Snug in my pellet-stove heated living room one day a few winter’s ago, I was looking for escape from a dreary Nova Scotia February and began reading The Salt Path by Raynor Winn. The story, as described by the publisher, went like this: “Just days after Raynor Winn learned that Moth, her husband of thirty-two years, was terminally ill, they lost their home and livelihood. With nothing left and little time, they impulsively decided to walk the 630-mile Southwest Coast Path from Somerset to Dorset, via Devon and Cornwall.”

Right then and there, I decided that – if these two hearty but desperate souls could do it – I, too, should walk that very path. I was neither terminally ill nor homeless and I figured that should make the arduous trek that much more doable, right?

Well, maybe.

I have made pledges to do difficult treks before: circumnavigating the coastline of Nova Scotia (7500 kilometres) on foot, hitchhiking across Canada (7623 kilometres), and even the modest task of traversing Spain’s spectacular Camino de Santiago (a mere 790 kilometres).

Alas, I have never followed through completely on any of these pilgrimages.

Nonetheless, I was now inspired to visit yet another stretch of the magnificent Southwest Coast Path that I had found so intriguing in the past. I closed the book, closed my eyes, flipped open to a random page of The Salt Path to determine my destination.

On page 58 I read, “And here we were, rucksacks on our backs, at the Valley of Rocks…the sea broke against the base of the cliffs leading up to Castle Rock.” Then and there I decided I would set foot at least on this one section of that most-luring coastal trail as soon as possible in honour of Raynor and Moth Winn.

Months later, on a wind-whipped day in November, my wife Linda and I found ourselves winding east, west, south, and north along those higgledy-piggledy back roads near Widmouth Bay, headed towards Lynton and the entrance to the Valley of Rocks where I hoped to climb to the top of  that famous pinnacle known as Castle Rock while Linda would get her morning run through the length of the valley itself.

Heading east on the A399, I noted that Combe Martin Bay looked like a good place to surf if the wind and tides were right and the proper swell was headed this way, but on this particular day, the sea was flat. The town of Combe Martin itself looked tidy and prosperous, but I had foolishly looked up some info about it on a rather unkind British website called where I read this:

“I’m Bob and I live here. Combe Martin is definitely not interesting, lively or quaint. In any way. It’s dark, humourless, miserable and depressing…The village is blessed with a lovely sweet shop and bakery, but no available women whatsoever, they’re not stupid.”

Now I don’t take that as a definitive statement about a town. It was bright and cheerful to my way of thinking. I did see a few women walking about shopping at stores but couldn’t say if they were “available” or not. And I do hope Bob either moves to a less miserable place or finds the right partner to bring a little Devonian sunshine into his existence.

There is an Iron Age fort hereabouts, along with records of silver mining going back to the 13th century. Some of that silver even went into the making of the Crown Jewels. I couldn’t help but notice a pub with a rather unusual name – The Pack O’ Cards – and later learned that it was built with gambling winnings by George Ley around 1700. It was designed with 52 windows, the number of cards in a deck. It is also worthy of note that Combe Martin has the Guinness World Record for the longest street party, but I believe that reference is to the length of the street the party was on, not how long the party lasted. (My friends in Cape Breton must certainly hold the world record for the latter.)

Clearly, some folks both deceased and living, have been trying to put lowly Combe Martin on the world map for some time.

This includes whoever conjured up the Combe Martin Wildlife and Dinosaur Park with its popular wolves, sea lions, primates, meerkats, and penguins but especially its “life-size animatronic dinosaurs.”

Out on the coastal path, not far from downtown, are Hangman Cliffs. Both Great Hangman and Little Hangman were referenced by Raynor Winn as a particularly tough section of their homeless trek. Great Hangman is said to be the highest sea cliff in England (244 metres). According to legend (that is, Old Willard, a regular down at The Pack of Cards), the name of the place is derived from a story about a local sheep thief who stopped for a breather up there one day when his struggling ewe somehow got the cord that had been wrapped around her legs entangled around the man’s neck and strangled him. Old Willard’s story is backed by a number of other pub goers in the area so I assumed there must be some credence to it. The trouble with this tale is that a local academic, a diehard party-pooper who will remain unnamed as to ensure his safety, told me that man is a common term of Celtic origin that simply means hill and hang is the German word for slope and thus the colourful name may simply mean “sloping hill.” But I still prefer Old Willard’s version.

Sadly, we had to turn inland, away from the coastal path if we were going to make it in our rental car to the Valley of Rocks, so we motored past the wildlife and dinosaurs towards Blackmore Gate, enjoying the lush inland scenery of hills and green fields. If we were to stay on the A399, we would have headed straight into the lovely untamed wilderness of Exmoor, but instead, I turned left to get us back to the northern shoreline and the town of Lynton. Soon, however, I took a wrong turn into Paracombe where I had to ask directions from a courier driver who wanted to know what us Yanks were doing rambling around North Devon. I corrected him, of course, telling the lad that we were from Nova Scotia, Canada and not the U.S., and that we were headed towards the famous Valley of Rocks. He apologized for assuming wrongly about our nationality, said he’d never heard of such a valley (which was only a few kilometres away) and then said he had a cousin in Toronto.

At length, he told us which unmarked road would get us to Lynton, but that before we left town – and I didn’t know we were actually in a town – we should visit Holwell Castle and St. Petrock’s Church. I apologized saying that we probably would push on for the coast but that I’d mention those two places in an article I was writing for Celtic Life International. He said that was a good idea since Paracombe needed a few more tourists and thanked me with an odd expression I’d only ever heard used on Coronation Street.

