A person through Portlock

October 27, 2012

Various things came together this weekend.  I had arranged a meeting with the owner of The Culbone Inn, Tony.  We had been introduced earlier in the year by Peter Stanbridge who has more contacts than Rabbit had friends and relations (if you don't get that you had a deprived childhood).   Tony made money selling a software company and has used some of that money to set up what will be first of a chain of Inns.  He and a colleague are also setting up a consultancy to look at identity and we thought it would be a good idea to talk.

At the same time I had been cherishing a desire to get started on the 640 miles that is the South West Coastal Path.  I want to get that done by the end of 2013 by way of preparation for my Round Wales walk in 2014.  The first two sections from Minehead to Potlock Weir and thence to Lynmouth pass by the Culbone Inn, the weather forecast was looking good at least for Saturday with a more mixed Sunday.  I am writing this in bed at the Inn with rain patterning the windows overlooking Exmore so I can only hope it will clear up later to sunny intervals and light showers.

Checking out public transport I found there was a bus that ran been Lynmouth and Minehead albeit infrequently and the service ceases on the last weekend in October so it was now or a taxi.  Rather than stopping at Portlock Weir I decided to climb on up to Culbone Church and then strike over what looked like a short mile to the Inn where I could pick up the bus that would return me to Minehead to pick up the car.  I really should have checked the map as the said short mile was a nine hundred foot near vertical climb (it starts around 5.5 hours on the chart). 

The 13.2 miles involved an initial ascent of from sea level of almost a thousand feet followed by a near vertical descent to sea level then a six hundred foot climb to Culbone Church.  This path is going to put the perversities of the Cotswolds Way to shame, although the Exmoor sections, or Lorna Doone land as it is now caused, provide the highest points on the path.  In all sense this is a much bigger undertaking than the various South East paths that have been a part of the last eighteen’s months resolution to devote at least one day a weekend, regardless of workload to exercise.  Its paying off by the way both in fitness and also in thinking.  The last few months have seen a spurt of new idea both around Cynefin and also SenseMaker® that arise both from the thinking time provided by long walks although there is a downside in the lost time to clearing emails etc.

I got home from my brief trip to Belfast later than anticipated and needed the sleep so I didn’t set the alarm.  Net result I didn’t get away as planned around just after six and thus started the walk two hours late at ten thirty which meant I had to make a tight timescale to meet the last bus so plans to take the extended “wild alternative” between Minehead and Portlock Weir had to be abandoned in favour of the official path and any idea of stopping for a pint at Porlock Weir was dependent on a higher average speed than I anticipated given the climbs, and the descents, which are far more punishing to ageing knees.

Minehead has two halves; the old Victoria end up by the harbour and Butlin’s Holiday Camp with its garish white marque at the other.  Fortunately I could avoid the latter and the sculpture which heads this post forms a fitting starting point, especially on a sunny autumnal day  The sun was low in the sky but behind me and the air crisp.  I wore gloves (and needed them) for the first time this year and I was facing a brisk wind coming off the sea to my right until I entered the woods.   To be greeted by Y Ddraig Goch at the first habitation was unexpected but there again this is celtic land.

As the ascent through the woods started I experimented with my new innovation on this walk to wit trekking  poles courtesy of Rohan.   I bought one of these a few weeks ago and it made life easier on some of the descents on the Ridgeway so I bought the second this week (and many thanks to Rohan who sourced it from the Nottingham store and made sure it arrived on time) and now imitated those who I had long seen as a curiosity, striding along with both poles working at the same time.  Life was transformed (I don’t exaggerate) and I am now a firm and convinced addict.  The ability to allow your arms to relieve some of the load in a climb and take the impact on a descent was anticipated to a a degree but was far greater than I had expected.  

Having reached the top I looked with regret at the diversion for the ‘rugged” alternative but resolved to return another day and combine that with a circular walk from the car park.  It looked to be a good Sunday afternoon stroll from my vantage point although I use the phrase with caution.  In my family it has become associated with bogs, cliffs, bulls and other hazards to the point where any member of said family proposing such a stroll is treated with great caution and their plans closely scrutinised.  The views over Exmoor and the coast of South Wales were good, but the main track is away from the sea until the sudden and abrupt descent through Hurlestone to the shingle ridge across Portlock Bay.  Without the poles which would have been a slow and painful set of jarring impacts on the knees, with them I was almost back to the pace of my youth when I would have run down the slope.  Indeed I foolishly attempted this at one point with consequences involving a bruised hip, mud, water and a damaged ego but no other injury.

The path used to follow the shingle ridge but no longer.  Nature has been allowed to take its course and the ridge was broken by the sea in 1966.  As a result the path now takes an inland route through the charming village of Bossington before briefing joining the shingle ridge again just before Portlock Weir.  This brief encounter is more than enough to drive any regret for the old path from one’s mind.  Shingle is not secure underfoot, tekking poles or not and the quarter mile section took more energy than any climb.   Up to this point I had been entertaining thoughts of extended the walk to County Gate and getting the bus back from there.  The forecast was not good for Sunday and adding those five miles would have meant a much shorted walk on Sunday which could have been more opportunistic in exploiting the conditions.  However to do this I would have had to make Portlock Weir by two-thirty and it was after three when my feet touched stable ground at the old harbour,  so I reverted to the original plan.

The ascent from Portlock Weir is through a series of turreted follies that were the creation of one Lord Lovelace who spent far too much time in Italy if you want my opinion.  Such architectural constructs add little value, but the well engineered path through Oak and Whitebeam woods is a delight, especially with autumnal colours.  Its a longer walk than I thought as it involve a climb and one or two sections where navigation is necessary in the absence of signs.  But eventually Culbone Church emerged through a gap in the woods on my right.

Culborne Church, nestling in the protected folds of the Combe is a delight.  It is the smallest complete parish church in the UK at thirty-five feet in length.  Its plain on the inside and better for it.  There is a Welsh connection in that the name of the Church is a corruption of Kil Beun of Church of St Beuno probably the most famous Welsh Saint after St David.  The Llyn Peninsular is littered with Churches associated with this seventh century paragon.  I should say, that I gather from Julia the name is controversial so I simply repeat here what the 30p brochure I bought in the Church says.

From here I commenced the short one mile walk to pick up bus 300 by the Inn.  As I turned the corner out of the woods the first of two near vertical ascents became visible and I realised my work was going to be cut out.  Torq gels and trekking poles meant I arrived at the main road some three minutes before the bus.  OK I could have got a taxi, but the bus was itself a delight.  It was full of various walkers using it to return to the origin so good conversation and hints for later sections were an added bonus.  By the time we got to Minehead we were all old friends and faced the biting cold that followed sunset together.  

Arriving at the Inn I stayed in the shower for over ten minutes until I finally restored some feeling to frozen bones.   I also discovered a blister that will mean a diversion in the morning.  I should have realised that walking on with a loose boot lace was a mistake and the blister is a mark of shame on consequence.

The title by the way is a reference to Coleridge who was interrupted in writing Kubla Khan by a 'man from Portlock'.  Since then it has come to mean anyone who disrupts a creative process.  I changed it a bit, but may be getting too subtle for my own good in which case apologies.


A full set of photographs have been uploaded to flickr.  Apologies but there is some stain/dust on the camera sensor so its going to sent off for cleaning while I am in Singapore.   I corrected the marks on the originals but that was after I posted them.  

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