For those wondering, the route over this and the next couple of days does follow the End to End trail guide, but for various reasons (mainly the logistics of combining my drop-offs and pick-ups with the needs of two small children, which limits the hours available for walking) I got out of sync, so my start and end points were different to those given in the book. Although my stopping points were largely driven by timing, rather than the need to find accommodation, it has worked very well in terms of nice finishes to each day.
I rejoined the Tarka Trail at Instow and hot-footed it towards Barnstaple. The day was another scorcher (I had no rain at all between day 1 and crossing the Severn Bridge over three weeks later) but the heat matters less when you’re on the flat. It was just past high tide and the estuary looked extremely picturesque, but as I came round the bend after Instow, the landscape was dominated by the sight and sound of military ships (two hovercraft and two landing craft) zooming round and round in seemingly pointless circles.
I initially thought this was some sort of commemoration exercise for D-Day but, on asking a very posh local walking her dog on the embankment, she told me in an exasperated tone of voice that they were just exercising, and had been doing it non stop for the last fortnight. I was sympathetic, as you could hear them from about two miles away.
I stopped for a coffee and macaroon at the excellent Fremington Quay Cafe, and sat looking at my map and shamelessly eavesdropping on the conversation between a father and adult daughter at the next table. The daughter had clearly been on a lengthy and exotic holiday, but over the 20 or so minutes that I was there she had nothing good to say about any of it – the fish at the buffet had been cooked in a foreign way, she hadn’t liked the sunshades,etc etc – and I rather wondered why she had gone. I headed on to Barnstaple, where I bought lunch (another pasty, as I was running out of good pasty opportunities!). I was tempted to buy the next instalment of the Cazalet Chronicles, which I started on this trip and to which I have become shamelessly addicted, but decided it wasn’t worth carrying the extra weight.
Barnstaple, like Bideford, seemed like somewhere to pass through quickly. I foolishly answered my phone whilst wandering through and promptly got lost while dealing with two work calls, but once I regained the route it was charming – through quiet back streets and quickly onto green trails through the very pretty Yeo Valley.
I met nobody at all until the trail came out opposite the spectacular rail viaduct at Chelfham, where a woman in green wellies walking her dog looked extremely startled to see me emerging from the footpath onto the road. A short road walk and then a gentle climb up through the hills.
All went swimmingly, until I encountered a field of cows. This obviously happens a fair bit, on a cross-country walk, but I have to confess to being genuinely frightened of them. Well, cattle generally – it’s something about how big they are and how stupid, and the cow-related variation on Murphy’s law that if the footpath goes through a field with cattle in it, they will inevitably be standing/lying right across the path, preferably as close to one or other gate as they can get. Plus, I am finding that while cows with calves will generally give you a wide berth, bullocks (or whatever you call young male cattle) seem to want to get as close up as possible. This herd (barely more than calves, if I’m honest) were standing about six feet away from the gate, and I was worried that they would seize the opportunity to escape through it, but also simultaneously worried that if I annoyed them in some unspecified way they would turn as one, rush the gate and gore me, so it took me some time to get them to move away from the gate far enough so that I could open it (barbed wire on top so no climbing over even if I were given to doing that sort of thing) and then go through the field.
Cattle crisis over, I headed for a long steep uphill climb towards Bratton Fleming, a pretty village with amazing views back down over the hills towards Barnstaple. It was extremely satisfying, having toiled up the road and bridleway, to look back over the countryside and think ‘I’ve walked that, all the way from the horizon’. I carried on out of the village and met Arran halfway along the road to Challacombe, which was my stopping target for the day.
Highlights: Fremington Quay (really great coffee); a lovely ‘green tunnel’ just north of Barnstaple; the incredibly pretty Yeo river; climbing out of the valleys towards the Exmoor hills.