First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
A slip of tan sand, a jumble of sharp black rocks and a welter of surf at Northcott Mouth. We stood and watched the waves leaping up at the feet of the cliffs and falling back in a hissing collar of spray – a sombre, elemental scene to set the mood for this unforgiving stretch of the North Cornwall coast.
From the cliff path we looked down on dark scars that seamed across the beach under Menachurch Point, each narrow ridge an individual rock layer tilted on end by subterranean upheavals, then ground down level with the beach through the inexorable power of the sea. Sections of the clifftop had cracked and fallen away, leaving grassy bowers hanging over space where sheep grazed as nonchalantly as though in some cosy paddock.
Down into Sandy Mouth where a jet of water spouted out of the cliff; up, over and down again into the tumbled wasteland of Warren Gutter, the path so black and greasy it looked more like coal-mining country than the Cornish shore. A slippery haul up Warren Point and over to Duckpool’s tiny strand, a pause to look back along thirty miles of thundering grey surf, and we turned inland into the peaceful cleft of the Coombe Valley.
Two thatched houses guarded the ford at Coombe. Beyond lay deep woods of sweet chestnut, hazel and oak under a sky mottled in grey and airforce blue. Sedgy strips of meadowland formed the valley floor, where a stream twisted in snake bends as it sought out a way to the sea. This is the most perfect Swallows-and-Amazons setting for children staying in the cottages at Coombe, and we saw them paddling and yelling in the stream as we followed a parallel path back through Stowe Woods and up a lumpy bank to Stowe Barton.
The National Trust looks after this complex of granite buildings, a classic ridge-top farmstead of Cornwall, its roofs low and slated, its lane flanked by extravagantly wind-sculpted trees. Beyond Stowe Barton a good broad bridleway ran south across whaleback fields. This is not cream tea Cornwall – it is hard, stony land to farm and a dangerous coast to fish. Stone walls are built thick and strong, lanes burrow between windbreak hedgebanks and the land slopes westward to plunge off the scalloped cliff edge into the sea.
Start: Northcott Mouth, near Bude EX23 9EL (OS ref SS 203085)
Getting there: From Stratton on A39 (Bideford-Bude) follow ‘Poughill’; from Poughill, follow ‘Northcott Mouth’. Park neatly at end of road.
Walk (6 ¾ miles, strenuous on coastal section, OS Explorer 126): Coastal path north for 2 miles to Duckpool (202117). Road inland; at junction, left; in 100m, right through Coombe to cross ford (210117). Ahead (‘Coombe Valley’) on woodland track. In ⅔ mile fork right (221116, fingerpost) across stream. In 150m, fork right (220114); cross stream; left and follow path westward for ⅔ mile through Stowe Wood and on to cross road at Stowe Barton (212112). Follow lane opposite (‘Northcott Mouth 1.8 miles’, blue arrow/BA). In 350m, left (209110, BA); follow bridleway south. In 700m cross road (209103) and on, following BAs. In ⅔ mile go through gate (206094); bear right (unmarked), and keep to left-hand hedge. Ahead for ⅔ mile to Northcott Mouth.
Lunch: Preston Gate Inn, Poughill (01288-354017, prestongateinn.co.uk) – warm, friendly village pub
Accommodation: Landmark Trust cottages around ford at Coombe (01628-825925; landmarktrust.org.uk) – beautifully kept, classy self-catering