Can’t travel too far from home in these times of pandemic. But by night, my neighbourhood is a whole different world, to walk, browse, write about. So dear reader (Are you there? Do you read me?) here are my latest musings, freshly posted on Fremantle’s very own Shipping News.
There is a certain pleasure in strolling in familiar places. And fun rambling about it in your suburban weekly! Hope you (I mean the universe) will enjoy these musings 😊 Stay safe and don’t stray too far from home…
Hurry Krishna to Universe: Is anyone still coming to this Blog? If so, here is a small offering about a little walk on a tiny island near by. (You can follow the link above to the web/magazine where it’s published.)
If you read this, even more if you like it, please tell me. I walked a thousand-k mid-pandemic. And would love to tell you (the Universe) about it. COVID should not stop us walking or blogging…. Here’s to walking off the Pandemic!
My Walking Buddy and I are veterans of many walks including the 1,400 km Camino from Le Puy to Santiago just last year. Still, we have been absolutely blown away by the diverse topography of the South West Coast Path.
— Read on southwestcoastpathblog.wordpress.com/2019/09/18/enchanted-by-the-coast-path/
[The link above is on UK’s South West Coast Path Association’s site https://southwestcoastpathblog.wordpress.com/. It is a brief version of previous post https://readingontheroad54893552.wordpress.com/2019/08/27/last-post-on-the-path-to-nowhere/. Wondering if shorter is better??]
“Much has been written of travel, far less of the road. Writers have treated the road as a passive means to an end, and honoured it most when it has been an obstacle;” (Edward Thomas, 1913)
We walked the South West Coast Path (SWCP) in UK for two months, almost every day, though we set no record for speed or distance. Gale-force winds and squall forced us to abandon the last two kilometres into Portloe (day 36) and again the last five into West Bay (about 2 weeks later). We cut out the walks in and out of the big cities, Plymouth and Torquay – walking by the side of a sealed vehicular road is no fun at all!
So I guess we don’t qualify for the End-to-End certificate which the SWCP Association hands out to those who have walked the ‘whole’ 630 miles, i.e., 1014 kilometres.
Minehead, where the path officially ‘starts’, is not quite the pits. Nor has it anything to do with mines! The name is an English corruption of an old Welsh word Mynydd, meaning mountain. English chews up other languages. We Indians know that well. Under English reign our Kolikata became Calcutta, Dilli became Delhi. We re-wrote our greatest poet’s name: Tagore in place of Thakur. But I don’t think I would have come to Minehead just out of linguistic solidarity. And really, I can’t think of a single good reason to come here. We came only to chase this footpath, several hundred kilometres down, to an entirely forgettable sandy spot just past a nudist beach somewhere in the south of the United Kingdom!
Our nomad’s life — a different bed each night — ended at Lulworth Cove, where two rocky arms reach out from the earth to hold a fragment of the ocean in a circular embrace. There being no accommodation available along our track past this point, and having secured a B&B in Corfe Castle whose lovely owner was willing to ferry us to and from the path, we resolved to do the final 50 or so kilometres at a leisurely pace as four half-day walks.
A few miles along from the hyper-touristy Lulworth Cove Village, above the drowsily quiet Tyneham Bay, Walking Buddy (WB) settled into his now habitual mid-way siesta, and I was absently musing ‘How do I love thee, let me count the ways’ – addressing SWCP of course, NOT WB!
A bird of prey soared into view from the rocks to our left. Bird-watchers had told us to look out for kestrels around here. If we are lucky we might even see a peregrine falcon. Three flaps of the wing took the raptor up into the glare of the mid-afternoon sun and beyond my iPad camera’s reach. Then it stopped dead in the sky. Two helicopters flew past (not unexpected, here the path borders a military training area). The bird held its place undaunted. Then it swooped, rose again almost immediately, floated like a feather, fluttered so fast that its wings disappeared and for a split second it looked like a giant dragon fly. It rested on the wind for what seemed like an impossibly long time. Finally, at lightening speed it darted towards the earth, straight as an arrow and disappeared from sight past the last visible cliff.
In its dramatic war dance, the falcon seemed to sketch a microcosm of our path across the sky: a thin line between the infinite blue to our right and the strange shapes of the land to our left, it rises and falls, sometimes edgy and rapid; elsewhere it arcs gently and then plateaus and slides quietly down a paddock.
