Martin Hesp steps out on a hike from East Portlemouth in South Devon.
If, during 14 years of writing walks articles for the Western Morning News, I'd grabbed £10 every time I've been asked which was my favourite hike in the region, I'd have been able to afford a house in East Portlemouth…
Well, maybe not. You'd need an awful lot of dosh to purchase a shed in that most select of Westcountry parishes, let alone a complete house. Even the normally reasonable National Trust charges a whopping £7.50 just to park in its local property. Actually, the sign asks for £750, which might be taking the phrase Millionaire's Row a bit too far.
However, the parish of East Portlemouth does offer some of the finest coastal walking in the Westcountry – a fact which is undoubtedly linked to those high property prices. It's fabulous frontage on the Salcombe estuary is enough to rave about alone – but when you hike around the corner to explore the wondrous coast that stretches south-east towards Prawle Point…
Well, that really does tick every box in the coastal walking book. I don't go in for "favourite places" – so much of this region has so much to offer – but this bit of littoral is second to none.
Sweeping views, wild heaths, dramatic cliffs, beautiful beaches, hidden coves and general scenic remoteness… What's not to like? And not a single building imposes along the whole eight-mile length of this wondrous lot – except for one.
It's called Gara Rock and it used to be a well known hotel – now, though, it has been redeveloped to become a complex of luxury apartments and cottages – some of which are for sale and some for rent. There's also a restaurant which must have one of the best maritime views of any dining establishment in the UK.
So imagine my reaction when the Dartmoor-based company called Helpful Holidays asked if I'd like to spend the weekend in one of the Gara Rock apartments it rents out.
Someone from the company emailed me to say: "Your WMN Classic Walks dovetail so exactly with many of the properties we have, why don't you try a few over the coming year? And why not start at Gara Rock?"
I did just that and enjoyed a couple of truly fabulous hikes along the amazing coast – starting with this one enjoyed in bright winter sunshine. However, because Gara Rock is difficult to drive to – and because most readers are a lot more likely to visit Salcombe than they are the lonely littoral between Portlemouth and Prawle with its truly tortuous lanes – I've written up the walk as a circular route starting and ending in the busy seaside town.
The great thing about doing the walk this way around is that you can call in at the Gara Rock restaurant for refreshment at the halfway – and also that you get a couple of ferry rides thrown in for good measure.
There's something a little bit special about taking a ferry out of a town. You've seen the shops, spent your money, had your coffee – and now you are ready for something altogether more airy to provide you with lungfuls of fresh air, not to mention the inherent peace and tranquillity of the waterside.
Even on winter days there will be a ferry every half hour to take you across the fjord or riverless estuary, otherwise known as Salcombe Harbour, and deposit you in the parish of East Portlemouth.
Just above the ferry landing on the far side, a lane weaves its way seawards above the posh shoreline properties to Mill Bay, which must be one of the most pleasant coves within a few hundred yards of any town anywhere. This by the way is the place where you can park for £7.50. But we were walking – and without more ado we were off through the woods and heading for Biddlehead Point where yet another pleasant bay was revealed to us. It's called Sunny Cove, which was apt it was bathed in golden light the day we passed by.
Now we were on the winding path over Rickham Common, and climbing around to Limebury Point where the sun blazed down on the great cliffs of Bolt Head across the other side of The Bar.
There used to be a Second World War aerodrome above the fearsome cliffs, and local historian Malcolm Darch once told me how he'd once obtained a written account from an airman who was holiday from his duties during those worrying years when England was under siege. The pilot was enjoying the same walk as us when he saw a Lancaster bomber coming out over the cliffs from the airfield. He told Mr Darch it was one of the most terrifying things he'd ever seen: the big plane just didn't have enough runway so that it came over the cliff edge with its four engines screaming and loosing height as it tried to clear the sea. It made it – just – but the airman did not envy the chaps inside.
I was also reminded of a letter someone sent me years ago regarding the aerodrome. An ex-pilot wrote in to say he'd been very happy to see Bolt Head airfield one day when all the other landing strips in the South West were fog-bound. As daylight turned to night a crackling voice came over the radio in his Fairey Swordfish and told him there was a hole in the skies above Salcombe Bar. The pilot, whose name I have unfortunately lost, was relieved to see the ground as he was running on that cheap and useful fuel known as fresh air. That tiny window gave him a brief but lifesaving chance to land without ditching in the sea.
Up and down goes the trail along the side of Portlemouth Down, in true coast-path roller-coaster tradition. And also typical of Britain's longest continuous path are the views. They are splendid – at first as you look over your shoulder towards Bolt Head – and then in front of you as the coast stretches south east toward Prawle Point. It's a jagged bit of England with a series of wonderful names to conjure with: Rudder Cove, Abraham's Hole, Pig's Nose and Gammon Head.
Eventually we reached the small thatched lookout tower which, looking a bit like a sail-less Greek windmill, protrudes from the Gara Rock itself – and is a few yards away from the new complex's big circular restaurant with its wall-to-wall panoramic windows.
But before you pop in for refreshment, I'd suggest following the coast path onward on a little addition to this walk. The trail descends from Gara Rock to a wonderful beach, marked on the OS map as Abraham's Hole, but known locally as Rickham Sands.
This has got to be one of the loveliest beaches in Devon, so well worth the steep descent and eventual ascent. The hillside above is particularly interesting because you will see how it is riddled with ancient field systems. Some are so old they're thought to date back to the Bronze Age – I'm told you can also see traces of a later Iron Age settlement up in the crags.
When you've had enough of the beach, retrace your steps back up to the new Gara Rock. The place was originally an observation post (complete with a terrace of cottages) built sometime in the 1840s as the Rickham Coastguard Station – well positioned to observe and warn of external threat, with a vantage point which permitted a clear view of both Salcombe Harbour and the coast up to Prawle Point.
In 1909 the place was sold into private hands, turned into holiday accommodation – and by 1936 the "Gara Rock En Pension" was advertised as having many outstanding facilities for the time. It received celebrity visitors such as Maragret Rutherford, Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir John Betjeman.
The old hotel became rather tired looking in its dotage and was demolished in 2006 to make way for the new complex where I was lucky enough to stay – and where you can too if you contact Helpful Holidays (details in the factfile box, right).
The new restaurant does special discounts for groups of walkers – and also has a unique "workbench" system where for various prices you can help yourself to things like soup and bread and salads.
Replete walkers have a choice of routes when returning to the ferry at East Portlemouth. There's a "middle" track which takes you around the edge of the field high above the coast path, to eventually descend through the woods to Mill Bay – or there's a quicker route down the Rickham Valley, which ends up at the same place. Either will do – and both help complete what in my opinion is one of the best short, circular, coastal walks in the country.
Basic Hike: From Salcombe to East Portlemouth by ferry and around the coast path along eastern shore of Salcombe Harbour to coast and eventually to Gara Rock – detour down to Rickham Sands and back via inland paths.
Recommended Map: Ordnance Survey Outdoor Leisure 20
Distance and Going: Just under four miles, easy going.
Helpful Holidays let two holiday cottages and four flats at Gara Rock – prices start from £506-£1512 a week. To book go to helpfulholidays.com and search Gara Rock or call 01647 433593 and speak to their knowledgeable telephone team.
To book a group walker discount at Gara Rock restaurant, call 01548 844810 or email email@example.com – or visit gararock.com