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We undertook the third stage of the South-West Coast Path during the heatwave conditions of late June 2018.

On completing this strenuous walk of some 13.3 miles, we were told that the afternoon temperature in Combe Martin had reached 32 degrees in the shade.

I find very hot, sunny conditions difficult and had also been suffering from insomnia which seriously affected my energy levels.

I was unsure I would be able to complete the walk, but took the decision to proceed at the half-way stage, strongly encouraged by the confidence and positivity of my walking companion.

 

Our base

The route down was almost identical to that for stage 2 – SWR to Exeter St David’s, then GWR along the Tarka Line to Barnstaple – and finally a taxi to our destination.

We arrived somewhat later than anticipated following delays on the Tarka Line. Fortunately the guard permitted us to leave the train and wait on a station platform, since the hot conditions on the train – of venerable age and without air conditioning – were becoming uncomfortable.

We had chosen to stay in a log cabin at Manleigh Park, a small privately-owned site with a mixture of accommodation set high above Combe Martin, about a mile from the sea.

Steve and Judith – the owners – were very friendly and welcoming, even offering to provide us with transport should we get stuck anywhere.

Our log cabin cost £375 for four nights. It was virtually new and immaculate throughout, equipped with all essential equipment, including a hairdryer, iron and cafetiere.

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The position of the site – sitting on one slope of the valley in which Combe Martin nestles – made it necessary to climb up and down via a public footpath. This was quite badly overgrown when we first arrived but was cut back during our stay making the ascent and descent much more straightforward.

The village is relatively large, with a population of some 4,000, and consists mainly of a single street and its offshoots, running back along the valley from the beach at the water’s edge.

Our taxi driver told us that there were originally 11 pubs spread along this two-mile stretch. It used to be a haven for stag and hen parties, but now only a handful of hostelries survive.

There are relatively few shops and eateries, other than those clustered around the beach, but we found the stores attached to the local post office were the best stocked of the options available.

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On Monday evening we took dinner at the Pack o’ Cards Inn, which has an interesting history and is said to boast 13 doors and fireplaces on each of its four floors, as well as 52 stairs.

The portions were enormous and, almost uniquely, neither of us had space left for a dessert.

Tuesday was spent in and around Combe Martin, relaxing and acclimatising to the heat.

We sat on the two sides of the beach watching our fellow holidaymakers, paddled in the sea alongside some delighted toddlers, bought ice creams, ate our sandwich lunch on a seat placed high above on the cliff, and concluded with a cream tea in the delightful Devon Fayre Café.

Dinner was pizza, served by the bar back at Manleigh Park, and accompanied by salad bought from the Combe Martin shops.

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The walk

Our adventure began at 08:00 when we were picked up from Manleigh Park by Ash in his taxi.

Combe Martin has relatively few taxi options. Ash was excellent however. He subsequently ferried us everywhere we needed to go, providing a friendly and efficient service, for which we were most grateful. He was extremely helpful and a mine of local information.

We arrived at the top of the funicular railway at 08:30 and immediately started out, wanting to take maximum advantage of the comparatively cool conditions.

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Soon we were striding once again through the impressive Valley of Rocks. This time no goats were perching on the precipitous cliffs below, although their droppings were scattered in abundance across the path.

This eventually joins a road above Wringcliff Bay and skirts the entrance to the impressive buildings of the Lee Abbey Estate, a Christian Community providing retreats, conferences and holidays.

Here we encountered two gentlemen from Edinburgh who were walking several legs of the Coast Path over the course of the week. That must have been a major undertaking during the heatwave. We took their photograph with the three wooden crosses perched above the Abbey in the background.

They remarked that we were likely to see each other on several occasions during the day but, rather mysteriously, we never met them again.

Shortly after Lee Abbey the path leaves the road and heads round three sides of a large field above Crock Point, then follows a path through the lower slopes of Crosscombe Wood.

Just inside the trees we stopped for our second breakfast of the day – chocolate croissants – I was already overheating and had to strip off my shirt to enjoy the breeze.

The path rejoins the road for some distance passing through the woods – where we encountered one or two cars – then leaves it again to follow a track passing above Martinhoe Manor, now converted into self-catering apartments.

