So it’s been a little while since I did a proper write up but this one seems apt to start with, all considered.
As the Coast Path meanders its way along the beaches, clifftops and inlets of the West Country, there are a good few places where, despite all best efforts and intentions, water must be crossed.
For the most part I had managed to avoid the crossings in the early stages thanks to help from Mr Weaver and my mum, but after Dartmouth it was get the ferry or else, and where those inlets happen, it adds a whole new level of excitement to the day. When I say excitement, what I mean is sometimes a genuine thrill of taking a boat across to a charming new location, but more often than not a headache involving tide time calculations, and trying to make sure I get to the dock before the last one goes. Thus, the three stories I want to share of ferries, footpaths, and the power of human kindness.
After leaving Dartmouth there are no less than four river crossings in order to get to Plymouth.
The first of these went off without a hitch, coming into Salcombe at the end of the day and holing up somewhere cosy for the night before hitting the next few in fairly quick succession the next day. I was riding high on the half day lead I’d got on my original plan, I was feeling strong and there was a whole lot of trail waiting to be explored.
On the morning, I knew that I would have a bit of a walk to get back to the trail from where I had stayed, but set out in good spirits along the narrow lanes towards Bolt Head. It was here that a passing car stopped alongside me, the road so small that there was barely room for me and it in the same space, and the elderly gentleman behind the wheel wound down the window and enquired if I was trying to get somewhere. I said I was heading for the Coast Path and he smiled, said he was going that way and offered me a lift.
In Birmingham, I would have instantly declined, but round these parts things work a bit differently and I had a good feeling about it so I accepted, dropped the pack in the back seat and off we went. We chatted as we went along – he’d been coming down to Salcombe for fifty years with his wife and sons, and now grandchildren, but was originally from the Midlands and terribly excited to meet someone hiking the whole trail. He took a second and suddenly asked if I’d eaten breakfast, or if I’d like to join him and the family. Now, a lift I could accept pretty easily as it was on his way, but despite the lack of proper breakfast that morning I just couldn’t bring myself to impose further, so declined, was dropped off at the trail head by Bolt Head and wished good luck, and off I went.
The trail hit some utterly spectacular sections as it undulated over Start Point and around to Hope, where I made a pit stop for some of the best avocado and poached eggs on toast I’ve ever had. I made use of the wifi to update people on progress, then headed out for Bantham for the crossing over to Bigbury-on-Sea and Burgh Island.
As it transpired, the ferry to get across from Bantham to Bigbury only runs from 10am to 11am, and then from 3pm to 4pm, so I knew pretty early on that I’d have to find another way. The guide book recommended calling a cab in to get round as the diversion would have added another 6-8 miles and the local firms were quite used to picking up hikers, so I stopped off in the pub to see if I could call one from there.
This is where I met Peter.
He was an older chap, easily in his seventies, and was at the bar enjoying a beer when I arrived. We chatted about what I was doing in that part of the world, and exchanged stories; he told me about life on the river, and I explained that I was completing the path in memory of my dad, and told him a little about Papa. He paused, said he knew a lot of the old guard runners and asked his name, which I gave, as well as the usual description – ‘silver beard, always wore blue shorts and what used to be a yellow vest, ran for SW Vets’.
“Ah, yes, I think I remember the chap,” he said, frowning with concentration. “Either way, I have a boat, I’ll row you across, save you paying for a taxi.”
It took a second to process, and I offered him the payment that would have gone to the ferryman; he refused, and declined a drink. Only said to give him a moment to find some boots and we’d be off.
The boat, it turned out, was a tiny plastic tub with oars, and I felt so guilty as he slowly, carefully rowed us across, me and my pack making the weight uneven. I offered to help with the oars; also an offer declined.
Eventually we made it across to the Bigbury side of the river where he left me on the shore and wished me luck before simply turning the boat around and rowing back.
Maybe it was the lack of food. Maybe it was the unexpected kindness. Maybe it was the fact that Papa’s name still holds some weight and people remember who he was, but that did for me.
I managed to walk about five minutes up into the hedges on the riverbank before the floodgates opened and I found myself crying my eyes out. Not a bit of a sniffle. Full scale, hiccuping, puffy faced ugly crying, for no good reason other than people had been nice to me.
After a while I managed to pull it together and get going again, and the trail round that area was really runnable, with great views across Burgh Island, but with the tide coming in I decided that my original plan of Wembury was quite literally a river too far, and decided to call in and stay at an Inn in Kingston instead while waiting for morning.
After a delightfully dry night in a real bed – and feeling quite smug for being indoors while it heaved down outside overnight – I felt ready to hit the Erme, or hike round it, whatever necessary.
I’d been warned that low tide was early, and as I wasn’t sure about the exact crossing point I sort of looked at the maps, decided I was fresh enough to deal with the detour and played it safe, striking out inland for the roads through a number of villages so tiny that they only appear on Google maps when you’ve zoomed in far enough to see individual houses.
