Between a cow and a hard place
Updated: Sep 3, 2021
Date: 31 May – 1 June, 2021
Location: North Devon Coast from Ilfracombe to Woolacombe (SWCP Section 5)
Distance: 13.7 km (8.5 miles)
Elevation gain: 621 m (2037 ft)
Duration: 4 hours
Highlights: Sunrise at Sandy Cove, having whole stretches of the SWCP to ourselves, Tunnels Beaches in Ilfracombe, not getting killed by cows
Summary: Our first camping trip together of 2021, filled with plenty of sunshine and swims in the sea. The SWCP follows the rocky North Devon coastline, with beautiful views of secluded coves surrounded by dramatic geology. Not a challenging hike physically, but definitely some frightening moments for us...
On what was predicted to be the hottest day of the year (so far), Brett and I boarded a train to Barnstaple where we caught a bus to Ilfracombe, a harbour town on the North Devon coast. It was the start of what would be a magical (and pretty damn memorable) trip.
We started off with a stop at Tunnels Beaches in Ilfracombe. The tunnels through the cliffs were hand carved over two years in the 1820s, followed by the construction of three tidal bathing pools. The pools turned Ilfracombe from a small fishing village to a "thriving tourist resort known throughout the country." After paying our £3 entrance fees, we eagerly walked through the tunnels and appeared on the other side of the cliff face, looking out over the sea.
When Tunnels Beaches originally opened, swimming was segregated by gender, with a "gentleman's pool" and two "ladies' pools." I love this line from the Beaches' history booklet: "Segregated bathing was tightly controlled; a bugler sat between the ladies’ and the gentlemen's pools – if a man attempted to spy on the ladies, the bugler would blow an alarm call and the man would be arrested." Mixed swimming was allowed for the first time in 1905. All that remains now is one of the ladies' pools. Visible for three hours before and after low tide, the tidal pool, nestled amongst the rocky coastline, is quite a sight.
We spent the first hour or so wandering around the rocks on the opposite side of the pool, nearest the sea. The tide was low, which meant there was a huge area of rocky outcroppings to explore. I waded through a series of naturally occurring tidal pools while Brett took portraits. We were surprised that despite the beautiful weather there were points where we felt like we had the whole place to ourselves. The beach was packed, but back here in the rocks, it was easy to forget we were at Ilfracombe's biggest tourist attraction. After exploring for awhile, we headed back to where we had left our bags – it was time for a *cold* swim in the main pool.
At 18:00 the beach closed and we knew it was time to start that evening's adventure. We headed up onto the South West Coast Path, where we walked directly towards the setting sun. As the path climbed, we had a great view back over the Tunnels Beaches. The heat felt heavy as we continued to climb upwards, so we were glad that the following section stayed relatively flat.
As we approached Lee Bay, we began to keep our eyes open for a flat spot to pitch our tent. Having checked online for campsites nearby (the nearest option we'd found hadn't yet opened for the season), we realised our best bet for getting to Lee Bay at sunrise would be to wild camp.
After wandering around off the path for a few minutes, we found a perfect little enclave – a flat patch of grass nestled between two rocky outcroppings, beautifully sheltered from the wind. Ideal. We sat on top of one of the rock ledges to cook our dinner – couscous with chickpea and lentils (thanks Jamie Oliver). After we'd eaten dinner, I read my book while Brett read a scientific paper. The sun was setting over the water and the temperature began to drop.
The serenity was disrupted by the sound of music, and when we looked around the corner, we saw some people sitting a couple hundred metres away. As golden hour fell, Brett stood up to get something from his bag, then turned to me and said, "I think those people are having sex." Sure enough, there was a couple full on pounding it out on the top of the hill. All things considered, it didn't seem too bad a place to have sex, although it wasn't exactly sheltered from view. A walker heading their direction seemed to scare them off pretty quickly, and then we were alone on the hillside again. Just us...and a herd of cows.
