“The village was built sheer up the face of a steep and lofty cliff. There was no road in it, there was no wheeled vehicle in it, there was not a level yard in it. From the sea-beach to the cliff-top two irregular rows of white houses, placed opposite to one another and twisting here and there, and there and here, rose, like the sides of a long succession of stages of crooked ladders.” Charles Dickens
One of the most picturesque hikes I’ve ever done was from Clovelly to Westward Ho! – a section of the UK’s South West Coast Path. At the time, I was working at a outdoor activity centre in North Devon, and a few of us decided to spend our day off work wandering along the coast. We left our car at Westward Ho!, hitch-hiked to Clovelly, and then hiked the 17.9 km (11.1 miles) back to Westward Ho!. It was an awesome day; but not without misadventure.
Clovelly is delightful.
In Charles Dickens’ short story A Message from the Sea (1892), his description of the village of Steepways is actually based on Clovelly. You really would be forgiven for thinking that you’d stepped back in time when you arrive in this gorgeous village.
There are no cars; just winding cobble-stoned alleyways and steep steps that led down to a tiny working fishing port. The quaint white-washed cottages, with their colourful gardens, are haphazardly placed on the edge of a cliff. There are stacks of lobster traps decorating back yards and, in the harbour, tiny fishing vessels.
Clovelly’s fishing industry was originally renowned for its herring and mackerel, but these days it’s famous for its lobsters and crabs. The village also has a fascinating history, with tales of smuggling, piracy and shipwrecks. We spent about an hour exploring the village, before commencing our hike to Westward Ho!.
Initially, the trail follows a woodland path to the equally charming village of Bucks Mills. Colourful leaves blanket the ground and the trees stretch across the trail, inviting us to climb them (like big kids). The autumnal tones of the forest give us the feeling that we’re in an enchanted world, and lull us into believing we are simply on a leisurely afternoon stroll.
But the hike from Clovelly to Westward Ho! is quite challenging.
I know! I should’ve been warned by the name Westward Ho!, which inspires visions of a much longer journey. The trail climbs to the top of cliffs and descends to the beaches on several occasions, like a roller-coaster. The bonus for the effort is the often-spectacular views along the coast, as well as beautiful forays into forests.
In hindsight, I think we lingered too long in Clovelly and perhaps spent too much time climbing trees. Late afternoon, when the trail, once again, descended to a beach, I suggested we walk the rest of the way along the beach. I figured we had to be close to Westward Ho!; we’d been walking for ages. My friends were agreeable at first, but then had a change of heart and wanted to return to the trail.
It was one of those times where my stubborn streak got the better of me – I kept going, while my friends went back – and it wasn’t long before I regretted my decision. Every time I walked around a new headland, expecting to see Westward Ho!, I saw another beach stretching ahead of me. I was also losing daylight, and had no idea if the tide was coming in. The beaches were rocky, not sandy, so it was extremely difficult underfoot.
Eventually, I was walking in darkness. I was on my own; trying to quell my rising panic. The sound of crashing waves, when you can’t see them, is frightening. In my haste, I was stumbling on the rocks and could’ve easily twisted an ankle. My imagination was also getting the better of me, as I envisaged myself cut off by the tide; unable to go on. I spent a good deal of time cursing myself. Why did I leave the trail? Why did I split up from the rest of my group? Why am I such a colossal idiot?
Fortunately, just as I was despairing I’d never make it, I rounded a headland to see the twinkling lights of Westward Ho!. I still had to negotiate the slippery surface of a tidal swimming pool, cut into the rocks, but then I was able to breathe a big sigh of relief. Later, reunited with my friends, we laughed about how we NEVER would’ve lived it down if we’d had to call ‘Search and Rescue’ – three employees of an outdoor activity centre.
Have you ever made a stupid decision while on a hike? Were there any consequences, or were you lucky, like me? Please share your story in the comments below.