Encounter Walking


Minehead to Westward Ho! - South West Coast Path

Minehead

Minehead South West Coast Path Sculpture Somerset WalkingMinehead is the trail head and the start of the The South West Coast Path. The Iconic bronze sculpture of the ‘map’ in a pair of giants ‘hands’ by Owen Cunningham sits on the seafront here and marks your step in over 630 miles of world class walking trail. Minehead itself makes a pleasant enough and tame looking introduction to the route sitting right on the border of Exmoor National Park at the head of The Quantock Hills. This is the last piece of flat ground before the start of Exmoors dramatic run of coastal cliffs which tower over the town to the west. UK visitors may know it for its Butlins Holiday Camp but this is safely tucked away on the other side of town - on the Coast Path side Minehead is reavealed in its sweeping promanade and old stone quay and for the night before you start your walk its an accommodating place to stay with the feel of a decompression chamber that you pass through whilst leaving your 'normal' world and entering into a wild walking adventure.

The town's history dates back to the Bronze and Iron ages, and has gone through many changes, growing into a major trading centre in medieval times, then 19th Century fishing port before becoming known for the more genteel occupation of sea bathing and now a popular retirement centre. Originally three separate settlements it is now joined together combining an interesting mix of stately Georgian Seaside Mansions with a handful of older thatched cottages and narrow alleyways inland at Higher Town with atmospheric sea faring cottages towards the Quay. As Somerset’s principle seaside resort,  perhaps thankfully the old seaside pier has long gone but the old harbour wall remains and is as good a location as any for an evening stroll with views over to Wales.

Minehead start of the Southwest Coastal Path Trail in EnglandMuch of its historic beach was washed away by storms and floods in 1990, has now been rebuilt with 320,000 tons of sand and new sea defences means that it now hosts water sports like sailing and windsurfing and those keen to grapple with the sea before starting their walk can hire kayaks and dinghys.

There is an abundance of cafes, pubs and restaurants including an award winning fish restaurant. The Mermaid Tearooms is one of the oldest business premises and was the home of the whistling ghost, where Old Mother Leaky, who died in 1634, could be heard whistling up a storm. Minehead gets a mention in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Ancient Mariner” and is also the town where the hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful was written.

Those arriving by public transport will normally come by Taunton and if you have the time don't miss the chance to take the West Somerset Steam Railway to arrive in Minehead. Chugging for over an hour through stunning scenery across the Quantock Hills (an "Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty"),   restored steam trains and en route ten preserved and timewarped stations straight out of the last century provide a memorable arrival for your walk delivering you right to the seafront in Minehead.

For those taking a rest day before or after walking nearby Dunster only a few miles east is one of the most stunning villages in Somerset dominated by its imposing National Trust run Castle. Wander here along several marked trails to visit the old yarn market, water mill and an array of listed and preserved buildings in a stunning wooded setting - for those wanting a decent walk you can easily catch the steam train out from Minehead, visit Dunster and then return on foot  on a 4 mile jaunt to Minehead via forested Knowle Hill with superb views over Exmoor and the Coast.

Porlock and Porlock Weir

Porlock Somerset Walking Holidays Coleridge Way and SW Coast PathPorlock Weir lies right on the coast path but when accommodation is full there or for those who want more facilities the nearby village of Porlock lies 3/4 mile inland of the coast path. Luckily both are stunning timewarped places of thatch and cider with the added bonus of great sea views and both are equally worthy of an overnight stop - Porlock being winners in 2009 of the most beautiful village in Somerset.

Within Exmoor National Park both villages are set either side of the Porlock Salt marsh Nature Reserve which lends itself to a unique landscape of birds, flora and fauna. The marsh was created when the high shingle embankment was breached by the sea in the 1990s and now the area is a haven for stunning butterflies, Little Egrets, Spoonbill and Marsh Harrier. Down on the beach if the tide is out you can also find the stumpy remains of a submerged prehistoric forest on the shoreline.  Away from the marsh the village's undoubted charm is its location in the hollow between the wooded foothills of Exmoor which tower above and the blue ocean beyond Porlock Weir - a hidden bowl surounded on three sides by huge hills and cliffs.

