The shipping forecast is not exactly uplifting as I park in the village of Mortehoe in North Devon. Lundy: cyclonic five or six. Sea state, rough. Rain. Visibility moderate, occasionally poor. View through car window: a bit damp and doubtful. Walking the coast around Christmas time always involves a roll of the dice, but I'm buried deep in layers of primary colour Gore-Tex, so I'm prepared for a walk that is likely to take a literal interpretation to the cliché of blowing away the cobwebs.
Mortehoe's attractive heart – a church on a raised bank, three pubs, a good village store and some pointy architecture – beats quietly at this time of year, midway between the annual inundations of tourists to this scenic outpost. Its name has a resonance that is misleading. I'd presumed Mortehoe was a reference to the deadly rocks that have wrecked many ships over the centuries – the first bay I cut above is Grunta Beach, supposedly named for a cargo of pigs once shipwrecked here. In fact "morte" is a corruption of a Saxon word meaning "stumpy" and is supposed to refer to the whittled headland of Morte Point.
There's a pleasing freshness to walking on Morte Point: the sheep-grazed lowland heath is like a billiard table and descends almost to sea level, while to my right rocky grey slates narrow to a beak-like point. Unexpectedly, the gorse is in blossom. Low tide has revealed smoothed rock columns that resemble an embryonic Giant's Causeway. To the south the landscape is stirringly graceful. Close by is Woolacombe Sand where a hardy band of surfers doggedly fights the swells. Then there's a gaping, heaving swathe of open sea. Beyond that stands Baggy Point and then, sitting on the horizon, Hartland Point, marking the gateway between the Bristol Channel and the Atlantic Ocean.
Cyclonic four. Sea state moderate. Showers. Visibility good. As I swivel around Morte Point into the lee of the wind, Lundy island comes into view, looking larger than its two and a half miles of length. The rain's lifted and I can see across to South Wales as well as to my next landmark, Bull Point lighthouse. Getting there takes me up and down the South West Coast Path, sometimes cutting inland behind hedges of blackthorn and above Rockham Bay. I'm tramping along two well‑known routes that come together here, the South West Coast Path and the Tarka Trail, a figure-of-eight yomp through Devon named after the eponymous otter.
Bull Point, if you read the story, is where Tarka first picks up the scent of his mate White-Tip. But it's a tough and improbable journey for such little legs. There's an abrupt climb east from Bull Point, and at the top there's a new view to take in, along the length of the North Devon coast, edging – just – into west Somerset. The next mile is something of a roller coaster. The path swoops down and up out of a succession of tight, narrow valleys. The ascents are short but steep, and each time I reach the valley floor there's a delightful miniature footbridge to cross.
I leave the South West Coast Path at Lee Bay. The harbour has a historic reputation for smuggling and you can see how its tight contours appealed to those wishing to avoid detection. The flipside for smugglers was that the bay is treacherous, the sea bed carpeted with lumps of jagged granite ready to tear a hole in the valuable booty.
I head inland towards Lee village, and soon the landscape has been transformed. I'm in somewhere called Borough Valley, and it's a waterworld, explored by a boggy, slightly swampy path close to a rushing river. Tall slender trees, ash, alder, and beech stand tightly together, magically muffled in lichens and mosses, whose shades of green shift from subtle to overt, olive to sage. Waterfalls emerge from unseen sources through thick foliage and farmland boundary walls. It's beautiful, and I wonder how I've never heard of the place until I've come upon it.
Cyclonic five or six. Sea state rough. Rain. Visibility poor. It's been too good to last. I time my exit from Borough Valley on to farmland as the rain returns. But the steep climb from the woods is behind me, and the walking is easier. I can see my earlier route above Rockham Bay. The last leg takes me through a caravan park. Signs swing in the wind, and even the tumbleweed has been blown away. Yet back in Mortehoe, the church is open for a nose around in search of a nativity scene. I buy a pasty from the shop and settle down in the Smuggler's Rest. Outside it's brewing up a gale. For a while, though, the shipping forecast can do its worst. The visibility of the real ales in the bar is very good.
Start/finish: Mortehoe car park
Distance: 7.5 miles
Time: Four hours
OS Map: Explorer 139 Bideford, Ilfracombe and Barnstaple.
Directions: From Mortehoe car park, turn left past the church. Take footpath sign right through gate on to coast path. Follow coast path to Lee Bay. Turn right, signposted for pub. Just before the Grampus Inn turn right over stile and walk up Borough Valley. At top of valley turn right, signed for Damage Barton. Drop down through farm, following clear signs for Mortehoe. On lane above farm turn right across fields signposted Mortehoe. Walk through caravan site on public path to reach Mortehoe.
The nearest mainline railway station is Barnstaple, served by First Great Western (08457 484950; nationalrail.co.uk).
Mark Rowe stayed at Saunton Sands Hotel (01271 890212; sauntonsands.co.uk), which offers double rooms from £174, half board.
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