In Autumn 2017 I began a long-term project to walk the South-West Coast Path end-to-end, starting from Minehead.
I plan to take my time, fitting in the different stages as and when other priorities permit.
I have already recounted the story of the first stage, from Minehead to Porlock Weir.
This short post describes the second stage, from Porlock Weir to Lynmouth, a distance of some 12 miles.
The journey down
We travelled by South Western Railway to Exeter St David’s, changing onto the GWR Tarka Line service to Barnstaple.
This 75-minute journey crosses some exceptionally beautiful Devon countryside, passing through places with quintessentially English names, such as Yeoford, Kings Nympton and Umberleigh.
On arrival at Barnstaple we had decided against the 10-minute walk to connect with the 310 bus which would have taken the best part of an hour to deposit us at Lynton. Instead a local taxi took us across, arriving shortly after 16:00. (On our way out we had no option but a taxi because this bus doesn’t run on Sundays.)
We had hired a Lynmouth cottage to serve as our base for three nights.
It was comfortable, convenient, affordable and well-appointed in all respects, my only gripe being the absence of a cafetiere, percolator or coffee maker of any description. Perhaps this is by arrangement with the local outlets.
After settling in we took a brief orientation walk around Lynmouth, strolling out across the rocky beach and then exploring the options for an evening meal.
Out of high season it is comparatively quiet down here. The roads are bisected by the confluence of the West Lyn and East Lyn Rivers and the prevailing sound is the thunderous rushing of the waters through the Glen Lyn Gorge.
There are several eateries, but some were still closed, waiting for high summer. The two fish and chip shops were both inactive for most of our stay.
On this first night we opted for steak and ale pie at the Village Inn, entertained by an elderly husband who spent much of the evening chatting to the barmaid, to the increasing chagrin of his poor neglected wife.
On subsequent nights we also dined at The Rising Sun, where we managed to secure our post-walk fish and chips despite the bar being relatively crowded with locals, including a dog that enjoyed chewing ice cubes, and 7 the Bistro which provided a friendly and convivial atmosphere on our final evening.
We were also made very welcome at the Lyndale Tea Room, which served us a quality full English breakfast ahead of our walk and even called us the Lyn Valley Taxi to take us to our starting point (the mobile reception is negligible down here).
Lynmouth, at sea level, is connected with the much larger town of Lynton, high up on the cliff, by means of the Lynton and Lynmouth Cliff Railway, a water-powered funicular marvel which opened in 1890 and which travels 862 feet to an elevation of 500 feet.
The funicular railway
But beware, the railway opens at 10:00 and closes between 16:00 and 20:00 depending on the time of year. The alternative ascent (which forms part of the next leg of the coast path) is a steep zig-zag, almost as difficult to descend as to climb.
We explored Lynton on our ‘recovery day’, pre-empting the next stage by strolling out to the spectacular Valley of Rocks where we stared giddily down the vertiginous drop to the sea below and marvelled at the fearless goats, perched on tiny ledges, just inches from calamity.
While in Lynton we enjoyed a very tasty breakfast at the Vanilla Pod (I had baked eggs and chorizo, my companion eggs benedict) and also sampled the coffee in the Cliff Top Café adjoining the Cliff Railway.
Before high summer there is no bus service between Lynmouth and Porlock Weir so, once again, a taxi was our only option.
Emerging following our fortifying breakfast, we were greeted by leaden grey skies and steady drizzle. The taxi dodged some hefty puddles and, as we passed over several high points, we were engulfed in cloud and mist.
The drizzle continued as we left the taxi around 10:30 so, rather than spend time looking around Porlock Weir, we opted to start the walk immediately.
The view across Porlock Bay
Following an initial climb we entered the first stretch of woodland and found ourselves on the estate of the ruined Ashley Combe House, an Italianate mansion dating mostly from 1866.
The route passes through an archway next to the Toll Lodge, which is very attractive but of more recent construction, dating from 1937.