Exmoor National Park Porlock Village on the South West Coast PathLong a favourite for walkers the village has plenty of B&B’s, tea shops and atmospheric Inns, The Ship Inn for instance on Porlock Hill dating back to the 12th Century. A rather strung out village with a never ending mix of everything from old thatch and cob cottages, to Georgian, Edwardian and even rather Gothic style properties its a good place for an evening stroll.  The pleasant church is well worth a look with its unique squat steeple in a magnificent setting framed under the backdrop of the Exmoor foothills. The Dovery Manor Museum is free (not much is in the West Country) and has some interesting displays inside what was a 15th Century Manor House including a medieval "physic garden". There is also a small village museum. Down the high street you will also find a host of local crafts, art galleries, the odd walking equipment outlet and plenty of unusual independent shops, selling everything from second hand books to Somerset Cheese and in early July, Porlock and Porlock Weir host their own beer festival over a weekend with selection of local real ales and ciders.

Porlock Weir South West Coast Path and Coleridge Way Walking BreaksPorlock and surrounding areas was loved by the great poets such as Wordsworth, Blake and their friend Robert Southey who stayed at the Ship Inn. Samuel Taylor Coleridge who lived inland at Nether Stowey but reguarly walked here, never completed his iconic poem “Kubla Khan”, blaming “the man from Porlock” for his loss of inspiration when the local Postman called and interrupted his train of thought.

Porlock Weir's small harbour settlement dates back to the 17th Century. The tidal harbour and sturdy granite quay are protected by unusual lock gates and have existed for over 1000 years. Its very restful here with only a pub, craft workshop and a couple of restaurants, there is a tiny boatyard museum and aquarium with a few local fish whilst at nearby Gore point if you take an evening stroll it is still possible to see the remains of a ship that sank in a storm in 1854 after losing her masts.

Porlock Exmoor National Park SW Coast Path and Coleridge Way WalksPorlock offers a good choice of B&B's small Hotels and some very old and traditional inn options and is also the start / end of the Coleridge Way which heads inland over Exmoor from here. There are one or two walking equipment shops if you do find you need anything - best to buy here as the villages that follow are good for a wetsuit and surfboard but no chance of a walking pole.

Lynmouth

Lynmouth Harbour on the South Western Coast Path UK Hiking TrailThe immediate scenery around Lynmouth at the head of the River Lyn is  'Gorge Country' and about as good as it gets for impressive vistas along the North Coast. Indeed, the town was christened Little Switzerland by its first tourists back in the early19th century when the Napoleonic Wars closed the Continent and in particular the Alps to would be travellers. Lynmouth became the nearest home option and it is indeed a breathtaking location. Loved by Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blackmore and Shelly who spent his honeymoon here in 1812. Thomas Gainsborough called it “The most delightful place for a landscape painter this country can boast” and the deep wooded gorges, bays and rocky outcrops he enthused about are still delighting visiting walkers. It was here that Coleridge conceived his 'Tale of the Ancient Mariner' - inspiration that brought out his finest poem.

Watersmeet River Lyn Lynmouth North Devon Walking Holidays UKThe place still has that Victorian feel to it with its promenades, harbour and the ingenious Cliff railway that links the towns. You have to take a ride on this piece of history whilst here. Opened in 1890, the railway is actually water-operated with water piped up from the West Lyn River. One car descends the almost sheer cliff face, while the other ascends, on a counterbalance system that has proved more reliable than most modern railways!

The total cost of the project was £8,000 and there has never been an accident. Lynmouth is actually linked to its high clifftop neighbour Lynton by the Cliff railway and several wooded paths and this is the main administrative centre for the town - though for ease we use accomomdation in Lynmouth itself so you are right by the coast, on the paths and don't have to face the walks up the cliff path!

Lynmouth Town Harbour North Devon Exmoor National Park UKThis is probably the best location on this whole section for a rest day with lots to do for those that want it or if you want to just rest, stunning surroundings to laze in. Time can be spent with river walks past thundering waterfalls to Watersmeet through one of the UK’s deepest gorges to the former Victorian fishing lodge, now a National Trust run tea shop. Or head to the harbour for a boat trip to see the stunning cliffs and hog back peaks from the water before heading on down the coastpath.

