Dear fellow travellers
Only once past Foreland Point does Devon reveal her secrets. The squat lighthouse, with its distinctive round white beacon, presides over the northernmost point of Devon. From Foreland it is a dozen nautical miles of easy cruising along the coast to Ilfracombe. But there are choices. Due west of Foreland Point lies nothing but open ocean until the rocky shores of Newfoundland. Our skipper takes the tame option and hugs the English coast, Devon unfolding along the way.
Shales and sandstones, reminders of an ancient desert, a land rent asunder by the oceans and crumpled like a concertina. Lynmouth creeps fatally up the dual valleys of its eponymous rivers, the East Lyn and the West Lyn. The oldest residents of the coastal town still recall the awful night sixty years ago this summer when, following heavy storms on Exmoor, floodwaters crashed down through Lynmouth destroying everything in their path. Thirty-five people died that night, a sharp reminder that nature still has the upper hand along this wild coast.
Beyond Lynmouth lies Woody Bay, a gentle green amphitheatre and a happy interlude before the geology becomes even fiercer than at Foreland. The sea takes its cue from the cliffs, a choppy stramash threatening to engulf a group of sea kayakers who are making for Heddon's Mouth. And the skies move in tune too, dark shower-clouds obscuring the coast of Wales far away to starboard.
Now come Combe Martin, Watermouth and Hele, then we round Beacon Point and Ilfracombe heaves into view. "No pleasanter or cheaper place of cure," advised the editors of Fraser's Magazine in 1849. The latter were evidently great fans of Ilfracombe. "Believe us, you will not stir from the place for a month at least," they wrote.
Rarely have international affairs so conspired to favour a town as in the case of Ilfracombe. The Napoleonic Wars curbed the flow of English travellers to the Continent, and Ilfracombe was the beneficiary. England's answer to Portofino has had its ups and downs over the last two hundred years. Yet it remains delightful. With its tumble of streets, the land and the sea tussling in confused geography, Ilfracombe is among the most appealing of English coastal resorts. True, it has changed since George Eliot and her not-quite-husband, George Henry Lewes, combed the Ilfracombe seashore during their summer holidays in 1856. But there are still whelks and winkles aplenty, even if nowadays the harbourside cafés have moved beyond chips and cream teas to serve platters of olives and feta washed down with crisp, cool Sauvignon Blanc.
Ilfracombe boomed in the years after the Second World War, and during the season the stylish way to arrive in the port was not by boat at all, but on the Atlantic Coast Express from London. The rail link to Ilfracombe was severed in 1970, cruelly cut back to Barnstaple - where the railway station is a superbly preserved relic of the London & South Western, unhappily stranded at the extremity of a branch line from Exeter in a soulless out-of-town swathe of Tescoland.
So, keen to reach an Ilfracombe now so bereft of trains, travellers with a sense of history must take to the sea. That's just what we did this week, cruising on the Waverley west along the Devon coast to dock at Ilfracombe's little harbour. From the lighthouse at Foreland Point, the Waverley took little more than an hour to reach Ilfracombe. That the Waverley still occasionally plies this route is a tribute to the hard work of the members of the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society. The Waverley sails the coasts of Britain, cutting a distinctive dash with her retro lines. Just now, she is in the Bristol Channel and south-west England. In a part of Britain blessed with beautiful coastline, there are some stretches where landscape and drama sublimely converge. That run from Foreland Point west to Ilfracombe is one such - a dozen nautical miles of pure theatre.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)