It was as I was hiking up a hill towards Orcheton that I met a lady coming the opposite way with her dog.
We exchanged pleasantries, and she asked where I was hiking to; on hearing that I was taking the detour she was completely horrified and immediately said that the tide wasn’t too high, and that she would give me a lift down to the river and show me the crossing point over the estuary. And if it was too high to cross, she said that she would drive me around rather than having to walk the additional 8-10 miles around. After yesterday’s unexpected reaction to exactly this sort of random kindness I was quite ready to press on regardless but she insisted, and explained that she and her husband had section hiked the path a few years ago in the same direction I was going (which apparently was the infinitely preferable one).
So, after we had walked back to her home so she could drop off the dog, we headed down to the estuary and, lo and behold the tide was still low enough to cross.
Sally directed me to the section where the water was lowest, just as a group of trail runners came over in the opposite direction, waving a cheery good morning to us as I shed my shoes and socks. (Better that than wet sandy feet all day)
The water was icy cold but only reached up as far as my knees, so pressing on across the stream I turned back to thank her, was again wished good luck and happy trails, and off we went in our different directions.
I eventually made it to Plymouth that evening, and despite the 6 miles of tarmac coming through the dockyards as I made my way to dinner at a cafe that I’d had recommended by a friend from Advent Running, I was in decent shape and good spirits thanks to Sally’s intervention and her taking the time to show a lost hiker the best way across the water.
(Sally, if you’re reading this, thank you again – you were a real trail angel that day!)
Not all cases of missed ferry crossings and fording rivers ended with what could be called a successful day, but this is where Emilia’s story really comes in.
After a really lovely couple of days in South Cornwall where I was able to catch up with family friend Paul and spend some time with him and my mum, I had started this particular day at Portloe with the general aim of getting definitely to Falmouth, and maybe a bit further if I was feeling good.
Having vivid memories of last year’s test run when my training partner Charlotte and I had got stranded in Place after the ferries stopped, I booked it to make sure I could get across to Falmouth proper and was treated to a lovely trip across the bay.
Things were looking good so I decided to see if I could get across the Helford River, where last year I’d been delayed for a couple of hours by low tide. I reasoned that if I could make it across then fantastic, and if not then there would surely be some kind of a campsite nearby with facilities.
It transpired that this was not the case, and after staying in the Ferryboat pub as long as I could get away with to charge my phone and Garmin, I made my way back along the trail to wild camp under a hedge so I could wait for the first boat across in the morning.
The view in the morning when I emerged from my tent was worth it.
My hopes of finding a bakery, stall, kiosk, local newsagents or other form of breakfast-related goodness, however, were summarily dashed.
Eventually making it across the water at nearly 10am after the ferry was delayed in getting going, the day started heading south pretty quickly.
There were what felt like endless diversions off the Coast Path – including a diversion off the diversion around Flushing which took me through some properly bushwhacking overgrown forest tracks. The fact I hadn’t slept much and was running on essentially what was left of the trail snacks in my backpack started to take a toll. My feet had not had a chance to dry out and were being rubbed raw by sand and damp socks.
By the time I got to Porthallow, I was a sweaty, tired, grumpy mess.
I managed to remember to stop at the symbolic halfway monument for the South West Coast Path, which felt good to tick off, but oddly anticlimactic in a parking lot with nothing but a pub for miles around.
A pause to refuel with a fresh-from-the-oven pasty at the Five Pilchards and I was back on my way, once again slogging up and down tarmac roads and around diversions until I got to Porthoustock and absolutely had to deal with my feet.
And it was outside the public conveniences, as I was dousing my feet with hand sanitiser as a bit of an emergency measure to rescue them, that I spotted a girl with an enormous backpack hiking slowly down the road towards the same spot.
“Are you thru-hiking?” I called over, as much to distract myself as to make conversation.
“Yes, since Minehead!” she replied.
“I’ve come from Poole!” I said, suddenly excited to meet my first south bound all-in-one hiker this trip. “How is it further along?”
And so she dropped her pack down, and we spent about an hour sharing stories from the trail, telling each other how we came to be there, how it had been so far, any useful information we’d picked up, and generally just enjoying talking to someone else who was in much the same position.
We exchanged numbers before we went on our way, and have since been in touch with updates on how we’re getting on.
As it transpired, speaking to Emilia was the honest highlight of that entire day – I’m pretty sure that everyone I messaged over the course of the afternoon got some pretty grumpy words to the effect of “Not another blooming diversion, how much tarmac Hell can they fit into one section?!”.
But by the time I settled in at the YHA at Coverack, short of my original plan and feeling tired and beat up by the miles covered that day, I knew that at least one good thing had happened – two girls out tackling a 630 mile trail on their own suddenly felt a whole lot less alone.
For anyone following along the adventure – I’m posting longer write ups here when I can, but there are daily updates also posted up on Facebook at Poet on the Run