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We had the chance of getting away in September for a longer break than usual so we planned to do a trip with a couple of stops. The first would be down to Combe Martin in North Devon and then on the way back to Winchcombe near Tewksbury.

Combe Martin is not as famous as some destinations in North Devon and often misses out, but as a base for exploring that part of North Devon it’s ideal. The reason we chose it was two fold. From our base in Manchester, it would give us an idea of what a “300 mile in one go” tow was like in preparation for travelling to and through France in October and secondly, it was a place I spent a lot of my teenage years on holiday with my parents and it was one of the first places Sue & I went on holiday when we were first married.

Saturday 8th September

This would be the first time we had towed on a Saturday and although it was out of the school holiday period, I was unsure if it would be gridlock with nose to tail caravans and motor-homes on the long migration south-west. We had loaded everything the day before, so it was just a matter of going over to pick up the van. At 7:00 am we pulled out of the compound and headed for the motorway. By 7:30 we were “in the cruise” heading south on the M6. The traffic was light and sitting with the trucks at 56 mph meant the driving was relatively easy. Even the M6 – M5 southbound bottleneck at the RAC control centre passed easily, with entertainment being provided by another caravan who was determined to test every lane option out several times before deciding which one was the best one to use for the M5 south.

We had not got a fixed service station in mind for a break, but decided to see how we felt. I’d used “shirker’s guide” to motorway services – www.shirker.co.uk and a quick bit of google earth browsing to check out the caravan options for the services and around 10:30 AM we were approaching Michael Woods services on the M5 which has to get  top marks for caravan parking. If you look at Shirkers web site, he has all the details and a video.

Setting off again around 30 minutes later we only had the last stretch of the M5 and the Atlantic Highway to complete before hitting the tiny Devon lanes. We left the Atlantic Highway just past South Molton and followed the A399 which would take us the final few miles to Combe Martin.

Combe Martin holds the record for the longest village street in in the UK, at around three miles and it wasn’t built for 4 x 4’s towing caravans. The biggest thing that would have used it was a farmers cart drawn by a couple of shires…. I remember as a teenager watching some of “Loverings” the local coach company’s drivers thread their way round delivery vans and tourists cars that had been parked a bus ride away from the kerb. Apart from a “breath in” moment near the “Pack of Cards” public house, we fair whistled down the village street and at 13:15 we pulled into the reception area of Newberry Valley Caravan Park.

Set up 'continental style'We were guided through the park….. or I should say up the valley…. to a grassed area next to the fishing lake. We were told we could pitch in any direction as long as we remained one side of our bench table.

As there was so much space here and the direction of the sun, I decided to set up ‘continental style’ across the pitch. This still left enough room between us and the next pitch. Well mahoosive amounts of room actually….. 

In the afternoon we walked down into Combe Martin to see what had changed since our last visit…. a number of years earlier.

Channel Vista

Neither of us can remember exactly when we had last been to Combe Martin. I know my first time was back in 1976 when my parents had rented a house called “Sherracombe” half way up Hangman Hill.

They had rented it from the local postman and his wife (Ian & Sybil Lawson I think they were called). Sherracombe had been built by them in the grounds of Ian’s parents house and had a wonderful views. I think my parents rented this house for four or five years, but then made the move to a small hotel “Channel Vista” for the next decade or so and became firm friends with the then new owners – Sue and Doug Radley.

Again, memory fades and we can’t remember when we first went to stay there. I know we were married in 83 so we think it was Summer 1985. We did spend a couple of Christmases there too, but can’t remember when! (Coincidentally it was our 29th wedding anniversary on the Monday while we were there). We still get a Christmas Card from Doug & Sue so this has prompted me to write to them and see if they can remember.

Sunday 9th September

What better way to start than with a post card! Sunday was going to be a lazy day and we elected for the short drive along the coast to Ilfracombe. As we had arrived mid morning before the lunchtime rush, parking in the gardens car park was not a problem and we set off walking towards the harbour. We had been fortunate with the weather, although it had rained quite heavily overnight, the clouds were clearing and it was quite warm even for September. After doing the harbour and jetty walk my caffeine levels were dropping and we found a table overlooking the harbour at the hotel overlooking the small beach. Although it’s such a long time since we had been, not much changes. The shops may have a different name now, and one or two change their wares but really not that much changes.

After our coffee we continued our wanderings, this time past the lifeboat station and up towards the main shopping street. Here is where we noticed a difference. There were so many shops that were empty and looked abandoned. There were a lot of ‘non shops’ as I call them – shops that were now offices or charity shops. Sue stopped in one to pick up a couple of things and we wandered back down towards the front again.

Walking down towards the prom, neither of us could remember the brick towers that are the Landmark Theatre and after going inside we found a dedication stone that dated the Landmark to 1997… so that answered one question – we had not been back to Ilfracombe since 1997 so it was at least 15 years since we had been to Combe Martin. We continued walking and went round Capstone Parade. Looking out to sea, it was just a hazy horizon with little chance of seeing Lundy out to the west let alone Swansea Bay or The Mumbles to the north. The weather was getting better all the time and the crowds were starting to arrive hunting down places that would deliver them lunch… we headed off west along the coast to Woolacombe.