We found a couple – possibly German – sitting on a bench, admiring the view, and exchanged a few words with them before photographing it ourselves. They knew the Scottish gentlemen and seemed to be following the same itinerary as them.

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At the end of the woods, the guide refers to ‘a magnificent waterfall’ which one can stand under to cool down. Unfortunately, although it had not dried up, it did not have the force sufficient to provide a natural shower.

A little further on, there is a magnificent viewpoint above Highveer Point, looking down on the narrow beach at Heddon’s Mouth.

The path turns inland and descends the slope until one reaches the lower riverside walk, stretching between Heddon’s Mouth and Hunter’s Inn.

We soon reached the critical decision point, marked by a bridge across the river, and sat here a while eating fruit and deciding whether or not to go on. The signposts showed six miles down and eight still to go.

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Having finally opted for the braver option, we crossed the bridge and were soon ascending the other side of the valley, before following the narrow clifftop path beyond Peter Rock.

Soon we were skirting the church at Trentishoe, stopping first for a rest in the shade of a wall just past the turning.

Deciding that it was a little early for lunch we opted to push on, hoping for a slightly larger patch of shade as we skirted Neck Wood, nestling on the slopes below us.

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Unfortunately this did not materialise, and we were once more forced to squeeze into a tiny fern-filled space adjacent to another wall. Here we took our lunch, looking out over Port Talbot and the Gower Peninsula, and the odd container ship plying the Bristol Channel.

After resting for some 45 minutes we pursued our route, now in intense heat. The sea breeze died down for a while, adding to our discomfort as we traversed Holdstone Down.

This part of the stage is not its best. There is negligible shade or any other features, while sections of the path are paved with slate pebbles which are not the easiest to walk on. It was the perfect location for a stonebreaking scene from an American prison movie. The sea was beautiful below, however.

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Finally we found some shelter from the heat beneath a small row of trees where we gathered ourselves for the challenge of Sherrycombe ahead.

This is the stiffest part of the route, demanding a lengthy and very steep descent, followed by an equally long and sharp ascent on the other side! At the bottom there is a small oasis of level ground, with a small stream bubbling beneath a tiny bridge.

Here while we rested we encountered a couple who had descended the other side, heading back towards Heddon’s Mouth. The lady was gloved and zipped to the neck, despite the extreme heat, trying to protect herself from horseflies.

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Having completed the ascent, we continued along a more gentle path to the cairn at the summit of the Great Hangman, which marks the highest point on the entire Coast Path, at 318 metres.

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From here it is a trek across a relatively flat route to Little Hangman, from where we could see the welcoming waters of Combe Martin Bay glistening in the sun below.

The final section descends steadily, skirting above Wild Pear Beach before ultimately depositing one close by the public toilets just behind Combe Martin seafront.

Completing the walk in such conditions was extremely satisfying.

We bought large ice creams to celebrate and had another paddle, though my companion’s hat blew off and had to be rescued, and our rucksacks were only just rescued from the incoming tide.

The final walk back up through Combe Martin was hard work after our earlier exertions. We stopped off at Top Chippy, whose owner very kindly rewarded us with extra chips which we took back to our cabin, together with a bottle of prosecco.

 

Postscript

We were still in recovery mode on Thursday morning, deciding to stroll down to the seafront for a full English breakfast on the verandah of the Galleon Tea Room.

Afterwards we anticipated the next stage of the Coast Path, walking along to Broadsands Beach, which is reached via a steep descent of 200 steps. Two workmen were repairing a rotten section in a bridge section halfway down.

The breeze had stiffened and we were sandblasted while we sat there, having curtailed our paddling owing to the presence of one or two jellyfish.

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We walked a little further, enjoying the view across the campsite to Watermouth, Widmouth and the approaches to Ilfracombe.

We completed our stay in Combe Martin with a visit to the Coach House Restaurant at Kentisbury Grange, a Michael Caines establishment some five miles inland from Manleigh Park, courtesy of our trusty taxi driver.

Here we enjoyed a superb meal in cool, relaxed surroundings, escaping both the heat and England’s World Cup football fixture against Belgium.

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Friday morning saw us back again with Ash, who kindly ferried us back to Barnstaple to commence our rail journey home, all the stages of which were comfortable and ran to time.

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TD/TK-S

7/19

 

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