Weekend walk: A stroll in cascade of memories

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The Independent Online
Not many walks have everything - wooded valleys, waterfalls, coastal heath, spectacular sea cliffs - but this one does.

It starts at Lynmouth, a pretty town built on the sides of a deep ravine on the north Devon coast. Follow the East Lyn River upstream - either side will do - following the signs to Watersmeet.

Even when the river is relatively low, the sound of water cascading over the rocks can rule out conversation, and you can't help but imagine the terror of local people caught in the flood disaster of 15 August, 1952.

On that night the river, swollen by 20 ft after a downpour on Exmoor, hurtled ten-ton boulders down the valley, destroying houses and cars and killing 34 people. Since then the town has repaired the physical damage and established impressive flood defences, but the memory of the disaster is still vivid in this small community.

About a mile upriver on the right-hand bank is another fragment of history. Look out for a spring flowing from the rock which was once the source of water for the old Lynrock Mineral Water Factory. The remains of a stoneware Lynrock bottle are embedded in the rock, but today you can cup your hands and simply help yourself to a drink.

You should be well warmed up by the time you've covered the next mile to Watersmeet House. This was once a Victorian fishing lodge in the most romantic of settings, on a lawn below a series of waterfalls where the East Lyn river meets the Hoar Oak river.

If the weather is good you can sit outside under a huge Monterey pine, brought back from California by an enthusiastic Victorian botanist. The National Trust runs the shop and cafe here (open until the end of October) and the home-made rock buns and apple pies are virtually irresistible.

Having refuelled, take the path that starts behind Watersmeet House and climbs steeply northwards up the ravine, signposted to Countisbury. This bit is quite a slog, but it takes you through lovely stunted oak woods which have barely changed since neolithic times.

The path comes out on Trilly Ridge, beside a crater-like earth and bank structure. This was either an Iron Age settlement or a Roman villa: until it's excavated, local historians can't agree.

From here you have a wonderful view back down the thickly wooded river valley. Lynmouth is invisible, tucked away in the ravine, but you can see some of its cliff-top sister town, Lynton, sparkling against its Exmoor backdrop. Opposite and to the right of the valley is Wind Hill, a linear Iron Age earthworks, as well as South Myrtleberry and North Myrtleberry, two more Iron Age sites.

Take a left fork, signposted Winston's Path, and you will soon have your first view of the sea. It's a short hike across heathery heathland from here to the Sandpiper Inn on the A39, posing you with a dilemma. Is it too soon after those rock cakes to eat and drink again - or perhaps not?

Whatever you decide, it's as well to stay sober for the next leg, because once you have crossed the A39, passed the delightful little church of St John (always open for shelter or meditation), this walk becomes suddenly very airy.

Turn left on to the coast path towards Lynmouth and you turn your back on Countisbury Hill, which plunges into the sea at Foreland Point. Ahead of you, in the haze beyond Lynmouth, is Hangman Point, the highest cliff in Britain. The coast path to Lynmouth is wide and well trodden, but it takes a bit more nerve, not to mention muscle, to negotiate the steep zig-zag down to Sillery Sands. The last 20ft of the cliff is made passable only by some new wooden steps; the last ones - and the ones before - were washed away by the high waves that regularly pound this coast.

It's worth the climb, though. This is an isolated beach mainly of pebbles and boulders, but at low tide the waves break on to a stretch of yellow sand that's perfect for body-surfing.

Don't risk swimming out, however, because the current in this bay can be treacherous, and don't be tempted to walk along the shore to Lynmouth, either. This route is passable for only about 10 minutes at low tide; more often than not, rescues from this stretch of coast involve walkers who have been backed up to the unforgiving cliffs by the tides.

If you are lucky, you will see a kestrel, hanging motionless in the air currents, on the way back up. If you are even luckier, you will spot a peregrine falcon there. And from now on it's a gentle amble back down to Lynmouth, where teashops full of the bucket-and-spade brigade will help you to feel smug about what a walk they have missed.

FACTFILE

Where to park: Take a couple of pound coins with you, and you can leave your car all day at the pay-and-display Lyndale car park, beside the town bridge.

Poignant photographs and press cuttings of the Lynmouth flood disaster are on display at the Memorial Hall in the middle of the town. Admission to the exhibition is free.

The water-powered cliff railway to Lynton shuttles up and down from Lynmouth at roughly five-minute intervals. The fare is 50p each way.

The Exmoor National Park Visitors' Centre is on the waterfront at Lynmouth, it carries a full range of maps and information, as well as a sister of the historic lifeboat, the Louise.

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