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Day 12: Pressure

Clovelly to Barnstaple. 23 miles. Miles to date: 174.8.

I knew today would be long, but not that it would so tough. I left Clovelly shortly after nine, and only entered Barnstaple at eight. If the miles weren't going to wear you down, the sun was. And if that didn't do it then the unexpected climbs as I rounded Barnstaple Bay did. On the plus side the walk gave plenty of time for idle – and occasionally frustrated – reflections.

I made my way up Clovelly's steep pebbled main street passing a couple of guys sledging provisions down the slope (with no access to cars, wooden sledges are used to cart everything from furniture to cans of Coke down the hill; heavy loads are carted by donkey.)

Then it was onto the the Hobby Drive, a rather lovely woodland terrace, originally built for carriages, that skirts round the bay for three miles, giving easy walking and the occasional glimpse down to Clovelly's harbour. I was grateful not only for the level gradient but also the shade of the woods, which were languid calm in the heat - as if even the birds couldn't muster the energy to sing.

When the Hobby Drive ended the path entered a series of smaller woods. The gentle ups and downs were welcome as the path wound through sessile oaks, along old beech hedges, and though coppiced hazel. I treated myself to strawberry ice cream from an enterprising local in pint-sized Bucks Mills (wasn't he a member of REM?), who had stocked up on vats from a local farm and was selling direct from her kitchen window.

Bucks Mills: the whitewashed house on the right sells ice cream.

Occasionally the view on the left opened up to show the route ahead. Westward Ho! is the beach far left.

As the miles ticked by, the woods thinned out until I emerged onto the long series of striking red cliffs that start at Peppercombe and end at Westward Ho! Here walking became a far greater challenge. Not only was some of the path choked with nettles, by now the sun was pretty much overhead and without shade there was no relief. The heat also meant stopping more than I would have liked, to rest, drink water, and to slap on even more suntan lotion.

None of that would have mattered if I'd known this stretch of South West Coast Path rollercoaster was coming. But while one of my two guidebooks flagged the ups and downs, the other didn't mention them - which felt like a pretty significant oversight. That got me thinking about what an ideal guidebook for LeJogers would be. It's certainly not the one I have been (increasingly reluctantly) using. I have some ideas, for a day when I've got more time and energy to write them down.

Nor were the cliffs particularly interesting. A bit of red sandstone, then rocks, then miles of rockpools formed in the strand. On the entire three mile stretch I saw just one group on the 'beach'. Whether they loved isolation or were just lost I don't know.

To be fair, after spending the past week among some of the finest cliff scenery in the country, anything but fantastic wasn't going to cut it. And the fact that the red stones were 280-million years old was far from enough to make me love them.

Red cliffs. Very old.

The owner of the house must like the old red cliffs.

Ups and downs: pretty enough, but it seemed to take forever to cross them all.

A lovely wild camping spot. Given this stretch of coast is so close to the tourist Mecca of Westward Ho! it was absurdly empty. That said, I have no personal plans to return. And wouldn't recommend the beach to anyone.

The only sunbathers on the whole three mile pebble beach.

In places the path was choked by nettles. If you were worried about getting stung you would have made impossibly slow progress.

The strand. Clovelly is on that distant headland.

By the time I reached Westward Ho! - an unashamedly naff development alongside a vast sandy beach - I was flagging. So I found an overpriced beachside bar and polished off two pints of lemonade and a veggie burger in the space of five minutes. A lady on a nearby table watched the sight with obvious distaste. I don't think it helps that I've not washed my clothes in a few days. Or that I've got three weeks of beard. Or - most of all - that I'd taken my shoes and socks off. She seemed most surprised by the fact I was able to settle the bill.

Never has a man been so pleased to see Westward Ho!

The boarded up house was beautiful.

From Westward Ho! the trail takes a few shortcut paths to reach Bideford, and then some road walking through the town to pick up the Tarka Trail.

Even the sheep were cowering from the heat.

Bideford rush hour. For the first time in my life I thought it might be quite fun to sit in a car in a traffic jam. Or sit down anywhere really.

Bench with a view. It didn't have a dedication plaque on it.

Bideford frontage from the impressive arched 'Long Bridge' - one of the longest medieval bridges in England, if you're into that sort of thing.

Tarka the Otter. He lived some of his life on the River Torridge, Bideford's river.

The Tarka Trail stretches to 180 miles of footpaths and cycleways following the footsteps of the character Tarka the Otter from Henry Williamson's novel. The section I was following – Bideford to Barnstaple – is along what was once the Bideford Extension Railway.

With the caveats that: I don't really like walking along disused railway beds; I don't really like walking along estuaries; and that I was hot, tired and emotional; the trail was probably the best place to serve today's final ten mile purgatory. All you need do is plod on, knowing no hills will meet you. Which I did, headphones on, walking past salt flats and rivers, meadows and alders, as the light shifted, the sun cooled, the miles slipped and the pain in my feet became a constant.

I finally reached Barnstaple. It's a nice little place, my B&B's great and there's a fantastic local curry house. Which has bought a much needed lift to the end of a long, hot day.

Torridge Bridge. Higher than the Long Bridge. And celebrating its 10th birthday this month. (Happy birthday bridge.)

The pretty seaside village of Instow. Drinkers were soaking up the sun on the waterfront. I would have loved to join them.

The Tarka Trail.

Finally... after 22.5 miles on the trail, Barnstaple comes into view.

Like Bideford, Barnstaple also has two bridges. This is the Taw Bridge.


Next: Day 13 – Barnstaple to Warren Farm.

Previous: Day 11 – Hartland Quay to Clovelly.

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