For the sneaky walker you can take a rest day here and we can arrange a transfer up onto Exmoor to one of the little inland moorland villages of Simonsbath or Withypool. From here you can trek the last day of The Two Moors Way with only a short climb to that routes highest point at Exe Head before then taking advantage of a full on downhill rush from the heights of Exmoor through the gorges to the coast at Lymouth.View from Lynmouth Harbour along the South West Coast Path North Devon

Passing the source of the mighty river Exe, the ancient Hoar Oak Tree and the switchback Cleaves Trail above the thundering East Lyn Gorge. Its probably the best day on the whole week long Two Moors Way walk, allows you to actually get a days walking in on Exmoor and is easy to fit in with an extra days stop in Lynmouth - just ask for more info.

An Exmoor National Park visitor centre is here along with the Lyn and Exmoor Museum housed in the towns oldest surviving cottage. At the Lynford Memorial hall you will find displays covering the devastating tragedy that befell the town one night in August 1952 when a torrent of water from the flooding gorge killed 34 locals, destroyed over 100 buildings and bridges and washed nearly 40 cars out to sea. Over 420 people were made homeless that night and much of the lower harbour area was rebuilt after this time.

Facilities for visiting walkers are excellent with lots of varied accommodation, luxury hotels,  inns, restaurants, tea shops and plenty of browsing opportunities in the art and craft shops that somehow retain their Victorian and Edwardian character.

For those departing, there are regular bus services linking with the railhead at Barnstaple from which you can take a train to Exeter and all mainline routes

Combe Martin

Offering spectacular scenery Combe Martin is dominated by the Hangman Cliffs, the Great Hangman being the highest in southern Britain with a cliff face of 820ft.  On the eastern ridge as you arrive you can still see the tunnels and wheel house from the days of silver mining, some of which still features in the Crown Jewels. The industry was so important in the Middle Ages that the wars of Edward III and Henry IV were funded on the towns industry.

A welcome haven from a long days walk from Lynmouth, Combe Martin is a pretty horsehoe cove and beach surrounded by undulating pastures to the rear and dominating coastal hills on either side. The village itself clings to a single straggling road that twists over two miles inland from the sea but accommodation for walkers is all in the immediate area beyond the beach right on the coast path. No real surprise then that it holds the Guinness World Record for the world’s longest street party. Indeed the place has a tradition of carnival and celebration and the town celebrates the annual ritual of ‘the hunting of the Earl of Rone’ over the Spring Bank Holiday featuring the ‘obby ‘oss, a Fool, ‘Grenadiers’, dancers and music, with the revellers all in festival dress. This procession was banned in 1837 for drunken behaviour having recorded several fatalities (!), it's now been reinstated and as a result whilst the Wheelbarrow Race is “Alcohol Free”, the tradition is enjoyed by locals and visitors once again.

With its pretty harbour and award winning beach Combe Martin need not offer the walker much more though there is an active Village Museum and the bizarre Pack of Cards Inn - built from past gambling winnings and now a hotel with its 52 stairs and 52 windows arranged in four storeys which like a house of cards decrease in size at each level. On a practical level then Combe Martin has a number of pubs offering food, drink and hospitality after a day’s walk while you take in the atmosphere of this village set deep in a fertile valley and surrounded by a designated Area of Outstanding Beauty.

Combe Martin Village Devon on the Coast Path Walking Holiday UK

Ilfracombe

Ilfracombe North Devon Independent Walking Holidays SW Coast PathIlfracombe is probably North Devon’s most popular resort set as it is in a wonderful natural habour space.  Squeezed between cliffs and surrounding hills you get the impression that the feel of the place has not changed much since the Victorian era though then a steady influx of visitors arrived by impressive steamships and railway as it first became a family holiday destination.  The expansion of the town however was only possible because a natural harbour from which fishermen had gone to sea since the 12th century, and throughout the last 100 or so years it has continued to evolve, now presenting a much more contemporary image. Visit the striking Landmark Theatre (claimed in these parts to have been modelled on Madonna's Bra !)  or the infamous artist Damien Hurst’s restaurant, “11 The Quay”, where you can eat amongst some of his "Modern Medicine" artworks.

