SOMERSET COAST PATH
Stage 2: Minehead to Kilve Beach
Tuesday, July 21, 2015
From the little park just south of Minehead Harbour, where a big metal sculpture marks the end of the South West Coast Path (picture 1), large friendly letters and an arrow stencilled on the pavement show that the route eastwards along the Somerset coast continues as the West Somerset Coast Path (and from 2016, also the England Coast Path).
The path follows a wide pavement along Minehead's curving seafront, separated from the shingle beach by a low sea-wall on the left (picture 2) and with neat 19th-century houses and hotels across the road to the right. About halfway along the seafront, the path passes a small clock tower (picture 3) at the foot of The Avenue, Minehead's main shopping street, and from here on the beach becomes much sandier (picture 4). Across the road is the terminus of the West Somerset Railway, the UK's longest preserved railway at 36.6 kilometres, and one of the oldest, having reopened in 1976 after the original branch line closed in 1971.
Beyond the railway station the character of Minehead's seafront changes dramatically, with the other side of the road lined by a series of amusement arcades followed by a long complex of holiday apartments and then the spiky big-top of the Butlin's resort (picture 5), where one of my workmates recalls being subjected to a dose of mandatory fun as a teenager. Fortunately the sandy beach and the view back across the bay towards the harbour and North Hill (picture 6) are a good antidote for all that commercialism.
At the end of the promenade, the route very briefly joins the road then turns left through the small members' carpark of the Minehead and West Somerset Golf Club to join a path along the edge of the golf course, just above the shore (picture 7).
Leaving Minehead behind now, the path runs beside the golf course for around two kilometres, passing an old World War II pillbox near the end. A short distance beyond the pillbox the path along the shore reaches Dunster Beach, where hundreds of little chalets form a row more than a kilometre long (picture 8). When the chalets finally end, the path passes another pillbox and a refreshment kiosk before crossing a footbridge over a concrete drainage channel.
A couple of kilometres inland the wooded foothills of Exmoor rise above green fields. One of those hills is crowned by the 18 metre Conygar Tower (picture 9), a folly built in 1775 and now a listed building.
A little to the east of the Conygar Tower, framed by the hills, Dunster Castle stands above the village of Dunster (picture 10), said to be the most complete medieval village in the UK, with a restored mill, two packhorse bridges, a fine market cross and a variety of picture postcard thatched medieval and Tudor houses. I spent the day before this walk exploring both the village and the castle and I can report that they are both well worth a visit, as is the superb village pub, the Luttrell Arms.
The path now runs around the curving, rocky shore of Blue Anchor Bay for a couple of kilometres to reach the village of Blue Anchor (picture 11). Nearing the village, the single track of the West Somerset Railway comes up beside the path. Blue Anchor Station is just off the path at the near end of the village and I made a brief diversion there to capture locomotive 4936 hauling a train into the station (picture 12).
The bulk of the village stretches inland along the main road, while several large holiday parks line Blue Anchor Bay Road above the shore for most of the next kilometre (picture 13), until the road bends away from the shore to climb past the Blue Anchor pub (picture 14).
Here the West Somerset Coast Path and the England Coast Path part company for a little while. The former continues uphill along the road for about 500 metres to turn left on a path through the woods of Cridland's Copse, while I followed the latter, which cuts through the pub's carpark to run along the bottom of a couple of fields above low cliffs to also enter the woods (picture 15).
The two routes meet up inside the dark woods and soon emerge into the light to climb along the edges of several fields above woods that slope down to the shore of Warren Bay. After the fourth field, the path dives back into the woods, which are now a narrow strip between the crumbling clifftop (picture 16) and more fields. The path emerges again into one of those fields, the far side of which was lined with caravans.
The path now drops down through some more trees to cross a slipway leading down the beach, climbing up on the other side to join a slightly sunken path just outside another large camping field (picture 17).
As the path climbs over a rise in the middle of the next field, the site of the Iron Age hillfort of Daw's Castle, the town of Watchet comes into view (picture 18). From a metal kissing gate in the bottom corner of the field, an enclosed path leads to some steps down onto the B3191 Cleeve Hill. The tarmac, quite narrow in places, is followed downhill into the town, with no pavement or verge for the first half, until the name changes to West Street. The road changes name again, to Market Street, passing the small Market House Museum (picture 19) just before reaching the corner of Watchet's harbour.
The pedestrianised Esplanade runs across the back of the harbour, passing a statue called The Ancient Mariner (picture 20), erected in 2003 to commemorate the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who lived in the nearby village of Nether Stowey and penned his famous Rime of the Ancient Mariner after a visit to Watchet.