We parked in one of the two big car parks near the beach and while walking out of the car park we saw parked up a motor-home which had a distinctive rear end which we had followed for a while somewhere along the M5. It was distinctive due to the fact it looked like both rear corners had been involved in a bump and the cracks in the fibreglass had been repaired with a good dose of white silicone mastic which stood out and the bike rack on the rear had been bent upwards at one corner. See…. if you make your motor home or caravan distinctive it will get recognised!

There are not many shops in Woolacombe that are worth looking round unless you are a  beach addict in search of a surf board or wet suit so as the sun was shining and it was time for a spot of lunch we headed for The Red Barn where we could sit outside and people watch. Lunch was quite good and reasonably priced considering it was a ‘pub with a view’ and the service was excellent, mind you I did wonder if that was anything to do with most of the staff seeming to have Australian accents! We headed back to Combe Martin in the late afternoon sun, enjoying some of the back country Devon lanes.

In the evening it was time to don my disguise once again as “One Hairy Caravanner” (well I am called Si and I have a beard and I have a caravan) and do a bit of cooking… I use the term “cooking” in a loose kind of way, I think preparing and incinerating might be more appropriate. At least in the caravan I’m constrained to the smallest possible disaster area and the smoke alarm is within easy deactivation reach.

It was a combination of a totally heathy stir fry for Sue and a not so heathy Stir fry that migrated into fajitas for me. I’m nothing if not versatile!

If anyone wants the recipe…. forget it, I made it up as I went along. I guess the up-side is I haven’t managed to give us food poisoning…. and we havent had to resort to ringing the local take-away either. Sue hasn’t left me for a celebrity chef and she hasn’t taken my apron off me either! Now whats for dessert?

Monday 10th September

Overnight it rained again and had been quite windy but the weather forecast was quite promising for the rest of the day. We decided that a trip out to Barnstaple was the plan for the day.

Going back a few years, my mother had an old copy of the AA’s Road Atlas. It wasn’t one you could buy, it was an internal AA map book that my father had got when he worked for the AA when they had offices in Manchester. It had a lot more detail and was a bigger scale. As a consequence, my mother was a very early GPS just giving dad instructions to “take the next left” or “turn here”. As a consequence, the route I knew from Combe Martin to Barnstaple was the shortest route and favoured by the locals.

Today, GPS will send you the shortest route and usually cause traffic chaos in places that were once quiet little backwaters only known by the locals. Muddiford was one such place. On the back road between Combe Martin and Barnstaple, it was so quiet at one time that the Muddiford Morris Men could practice in front of the local pub without causing a tailback. Now it seemed like the world and his wife were speeding through Muddiford and I doubt very much that the good Morris Men of Muddiford would even be safe crossing the road there let alone practicing in front of the pub. That is of course, if they still exist.

Barnstaple hadn’t changed much, again I guess the shops may have had a name change and a coat of paint, but it did seem a whole lot busier and vibrant, even for a Monday in September. The Pannier Market was busy and I only counted a couple of shops that were closed, so it looks like Barnstaple being the main market town for North Devon was weathering the recession a little better than Ilfracombe. We headed off to find a traditional sweet shop that I’d discovered on the internet…. if you have read about some of our other trips, you will know I try to find a traditional sweet shop so we can stock up on Coltsfoot Rock, Cough Candy and Sue’s favourite traditional Wine Gums. Unfortunately the shop we found did not live up to its internet blurb. Very disappointing.

We splashed out a bit and had lunch in Pizza Express – two starters to share and a couple of glasses of a rather nice house white. We didn’t want to over do it though as we planned to go to the Royal Marine in Combe Martin that evening for a meal. Well after all, it was our wedding anniversary.

Tuesday 11th September

Time for another postcard…. this time 60’s inspired……

OK guess where we went today? Overnight the weather was wet and windy…. very wet and windy actually but this had a huge benefit… it cleared the stubborn haze that we had been landed with the last few days. We set off east this time to Lynton and Lynmouth.

Parking in Lynton, we had a wander round some of the shops before setting off down the cliff path towards Lynmouth.

Looking from Lynton across to Countisbury Hill and the valley leading to Watersmeet (photo taken from the driveway of a hotel)

The path twists down the hill and crosses the cliff railway at a couple of points. so if you have ever travelled on the cliff railway and seen people waving madly off the two bridges you pass under… they are on the path we took. The first vantage point gave us spectacular views across the Bristol Channel to Porthcawl

Looking down, we could see the cliff railway below with the second bridge we would have to cross.

… and I guess you just have to see the view looking up from the other bridge as well….

At least it shows we did actually walk all the way down! After all that effort it was definitely time for a cup of coffee and maybe a pastie (or sausage roll in my case) so we stopped at The Coffee Mill for light refreshments – or caffeine and carbs!. Sue had never been up to Watersmeet and I was unsure if I’d been as a teenager so we set off walking up Watersmeet road.

