This was our second attempt to do this walk – the day before we had left at 07:30, got on to the M5 just after 08:00 and then joined a queue for 3.5 hours to do the 4 miles between Bridgewater north and south. Unbeknown to us, the motorway had been closed since 03:00 that morning due to an accident that resulted in an overturned lorry blocking the road. Why does it take so long in this country to reopen motorways? – in France they seem to just bulldoze the vehicles to the side of the motorway and get the traffic flowing again. By this time it was too late to do the walk so we eventually got out of Bridgwater and went to Lytes Cary Manor to eat our lunch and then back home, very disappointed.
Anyway, today we set off again at 07:30 and with no problems at all arrived and parked in Barnstaple at just after 09:00 (the Fairview car park is good value at just £1.60 all day – again though in France it probably would have been free!).
Although as the picture below shows it was a dull and dark start to day, it was very humid with a promise of being the hottest day of the year so far, so we were pleased that we were able to make an early start.
The first 4 miles of the walk were on a tarmac cycle path, the site of the old railway line between Barnstaple and Ilfracombe, passing factories and 2 sewage treatment works! On the estuary side though it was a bit more interesting with views across the River Taw and approaching Braunton is the site of Chivenor Barracks and airfield with seemingly a mile of buildings and vehicles – crossing the road in front of us was a large contingent of soldiers returning from their early morning yomp with backpacks that made out rucksacks look puny.
At Velator the path starts to merge in with the suburbs of the town and here we found the only remaining evidence of the paths origins …
Ahead of us was the Saltrock surf company which Jonn considered working for just before he was headhunted to work at Rossignol in Grenoble. At this point we diverted off the cycle path to join a path which would take us along the banks of the River Caen, a tributary of the River Taw, a route that we remembered walking some years ago when we had a short break in Barnstaple exploring parts of the Tarka Trail.
Having passed the opportunity of a morning coffee at a hotel after the first two miles of the walk, Fiona’s level was dropping but I thought that there would be refreshments at Velator Quay where there was a marked car park, but no such luck and I was now in trouble as I knew there would be no other coffee shops until we got to Saunton Sands. Maybe we can solve this problem in the future by always carrying a flask of coffee!?
Most of the path at this point is on a high bank above the river and it was here that we met a local bird watcher from Ilfracombe who had a powerful telescope set up on a tripod. It was focused a good 100m down the river where a stock fence reached down into the water and there perched on one of the rails was a kingfisher with a sandpiper down at the waters edge. He explained that he regularly watched at this spot and particularly when the river was full and the tide had just turned revealing new food for the birds.
The landscape here was quite desolate but there is no doubt that walking along a river estuary is never dull what with the movement of the river, the birds, and the boats even if many of them did seem to have been abandoned to the mud. We never did see another kingfisher though.
Eventually we reached the junction of the rivers Taw and Torridge with views across to Westward Ho! and at the end of this stretch of path is a lone property called Crow Beach House but known as a landmark called the white house in all the guide books, a pressure on the owners as each time we have been there it seems to have been newly painted!
By this time the clouds were starting to be eaten away by the sun and it was getting distinctly warmer. Fiona had also detected a blister which turned out to be where a toe nail was rubbing so with a few repairs we turned inland on the SWCP/Tarka Trail path which had now become a hard almost flint stony track through scrub land on the edge of sand dunes, an area known as Braunton Barrows.
With a boring path and no shelter from the sun we were thinking it was time to find somewhere to eat our lunch. We were aiming for a car park which is half way along the Braunton Barrows path, thinking that there may be some shelter there. Before we got there we were all of a sudden overrun by groups of teenagers with clipboards obviously on an end of term ‘educational’ trip, but overheared snippets of their conversations suggested to us that the local flora and fauna weren’t uppermost in their minds! More worrying though was the inappropriate clothing, particularly footwear and, considering the heat which was now getting up to 28°C, no evidence of any of them, including the teachers, carrying any water.
On reaching the car park, there was in fact a patch of grass where we had our lunch listening to the constant droning of engines of the school children’s coaches, presumably keeping the air conditioning nice and cool.
By now we still had a couple of miles to reach the shelter of Saunton Sands and the heat was getting to us to the extent that we were thinking it might be wise to return to Barnstaple from here rather than risk the additional 3 miles it would be from Saunton Sands to Croyde, our original planned destination.
At the cafe on the beach at Saunton Sands and after cold drinks and tea we eventually cooled down a bit but we still took the decision to call it day and get the bus back to Barnstable.
Climbing back up to the main road the Stagecoach 308 bus, to our relief, arrived dead on time at 15:32 and we sat back for our free bus pass ride back. In fact the trip turned out to be one of the highlights of our day – anybody who is aware of my pathological aversion to coach trips and the like will be amazed to hear this. A short distance down the road towards Braunton the bus dived off into a modern housing estate. An asian lady and her young daughter got on and when we got to Braunton she handed over the child to a lady waiting at the bus stop, presumably a child minder, and then she herself got off a few stops later to go to work. In Braunton itself we also saw our first ‘walking bus’ of young children being escorted by an adult ‘driver’ and ‘conductor’. A black man and his young daughter got on en route and they got off when on the other side of Braunton the bus diverted off the main road to visit the Chivenor Barracks. This was after the bus had diverted again at Velator to tour a commercial centre to drop/collect people from Tescos. Most of the people getting on and off the bus seemed to be known to the friendly driver and overall it struck us how vital these services are to the welfare of local rural communities. Many such services, like our own in Wrington, are heavily subsidised and therefore in these times of austerity constantly under threat. After that we felt a teeny weeny pang of guilt for our free bus passes!!
Back at the car, which on entry was registering 31°C, the air conditioning kicked in and we thankfully had an uneventful journey arriving home before 18:00.