Thoughts on Walks Writing
As a senior feature writer for the main daily newspaper in the South West, I enjoy a weekly chore – a chore almost unique as far as the normally hard-bitten world of journalism is concerned. Every week I go on a walk, and each Saturday these walks appear, in the form of 1000 words, in the Western Morning News.
I’ve been pondering why it is that more and more people are taking to the hills and fields – to the footpaths and bye-ways – in order to spend a few hours simply enjoying ourselves on a stroll. I think it is because each time we go for a walk it’s a bit like going on a miniature holiday. We give ourselves time to breathe both physically and mentally. If you’re doing a walk like the one at Valency Valley, say, or St Anthony Head, or Castle Drogo, you get even more than that.
To wander in such places is to enjoy an entire emotional package-tour loaded with an atmosphere you can take home with you and remember for a long time to come. Modern day worries seem just that little bit less important when you recall the dark, rook-filled trees of a beautiful churchyard, when you remember the sound of the breakers crashing onto the savage, brooding, cliffs far below, when you recall that vast secret hinterland under the flanks of north east Dartmoor.
One of the most noticeable phenomenons to hit the Westcountry’s footpaths in recent years has been the development of winter walking as a popular pastime. Remote country pubs now groan during midwinter lunchtimes as hikers in all manner of brilliant coloured garb descend for a noggin and a smidgen to fuel their chilly walk. Holiday cottages from Sennen Cove to Saltash, from St Ives to Sidmouth, will spew anorak wearing hordes into the teeth of a cold west wind; and lonely tors and coombes will be cluttered with the day-glow hues of Goretex and Triple-point ceramic.
Two or three decades ago none of this would have been possible. You may have seen the odd hardy soul, grimly determined under a heavy waxed jacket, slopping over Exmoor in ill-fitting gum-boots, armed with an all-too-necessary hip-flask for emergencies. But modern waterproof, breathable materials like Goretex have really changed the face of the Westcountry in winter. Maybe the winter’s are becoming milder too. My newspaper are designed to be enjoyed at any time of year.
Basically, walking in South West England splits itself into two main themes: coast and countryside. I know of many walks which take you to both – the St Anthony Head hike offers beaches, riverine views, creeks and countryside. Loe Pool is another beach and deep country affair – with the added attraction of Cornwall’s largest inland waterway which the hiker can circumnavigate via a series of footpaths. The Watersmeet walk introduces the fitter rambler to both the second highest sea cliffs in England and to deep, wooded, secluded glens.
But, for the most part, walking in the Westvountry is a matter of choosing either land or sea. If you opt for a coastal walk anywhere in the peninsula then you will almost definitely come across land owned by the National Trust. The NT owns and manages no less than a third of the land through which the South West Coast Path runs, and much of this was acquired under the Neptune coastline campaign which has raised many £millions over the years. The campaign was launched specifically so that the organisation could purchase as much coastal land as possible and many of the most splendid headlands and bays of the Westcountry peninsula are now, happily, in Trust ownership.
An excellent example would be the fabulously dramatic Woody Bay to Heddon’s Mouth route perhaps gives walkers an opportunity to witness coastal walking at its best. Stunning, unspoilt views of Exmoor’s vertiginous coastline provide the backdrop for dizzying seascape in which the peregrine and the fulmar dominate the airy drops.
If the sea is what you want you can do no better than visit the island of Lundy. This National Trust owned islet can only be reached by boat – and the two-hour trip on the SS Oldenburg is an adventure in itself. I went on a day when the mainland was swathed in mist, and somehow this highlighted the remoteness of sea-borne Lundy. We came out of the clouds and reached the island in dazzling sunlight. Gannets dived in the wake of the ship, seals lolled on nearby rocks as we docked – and the whole experience was more reminiscent of visiting some Pacific atoll than of anything to do with Devonshire.
If you can’t make it to the island, then headland walking is the next best thing. Headlands allow the hiker to enjoy a circular route, which is usually hard to find when you are walking by the coast. The truly dramatic excursion around St Agnes Beacon is an ideal example. The great eminence is the highest hill to be found right next to the sea in Cornwall, and the walk around it, and over it, is an experience I shall never forget. From the top of the beacon you can see more than half the county on a fine day.
The walks at Baggy Point, Bolt Head, Nare Head and at Prawle Point are other examples of the headland genre. Baggy Point will introduce walkers to the best large beach in Devon, while the Prawle Point perambulation will show you tiny Maceley Cove, arguably the county’s finest small beach. You also get ancient inland sea cliffs thrown in for good measure. Nare Head offers stupendous views of Cornwall’s little visited Roseland coast, while Bolt Head provides the same service in Devon’s idyllic South Hams.
But perhaps the ultimate headland hike is to be found at the end of The Lizard, the most southerly point on the British mainland. So wonderful are the walks – and so far from just about anywhere – that I have included a morning and an afternoon route allowing walkers to get the very best out of their visit. The first includes the splendours of Kynance Cove – a place so spectacular that even early tourists such as the poet Alfred lord Tennyson loved to go there to watch the giant waves spilling about in nature’s cauldron. The afternoon route takes you to Cadgwith – a thatched jewel in Cornwall’s coastal crown.
Occasionally coastal walking requires a little inland adventure to get you back to the place where you began. The Cape Cornwall Mines walk is just such a route – you can even go underground if you wish, to experience first-hand just how awful conditions were in the notorious tin mines. Don’t go if you suffer claustrophobia or have a fear of damp dark places. After a visit to the mines you’ll be glad of the fresh air to be inhaled in copious, unpolluted lungfuls atop the moors of West Penwith.
The walk from Branscombe in south east Devon is a purely coastal affair. It takes you miles along the littoral to the seaside town of Sidmouth, where you can catch a bus back along the coast to Beer. From there it’s a just a two mile amble back the secret smugglers’ beach where you began.
Away from the coasts the region’s other big walking treats tend to be centred on, or around, the moors. Lydford Gorge is an ideal example – as the River Lyd races away from it Dartmoor birthplace it cuts a deep and dramatic ravine. The National Trust owns this breathtaking chasm and has developed a walk around the place. By crossing a series of catwalks and bridges visitors can now enjoy a close-up look at this extraordinary place – an experience which would only have been applicable to mountaineers a few years ago.
At Castle Drogo, on the northern flanks of Dartmoor, there’s another deep ravine. This time it’s the River Teign that’s done the digging and in an unofficial newspaper poll I named the Fisherman’s and Hunter’s Walks in the Castle Drogo estate to be among the region’s top ten. The route is rich is endless vistas and, conversely, you experience the intimacy to be found in depths of the gorge.
But, if it’s the moors proper you want, then Trowlesworthy Warren offers an excellent introduction to Dartmoor. Ancient hut circles, the remains of a medieval warren, rocky tors and panoramas deep into the heart of the moors – all can be enjoyed just minutes into the walk. The same applies for the route that takes hikers across the summit of Godolphin Hill – an eminence that dominates south west Cornwall. At Ashclyst Forest there’s an altogether different experience to be enjoyed. Here walkers can be subjected to the ancient darkness of an older England – one that was thickly coated in trees.
The big estate walks offer exactly the opposite to the wildness of nature. The man made environments of Lanhydrock and Arlington Court introduce walkers to the exotic tastes of the erstwhile aristocrats whose gardeners and landscape designers bent nature to suit their master’s dreams.
So, from the battered, ravaged bays and headlands of the coast, to the tree-lined avenues of the great estates; from the windswept crags of the granite tors, to the lush environs of a Cornish creek – the walks in this book offer some of the greatest hiking treats in the Westcountry. They are rambles that I, for one, will return to again and again.