I want to start the next part of this story by saying – I love cows. Since volunteering on a farm a few years ago, they have been my favourite animals, and despite their size, I have rarely been in a situation where I have felt threatened or scared by them. This meant that I wasn't worried that we would be spending the night in a field with cows.
Brett went to take a picture of the cows, who were chilling in the field around the corner from the spot we were planning on setting up camp. One started walking towards him, and then followed him back to our little enclave. Another joined and we retreated to the ledge, from where we watched the cows sniff our stuff – a cheeky lick of the tripod here, a little taste of a towel there. As one of their noses started getting a little too close to my brand new swimsuit, I jumped down from the ledge, startling them away. I thought we'd succeeded in protecting our campsite, but within a minute more curious cows had joined and we began to feel trapped within our sheltered campsite. We grabbed our things and packed everything while looking down from the ledge.
At this point, Brett suggested that it might be best to walk away and come back later when the cows had moved on. As we walked, we found a flat(ish) spot that, while not as sheltered, had much less cow poo, which I took to be a good sign. As the sky was beginning to get dark, we decided to set up our tent there. Crawling in, we were happy to finally be sleeping in nature together again, almost seven months after our last overnight adventure.
At midnight, our alarms rang in unison, waking us up abruptly. We peered out of the tent to see the sky covered in stars. Excited for some astrophotography (albeit less excited about getting out of my warm sleeping bag), I stumbled out of the tent. As Brett was setting up his film camera, I started shooting with the digital camera. As our eyes adjusted, we could see the Milky Way above us, a faint white glow stretched across the night sky.
The red light on our head torches illuminated the tent as I played around with the camera, but to focus the shot properly, I changed the setting on my head torch to the bright white light. A minute later, I could hear noises coming from the field where we'd left the cows.
"Brett...I think the cows are awake."
At first, all I could hear was their heavy breathing, and then the terrifying sound of hooves running on the ground. Many hooves. Getting louder.
"I think we should get into the tent," I said, starting to feel nervous. I could hear them getting closer as I frantically tied the laces on my hiking boots, ready to run should they turn towards us. We could see movement beyond the reach of our head torches – they were definitely getting closer, and fast. Frantic escape routes were flying through my head: could we hide within the gorse that was behind us? Should we make a run for the stream that was off to our left?
We stood by the tent, watching as 40 cows ran along the South West Coast Path, close enough now that we could see their eyes staring back at us, glowing white in the light from our head torches. Now that they were on the stretch of land that our tent was on, I was terrified they were about to turn and stampede towards us, angry that we had roused them from sleep with our bright lights.
"I'm really scared Brett." I stood, trembling with fear, next to Brett, who appeared remarkably calm throughout the whole experience. Thankfully the cows did not turn towards us, but instead continued to run along the Coast Path and into the adjacent field.
I don't think I've ever been so scared in my life – I was still physically shaking with fear for minutes after the cows had run past. Once we were certain they weren't coming our way, we crawled back into the tent. Brett set up his film camera to shoot the star trails, but placed the camera in arm's reach of the tent instead of 10 metres away, just in case the curious cows came back later to sniff around our tent.
It took me awhile to fall back asleep, my heart racing and my ears picking up every sound outside the tent. I felt very grateful to have Brett next to me and was impressed at how calm he had remained throughout a frightening situation.
Our alarm went off at four in the morning. We had survived the night without any more cow-related incidents. Poor Brett hadn't managed to fall back asleep after midnight, so had gotten less than two hours of sleep the whole night. Even though it was an hour before sunrise, the sky was already bright and lined with pink, which meant we had no problem packing up the tent.
I felt a little apprehensive about having to pass the cows on our way out of the field, but they weren't blocking the path and they didn't seem to mind us walking past.
Feeling relieved that we had survived our close encounter of the cow kind, we set off on the flower-lined road down to Lee Bay.
When we arrived at the bay, we took off our shoes and traversed the stream that ran into the sea. The sky in one direction was a pastel pink, while in the opposite direction the sunrise had painted it a vivid orange. We cautiously navigated the rocky terrain, heading West through the V-shaped ravine connecting Lee Bay and Sandy Cove.