From Minehead, the trail drifts west, at first through the ancient woodlands of the Exmoor National Park, on and off the strangely flat-topped ‘hogback’ hills. It flattens on reaching Devon’s muddy river banks, then becomes increasingly rugged as it nears Cornwall. In North Cornwall the track scales some of the highest cliffs of the Atlantic coast and plunges down to the sandy beaches, again and again, determined to test the walker’s will. Here a hundred or 200 metre climb five or six times in a row is all in a day’s walk.
If you have never climbed a hundred meters, then imagine taking the stairs up a 35 storey building, then imagine those steps are 10 inches wide, slippery, broken and there are no hand-rails. Now climb down those same steps and up 45 storeys… there are no lifts and your bedroom for the night is still three sky-scrapers away.
Land’s End is as far west as you can go, so tourists are here in droves. At dusk the inflatable theme-park wallahs roll up their plastic and most visitors leave with their kids and dogs. The sun sinks into the clouds somewhere between the Cornish west and the Canadian east. There is no landmass in between.
From here the path turns south to The Lizard (nothing to do with reptiles, something Cornish to do with heights), the most southerly headland of UK. The nearest car park is nearly a kilometre away, and the only way to get to the cove is on foot. From here the path turns right back, heading east again. The water to our right for the rest of the way is the English Channel.
As the track turns first south and then east, there is a subtle change in the terrain: the south coast is just a little less craggy. The razor-sharp angular slate shapes of the north coast begin to give way to gigantic stone eggs, cakes and mushrooms! The hills get greener and rounder still as the path reaches South Devon. Finally, in Dorset, the dramatic rocks of the Jurassic coast, red, gold and white, rise in straight walls from pebbly beaches below. This land is fragile as it is beautiful.
A hilarious Bengali satire (Ulat Puran, Re-Versed) imagines what might have been had Indians colonised Britain. I’m pretty sure that under Indian rule, the South West Coast Path would have been filled with Hindu pilgrims. I can see temples and deities rising from the deep. On the soft red sandstone above a beach in South Devon, someone must have carved the profile of a giant Jagannath, the arm-less Lord of the Universe. The Durdle Door (already a tourist Mecca) is undoubtedly the head of the elephant god making waves by sucking up and blowing out the sea in his trunk.
About five kilometres before the little blue marker where the SWCP formally ends, a less arcane signifier: white sandstone palms rise toward the sky in gratitude or perhaps a salutation.
Soon the path disappears into a long white sandy beach, like the one near my house on a far-away coast in another hemisphere. I kick off my boots, shrug off the hike and splash through the lapping water for the home stretch.
Starting and ending unceremoniously, as it does, the South West Coast Path underscores perhaps, that a road is more than any or even the sum of all the places it takes you to; that destinations might be less important than the means and methods we use to get there; that in life as on a hike, the journey is all that matters, the end is neither here nor there.
Dateline: Fowey (said Foy)
On the Camino, the walker is pulled along the 800 km (or 1000 or 1400, or whatever) by the promise of a grand entrance into Santiago, buoyed by the community of pilgrims, of which she is a member the moment she starts on the Way. South West Coast Path has neither the spectacular end marker nor a community bound by a common goal.
Once the first flush of a new adventure has worn off, walking, then walking some more, then again the next day and the day after…it gets to you, it’s hard. When refracted through sprained knees and strained shoulders, scenic beauty fails to inspire. As Raynor Winn writes (in the delightful Salt Path, Penguin, 2018) it’s just ‘up and down and down and up and blue and green, and blue green, blue, blue, green green, blue…’ endlessly on and on.
‘I came so far for beauty
I left so much behind
My patience and my family
My masterpiece unsigned
I thought I’d be rewarded
For such a lonely choice’
I played Leonard Cohen’s ‘such a very hopeless voice’ over and again in my head.
Those who read the earlier ‘Camino addict’ blog might recall, that on day 13, of our walk on the SWCP, we stumbled into Morwenstow and found ourselves in a ‘free house’ once used by pilgrims on their way to the port town of Fowey, from whence they set sail to Northern Spain.(see https://readingontheroad54893552.wordpress.com/2019/07/12/camino-addicts-notes-from-uks-south-west-coast-path/).