Looking up towards the valley and Watersmeet Road

The sun was shining but the valley was partly in shade and there was a cutting wind.  We did not have the correct layers or the ideal footwear for this, so rather than becoming a “should have known better” pair of urban hikers, we turned back after a short while. We did see this chap though – he did look well(ie) equipped….

The walk back gave us a good view of the cliff we had walked down. Somewhere in that mass of trees is the path we had taken.

Looking up from Tors Road towards Lynton

We wandered round the small harbour and along the harbour wall. I remember my parents buying me the “Lynton & Lynmouth Flood Disaster” book as a teenager and the old black and white photos of before and after the flood are still etched in my memory. We still have the book on the bookshelves at home… in fact we have two copies for some reason.

Small boats in Lynmouth harbour waiting patiently in a row for the next tide

By now it was time to head back up to Lynton and neither of us suggested walking back up (I wonder why?) but instead by mutual consent we opted to use the cliff railway – well it gave me an excuse to take the classic “Lynton & Lynmouth Cliff Railway” publicity photo from the bottom… my collection would simply not be complete without it… so here it is

Classic promo photo for the Lynton & Lynmouth Cliff Railway

We left Lynton and headed out for Valley of the Rocks and the single track coast road back to Combe Martin. Many years ago when on holiday, we had visited Dunster and in the castle gatehouse there  was an artist who had his studio there. We bought a limited edition print of a painting by him “Last Over at Valley of the Rocks”. That print hung above the fireplace at home for years and we only came across it again recently when doing some insulating in the loft.

Some people have spent hours trying to spot the wild goats that live in the valley, some people have never seen them after visiting year after year…. we spotted one within a couple of minutes. We paid our toll fee of £1 at Lee Abbey and set off along the narrow twisting road. If you follow Slattenslade Lane you eventually come to a fork. Take the right hand fork down Sir Robert’s Path… it’s not quite an “Ice Road Truckers” Death Road but it is ‘interesting’.  At the top you turn right onto Berry’s Ground Lane and about a hundred yards on you will see a car park on your left. Pop in there and get out of your car to get the wind ‘up yer nostrils’ and see, hopefully a spectacular view of South Wales.

Looking back from the car park to Valley of the Rocks and on a clear day you can see Wales!

Wednesday 12th September

Tuesday night we had more rain, but the weather forecast said it would clear through Wednesday morning. Bideford looked like it was going to be graced with our presence today. We headed out along the Muddiford short cut, skirted round Barnstaple and across a new bridge… when did they build this?. Good grief stay away for 15 years and see what they do! Blow me, they had also built a new bridge at Bideford too. This brought us in past Morrisons and the local football ground. Now passing Morrisons was handy as they had the cheapest Diesel we had seen so far…. so 58.18 litres later at a cost of £1.439 pence per litre we were on our way again looking for the car park.

The old bridge at Bideford with the rain cloud that caught us out!

We managed to find a car park with spaces quite easily on the quay that runs parallel with Victoria Park. We wandered off in the direction of the shops…. and just as we crossed the road it started raining… then stopped again. Wandering up a couple of the shopping streets, it was obvious that Bideford was not a thriving metropolis… but there were some nice shops in between the “non shops”. It was about that time again… caffeine and calories were required and as the sun was attempting it’s best at putting on a display for us, it would have been churlish not to sit outside. We found a delightful little cafe on the corner of Mill Street and the short road that leads to the Baptist Church, right next to the church bookshop. The single story building was very 20’s Art Deco in style and was in stark contrast to the buildings around it. Two coffees and a ‘lunch to share’ was had for a very reasonable eight pounds and we headed off again on our wanderings back through the shops and down to the quay.

A tug that doesn’t seem to have worked in quite a while. It’s propeller was firmly stuck in the mud and weeds were growing along it’s mooring ropes.

It always amazes me the condition of some of the boats moored up in places like this. Why some of these become derelict wrecks is always a mystery to me.

Well tomorrow we are off to Winchcombe near Tewkesbury… and that is a whole other posting.

… and finally

I guess you are wondering why I called this posting “Camping With Wolves”? Well there was a film a while back made by and starring Kevin Costner called “Dances with Wolves” and it has absolutely nothing to do with that….well almost nothing except the wolves bit. Newberry Valley is also the home of Shaun Ellis – yep the geezer off the telly with the wolves – the star of “The Wolfman” and “Mr & Mrs Wolf” and the wolf centre is literally the next field and in the evening you are not going slightly mad if you hear wolves howling. Was it disturbing? Was it off-putting? Was it worrying being that near to wolves? the answer to them all is no, unusual the first time you heard it yes, but in the quiet and stillness of the small valley at dusk it didn’t seem that out-of-place. So I guess we really were “Camping with Wolves”

Hope you enjoyed the post.


Copyright © 2011 – 2012 Simon P Barlow