Ilfracombe SW Coast Path North Devon Walking Holidays and Short BreaksThe harbour is the largest on the North Devon coast and believe it or not experiences the world’s second highest tidal rise and fall so some watching of the dramatic harbour movements is a must.  Around the quay there is an Aquarium and next to the theatre, a Town Museum housed in a former hotel laundry room, crammed with photos and Victoriana, alongside the stuffed birds and collections of insects you’d expect to find from travelling academics in the early 20th century. 

Up in the town wander the old cobbled Fore Street and in amongst the shops and galleries on the High Street is Walker’s handmade Chocolate Emporium,  with a chocolate museum upstairs and cafe selling a range of hot chocolates and snacks. 

SW Coast Path reaches Ilfracombe on the North Devon Coast UKOne of the advantages of staying in Ilfracombe is the chance to explore Tunnels Beach with its tidal bathing pools hewn from a sheltered and previously inaccessible cove by Welsh miners brought in to carve passageways through the rock. There were two tidal bathing rock pools then - for segregated bathing of course. Apparently a bugler was positioned to issue an alarm if any men tried to cross between the two pools. One pool still survives today along with some evocative displays conjuring images of the woollen clad swimmers and signs, such as “gentlemen who cannot swim should NEVER take ladies upon the water”! There is a good beach cafe here well worth a look and you can also hire kayaks for a paddle. For those taking a rest day here - it's a town with good facilities, excellent restaurants and if you time it right the chance to take a ferry to Lundy Island one of the South West's most amazing locations.

Ilfracombe Harbour Devon SouthWest Coastal Path UK National Footpath Finally before that well earned evening meal, it’s worth taking the time to have a stroll up to St Nicholas Chapel on the top of Lantern Hill overlooking the harbour. Said to be the oldest lighthouse in the country, built in 1320, a lantern burned for centuries to show sailors the entrance to the harbour. Also from there you will have great views of offshore Lundy Island and can use the local science to forecast the weather for tomorrow's walk

"Lundy High - will be dry, Lundy Plain - sign of rain, Lundy Low - sign of snow" - its a simple as that apparently!

Woolacombe and Mortehoe

Woolacombe Beach on the South West Coast Path North Devon UKNothing to do with sheep, Woolacombe comes from Woolcoma or Wolfs Valley. No such terrors these days, now Woolacombe’s fame is the three mile stretch of an ultra pristine golden sandy beach, the winner of 2012 Best British Beach award. With a back drop of sand dunes the beach is a popular destination for surfers and rather amusingly is  home to one of the most famous International sandcastle competition! The beach was the base for the U.S army assault training centre where the landings were practised for the Normandy invasion. Today it is a good holiday destination dotted with the odd Regency buildings sadly intersperced with a lot of more modern bungalows but with a pleasant walk around the town and without doubt one of the West Country's finest beaches it suits the overnight walkers well and has a handful of decent eating options.

Mortehoe village near the SW Coast Path Trekking Route South West EnglandOne mile before Woolacombe is the much older and more interesting village of Mortehoe set 3/4 mile inland of the coast path. Traced back to the Doomsday book it can tell tales of smugglers and wreckers. This stunning stretch of coastline conjures up dramatic images of smuggling due to its jagged offshore rocks and reefs, Mortehoe itself an isolated and wild place surrounded by harsh gorse and heather more reminiscent of the far west of Cornwall. 

Although small, the village has the lovely 12th Century church of St Mary Magdalene with some parts from Norman times and a good selection of eateries including three inns and an excellent shellfish restaurant run by the family of the local Lobster Boat "The Walrus" - seafood does not get fresher than this. The heritage centre in the village gives a good background to the maritime history of this rather lawless outpost as well as tractor rides to Morte Point to see the seals.

