After leaving behind the emotions and ups and downs (literally) of the Jurassic Coast, we could expect an easy home stretch until Plymouth, right? Wrong. The last five hiking days in the UK presented as many challenges as the weeks before. The ferry lottery (will it be working or not)? Check. Climbing up cliffs on precarious paths? Check. Sun-rain-storm-clouds in quick succession? Check. Amazing scenery with green meadows, golden beaches, impressive cliffs? Check as well.
Add to that posh beach towns, lush greenery, blossoming flowers (in January!), and even some palm trees, and you get the idea of the English Riviera and its surrounding regions.
On day 265 of our trip, we left our hotel in Exmouth already knowing that we wouldn’t be able to take the ferry over to Starcross, as it would only return to service on Easter. Fortunately, there was a train going all around the estuary of the river Exe, passing through the city of Exeter. Sitting in a crammed commuter train for 45 minutes wasn’t as nice as hopping on a ferry for five minutes to get to the same place, but it certainly beat walking an additional day. The hiking trail was pleasantly flat and led us along the coast, occasionally between the rail tracks on our right and the stormy sea on our left. Close to Dawlish, a guy on a bicycle greeted us and stopped for a chat. Zsolt, a passionate cyclist, already had crossed half of Europe by bike and coincidentally had cycled along the French coast, where we would be hiking. So there was a lot to talk about. To be more comfortable, he invited us for tea and scones in a nearby café.
After this invigorating break and conversation, we pushed a little harder that afternoon and hiked a total of 24 km to Torquay. That was in part possible, because the Teignmouth-Sheldon ferry was working in winter, avoiding extra kilometers, and because we had headlights with us – it was pitch dark when we crossed a small forest before arriving at the first illuminated streets of Torquay.
Another important contribution of Zsolt to our trip was that he made us think about the ferry to France we were planning to take. According to the description of the UK part of the E9, there is a ferry going from Plymouth to Roscoff in Brittany, from where we would (re-)start the French part of our hike. Until then, we hadn’t bothered to check if that ferry was actually running. Guess what, it wasn’t, at least not until March and we couldn’t wait that long. There is always a plan B, and ours was to take a train from Plymouth back to Portsmouth, from where we could board the ferry to St. Malo, and then take another train to Roscoff.
The following day, we were walking along the coastline of the English Riviera from Torquay, passing through Paignton, until Brixham. This area is famous for its mild climate, and long sandy beaches, making it a popular summer holiday destination. Palm trees were lining the promenade and even on that cloudy January day, the temperature was quite pleasant. After we left the more populous part, we arrived at a small and incredibly blue lagoon, where we spotted a seal, enjoying itself in the water. Now we still had to climb a bit to reach our lodging, a friendly B&B. For dinner, we ordered pizza, which came in such quantity that we had enough leftovers for lunch the next day.
The way to Dartmouth didn’t look like a difficult hike at first, only 20 km, but we were back in the hilly region, with high cliffs making us surpass a lot of altitude several times that day. As always, the sights more than made up for the effort and the sun played its part as well. After one especially hard climb on a slippery path, we sat down on a bench and had lunch. Cold pizza has never tasted that good before! We really needed the energy, because the remaining walk until Kingswear wasn’t any easier. At dusk, we reached the ferry stop and managed to cross over to Dartmouth, where we would spend the night.
The next morning, it turned out that we would be spending more than one night in this town; Moiken woke up feeling very sick (could that be related to the copious amounts of fish&chips we had for dinner?) and we decided to stay, so she could recover. We had to change our lodging, however. But thanks to the internet, that was not such a hard task to do. While Moiken spent the day in bed, José explored the pittoresque port town on his own.
As we had some time on our hands, we did a bit of research about the upcoming parts of our hike. We were still following the South West Coast Path, which should ensure that we can get across all obstacles on the route, like rivers and hills. Unfortunately, this is only true for this part in the summer months. After Salcombe, which we expected to reach within two days, there were four rivers until Plymouth, of which only one, river Plym, had a bridge close to the path. The other three had either to be forded (but only at low tide and during periods with little rain), or the ferry service was suspended in the winter, making it necessary to walk about 20 km more or to arrange a taxi in the middle of nowhere. That left us a bit worried, as it would mean a significant amount of extra days and/or quite some spending on taxis and lodging.
We left Dartmouth on day 269, passing the old fortifications and cannons, which defended this natural harbour in former times. The path led us through green forests with some easier climbs, and we were continuosly amazed at how many flowers were already blossoming:
We descended to the beach again and, walking on a narrow spit between the open sea and a lagoon, arrived at Torcross. We had ordered a taxi to get to our lodging and decided to wait for it in a warm café, enjoying some afternoon tea. Our plan didn’t fully succeed, as the café was closing before the taxi arrived, but as it wasn’t raining, we could wait the last half hour outside.
Day 270 started with a good breakfast at the inn and a lift from the owner back to Torcross. Then we had another beautiful but strenuous walk along the cliffs, on a more rocky and narrow path than we were used to. At one point, we came across a station of the national Coastwatch, where we met the group of volunteers on duty and chatted a bit about our hike. The news they gave us were not very comforting: For the next day or two, heavy storm and rain was expected, and it wasn’t advisable to walk along the coast. We could relate to that, having felt the power of a storm when we were climbing the cliffs in Lulworth range, and experiencing the challenge of walking on the narrow paths in this area, even without wind. The immediate conclusion was to enjoy our hike to Salcombe that day, even more so, as the clouds were disappearing and beautiful sunshine lit up the scenery. And then…
… we took a decision: We would not go all the way to Plymouth. Although less than 30 km away in a straight line, to hike there would take us at least three more days and a lot of logistical planning for crossing (or bypassing) the rivers. One additional day would be “lost” waiting for the storm to pass, as we didn’t feel inclined to take the risk of being blown off the cliffs. Then, we would have to take a train back to Portsmouth anyway, the closest place to take a ferry to France.
We checked out train and ferry schedules and found that the fastest connection was via Bristol, where our friends Betty and Christopher lived! Very un-German, they accepted our request to spend a day with them on such short notice, and day 271 saw us boarding two buses, then the CrossCountry train line to Bristol. Being in a big city again, we used our time well to get José a new pair of hiking shoes, have some pints in the pub with our friends and enjoy a very urban sushi dinner.
Betty showed us around in their adopted town the next day, which resulted in the following picture gallery:
On day 273, we made an additional stop close to London, where José’s family received us for a day of good talks and good food. His aunt and uncle were kind enough to drive us to Portsmouth the next day. In the early evening, we were boarding the ferry to St. Malo! Actually, as the ferry was sailing under French flag, we already felt in France at dinner:
Now we only had to snuggle into our beds, and after a good night’s sleep, we would be on the other side of the Channel. What we didn’t expect was that this massive ship, loaded with hundreds of passengers, trucks, buses and cars, would rock back and forth like a rowing boat on the strong waves. At least for Moiken, there was no minute of sleep and the delicious dinner had been a total waste of money.
But even the roughest journey eventually comes to an end and we arrived the next morning, slightly pale, but safe, in France.