Caught by the River

Pleasures of….. June

1st July 2011

by Tracey Thorn.

It’s Fathers’ Day, and my sister and I have brought my Dad on a little holiday, down to Salcombe in Devon. We’re staying at a boutique hotel on the beach. The guy who carries our bags says that Rod Stewart was here last week, but he may be pulling my leg. On the beach there’s an old fashioned sea tractor, a contraption resembling a Victorian bathing machine, which drives you out across the sand and into the sea, where it docks with the tiny ferry taking you into Salcombe. It’s a breezy day, and the tide is going out, meeting the waves coming in from the mouth of the estuary, and so creating a heavy swell. We are supposed to be looking after my 86 year old Dad, and treating him to something special for Fathers’ Day, and yet here he is, with his collapsible walking stick, having to clamber from the back of a ricketty wooden cart onto a heaving and pitching boat, in order to go on a river cruise. Fortunately he survives the first part of the journey, and from Salcombe we take the larger ferry that cruises up the estuary to Kingsbridge.

It’s a beautiful trip. The landscape here is dramatic. Dark green heavily wooded hills drop down to the very edge of the sea, looking almost tropical when the cloud is low and hangs like a heavy mist on the top of the hills. A little further up though, the land softens, and the fields are more gently undulating. There’s a stiff breeze, and it races across the fields, ruffling the long grass like the fur on a dog’s back, and sending the cloud shadows racing along as if in a sped-up film. The trees which overhang the sea have their lower branches trimmed, otherwise they dip into the salt water and gradually wither and die. The greenery is cut in a dead straight line, making the woods look like a Vidal Sassoon haircut, all smooth curves on the top, and sharp lines around the edge. And these neatly coiffured trees have become the home for great numbers of white egrets, and grey herons, who perch elegantly in the branches, unwittingly killing off the leaves below as the salt water drips from their wings. Further along, on the sandy bank, are two families of shelducks, one with six little ducklings, and the other with thirteen, all thriving in this safe spot where their only predator is the seagull. We pass the house where Tony Soper used to live, in obvious splendid isolation, the only approach to the house being from the water or across a couple of huge fields.
Next day my sister and I decide to set off on a walk along the coastal path. It starts off well, the path leads through trees, and the obvious steep drop to one side is hidden. Gradually the path opens out though, and the sheer edge becomes all too obvious. Far below, the sea is crashing onto the rocks, and up here on the narrow ledge all conversation has died out. “You’re a bit like me, aren’t you?” I begin tentatively. “Not all that mad keen on sheer drops?”
“I AM HATING IT”, comes the reply from behind me. Gratefully, we turn back, determining to set off across the fields instead, and so approach Bolt Head from inland, thus getting the view without the vertigo. It was the right decision. This path, across National Trust owned fields, and all clearly signposted at every corner, is glorious, and makes its way through meadows of wild flowers, taking steep dips and sharp climbs as it heads towards the cliff. The sound of birdsong is everywhere, finches suddenly startle as we pass and burst up into the sky in mini-explosions. The last climb up to the cliff is too steep for us, we get halfway and scramble back down. Then make our way back to South Sands where we started, only to retrace our steps again as we realise we’ve gone wrong. We’ve walked miles, and many of those miles have been us turning back on ourselves because the path was either a) too steep b) too scary or c) the wrong path altogether. It’s a sort of Random Rambling. There’s a goal in sight, but it should never be allowed to spoil your actual enjoyment of the walk.