fall and I’ve kept coming back to and for a few minutes in time, it was like the Old Wolf was right there, running with me along the trails we both knew and loved…
This. This is what it is to come home.
From there it was a short hop over to Fishcombe and through the fishing port to Brixham Harbour. I had seen a few people in pirate get-up and assumed it was just Brixham and no more of it, but on arrival at the Golden Hind I found the entire harbour front was occupied with some sort of pirate themed festival. I found John and we moved on quickly to get to Berry Head.
Again, so familiar, so deeply, painfully familiar. There, Shoalstone where I used to swim in the bright blue water. There, my school friend’s old house. Up the road to the headland where we used to walk her dog. Down to the very edge of the point, where the sky and sea were so brightly blue, not a cloud in sight, then along to St Mary’s Bay and on to Sharkham Point. I recalled the time my friend Sammy went swimming in the sea in March because it was her birthday. We ran on, back to where John had parked. Refill the water, grab a quick snack, agreed to meet near Scabbacombe Sands and then I was off again, the ground so familiar beneath my feet and the open fields a sea of bluebells and awash with the smell of the bright yellow gorse.
From Scabbacombe there were some really big climbs we hit together, following the path along some glorious cliff-edge single track all the way round to Colleton Fishacre. I told John about the time we hiked the 10 miles from Brixham to Kingswear with Papa on the hottest day of summer. There was a brief pause as we hit a descent and as we started climbing up the other side heard the sound of drumming hooves; we turned around to catch sight of half a dozen wild ponies galloping down the field towards where we had just come from and stopped to watch them.
It was shortly after this point coming up a climb that I heard someone above us call out “Leah? Leah Atherton? Hi!”
Turned out it was one of the local trail running community who was out running and had hoped to catch me on the way through. We had a lovely little chat, and he also agreed that John was the true hero of the tale for crewing the way he had been. Chat over, onwards and upwards, not forgetting to pause and really look at where we were.
At Colleton there were only about 4 miles left to get to Kingswear but with the heat and sweating in what felt like literal litres, we stopped off at the gardens for a cold drink and in my case, a tactical scone. When in Rome.
John left me at the gardens to loop back for the car so he could meet me in Kingswear while I headed back to the trail.
Again, this was deeply familiar territory. The routes round Brownstone and the Daymark tower were a regular feature when I was growing up, but even so I was taken aback by just how steep some of the stairs coming up from the old gun battery were. The views on Frorward Point were pretty incredible though, and the trails in that section were heaven to run on – just technical enough to keep you on your toes, open enough to really open out the stride and have some fun. I paused at the Point to admire the view and chat to a couple of hikers, and then was off again into the woods to Kingswear.
The final stretch into Kingswear from there is mostly wooded, a mixture of bluebells and pine forest making for really pleasant and interesting running (not to mention lovely and soft on the feet!), and over all too quickly.
John had holed up in a bit of a piratical bar type establishment while waiting for me to come in, so we had a quick catch up about how that last section had gone. It had been another relatively short day at just shy of 17 miles altogether, but unloaded had felt much less.
He reminded me not to get cocky, and that it would still get plenty tough from here.
Drinks finished, we headed home – me back to my mum’s for a last night before rejoining the path fully loaded up again at Dartmouth in the morning, and him back to Birmingham.
It has been a perfect weekend of running, a show of truly selfless friendship from John, and for me…. well, for me it has been coming home.
Note – this is a more in depth write up, but regular updates are posted up to Facebook at Poet on the Run