At 5:15, we arrived at the edge of Sandy Cove, the destination that had inspired this particular trip. With sunrise and low tide aligned, the entire cove was visible and we were pleased (but not surprised) to see we had the whole area to ourselves. It was truly magical.
The next two hours were spent taking pictures around the cove, with Brett taking photos on his film camera, while I shot 'fine art' style nude portraits (inspired heavily by Corwin Prescott's work). I've been wanting to take self portraits like this for awhile, and the dramatic geology offered a perfect backdrop to shoot against.
We are a part of nature and I want to shoot photographs that convey that fundamental connection. Nudity is not always sexual, and it felt remarkably freeing to clamber up rocks and run around the cove naked while I searched for places to shoot. I've been struggling to find purpose for my photography recently and these are the first photographs I've taken in awhile that I feel really proud of. Below are two of my favourites from the set.
Once most of the photos were taken, I decided it was time for a dip in the sea. It was 6:30, and having seen only a runner the whole time we'd been there, I decided it was safe to go skinny dipping. The water felt very cold and it took some encouragement from Brett before I dove in. It ended up being a very short swim as the sun hadn't warmed up the land yet, and I didn't want to be too cold while we were eating breakfast.
We cooked our breakfast while sitting on a rock just a few metres from the sea. Apple and cinnamon porridge – our go-to camping breakfast. It made me feel excited for all the camping meals we'll be having this summer while on our road trip in California.
At 7:15 we set off on the day's hike, passing two swimmers who had just arrived to the Cove. We'd decided to walk to Woolacombe instead of backtracking to Ilfracombe. We had hiked this same stretch together on our very first hike on the SWCP together, all the way back in October 2019, but walking it in the Spring, I couldn't recognise or remember almost any of it.
Like the previous day, the weather was glorious, and despite the early hour, it was soon warm enough to strip off our sweaters. The colours of the coastline never fail to amaze me, and we enjoyed seeing lots of sheep (and a seal!) as we got closer to Woolacombe. This stretch of the path seemed to rise and fall more often than the previous day (classic SWCP), but none of the hills were too challenging, especially when compared to what we'd hiked on Saturday – between Kingswear and Brixham. We were surprised by the lack of people on this whole stretch of the coast path – we saw only one runner until we had passed the headland at Morte Pointe. It was like we had the whole coastline to ourselves.
At around 10:00 we arrived to the outskirts of Woolacombe. After the quiet and emptiness of the coast path, the sudden bustle of people felt almost shocking. With over an hour to wait until the bus back to Barnstaple, we went down to Barricane Beach, where we bought sandwiches and refilled our water bottles. Feeling less hungry, I went for a final sea swim, which felt incredibly refreshing after the heat of the morning.
On the walk to the bus stop, we saw just how crowded the main Woolacombe beach was. Half term and sunny weather meant that it was packed. When the bus finally arrived, the driver said that the card machine was broken, so we could only buy tickets with cash. But we had already used our cash to buy lunch earlier...With the direct bus to Barnstaple only running once every three hours, we knew we didn't want to miss it. Luckily the driver was willing to wait while Brett sprinted up the busy street and got cash from an ATM. The heat of the train ride home was overwhelming, so we ate ice cream and had a cold shower when we got home. And then we napped.
Definitely a very memorable first camping trip of 2021, but has left me feeling more excited to spend lots of time in nature with Brett this summer.
Lessons learnt: don't forget to bring cash on camping trips to pay for unplanned food stops or bus tickets, and don't scare cows in the middle of the night if you're sharing a field with them
Getting to Ilfracombe: Train to Barnstaple, then Bus 301 or 21 to Ilfracombe
Getting back from Woolacombe: Bus 303 directly to Barnstaple (very infrequent, so check bus times) or Bus 31 to Ilfracombe and Bus 21 back to Barnstaple