Departing Exeter St David’s railway station I continue to bump in to the legacy of that man Paul Theroux on these trips. Back in 1982 on his ‘The Kingdom by the Sea’ round-Britain yomp, our mentor took the Exeter To Barnstaple branch line, where conversations with passengers were about the Falklands War. The conflict is still the topic of discussion today as we mark forty years since HMS Invincible sailed down The Solent accompanied by a flotilla of support vessels and a ticket to save Thatcher’s premiership. Without over-stretching the history-repeating-itself observation, the Russian-Ukrainian war is currently doing the same for Boris Johnson.
Theroux seemed to enjoy his journey between Exeter and Barnstaple, but was far from optimistic about the line’s chances of survival. I’m chuffed to say (as if in some way I’m responsible) that it is still open and busy with regular services, despite his doom-laden predictions.
The railway infrastructure has changed so much since the last quarter of the 20th Century. Not many people would have predicted the growth in passenger numbers and the surge in community-led rail partnerships that are encouraging branch lines to thrive - and in some cases expand – up and down the country. All this despite one of the most flawed and costly privatisation models ever dreamed up.
That said, the Exeter-Barnstaple route felt like a throwback. Beyond Eggesford heading north - roughly half-way - the journey is single-track and necessitates the use of a ‘token system’. This was the first time outside a preservation railway that I’d seen this safety mechanism used. A driver is required to be in possession of a token before entering a two-way section of single-track. There is only one token, thus ensuring only one train is on the section at any one time. In a digital age, this is a reassuringly physical Golden Age of Steam solution first used in 1849.
The track winds a sinuous trail through the most spectacular bits of north Devon hills beside the River Taw into Barnstaple, where the estuary opens out into Bideford Bay. Barnstaple is a curious town. ‘Neither nowt nor summat’, as my Mam would say. I had a coffee in the town museum, newly housed in a cleaned and restored wharf building facing a tidy square. The view north took in the estuary and Long Bridge, a medieval stone crossing of 16 arches that is one of the oldest of its kind in the country.
The path upstream took me as far as Rock Park, soaking up the pleasant January sunshine, where I ambitiously hoped the name indicated a shrine to heavy metal. An Iron Maiden climbing wall or a Judas Priest roundabout maybe? No, of course not. The open space was named after William Rock, a Victorian philanthropist and town benefactor who donated the land and paid for ruined cottages and industrial buildings to be cleared away. The closest I came to a celebration of my favourite music genre was spotting a scaffolder on the roof of an adjacent building refurb gyrating to a God-awful grime rap track on his over-loud builder’s radio (is there any other kind?) that made his safety harness move in unspeakable ways. I felt quite sick.
Back in the town centre, I waited for the bus to Lynton on the north Devon coast. The bus station had rather more young people hanging around than you might expect: all dyed hair and combat trousers, but not quite pulling off the surf bum look. You need to be a bit further west for that to stick.
Very shrewdly, I took a seat over the rear axle of the bus, stepped up higher than those at the front, remembered how Devon lanes are always flanked by high sided hedges blocking out all those cracking views from low level car windows. The plan worked. This elevated position had me gazing down the Yeo Valley and over moorland towards Parracombe. Until a post van turned out of a blind corner, forcing our driver to break hard and swerve, projecting me forward, backside off the seat, grabbing at the air. We came to a juddering halt inches away from the garden wall of a house on the corner. ‘Everyone alright?’ shouted the driver, observing my discombobulation his rear view mirror. We pulled away and I caught the name of the abode: Well Close Cottage. Indeed.
Parracombe, whilst we are on the subject of tight squeezes, is the most difficult set of tiny streets I've ever seen a bus negotiate. Particularly around the bottle neck outside the good looking pub (The Fox and Goose for future reference). I dreaded to think what chaos would ensue trying to navigate this in Summer traffic.
