It’s been fifteen months since G and I relocated to North Devon from Sussex in search of an outdoor lifestyle.
On the face of it, the move would seem a bit rash since Devon was a stranger to us both. Neither of us has spent any time there other than the odd trip to Torquay and a brief cycle through the county a few years ago but the lure of living by the sea on a coastline dominated by stunning beaches and a thriving outdoor culture persuaded us to at least give it a go.
Devon presents a very different landscape to what we were used to. It has a wonderfully diverse and varied geography. Dominated by the Atlantic Ocean to the North and English Channel to the right it is predominantly built on sandstone, limestone, granite and clay. Exmoor to the North and Dartmoor to the South are key geographical features as is the South West Cost Path which runs along both coastlines. Although in fairness, the whole county is littered with Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Conservation Areas. It’s a compelling area to inhabit.
When we confirmed the move, one friend (who had been brought up in Devon) mentioned that we were certainly not moving for the weather. It turns out he wasn’t kidding. North Devon is buffeted by storms rolling in off the Atlantic. The exposed areas can be a bit exciting but thankfully, the area is blessed with pockets of ancient woodland and deep gorges which offer shelter when the storms are blowing in. The area is also consistently hilly, much more so than Surrey, making it a good test of our #hillsarefriends philosophy.
With so many wonderful areas to explore, we reasoned there is no better and more efficient way to discover new run routes than to utilise local knowledge via races. In the latter part of 2019, it paid dividends with beautiful runs at Arlington Court and Castle Drogo.
We just got into our stride then the pandemic hit and we had to rewrite everything.
Like everyone else we have stumbled around the last few months, working to form a new narrative and using the time productively to listen and learn. This time of renewal has opened our mind to looking for new experiences. So when a colleague from G’s work suggested we sign up for a virtual 5k run organised by a local charity he supports called Care for Kids, it seemed like a really nice idea. On completion of the 5k, the charity contacted us about a 10k they were hosting in July, so we signed up for that too. And that’s how we ended up stood in the car park at Woolacombe last week ready to explore.
Since we discovered the parkrun at Woolacombe Sands, it’s become one of our favourite places to run. The beach itself is edged by low cliffs to the North (Morte Point) and the South (Baggy Point). Morte Point we had explored many months ago and while Baggy was on the list we never seemed to find the time to get there.
Although the virtual event was meant to be self timed with awards for the fastest runners, neither G nor I had any interest in running at speed. The event was a way to motivate us to get off the couch and run around a reputably stunning part of Devon. We were more inclined to explore and if that meant we were last, so be it.
Starting out from the Porthole cafe, the toilets were open thankfully, we headed South along the paved road towards the South West Coast Path.
The path undulates along the edge of the cliff for a time, offering tantalising glimpses of Putsborough sands below until it opens out onto the land mass. To go on would take you over the hill towards the village of Croyde and Saunton Sands. We were to turn right.
We decided to follow the South West Coast Path along the northern edge of the headland. The path is narrow and cursed with a natural camber. Simon Armitage describes the path in his book, ‘Walking Away’ as ‘and the path a narrow and occasionally precarious tightrope down the middle that has to be watched and negotiated. Also, the natural camber of the coast means that my right leg is always further down the hill than the left and is theoretically doing more work… I might even end up with one leg longer than the other, like people who live on the side of mountains’.
The path is so narrow in places and over grown with gorse – a pernicious shrub if you have the misfortune of coming into contact with it – that you are forced into a one foot in, one foot out hobble slowing us immensely. We were passed by several runners who had the seasoned look of experience. Interestingly they consistently shunned the path altogether and took their chances on the slope above and made much better progress than we did, so we give it a brief go before sliding back to the path.
In any respect the slower pace was worth it to enjoy the views and we took the opportunity to look up and take in the panorama as well as the sounds and smell of the sea. It was blowing quite a breeze along the headland, a refreshing and life affirming wind that makes you feel alive and happy to be so.
The whole headland is undulating but has a prevalence to climbing out to the point. It means that running should be easier on the way back (although it doesn’t always work like that) and we set a steady run/walk as we make our way along the coast. We we’re mindful the distance we need to achieve was only 10k and we’d already clocked a mile to get to the foot of the headland. A quick calculation revealed we should hit half way on the ‘point’ of Baggy Point and while it was tempting to explore the whole area, we would save that for another day.
As the path runs up and down it also weaves in and out, sometimes hugging the edge of the coast to an almost precarious point before drifting back inwards. It was an interesting path to run and one which draws you along to see what is over the next hill. The island of Lundy was to our right, sitting like a dumpling in a bowl of stew and clearly visible in the clear air.
As we crested the climb, the view opened on the bay to the South. In actual fact, we could see beyond the beach to Northam Burrows and along the coast past Clovelly right to Hartland Point. It was stunningly beautiful and exciting to see the geography laid out before us after obsessively studying it on maps and visiting various points in piecemeal.
We stood for a little while, taking in the sights, sounds and living in the joy of being present in the moment before turning back to head back along the path, in a reverse of the direction we had come.
We had spent quite a while lollygagging and so confident our time would not present a threat to the top of the results table, we enjoyed the return journey at a similar pace.
One of the things I love while running is enjoying the movement of my body. The inherent strength that indicates, should I need to, I can rely on my body to do what it needs to and get myself out of trouble. This terrain is perfect for that. A classic trail run in which no foot strike is really the same and attention needs to be held at all times. There is a kind of meditation in this type of running that switches off all excess thoughts other than where the next foot strike will go. So despite the howling wind around us, I was entrenched in a meditative peace.
We steadily made our way along the path, loosing elevation until eventually we dropped down onto the beach. We plodded along for a short while until we reached the point where the parkrun route reaches the beach. We picked up the path heading into the dunes and ran the route in reverse until we were back at the Porthole in time for coffee.