SOUTH WEST COAST PATH NATIONAL TRAIL
Stage 53: Combe Martin to Lynmouth
Wednesday, July 15, 2015
After taking a day off to visit to Lundy Island, a spell of poor weather kept me off the Coast Path for a few more days. I eventually returned to Combe Martin to rejoin the path on a breezy Wednesday morning, alighting from the bus at the foot of the main street, just above the beach (picture 1) at a few minutes before ten o'clock.
Before heading off on the walk, I went for a wander along the main street in search of the village's most unusual building. Combe Martin claims to have the longest High Street in the UK, stretching about 3km inland along the floor of a steep-sided valley carved out by the tiny River Umber. The valley runs along the junction between huge masses of slate to the southwest and sandstone to the northeast. The village has been credited by the Guinness Book of Records for having held the world's longest street party.
About a kilometre up the street, I found what I was looking for. The Pack o' Cards Inn (picture 2) was built in 1690 by the local squire, one George Ley, paid for by the proceeds of a large gambling win. Recalling the source of this windfall, the design of the building is based on a pack of 52 cards, being 52 feet along each side and having 4 floors, 13 fireplaces, 52 windows, 52 doors and 52 steps in the staircase. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to wait for the pub to open, so I headed back down to the beach. I really must go back one day for a look inside.
From the beach, the route of the Coast Path passes behind a small hotel and through a carpark, joining a lane just to the right of a stone cairn that marks the boundary of the Exmoor National Park. About 30 metres further on, the route bears left onto Hangman Path, climbing up onto the headland overlooking the beach. At the top of Hangman Path, steps to the left of a gate climb up onto a narrow enclosed path around the tip of the headland, emerging on a grassy hillside that slopes back from the edge of Lester Cliff, where one of the National Trust's "omega" signs indicates that the path is entering their Little Hangman estate.
To the right there is a great view of Combe Martin strung out along its valley (picture 3) before the path becomes mostly enclosed once again as it runs along the clifftop high above the secluded Wild Pear Beach, with a couple of gaps in the foliage briefly giving views over the beach towards the peak of Little Hangman (picture 4).
At the point where a zig-zag path down to the beach forks off to the left, the Coast Path emerges into a more open grassy area, soon curving left and climbing fairly steeply just outside a series of fields to pass a short distance below the top of Little Hangman.
A brief diversion from the path for a rather steep scramble up to the top, at 218 metres above sea level, was rewarded with a fine view back across Combe Martin Bay and onwards to the granite plateau of Lundy Island far off on the horizon (picture 5). In the opposite direction, the next challenge on the Coast Path is clearly visible ahead, with the view dominated by Great Hangman, just under two kilometres away (picture 6).
Just after rejoining the path below Little Hangman, there is a large and rather impressive gash cut out of the cliff. The full extent of it is only visible once one has passed it (picture 7).
Beyond it, the path climbs at a fairly steady gradient, a grassy trail skirting green fields then a more stony path running through gorse strewn with patches of purple wildflowers to reach a large pile of stones that marks the summit of Great Hangman (picture 8). At 318 metres, exactly 100 metres higher than its neighbour, the summit of Great Hangman is the highest point on the South West Coast Path and its 250 metre vertical north face is the highest sea-cliff on the British mainland.
Great Hangman certainly has a top-of-the-world feeling to it, with far-reaching views in all directions -- westwards over Little Hangman and Combe Martin (picture 9), eastwards along the Exmoor coast (picture 10), south over inland Exmoor (picture 11), and across the Bristol Channel towards the hills of south Wales (unfortunately too hazy to get a good picture on the day of my walk).
From the summit of Great Hangman, the Coast Path angles away from the coast, descending across Girt Down towards a stone field wall which is followed to the edge of Sherrycombe (picture 12).
I was a little surprised to find the word "girt" in a place-name, having grown up believing that only Australian school children are familiar with the word -- our national anthem tells us that Australia is "girt by sea". On Girt Down, one is girt only by gorse and marvellous scenery.
The Coast Path runs further inland along the steep side of Sherrycombe before eventually turning down amongst trees in the sheltered valley to find a footbridge across a shallow stream. A steep ascent straight up the side of the combe takes the path up to a gate where the route turns back towards the coast along the fern-covered lip of the combe. As I walked along this stretch of the path I watched a cloud slowly settle over Great Hangman (picture 13).
Eventually the path turns away from Sherrycombe, turning right to circle around the slopes of Holdstone Down (picture 14) some distance to the seaward side of the summit of Holdstone Hill. After around 1,500 metres, with a farmhouse on the crest of the hill ahead, the route of the Coast Path forks left off the main path to head across the face of Trentishoe Down. This turn was marked by a short post with a white acorn and arrow painted on it, almost overgrown by the ferns, and could be easily missed.
Also easily missed is a small group of low mounds amongst the gorse to the right of the path just before it passes through the next field boundary. These are the remains of Bronze Age hut circles built around 1,000 BC.