The original house was radically extended and improved by Lord Lovelace, husband of Augusta Ada Byron, the daughter of Lord Byron, a mathematician and collaborator with Charles Babbage, designer of arguably the first prototype computer.
‘The first house on the Ashley Combe House site may have been put up before 1799 and was likely incorporated into any later extensions. It may at first have been intended as a summer house for Worthy Manor. It stood on a small terrace cut into the hill on the side of a ‘richly wooded glen’. It was located to give a view of Porlock town and marsh and castellated to give the look of a medieval tower. Works on the site appear to have altered the building into a cottage by 1815. Further alterations were made to the house and gardens after 1833, when Lord King (who owned the property) was succeeded by his son William and he prepared for his marriage to Ada Byron.’
The house became the family’s summer retreat until Ada died in 1852. The path through the estate grounds passes through two short tunnels, originally constructed to obstruct tradesmen’s vehicles from the house.
Walking on, one ascends through more woodland, with occasional glimpses of the coast below, until one reaches the tiny Culbone Church, nestling in a glen below the path, close by a stream fed from a small waterfall above.
We entered the Church, dedicated to St Beuno – Culbone is thought to derive from the Celtic for ‘church of St Beuno’.
This is little more than 10 metres long and seats a congregation of no more than 30. It features in the Domesday Book but has been extensively refurbished, with a 13th Century porch, a 15th Century nave and 19th Century roof, windows and spire.
The altar of Culbone Church
We sat in the church porch and enjoyed a chocolate bar before continuing along the permissive path through the extensive Culbone Wood.
Every so often there is a detour, up and down steps, to avoid places where the original path has been blocked by a landslip. There are also regular waterfalls and, at one point, we surprised a large but youthful stag which quickly vanished up the slope and back into the undergrowth.
This landscape is said to have inspired poet Samuel Coleridge, who may have composed Kubla Khan when staying in the area. (The opium dream which inspired its composition in 1797 was famously interrupted by ‘a person from Porlock’):
‘And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery
But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail’
The woodland path continues into Embelle and then Yenworthy Woods, offering occasional glimpses of the rocky beaches below. The path rises up and then down again, first into Yenworthy Combe and then Coscombe.
Just after it crosses from Somerset into Devon, one descends a flight of steps to the mysterious Sisters’ Fountain, marked by a slate cross on a cairn, set close to a pool fed by spring water descending the hill above.
The fountain is named after the daughters or nieces of the first owner of the Glenthorne Estate. There is a legend that Joseph of Arimathea stopped here to drink on his way to Glastonbury.
As the path rises again, it passes through a pair of gate pillars, each surmounted by a boar’s head, marking the limits of the Estate, which surrounds a country house built for the Reverend Walter Halliday in 1829-30.
Boar’s head pillars
The route passes next to a Lodge that presumably once formed part of this, but is now separate. As we strode by an elderly lady transferred the last of her shopping bags across the threshold before disappearing inside.
Finally the path emerges from woodland, snaking round to Wingate Combe, above Desolation Point and Sir Robert’s Chair. There are names here to conjure with – such as Swannelcombe, Chubhillcombe and especially Pudleep Gurt.
We stopped for lunch at this point, on a bench overlooking the sea, braving the cold incoming breeze for as long as we could before continuing on our way.
We opted not to inspect these more closely, instead following the path uphill, past the church at Countisbury, dedicated to St John the Baptist.
Lynmouth and Lynton hove into view at this point, Lynton broadly level and Lynmouth nestling far below.
Lynmouth and Lynton hove into view
The remainder of the route is a steady descent into Lynmouth, the final section passing through woodland studded with beautiful wild flowers, until it finally reaches the beach below.
This is a very pleasant stage of the coast path, characterised by the contrast between extensive woodland early on and the later clifftop section.
The woodland sheltered us from the worst of the morning rain and took on a special character in the damp conditions. One could easily imagine Coleridge and his contemporaries passing that way more than 200 years before.
Lynmouth was an excellent base and, together with Lynton up above, has sufficient attractions to sustain the weary walker. I would like to return one day.