Both locations work fine for coast path walkers - Woolacombe being the best positioned for beach lovers and for breaking the mileage up. For those who want another fascinating old England village ask for Mortehoe but be prepared to walk an extra mile or so on the next days section.

Croyde

Croyde Beach Devon Coast Path Self Guided Independent Walking HolidaysThe picturesque thatched village of Croyde takes us back in time to maybe more carefree days, with thatched roofed cob cottages and a little stream running through the village out to the sea, a handful of  narrow sandy lanes are linked by a pretty bridge in the centre of this rustic village. 

After a good day’s walk this is the sort of place to treat yourself to a clotted cream ice cream or a craft shop cream tea. Another place for those who like to be by a sandy beach there is a reasonable range of B&B's dotted in amongst a couple of craft shops, a handful of restaurants and a couple of pubs. Nearly all the buildings here are at least 200 years old.

Croyde Village North Devon on the South West Coast Path Self Guided RouteIts a laid back overnight stop for the walker but with a surfing theme as the "rips" here are prized by surfers as being some of the trickiest on this coast - its pleasant enough to take a stroll and watch them tacking the waves. Croyde in that sense throws up one of the more modern West Country contradications where Cream Tea meets Cool Surf.

A mile inland and the little hamlet of Georgeham holds the cottage where Henry Williamson wrote Tarka the Otter, one legacy being the cycling and walking route The Tarka Trail which runs alongside the banks of the river Taw before heading inland as far as Dartmoor.

Braunton

Braunton Village North Devon South West Coast Path Walking BreaksBraunton is close enough to Barnstaple to start feeling a bit of the modern world by comparison but more conveniently breaks the mileage up for the walker from Woolacombe.  More of a town with a population of around 10,000 it has a couple of bistro options, cafes and Inns make up the village and along with some B&B's provide the options for overnight walkers.

Whilst inland of the coast, Surfing is still very much in evidence here with the town hosting The Musuem of British Surfing with some exhibits showing that the clothing and boards of the early pioneers were a long way from todays "cool" boardriders - have a look at the 1920's "coffin lid" board!

This is the best location for further exploration of the huge dunes and diverse flora and forna of the Biosphere Reserve at nearby Braunton Burrows.

Barnstaple

Barnstaple on the South West Coastal Path in Devon Walking TrailBarnstaple is the largest town in North Devon and has been a centre of sorts since Norman times, sitting strategically at the head of the Taw estuary.  These days its importance locally is guaranteed by a railway station linking to Exeter and the wider world, a bus station offering public transport to other parts of North Devon, a hospital and other services and administrations necessary to maintain a (fairly!) civilised infrastructure in the 21st century.

One of the first four boroughs in England with the right to mint coin having been granted during the 10th century.  other relics of the past include bullet holes from the Civil War in the doors of the almshouses, a 12th century parish church and the Castle Mound, originally the base of a wooden Norman Keep. 

Once the river silted up and the port was lost the town lost some of its historical importance but it remains a geographical hub for North Devon and a pleasant place to visit.

As the region's major town as you would imagine for the walker pretty much everything is on offer here with good restaurants, B&B's town guesthouses and smart riverside hotels.

Those with the time to explore will enjoy the fascinating daily Pannier Market which was built in 1855- Named after the baskets used to bring produce in, today the type of goods on offer are determined by the day of the week but its always full of surprises.Barnstaple Long Bridge used by the South West Coast Path in Devon UK

Delis, art galleries, a Guildhall and cafes fill the old section of town making it pleasant place to explore and there is a Regional Museum which is worth visiting.

If you are missing such things this is the first place in around 100 miles of coastline with a busy cinema AND a theatre ...and it will be the last for another 100 miles or so!

Instow

Instow Village North Devon part of the SW Coast Path Walking Holiday UKAfter a good days walking the calmer town of Instow makes for a pleasant place to relax and look out over the estuary where the rivers of the Taw and Torridge meet. Looking west over the waters this is a great place to watch the natural display of the spectacular sunsets.  Wander through the village with its brightly painted terraced houses and cottages and  out onto the grandness of Marine Parade treating yourself to a highly prized cream team at the Commodore Hotel.