The Saints’ Way crosses Cornwall from Padstow in the North to Fowey in the South. It has its own Camino ‘passport’ with Fowey as the final stamp. This route is less than 50 km long and there is no record of any medieval pilgrim having trudged 420 km along the coastline (that is, the SWCP), just to take the scenic route to Fowey. But then again, all over Europe new Camino Ways are being found, recovered, re-invented. So why not the Camino Coastal Cornwall?
The real work of long distance walking is done by your head – legs are incidental. And the idea of a Camino to Fowey works to re-set my mind to the task.
Leaving Morwenstow we climb over the highest cliff of the Cornish Coast, passing Higher Sharpnose Point, stopping to take the obligatory photo of this little diversion. It is not a path that anyone needs to actually traverse – just a bit of bravado for one’s social media.
Often, our path brings us into tourist destinations; mostly we miss the attractions. When you have walked anywhere between 5 and 8 hours, there is little time and less will to chase up those special sights. We are a bit fazed when on the long climb down to Tintagel (King Arthur territory, see https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/aug/08/controversial-and-late-tintagel-footbridge-in-cornwall-to-open) two well-dressed women ask us for direction to the ‘viewing point’. Anywhere really, I want to say, just look around.
Since Hartland Point, the ocean has been almost continuously by our side, somewhere just below the cliffs. Our soundtrack: its incessant lunges onto the shores, and
‘Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating to the breath.’ (As in Matthew Arnold’s maddeningly perfect verse).
Now and then birds hit a high note rising above the water’s groan. Nearer the beaches the gulls and the motor boats out-screech each other.
Just 6 days after Morwenstow, my Camino idea, farfetched as it was, had so receded that I even forgot to visit Saint Petroc’s Church where the Saints’ Way officially starts. We didn’t get in till 4 p.m. and we had 20 km to do the next day. St Petroc didn’t put his Church quite in my way, so he’ll have to do without me.
But the following Sunday, half way between Hayle and St. Ives, the path, marked with the Camino shell way-marker, passes right through the grounds of St. Uny’s church, Lelant. Another Camino, St Michaels Way, officially opened by the Spanish Ambassador in 1994, starts from here, crosses the narrowest section of Cornwall, just 13 km to end at St Michael’s Mount.
On the SWCP, it is five days before we get to the Mount, where a biblical vision unfolds daily: the ocean parts, literally, as water pulls away to the east and the west, revealing a narrow 500 metres long land bridge from the small village of Marazion to the tiny tidal island, St Michael’s Mount. Every evening through summer, tourists with fine cameras take time-lapse shots of the ocean closing over the path, evidence that the oceans didn’t just part for Moses.
We get to Fowey nearly 6 weeks after we started at Minehead and more than a month after I learnt about the Camino connections at Morwenstow.
The volunteer at the Information Centre gushes about Fowey’s newly discovered Camino status as the final port in UK o. Most exciting, some pilgrim documents have been found in the basement of ‘Number 9 South St’ right in the centre of town! Of course, she loved the film and of course knows someone who has done the Camino and so on. ‘In the hey day of the Camino,’ the town’s tour guide says, ‘three dedicated ships sailed continuously between Fowey and ports in Northern Spain.’ Then with amazing precision he adds, ‘the trip cost 7 shilling and 6.’ How do you know, I ask. ‘Osmosis’, he says, ‘We are learning a lot about the Camino Santiago lately’…
We take a ferry out, 2 quid, and 10 minutes across the mouth of River Fowey to Polruan and keep walking.
The South West Coast path is mostly so narrow you can neither overtake nor pass anyone, without some polite interaction. Mostly the conversation goes like this:
Me: ‘Good morning’
Other: ‘It is indeed. Beautiful. Enjoy it’.
But I have grown bold having walked more than a month, over 400 kilometres right across the top of the Exmoor National Park, and the Counties of Devon and Cornwall. For the record, in this time, we have experienced one misty morning and 5 minutes of drizzle, both in June.
So I add: ‘It is glorious here every day!’ This usually elicits invitations (which sound more like threats) to come back in winter, when the path is a slew of mud and dung, and the ocean is gulping down chunks off the rock face.
Every few days we do indeed find that bits of the path have fallen away, where walkers are diverted further up the hill, into paddocks. 2014 recorded the largest Atlantic storms in 60 years along parts of this coast.
