A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Sunday, 9 December 2012

South West Coast Path. Days 6 & 7: Slapton To Brixham

The Tower Inn lies tucked away in the village of Slapton, which itself lies tucked away in a fold of Devonshire hills a mile or so north of the coastal path. A square, grey tower stands next to the inn — the remains of a medieval chantry, a chapel where priests would celebrate mass for the soul of some deceased benefactor. I arrived wet, hungry and exhausted, and was greeted by the owner, who was smoking a cigarette in the doorway. He told me he used to be a book illustrator, but, tiring of the London rat race, had decided on a whim to buy this ancient pub in a remote corner of Devon.

I was the only guest. Later that night I chatted to a friendly young barman with a passion for beach life and sailboarding. I was looking forward to dinner — the chef used to work with Michelin star chef Jean-Christophe Novelli — though I rashly ordered the swordfish, a fish I hadn't eaten before, and found the strong, unfamiliar taste hard to handle. Perhaps some kind of sauce would have helped things along. As it was, I was presented with a huge, unadorned slab of fish on a plate. Never mind — the pudding was good, and I sank into the atmosphere of the place, as locals and their dogs drifted in and out of the shadowy, candlelit bar with its flagstone floor and roaring fire in front of which, I was assured, Geoffrey Chaucer had once quaffed an ale.

The storm continued to rage all night, and in the morning the wind was even stronger than the day before. Reluctantly I stepped out into the gloom. It was 9.30 am yet still quite dark outside. Trees were being bent double, their branches creaking in the gale. Luckily today's section of the path was a short one, and I shortened it even further by taking the road where I could, rather than the waterlogged path. The only good thing about this atrocious weather was that the wind, a south-westerly, was not as cold as a north or north-easterly, and it was mainly at my back. Nevertheless, I gave silent thanks for my Merino wool underwear and Goretex waterproofs. At lunchtime I spent as long as I could nursing a pot of tea in the beach café at Blackpool Sands and watching the waves pound the shoreline. The noise was deafening even from inside.

Finally I reached the relative calm of the Dart estuary and spent the night in picturesque Dartmouth. Here, at the Naval College on the hill, the Queen had met the Duke of Edinburgh for the first time. Though royal thoughts were far from my mind as I set out the next morning for the landing stage and the ferry to Kingswear. Yes, another ferry actually in operation! Things were looking up. It was a fine, cold, sunny morning, and the wind had dropped. Perfect conditions for walking the ten strenuous miles to Brixham harbour. Though the path was muddy and slippery, and I was glad of my trekking poles. I must admit I was quite pleased with my performance that day: after a week's walking I was now much fitter, and my muscles did not protest as much on the steep slopes. This was a splendid five-hour walk — but I wouldn't have liked to have done it in bad weather.

Jackdaws tumbled in the thermals and croaking ravens soared above the cliffs. A peregrine falcon, the fastest bird in the world, shot by like a bullet from one headland to another. A flock of twittering goldfinches rose from a clump of teasels in a flash of yellow and red. And a couple of late Red Admiral butterflies fluttered limply among umbels of ivy in the last days of their fleeting lives.

I relaxed and drifted downhill into Brixham, liking the place immediately with its boats and colourful cottages and long, curving breakwater. It was just so damn pretty. As I strolled by the harbour people came out to greet me and ask about my journey. I found my B&B, and my room had a view directly overlooking the harbour. I must admit I felt pretty content as I drank a pint or two later that evening in the Blue Anchor pub, where drunk old sea dogs, bearded fisherman and ponytailed escapees from the City propped up the bar and bantered with each other in ribald conversation. Yes, I felt a glowing happiness spread through me, and once again realised, with a sudden burst of insight, why I did it — this crazy, challenging, wonderful, walking thing.         

Dartmouth Castle at the mouth of the river Dart.

Storm damage.

On the way from Kingswear to Brixham.

Shadow of the Solitary Walker.

Approaching Brixham. How's this for a sky?

Brixham breakwater.

Brixham harbour.

Brixham harbour.


Ruth said...

I was already thoroughly charmed by your words before seeing the photographs. But oh, the photographs!

I appreciate, always, your attention to the minutest details, with specific names and species, as well as to the background stories and histories in your walking tales.

All so thoroughly enjoyable! But really, braving the storm must have taken a lot of gumption, dug up somewhere inside. How beautiful that you were rewarded by all that warm cheer in the end.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks, Ruth — glad you enjoyed the piece. I really enjoyed writing it too.

George said...

Wow! Brixham is such a gorgeous place. Your comment on the Goretex, merino wool, and trekking poles reminds me of something old Alfred Wainwright once said: "There's no such thing as bad weather. There's only bad gear." Your gear seems to have saved the day for you on more than one occasion.

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes. AW got it right, George. Relating to this, after several years of wearing fabric boots — which in my experience let in water and wear out quickly — for this trip I went back to worn-in, fairly lightweight leather boots. I'm so glad I did. They performed fantastically well — so robust and comfortable. And they remained dry inside.

Vagabonde said...

Now that I do not walk as much as I did (because of physical and other limitations) I get a vicarious thrill in walking with friends on breathtaking hikes. I follow another blogger who takes hikes in the Rockies in the US and also shows beautiful landscapes. I rarely comment on your blog though because I am not a “writer” of lovely prose in English as your other readers – I am more a sight and sound person.

I found out that I can listen to a variety of good music from YouTube, so I select a suitable piece there and start listening to it. Then after reading your post I enlarge your first photo. At the bottom of the screen appears all your photos – I slowly click on them one after the other while listening to the music and the impact is extraordinary. I often keep clicking on the photos of your previous posts also to remain longer on this musical promenade. As we would say in France – c’est sublime! Today the music is T. Albinoni, Op. 17 – Concerti a cinque. If you’d like to try to see and listen you can click for the music here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PBeLkNYO8ZI. I have been looking at your pictures with sound for a while and thought I should share it with you (since I feel inadequate to comment often.)

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks, Vagabonde. I tried out your pictures-and-music technique. Not bad! But I do think you underestimate your writing skills.

dritanje said...

Another tremendous journey! And isn't it good when you remember why it is one does these things - the contrast - between difficulty and comfort - between effort and achievement.. and it brings back memories of Brixham harbour, sitting there, writing, quite a few years ago now...gorgeous photos too, thank you!

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for your comment, dritanje!

Rachel Fox said...

Think we had a childhood holiday in Brixham... remember the name but not much about it! In those days a trip as far south as that (from NE England) took a long time... maybe we pretty much got there and turned round and went home again!

Love the shadow photo... and envy you, as ever, the freedom and the roaming!