The open position and beach known as Instow Sands is enjoyed by keen water sportsmen and there will always be someone windsurfing, sailing or kayaking but compared to your previous nights in Woolacombe and Braunton sufing has very much been replaced by sailing once you reach Instow.

View of Instow village on the South West Coast Path Route UKNo railway these days but a fully restored railway signal box which is over 130 years old sits in the village on the old track line and is run by volunteers who are more than happy to show you round and demonstrate how the box worked.

There is a good choice of restaurants and pubs in Instow with a strong focus on locally sourced fish straight off the beach - one or two galleries and a sailing school complete the options but then if you ever fancied learning to sail this would be a stunning location to try it.

 

Bideford

Bideford North Devon accommodation for walkers on the South West Coast PathAn interesting market town which has a lot of historical features as well as a good selection of modern services. Crossing the river is the 13th Century Long Bridge made up of 24 different sized arches representing the different guilds at the time.  Originally the bridge, built of oak was to cross a dangerous ford (not surprisingly Bideford is derived from “By the Ford”) and there was a chapel at each end – presumably to pray for/give thanks for a safe crossing!

The tree lined quay, has been recently regenerated but maintains it purpose with fishing and cargo boats still working, as well as pleasure boats and the ferry service on the MS Oldenburgh to offshore Lundy Island. It's got it's fair share of darker history, Sir Walter Raleigh was said to have landed the first shipment of tobacco here which is why you’ll notice more than one street named after him and the Bideford witch trial saw the last hangings for witchcraft in England here - you will be relieved to know that was in the 17th Century.

Bideford overnight stop on the SW Coast Path route in North Devon

There is a good choice of accommodation as you would imagine in a larger town with smarter hotels, B&B's and guest houses. Overnight visitors will find plenty of places to eat and drink in very pleasant surroundings, from Quigleys on the quay which is the old Custom House to restaurants and bistros, as well as a local farm dairy ice cream parlour in the village, specialising in local produce.

If you are on a short walking day explore the market and narrow streets which are full of odd shops,  art galleries and independent retailers with a healthy mix of good cafes, bisto's and inns. It's the sort of fairly cosmopolitan place that does not come along that frequently on the coast path so make the most of it.

Further inland Chudleigh Fort was erected here during the Civil War in 1643 to defend the town and is now an attractive ornamental garden and the Burton Art Gallery and Museum is a good size with good visiting exhibitions. The Heritage and visitor Centre is actually situated in a disused railway carriage and makes a good stop with its own cafe.

Westward Ho!

Westward Ho South West Coast Path walking holiday SW EnglandWestward Ho! is the end of the trail for those on the Exmoor and North Devon Coast Path and the town has that trail end feel about it sitting at the end of the "easier" estuary walking sections around the Taw and Torridge rivers and resting in the shadow of the rising cliffs and escarpment rollercoaster of the jagged North Cornwall Coastline which starts to rise up quickly from the last bit of flat ground here at Westward Ho!

Its claims to fame centre on the written word, the resort named after the book of the same name by Charles Kingsley (though its said he preferred nearby Clovelly!).

The area was also home at one time to Rudyard Kipling whose stories in Stalky and Co are set in the area. It's also apparently the only town with an exclamation mark in its name - and who are we to argue with that.

Whilst fine for an overnight stop its not really worthy of an extra day at the end of the walk - Westward Ho! is another example of a "resort" that sprang up with the Victorians desire to take the classic seaside holiday and it remains a quiet family resort.

It's expansive 2-mile beach is the central attraction and marks the end of the coast path framed as you reach Westward Ho! by an pretty impressive pebble ridge bank that brought the Victorians attention to the place.

Sands at Westward Ho! North Devon South West Coast Path Self Guided Walk

Some good guest houses and B&B's cater for walkers along with The Village Inn for those who want to finish their walk somewhere with a drinking option on site.

With easy bus options to take you back to Barnstaple and the mainline railway Westward Ho! is a friendly and aimiable place that serves its location well as a familiar reintroduction to the modern world for the exiting coast path walker.

 

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