When planning this trip, I stumbled upon the website of the Lynton and Barnstaple preservation railway. How had I missed this route, I mused, seeing my outing to the coast take on a new dimension. Only a little further digging was needed to unearth a little deception on the part of the railway that runs for only a mile or so on a small part of restored moorland narrow-gauge track a few miles outside Lynton. The name of the Trust reflected its ambition rather than its actualité. This was just the start of their restoration journey. My bus route criss-crossed bits of the trackbed and railway infrastructure across the moor, including an impressive viaduct at Chelfham. Good luck to them. What a spectacular rescue this would be.
Much as I love seaside towns out of season, Lynton really stretched the limits for minimum service requirements. Don't get me wrong. The town was everything I hoped for from its cliff top location, stacked with grand Edwardian villas and fine hotels overlooking Lynmouth Bay hundreds of feet below. The church was a real gem with superb views over to Eastern beach and Wind Hill. I scoffed a Londis meal deal in its graveyard, noting that Percy Byshe Shelley, Coleridge and Wordsworth had all been there before me, clearly inspired by the view from this spot. Their dining arrangements remain unrecorded.
Lynton's old town had switchback hillside lanes chock full of galleries, tearooms, bric-a-brac emporia and cute looking pubs. Some of them were even open when I arrived in the early afternoon. But all were shut by 4pm.
My hotel for the night was not offering an evening meal. I knew this in advance, so no complaints about that. I was, though, hoping/expecting/anticipating that one of the pubs or restaurants would offer me something at night. But no/rien/nada. Kate, the hotel manager, was very apologetic. It being January and all, she pointed out. She thought something might be open in the village below. There was a connection down the sheer cliff face via the 125 year old cliff funicular. But it was closed until February for maintenance.
In fact Lynmouth was always my preferred option. I wanted to explore the seaside village in daylight, particularly as the weather had broken reasonably clear after days and days of undefined, seamless, blanket grey cloud.
The knee-creaking zig-zag descent of 500 feet to the seafront was dotted with hand-written, laminated poems attached to trees and railings. In celebration of the poets that had been inspired by this corner of Devon, visitors and residents alike had written their own verses and rhymes in annual competitions; and which were now displayed on this Poets Walk.
Charming as they were, I resolved to tackle the punishing path back up to my hotel only once. Either after I'd found a pub to eat in. Or in time to stroll out to Londis for a pot noodle.
Lynmouth, although smaller than its cliff-top neighbour, did indeed offer food options. My first stop was a pub called the Ancient Mariner. Coleridge again. Or Iron Maiden again, depending in your cultural references. We'll get more of this further along the coast in Somerset.
The hostelry had a number of saving graces: Exmoor Gold on draft, a very fine steak burger meal and possibly best of all, an eclectic, diverse music playlist. I ate and drank to tracks from The Cure's early goth phase, obscure material by The Cocteau Twins whom you never ever hear in mainstream pubs, Kingmaker, 10,000 Maniacs, The Pixies, and on. Brilliant and unexpected. I had to ask the bar manager who had put this classic piece of late 80s indie music together. He had no idea what I was on about. Kids eh?
Taking a turn around the harbour, I paused by the Flood Memorial Hall. On these trips around the coast, there are often recurring themes. Flooding is absolutely one of them. Having first written about the inundation of 1953 in Lincolnshire, then Canvey Island, and more recently, the Boscastle flood of 2004, here I was in January 2022 reading about another story of devastation wrought in a pleasant, quiet seaside resort. A downpour on 15 August 1952 saw nine inches of rain fall on Exmoor in 24 hours. Water cascaded off the moor down the East and West Lyn rivers which were swollen even before the storm. Trees were uprooted and formed dams behind bridges, creating walls of water that carried huge boulders into the village. The flooding claimed 34 lives.