The South West Coast footpath is an important part of tourism infrastructure, providing access to the beaches, coves and historic sites of interest. In Cornwall alone, it generates £300 million a year and supports 7500 jobs (PhD thesis by Claire Siobhan Earlie, Plymouth University). A retired engineer-turned-B&B-host tells us over breakfast that the rate of erosion has been much the same for 10,000 years. Still, Cornwall was one of the first counties in the UK to declare ‘climate emergency’, whatever that means.
For now though, the weather is perfect one day and just a tad warm the next. And thousands of summer revellers are using the path to get to their favourite sunny July activity.
Old and new tourist destinations are dotted along the South West Coast Path. In towns like Penzance, the railway line in the 1800s laid the foundations for summer tourism, with visitors flocking to the beaches nearby, some sandy, mostly rocky, but invitingly warm compared to other parts of Britain. The many rugged parts of the coast have inspired generations of artists, novelists and film-makers. From Rebecca <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rebecca_(novel)> to Poldark <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poldark> the Atlantic coast from Hartland Quay to Falmouth has repeatedly starred as the brooding, darkly angsty extension to moody heroes and sultry heroines. Indeed, the morning at the end of June, as we left the Hartland Quay Inn, the last coastal hotel in North Devon, the film crew for the latest version of Rebecca were rolling in.
TV’s Doc Martin has boosted the recognition of Port Isaac. Rick Stein outlets and other eateries have put Padstow on the world’s gourmet map. St Ives even has a Tate Galley to bring in the ‘Culcha-wallahs’ from around the world. Then there are towns like Hayle, which lost everything when the mining boom in Cornwall ended in the 19th century and now depend on the cheap end of tourist and retirees market for their survival.
Near such towns and the many other attractions strewn along the path, you can find yourself in a traffic jam, with dogs off leashes, kids in thongs, beer-guts and couples insisting on hand-holding where you can barely walk in a single-file. For most, the path is merely a means to take the shortest route to a destination where cars cannot reach. So the crowds melt away quickly, leaving most of the 1000 kms thinly populated with ramblers, hikers and trail runners.
Runners pass by like the wind. Ramblers are a hard to define. But it’s a very British thing (see https://www.ramblers.org.uk/) and for some reason most ramblers we have met along the way are white men of a ‘certain age’. Some of the ramblers might also be long-distance walkers, but more likely they have gone over the same ground time and again, so that they know their own parambulating patch like their own back yard. Ramblers stop to chat, encourage and inform. They know every turn in the path and every cove where you might see a seal, or where a boat went down ‘just a few years ago’ (in 1981, for instance, between Mousehole and Penzance).
Long distance walkers are even fewer and further between. We have met, perhaps a dozen who are walking one or two weeks at a time and planning to complete the path in a few years or decades. And have met just 6 or 7 who are trying to complete the path end to end – in one go.
Between Tintagel and Port Isaac, we run into several groups of teenagers hiking and camping for three days as part of their ‘Duke of Edinburgh Award’ <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Duke_of_Edinburgh%27s_Award>. One of them has a special assignment to interview hikers who are going the ‘whole way’ and I am the first one she has spotted!
My young interrogator wants to know why I am walking and what are the ‘key challenges’. The second one is easy: having the discipline to do a hard day’s walk and to get up the next day and do it again and again and again. Unlike tourists, hikers have no sense of destination. Unlike the runners we don’t keep time. Unlike ramblers, we don’t develop that abiding bond and knowledge of the place. Unlike dog-walkers, we are not doing it in the best interest of another being. Why did I set out on a long walk? I’m trying to figure that one out as I go, I tell her.
‘Mal’ (not his real name) is the only English ‘end-to-ender’ we have met. The other half-dozen have all been young Germans. We met Mal about a week into our walk. His rucksack weighs at least 4 times mine. He is carrying a tent, which he pitches wherever he can find a flat bit of land. With enough beer at the last pub on the day’s walk, he can fall asleep anywhere. I can hear him fifty paces away when he is labouring up a hill behind me. I admire Mal, but cannot imagine being without the creature comforts of a bed and a shower at the end of the day. I even have my bag carried when a section of the walk seems too long or too hard.
The South West Coast Path has to please a large and diverse clientele. And thanks to an army of volunteers from the National Trust, the South West Coast Path Association and a myriad of other agencies, it remains user-friendly, for the very few Mal-s at one end of the user-spectrum and at the other, the throngs armed with Trip Advisor’s top-ten lists, out to take selfies at the ‘second scariest cliff’ or the ‘largest Cornish Pasty’ in the world. And, then there’s all of us in between.