About 300 metres later, the path forks again, and again the Coast Path goes left, now on the high clifftops once again. A similar distance further on, the path passes through a gate and turns right to follow the outside of a field boundary across the hillside of North Cleave (picture 15). When the path outside the fence is blocked by the sheer cliff edge of North Cleave Gut, the path switches sides of the fence for one field before resuming its course along the seaward side of the fence and climbing along the edge of High Cliff. The path along High Cliff offers good views back to Holdstone Hill and Great Hangman (picture 16).
At the end of High Cliff, the path skirts around the top of East Cleave (picture 17), leaving the green fields behind as the route contours around the steep hillside below the summit of Peter Rock (picture 18).
The path soon comes up to a viewpoint overlooking Heddon's Mouth (picture 19), where a small beach sits at the foot of a long valley cut out of the Exmoor cliffs by the River Heddon (picture 20).
The only way around this obstacle is to turn inland once again. The Coast Path follows the high side of the valley for about 600 metres before the path zig-zags steeply down into Heddon's Mouth Wood (picture 21). On the floor of the valley the route briefly follows the river seawards to reach a single-arch stone bridge where the Coast Path crosses over and almost immediately begins the long climb up the eastern flank of the valley to Highveer Point, from which there are better views of the beach far below (picture 22).
On Highveer Point, the path turns away from the valley, following the contours of the hillside below the site of a Roman fort known as The Beacon (picture 23), to reach the outcrop of Great Burland Rocks, with views ahead along the coast as far as Crock Point (picture 24).
One hundred metres further, the path turns into a sheltered combe where the small stream of Hollow Brook tumbles down a pretty waterfall (picture 25), across the path and over the cliffs to the sea. This was a very peaceful spot and I lingered for a while in the shade (picture 26) before setting off again.
There is plenty of shade on the next stretch of the path too as it rounds the point of Wringapeak (picture 27) and starts to circle around Woody Bay (picture 28), making quite a change from the gorse-covered hillsides of the day's walk so far.
Eventually the shady path comes up to a road at a hairpin bend, taking the left hand branch, which heads gently downhill towards Woody Bay Beach. The Coast Path doesn't go all the way down to the beach however. Instead it forks off onto a narrow track to the right of the road at a cottage, the turn marked by a signpost pointing to far-away places (picture 29).
The track meanders through Woodybay Wood for a little while, coming up to join a narrow, surfaced cliff-top lane called Sir Robert's Path (picture 30), which passes through an area known as The Pines.
Beyond The Pines, the Coast Path divides in two, with one branch continuing along the road to cut across Crock Point and the other leaving the road to descend through the woods and run around the edge of the point. The two branches meet up again after about 400 metres.
The guidebook I was carrying showed the road as the official route and the other path as an alternative, which I thought was a bit odd, but I stayed on the road, which gives a good view over the sloping point (picture 31). Another guidebook I looked at afterwards gives the opposite status for the two routes, showing the off-road route as official one and the road as the alternative, which probably makes more sense.
The two paths join up again just as the road bears a little inland above Lee Bay (picture 32). A notice posted at the junction indicated that part of the off-road path had been closed for 18 months due to the danger of a landslip, so perhaps I made the right choice after all.
Just after crossing a stream, the road passes through the tiny hamlet of Lee Bay, where a pretty stone cottage (picture 33) stands by a junction from which a short lane leads down past the popular Lee Bay Tea Cottage to the bay's small beach.
The Coast Path continues ahead on the road however, climbing out of the hamlet's sheltered little hollow to pass by the large complex of Lee Abbey, which sits among open fields (picture 34). The abbey was founded in 1946, though some of the buildings date back to the 1850s.
The road keeps climbing for a few hundred metres more beyond the abbey buildings, levelling out just before reaching a lodge at the edge of the abbey estate. As soon as the road leaves the estate, the Coast Path turns left through a wooden gate to join a path along the floor of the Valley of Rocks (picture 35). The spectacular valley is believed to have been formed by glacial activity during the last Ice Age.
A well-worn path runs up the valley below the first tor, Castle Rock, surrounded by waist-high ferms (picture 36). The path briefly meets the road again at a turning circle, but soon bears off across the grass to find a tarmacked path on the seaward side of the second tor, Hollerday Hill.
The path, called North Walk, takes a fairly level course along the side of the rocky ridge (picture 37), heading into trees after about a kilometre as the path nears the town of Lynton.
North Walk soon crosses a bridge over the Lynton and Lynmouth Cliff Railway (picture 38). The railway, which links Lynton on top of the cliff to Lynmouth at the foot of the cliffs 153 metres below, was built between 1887 and 1890 and is powered by nothing more than water. The two cars are connected by a cable, a tank under the top car is filled with water, and when the brake is released gravity does its thing and as the heavier car goes down it pulls the lighter car up to the top.
From the bridge there is a good view down to Lynmouth, reached via the zig-zag Westerway path, which crosses over the railway twice more before emerging onto Lynmouth's Esplanade by the shingle beach. Just over to the right, the Rhenish Tower (picture 40) stands by Lynmouth's little harbour at the mouth of the East Lyn River.
I left the Coast Path here, with a further 21.1km walked from Combe Martin. My luck was in and I was just in time to catch the day's last run of the Cliff Railway, saving me a long climb back up to Lynton, where I had about half an hour to explore before catching the last bus of the day back to Barnstaple.