What sets this apart from other disasters is the fascinating conspiracy theory that has swirled around ever since. In essence, it is that the storm was caused by experiments to artificially create rain. During August 1952, North Devon experienced 250 times the normal rainfall for the month. In 2001, a BBC investigation discovered that classified documents on secret experiments to seed clouds and create rain had gone missing, alongside evidence from RAF logbooks. There’s also personal testimony: survivors have apparently told how the air smelled of sulphur on the afternoon of the floods, and that the rain was so hard, it hurt people's faces.
Strolling up the beguilingly calm and beautiful East Lyn valley (along the Coleridge Way long-distance path, naturally) it was terrifying to imagine these narrow and steep-sided valleys funnelling tonnes of rainwater and deadly debris onto the village below. There would have been nowhere to hide.
Back by the harbour I was distracted by lights on the horizon and I was surprised to see Port Talbot steel works and various small towns glinting in a multi coloured display of industrial, maritime and residential neon across the Bristol Channel. Although the day had been fairly clear, there had been no hint if this view a few hours earlier.
A few atmospheric snaps were taken for posterity and then I decided it would be rude not to call in to The Rising Sun, the only other open pub in the village. Given that they had gone to the effort and all that. The first thing to say is that the playlist was not in the same league as the Ancient Mariner’s down the road. But Dire Straits, Bruce Springsteen and commercial era Clash would have to do. And like the earlier pub, the atmosphere here was relaxed, friendly and welcoming. Both venues had been busy enough. Let that be a lesson to their shirking cousins up the hill.
Next morning I joined the path directly outside my hotel towards the Valley of Rocks half a mile distant. Kate, the hotel manager had told me how beautiful was this part of the coastline, yet I was still unprepared for the spectacular landscape. After emerging from lush woodland and entering the valley through a kissing gate, I was met by a feral goat half way up a limestone outcrop returning my bewildered gaze.
The Valley of Rocks is a U-shaped dry valley running parallel to the sea and is well known (I discovered later) for these brown and white goats roaming free over jagged cliff edges. During the Ice Age the ice sheet prevented the East Lyn River from reaching the sea on its normal route and was diverted westwards. When the ice sheet retreated the river was able to resume its original path, leaving this valley riverless. The area is littered with striking rock formations, impossibly balanced ledges and peaks, caves, sink holes and smooth valley walls. Kate had told me that she could see animal shapes in some of her favourite configurations.
At that early hour, I had the place to myself. Gradually the weather closed in and drizzle leaked from low clouds, wrapping me ever more tightly in to the landscape. Even amongst the murk, the colours cut through. The tawny browns of bracken, depending greens of rhododendron, yellow of the early flowering gorse, and the shades of white lichens that had colonized the Devonian slabs to give a fair impression of winter camouflage on a Soviet era Armoured Personnel Carrier. Actually, maybe the poet Robert Southey, who visited here in 1799, puts it a little better than me: ‘covered with huge stones … the very bones and skeletons of the earth; rock reeling upon rock, stone piled upon stone, a huge terrific mass’.
At the end of the valley, a single track lane entered the grounds of Lee Abbey and ascended to higher ground. The gloom lifted just long enough to give a sneaky, rewarding view down the coastline towards Lee Bay, before swallowing it up again. I turned round and headed back to Lynton, with my head in the clouds.
The town was busier than the previous evening. It could hardly be quieter. Wednesday seemed like the new Monday round here. Everything kicked off again on Thursdays when there would have been plenty of eating options. Another night’s stay was so tempting. Sitting in Charlie’s Coffee Place, gently seduced by the Scandinavian wood and neon vibe, I realised I had barely scratched the surface of Lynton and Lynmouth. Plans had been made though, and restraint won the day. The bus over the moor whisked me back to Barnstaple and I idly wondered how busy the towns would be when high summer sun was hitting the sea, compared to the south Devon hotspots, or Ilfracombe and Bude further west on this coast. With that, the cloud broke and the late afternoon was filled with sunshine. I think I made the wrong decision.