Two hundred years ago, this path was part of a crowded, morbid, polluted, industrial corridor, ravaged by centuries of mining for tin and copper and quarrying for granite and other hard stones. Some scars from mining still remain. But with a little help from humans, most of the pits are growing over and blending back into magical wild gardens.
As you walk the path, right on the edge of an ocean that’s rising ever faster, as you scour for the next signpost advising you of another rockfall, another diversion, you have to wonder what will remain of this much-trodden footpath in another 200 years?
Not all who are wandering are lost. But many are. I myself have been a little lost trying to come to terms with the idea of a Bengali who walks (Yours Truly), because in general, well, Bengalis don’t walk. My father always mobilised Huxley, who was famously dismissive of the English practice of nature rambling. And my maternal uncle who spent the better part of his adult life in Oxford amongst English saunterers regarded my love of walking as a westernised affectation.
In Kolkata, the capital of the Indian province West Bengal, where I grew up in the 1960s and 70s, no one walked unless they had to. Beggars, mostly women and children, as I recall, once walked door to door but that ended with the city growing upwards into multi-storied apartment blocks. Now even beggars gathered in street corners and rushed from one car window to the next. Beharis and Oriyas walked. Mostly disparaged by Bengalis, they were the displaced populations, mostly men, from neighbouring provinces – pushed out of their villages occasionally by dreams of a better life, but mostly by corruption, industrialisation, and other mismanaged disasters. The upper-caste Oriyas cooked in the genteel households and worked in the gardens of the city’s tiny wealthy population. The low-caste Beharis pulled rikshaws which ferried us to and from school; they swept the streets and cleaned toilets, but were rarely allowed into Bengali kitchens. The ‘darwan’, the neighbourhood guard, walked through the night banging his stick on the street lamp-posts round and round the narrow suburban streets, where we lived. They were outsiders too – probably Biharis I imagined, having rarely actually seen one let alone spoken to one. Good girls didn’t walk the streets at that hour of the night. Mostly you walked because you had no choice and if you walked for a living, you probably were not a Bengali.
In Tagore’s songs which are part of Bengali cultural DNA, any reference to walking, that I can recall, is tragic.
কেন চোখের জলে ভিজিয়ে দিলেম না …
‘Why did I not moisten with my tears every grain of parched dust!
Who knew you would arrive, my beloved as though uninvited.
You have crossed the desert without a tree to shade –
Your suffering on the road is my cursed fate.’
Tagore in translation often sounds silly. English unsettles the mellifluous Bangla and metaphorical dimensions of Tagore’s lyrics. But it is in part the magic of Tagore’s language that renders the road so distressingly uninviting. In an oeuvre so large as Tagore’s there are exceptions of course. Famously exhorting Gandhi on to the ‘salt march’ (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salt_March) Tagore wrote ‘if no one responds to your call, then walk on alone’. But mostly walking is a pain metaphor in the songs most commonly sung.
Left-leaning modern lyrics added to the litany of walking woes by drawing on the life of the working-walking poor, most famously the smash hit of the 1960s, Runner. This protest song harked back several centuries to a Mughal postal system, predating the railways which the British rulers introduced. The ‘runners’ were men in a relay system to deliver mail from city to city. I never questioned why a song of class protest had to draw on an outdated bit of exploitation, when there was plenty of contemporary evidence all around me. I was mesmerised when Hemanta Mukherjee’s divine voice rang out with the tears of the Runner’s beloved ‘nursing her lonely bed, through sleepless nights’. But something of the joy of running pulsated through the rhythm of the song. In my mind’s eye he was a lean dark figure with rippling legs cutting through the forest’s night air. But I just could not imagine him as a Bengali.
