7am Thursday 29th October, the National Trust minibus was chewing up the miles along the A39 to Minehead. A cargo of intrepid rangers and volunteers looked out of the rain-spattered windows across the lightening Exmoor landscape. We were about to take on an arduous, epic journey; self reliant and exposed to the elements, it was the South West Coastal Challenge 2015 and we had accepted the challenge of walking from Minehead to Combe Martin with gusto.
One of the admirable adventurers broke the comfortable silence to ask “Could we stop at a toilet before we start?” And so a public loo in Minehead was the setting for the beginning of our quest. Toileted and raring to go the team posed for a photograph at the statue marking the start of the trail, and then with a determined stride, we were off!
“Erm, you’re meant to be going the other way” yelled our Lead Ranger and mini bus driver, Julian. The team turned around and, with another determined stride, we really were off.
The morning was wet and grey and after about ten minutes of walking the age old question of “Are you going to put your waterproof trousers on?” started spreading through the group. We stopped, rummaged through our bags, waterproof trousers and coats were donned, and we were off once more.
The climb out of Minehead was arduous and warm work. After we all stopped again, this time to take off our waterproofs, we finally were well and truly off.
We walked through a blaze of autumnal colour, kicking through a kaleidoscope of sweet chestnut, sycamore and oak leaves and hoping to not come across a lurking dog poo. We descended into the calm and ancient atmosphere of Culbone, and popped into the tiny church and wandered around the old gravestones. One of the rangers stood and listened to the river rushing, he remarked that although the world had changed around this place, the sounds you could hear would be much the same as a thousand years ago.
We continued, marching through the damp woods and tackling steep climbs and knee-jarring descents. At around 4pm we emerged out of those twisted oak woods and were ready to make camp. Tents were pitched, and after a slap up meal it was off to bed on full stomachs. During the night the wind picked up and the rain lashed down, the tents seemed as if they would surrender to the howling gusts at any moment. Needless to say not much sleep was had, and we watched bleary eyed over cups of hot chocolate as the Landrover carrying the rest of our team wound down the road to meet us for the start of the second day.
We were met with smiles, and the pleasant calm of a campsite going through its morning routine. Packed rucksacks adorned the ground, teeth were being brushed and there were calls for takers on the last of the hot water. The morning was breezy but despite tired bodies, everybody was in good spirits and I was relieved. Having organised proceedings, I had been disappointed not to join the team for Day One of the challenge after being taken down by a bout of food poisoning. My guilt had amplified as the rain and wind gathered momentum during the night. But despite sore ankles and aching legs (our Exmoor lot is a hardy bunch) we set off on Day Two (Rodney Gap to Combe Martin) with a spring in our step.
Climbing up Countisbury Hill got the blood pumping, and we were rewarded with one of my favourite Exmoor views. Stood atop Great Red, the beautiful mosaic of the land takes your breath away; heathland covered in bronzed bracken slides into the autumnal patchwork of a steep wooded valley, whilst the great cliffs tower over the sea, reaching out into Welsh infinity. At this viewing, the shore’s water was bordered by clay red as debris from a recent landslip washed away. The tide was bearing down and the sea crashed over the sea wall at Lynmouth, our next destination.
It was an easy romp down to Lynmouth, and once there we took time to watch the surfers capitalising on the tide, allowing for a few breaths before introducing our calf muscles to the Lynmouth–Lynton zigzag. However, this was nothing compared to the mighty Sherrycombe that lay before us. The weather was holding and the famous goats of the Valley of the Rocks playfully darted around us. We were gaining momentum, spurred along by Dan and Marcus’ childhood memories of playing around Lee Abbey, and then the elation of being close to home (Heddon) territory and the final strait. Stopping momentarily on a bench recently built and installed by Ranger Dan F and Jodie (a regular volunteer), the group got to catch a breath over the Heddon’s mouth. We could see below us that both our trampers (off road mobility scooters) were being used to full advantage. Sat on that bench (instated for a recently lost loved one), it made me proud to be part of a team of people who made it their business to care for people, coast and countryside.
The next few miles passed in the shadow of the Sherrycombe ascent. Bodies were tiring now and the light was slowly receding. And then, stood at the bottom of the mighty Hangman, it was time for the final climb. We went up in sections taking it slowly; willing each other forward silently with our mutual spirit and momentum. Then, after an elongated final crest there it was… the top… the pile of stones… joyously we took photos and rested our weary legs.
Now down to Combe Martin we rolled, Julian (our boss and super support driver) waiting patiently for us in the car park. There was relief and exuberance that we had done it: 35 miles of unforgiving Exmoor coastline, Minehead to Combe Martin in two days. 192 miles added to the South West Coastal Path’s challenge total and a fantastic effort; thank you Dan F, Kate, Marcus, Carol, Zoe and Julian for all your hard work.
by Kate Jones and Josey Field