Various bits of tourist information urged us to spend some time in Lynton, a coastal town referred to as “Little Switzerland.” Like other mock-Swiss locations (such as Bear River, Nova Scotia which is also called “Little Switzerland”), the town looks nothing like the European nation, but it does have some high hills, ragged cliffs and you can buy hot chocolate there. It seems that the poet, Robert Southey, long ago suggested the Alpine-esque nature of the surroundings and it stuck; this from the same man who helped popularize the children’s story “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” in 1837.

Railway buffs would know the town for its Lynton to Lynmouth Cliff Railway which is really a funicular that ascends and descends an 862-foot cliff with its “opportunity to create lasting memories with your loved ones” and that even includes dogs, so I give them my vote of confidence. Linda and I, however, were chomping at the bit to get our feet moving – she running, and me hiking. I had read what Ms. Winn had to say about the coastal trail. She wrote, “Out of Lynton the path narrowed to the edge of a hillside, until it became a right-angle bend on a cliff edge. This was our most exposed point so far and we nervously rounded the corner to come face to face with another Australian striding fearlessly along.”

The path was indeed narrow and magnificently perched along the cliff edge above the sea. It was slippery with wet leaves and redolent with the smell of the salt of the sea.

Dogs and local joggers bounded along, but no fearless Australians, as we made our way west out of town into some magnificent territory.

Not long after, we drove further west out of town and entered the Valley of Rocks, known for its fascinating and unusual tall rock formations. The valley itself was covered in lush green grasses and it felt like an ancient place where one might hope to encounter dinosaurs or mythic creatures. Evidence suggests late prehistoric peoples lived here and there is a Bronze Age burial cairn in the area. Today, there were a number of very proper looking hikers zig-zagging about, but it was easy to steer well away from them and get happily lost in this most-beautiful and bizarre glen.

Linda put her running shoes on and sped off down the narrowly paved road to take in the full beauty of the valley while I clambered about on some jagged pinnacles of stone to see what I could see. I had read that Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Willian Wordsworth had tromped around here in 1797. I had made myself another vow to try to hike as many paths as possible where Wordsworth had trod, so I was now in my glory. I had never been disappointed when seeking out pathways of the great poet that Lord Byron had once called “Turdsworth.” And today I was not to be disappointed.

On the coastal path itself you can find Chimney Rock and Rugged Jack, but I wandered inland a bit to see what the Devil’s Cheese Ring looked like.  It was an interesting piling of flattish stones for sure and it turns out it is well document in a few famous paintings.

It didn’t look like any cheese ring I’d ever encountered at Christmas parties, and I was not brave enough to mount the wobbly-looking cheese myself, but I silently congratulated the structure on its odd beauty before heading off to my real destination.

There is naturally a local legend involving the devil as there is almost anywhere in the U.K. that sports odd rock formations. In this case, Druids were having a feast or party of some sort out by Rugged Jack when the devil himself showed up uninvited and turned them all to stone. He did things like this so often around the south of England that it must have put a significant dent in the Druid population and made him a most unwelcome guest. But at least he left a cheese ring.

As I tromped across the centre of the valley towards Castle Rock, I could see the feral goats perched randomly along the steep sides of the formation.

Their ancestors dated back to at least the 11th century, and they had been both loved and reviled down through the ages. Some were blamed for head-butting profitable sheep off the cliffs into the sea. In more recent times, they’d wandered into town as goats do and wreaked havoc on Lynton vegetable gardens. Their defenders claim, however, the goats have a right to be here and help control the valley vegetation.

These beautiful four-legged beasts didn’t seem to mind my presence at all as I began my ascent of Castle Rock. The winding trail was easy at first but got steeper as I mounted the rock and I did have to shoo a few of the noble beasts out of my way to slink by on the narrow footpath, noting their otherworldly (and devil-like) eyes as I interrupted their lunchtime munching on low grasses.

Somewhere on the side of this formation is an image seen from below known as the White Lady formed by cracks in the rocks. She was a witch immortalized in Richard Blackmore’s Lorna Doone, a novel I had “read” as a Classics Illustrated comic book when I was roughly nine years old. I think the trail went right over the White Lady’s left eyebrow which was the one spot where I stumbled and dribbled loose stones down her face as I made my ascent.

Once the goats and the witch let me pass, I was breathing heavily and favouring a weak knee as I made my way to the summit of this ancient and storied little mountain. The view was incredible. It was near here that Raynor Winn and her dying husband had hiked and looked around and she remarked, “I was transfixed.”

Transfixed is a great word that describes exactly how I felt. From the pinnacle, I looked north towards the wide open mouth of Bristol Channel, west towards the rising chimney smoke of Lynton, south towards the Lego-like Cheese Ring and then finally east along the valley to where I could see Linda heading back my way, finishing her morning ten-kilometre run in this extraordinary narrow valley. I stood up tall and waved my arms as if I’d just ascended a formidable Himalayan peak and shouted her name.

At first, she didn’t see me as I was a full 138.9 metres above sea level, so I had to yell again, disturbing a few of the goats who had followed me to the top. Linda saw me this time and waved back. That’s who we were: a runner and a climber, exploring high and low but always finding our way back together even here in one of the most exotic primitive landscapes the United Kingdom had to offer. ~ Story by Lesley Choyce