In the 1990s another significant Bengali pop-song reinforced the deadly dangers of walking, Suman Chatterjee’s gut-wrenching rendering of ‘The Walking Song of Sanjeeb Purohit’. Suman was a sort of Pete Seeger of 1990s Kolkata, his lyrics embedded in the structures of contemporary life of the city. Suman often referred to real events that provided the material for his ballads. ‘The walking Song’ starts with the singer-songwriter speaking as he strums his guitar: ‘This event was published in a Kolkata newspaper. In 1991. That year, in Orissa, for a job in the Forestry department, young men and women sat a written test…. Those that got through were then to go on to a test of physical stamina. In the Sambalpur area, in mid-summer, the young men and women were asked to walk non-stop for 25 kilometres. At high noon. Many fell over early in the walk. One man did not. His name was Sanjeeb Purohit. He walked the whole distance. He crossed the whole 25 kilometres. Then he fell. Dead.’ Suman welded together the familiar desperation of the young urban Bengalis’ search for a white-collar job, their fear of physical labour and the very real oppressive heat of the mid-day sun (‘which has dried the songs in the throats of birds’ croaks the singer) to produce walking as a form of torture. Every word, line and strain wields ‘the flaming whip of the sun’, dragging the hapless Sanjeeb towards a burning, aching, suffocating death through the trial by fire towards inevitable failure. The song ends: ‘Sanjeeb will never have to walk any street again/ Nor will he ever ever want for work again.’
Like the ‘Runner’, Sanjeeb was clearly not a Bengali. Anti-pedestrianist Bengali popular culture found its martyrs where it could.
But Bengalis did walk in their thousands in 1971, when the Pakistani army launched a ruthless attack against unarmed civilians in the eastern half of their own nation, mostly populated by Bengali-speaking Muslims. Up to three million might have died, several hundred thousand were raped. Eventually a new nation called Bangladesh was born. But in the nine months that the genocide raged, ten million Bengalis staggered across the 4000 km border between India and what was then East Pakistan – mostly into the frontier towns on the outskirts of Kolkata. Images of line upon line of dispossessed men, women and children, dragging frail bodies on bare-feet, filled the media. They say it was the largest single displacement of people since the Second World War. For once, Bengalis had walked, and in heart-breaking numbers.
The majority of those navigating long distances on foot are still the wretched of the earth: Rohingyas walking into Bangladesh, migrants from war-ravaged Middle East crossing the Balkans on foot, desperately seeking a place to call home. In a world where so many must walk for so long under such duress, it is a rare privilege to have never walked in despair and so to be able to recognise walking as a right and pleasure rather than punishment, to walk when and where you want, to strike out on your own. Such a privilege, it is almost a miracle!
*The idea of Bengaliness is a little complicated, as there is a whole nation called Bangladesh. But the cultural centre for defining what Bengali means has historically been Kolkata, the capital of the Indian province of West Bengal. There is a whole world of books and debates about this. Start with wiki <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culture_of_Bengal>.
From the Camino addict’s point of view, there is more to Morwenstow than meets the eye, which is a very good thing, because not much meets the eye: a pretty ordinary looking old church, a farm cafe, an old pub and half-dozen assorted small dwellings. (Those unaware of this ailment called Camino Addiction, please go to <https://readingontheroad54893552.wordpress.com/2018/08/14/first-post/> on this site or google Camino, and you will find dozens of sites where walkers are talking incessantly about trails which start from various points in Europe and end in the Cathedral of Santiago in North Western Spain.) Of course, for the addict, the Camino is never far away. The foreshore in Minehead, the little tourist town where the South West Coast Path officially begins, is way-marked with shells. ‘Just decoration’ the young lass at the tourist office says, ‘No connection to the Camino’. But two weeks into the walk the Camino appears again, immanent and emphatic, an old love who won’t be forgotten, even though you are in this exciting new venture with this much younger road.
The official website for the South West Coast Path grades the section across the border of North Devon into Cornwall as ‘severe’, which is the highest in their four point scale of difficulty. Most through-hikers will take about 10 hours from Hartland Quay, the last hotel on the coast of North Devon to Bude, the first tourist town in Cornwall. We, very fortunately, have managed to book one of just 4 rooms available in Morwenstow, above the old pub called Bush Inn. So just 13 kilometres of treacherous roads rather than the 25 to Bude.
We had reached the Atlantic coast the day before, when at Hartland Point in Devon, marked only by a car park and a shack selling packaged soup, the Bristol Channel officially folds seamlessly into the ocean. From afar the Atlantic is still as a pond, rolling calmly off the edge of the earth. Closer up, sections of the stony shore have been slashed to shreds with vicious claws. Elsewhere, cliffs are chiseled into abstract angular sculptures which change shape with every turn in the path and this path wriggles like a snake, constantly, Boulders rise from the deep like temples.
The Atlantic is not the only architect of this scenery. These coasts have been stripped for slate and quartz for centuries. A variety of technologies for cutting and hauling stone have shaped much of the shoreline over which the current walking track is laid. With the quarries gone, the ocean has fully reclaimed its coast, which is eroding now, the papers say, at an alarming rate.
Our very own first hand experience of ‘alarming erosion’ comes an hour or so before Morwenstow. For various reason we are unusually late starting out. Our Hartland Quay hotel manager says ‘this is the most difficult day’s walking of the entire path’. We are more than usually apprehensive because we haven’t yet discovered that for the next 100 miles, every bar-tender insists that the next 10 are the hardest miles of the route. None of them appear to have walked much beyond the ten-mile radius of their pub. They do however know the near-by coast like the back of their own hands and can scare the daylights out of most outsiders (which is everyone who has not lived in that particular village for at least 30 years) with vivid descriptions of the rugged rocks and stormy seas.
The walk on this day is indeed gruelling. After about four hours of long climbs and sharp descents we enter the hallowed land of Cornwall, with due genuflection to WB’s (Walking Buddy) ancestors who left this lofty land for the sandy beaches in a flat land down under a hundred years ago. A few minutes after passing what might have been (not sure because one high rock feels much like another when you have been climbing all day) the second highest coastal cliff in Cornwall, about 230 metres above sea level, we arrived at what was definitely the end of the road, literally in the brambles, with no path ahead of us and where the right foot had to be placed precariously a foot below the left just to keep standing. A slightly bent wire fence separated us from the grazing cows on the hillside to our left! I’m not quite sure what was on the right; I wasn’t going to look. WB does not like crossing legal lines such as fencing. But this was no time to be finicky. We scrambled over the wires, fortunately not electrified or barbed, up the hill without a second thought and for once I was happy to be walking amongst cattle!
At the stiles, which we knew separated one paddock from another or paddocks from the path, we saw the small, mostly washed out piece of typed notice about the recent landfall, which has forced a re-direction of the route – yes, through this paddock! I guess we had missed the notice earlier on the path, at some point before it had fallen into the ocean, or the notice had been blown away.
Soon after this exciting diversion a church spire came into view. On the Camino almost inevitably the pilgrim sees the medieval church long before arriving in a village. But on the SWCP the distant view of an old church makes Morwenstow unique. Our hearts quickened with anticipation of our night’s stop as we arrived in front of a pretty ordinary looking two-storey building with a huge sign ‘Bush Inn: 13th century Freehouse’. My Camino Amigos will have guessed by now that this building had once given shelter to pilgrims on their way to Santiago.
‘The Bush Inn has a long history of hospitality dating back to 950 AD’, said the information sheet in our room. ‘It is believed at that time to have been the monk’s rest for those on the pilgrimage route from Wales to Spain who crossed Cornwall between the North Devon ports and Fowey.’ The South West Coast Path will later pass through Fowey, but alas, there are no more pilgrim boats from there to Northern Spain. Morwenstow to Fowey is about 420 kilometres. The Camino is coming with us, sort of, on this new journey we are on.
Post-script: It turns out that Bush Inn was expecting us on 30 June. When we didn’t arrive and they could not get us on the mobile number they had from our booking.com reservation, they called the only hotel in Hartland Quay, guessing correctly that, like most long distance walkers on this route, we would have stopped there on the day before getting to Morwenstow. Hartland Quay confirmed we were indeed there and the hosts at Bush Inn, simply moved our reservation to the next day, 1 July, with absolutely no penalty! As WB was profusely apologising to the wonderful surveyor-turned hotelier about putting him to so much trouble , the lady of the house explained to me quietly that they had been really worried about us: ‘Some walkers fall down you see and ‘ave to be fetched by helicopters. Mostly in winter of course. But cattle go over all the time. And dogs too…’
Yes, the walk into Cornwall takes your breath away in all sorts of ways. As our Morwenstow landlord put it: ‘the cliffs get MMOCCHH bigger as soon as yer’ cross into Cornwall from England’. We had crossed the second tallest Atlantic cliff in all of Britain today, he says, and tomorrow, we will cross the tallest.
After some 70 Kilometres of soaring and plunging with the cliffs above the Bristol Channel, the South West Coast Path (SWCP) moves down to the coast. From Woolacombe on, the path passes through a series of seaside suburbs with miles of sandy to muddy beaches, that I had never imagined in England. The water is mostly shallow, warm and inviting. Dogs and children everywhere with ice creams melting faster than you can lick. It isn’t Bali or Goa or even Western Australia. You can imagine how desolate it might get here in winter. Right now, however, happy holiday makers are taking full advantage of a rare sunny day, baking themselves red as lobsters, seemingly undaunted by monstrous jelly fish which have come ashore and melted into the sand like gelatinous blobs with multiple limbs.
But no one flies from the pristine swimming beaches of Australia to the UK for sand or sun! Over the next 50 kilometres or so, I am chasing Tarka, the most famous otter in the world. See <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarka_the_Otter> for more information or better still read Tarka the Otter: His Joyful Life and Death in the Country of the Two Rivers, 1927 novel by naturalist, broadcaster and writer Henry Williamson. There are films and tomes of readings and writings about Tarka. And since 1987, there’s even a walking trail to commemorate Tarka’s travels up and down the rivers Taw and Torridge.
Half a day’s walking brings us from the beach suburbs to Braunton Burrows, where the Tarka trail folds into the SWC path. Abundant signage informs all visitors of the rich flora and fauna of the region. The Tarka track is set up for tourists and families. In the small patchy sections of forest, you can imagine a baby otter running ‘among buttercups and cuckoo-flowers and grasses bending with bright points.’ The blackberry brambles still arch over the narrow track, with fluffs of wool from grazing sheep along the edges of farming tracts. In a thicket, feathers on the ground and what looks suspiciously like a foot without the rest of the rabbit, provide evidence of a mortal struggle the night before. Williamson’s Tarka prepares one for all of this. Tarka is no cute fluffy animal of children’s picture books. He is descended from ‘hunters in woods’ and he lives and dies as much amongst birdsongs and butterflies as amongst creatures who survive by eating each other.
Though otters are no longer hunted (banned since 2004) and people in Braunton and nearby villages will tell you they are plentiful further up-river, no one seems to have seen these shy creatures in a while in this part of the track. Much of the walk into the town of Braunton is through a heavily used golf course and in and out of a military training area, then on to a dead straight sealed path called American Road, in memory of the US soldiers who trained here before the allied landing on the Normandy beaches. We had been hearing the tell-tale put-put of shooting for some time, then suddenly we were standing before what looked like a rehearsal for a film shoot: dogs barking and camouflaged men running around playing with guns. But ‘No ma’am, you cannot take photos’. And ‘yes, ma’am they are real guns’ and though the cartridges might be blanks, they can hurt you. Of course, it is perfectly safe to walk as long as we stay strictly on the marked walking track.
Tarka grew up knowing the dangers of dogs and men with guns. His parents were killed by hunters and he himself faced off with the hounds time and again. Though Tarka himself was courageous even vicious, it is hard to imagine his kind showing up near here.
The rest of the walk into Braunton is on an artificially raised embankment, much of it quite a distance from the riverbed. Tide is out. Mud banks are hosting several groups of feeding birds. Closer to the path, strings of boats, which look like they have been stationary for several seasons. From Braunton, Instow is another 25.7 kilometre flat walk, through bike tracks and farms on the banks of Taw. This is too close to salt-water for otters, we are told by a woman who sounds knowledgeable. To see otters, she says, we need travel up-river and away from the sea.
On the mudflat the scenery barely changes from one bend of the river to another. Flat walks are often kind of boring. So we decide to take the boat across the Torridge from Instow to the tourist town of Appledore, then walk just 8 kilometres, back to the coast, to a strangely named town called Westward Ho! (written always with an exclamation mark – but that’s another story), where the Tarka trail and the SWCP part company.
No otter sighting. But drifting, a tad listless on Tarka’s tail, lets my mind wander into my favourite childhood holidays, reading beautifully illustrated English children’s books, amongst them, of course, Wind in the Willows conjuring up every child’s dream forest-resort. I read Bengali, too. But the English books were so much better produced and with colour prints which our own books never had. Thus England’s stories and images fed my generation’s imagination on ‘strawberry, sugar and cream’ long before any of us tasted our first berry, let alone saw the first wild berry bush. We knew, fancied and fantasised the foods, the meadows and dells, the flowers and animals of England, more than anything in our own real surroundings. Not finding Tarka, bizarrely and precisely evokes that childhood, five thousand miles away in Kolkata and Delhi, spent chasing things that were always going to be manifestly unreal for us.