Watchet has a history stretching back more than a thousand years, having been well established by the time Viking raiders arrived in 988AD. Today, the town retains several of its medieval traditions, including the official post of Ale Taster on the local council. I enquired as to whether the position was vacant, but alas there's already a long queue of hopefuls. The harbour, once a commercial port for exporting iron ore from the nearby Brendon Hills, is now full of pleasure craft.
At the end of the Esplanade, the route passes the attractive little stone building of the Watchet Library and the war memorial in the library's courtyard to reach the eastern end of Watchet Station's carpark, where the West Somerset Coast Path and the England Coast Path part company once again. The former crosses the railway line for a 13 kilometre inland sojourn, which I would enjoy another day. The latter stays on the coastal side of the tracks, turning along a narrow path beside the line, cutting across the back of a small hill that is topped by a coastguard lookout (picture 21).
After crossing a bit of a dip (picture 22), the path forks left, skirting around the edge of the next promontory to find some wooden steps down to the rocky beach of Helwell Bay (picture 23).
This is the start of a ten kilometre stretch of coastline where the cliffs are mostly formed of alternating layers of fossil-rich Jurassic limestone and shale, twisted and tilted over millions of years by the movements of the earth's crust. The two types of rock erode at different rates, the shale gradually turning into sand while the sheets of cracked limestone break up into large rocks. As the cliffs have gradually receded they have left behind beaches covered in rock pools, fields of broken limestone and some quite large intact sheets of limestone that have yet to be disintegrated by the waves.
My timing was good and I started this stretch of the path a couple of hours before low tide, so I was able to see much of this geology exposed as I wandered across the bay amongst the rock pools (picture 24). All of this is covered at high tide and the old inland route of the West Somerset Coast Path has been retained as the high-tide route of the England Coast Path.
It was relatively slow going as I picked my way carefully amongst the rock pools and over areas of loose limestone rocks, trying to avoid getting my hiking boots too wet. Every now and then one of the intact sheets of limestone, which tended to run parallel to the cliffs would offer an easier surface for a little while.
After about a kilometre, the Coast Path leaves the beach and climbs up a concrete ramp to a small carpark on the edge of the village of Doniford. The official route then follows a road through the village and then through the middle of a large holiday park to join a clifftop path overlooking the beach, but with the tide still receding I had enough time to take a more interesting route along the beach instead.
About 200 metres further along the beach from the carpark, I jumped over a little stream called The Swill, which flows out across the beach just before the holiday park. A path runs along the front of the Holiday Park (picture 25) but I walked along the beach instead, below a high bank of boulders built to protect the holiday park from the sea during winter storms.
Beyond the holiday park the cliffs get higher and the layers of rock become quite prominent, particularly in the couple of little headlands that mark the western end of St Audrie's Bay (picture 26). The tip of the second headland has a small waterfall tumbling down from the woods above (picture 27).
At this end of the bay the exposed edges of the tilted layers run at right angles to the beach, making the walk around the second headland feel a bit like walking on giant staircase that had been laid down flat to make a kind of sawtooth pattern. After a dozen or so of these the going gets easier for a while with a long beach of sand and pebbles stretching most of the way across the bay before the underlying geology becomes exposed again nearing the next little headland, where some large sheets of cracked limestone were still intact (picture 28).
Just in front of the headland was the largest sheet of limestone I had seen so far (picture 29). Once around the headland the little peak of Quantock's Head comes into view, where the Quantock Hills, which begin almost twenty kilometres away near Taunton, finally meet the sea. On top of Quantock's Head the West Somerset Coast Path finally returns to the coast and rejoins the clifftop route of the England Coast Path, or at least it would do about a year after I did this walk.
Here I decided to walk further out from the cliffs, where the walking was easier at first with some large flat slabs of shale and limestone (picture 30), before the layers become more angled once again with the broken edges of the layers running parallel to the cliffs once more (picture 31).
Beyond Quantock's Head the beach rounds one more little headland where steps climb up to the clifftop path. I kept on along the shore however, now on Kilve Beach, where several of the limestone layers can be seen emerging from the cliff face and curving down onto the beach (picture 32).
After about 500 metres I climbed the stony slope up off the beach to a picnic table with a brand new signpost bolted to it bearing the familiar National Trail acorn symbol. A cinder path leads inland for about 200 metres to a small carpark where an old oil retort stands by the entrance of the Kilve Cricket Club (picture 33), a convenient place to end this stage of the walk, 23 kilometres from Minehead.
From the carpark it's about 15 minutes walk up the narrow lane to the main road in the village of Kilve, but as I had almost two hours to wait for the next bus, I first wandered back some distance along the clifftop route that I had bypassed earlier, going as far as the junction where the West Somerset Coast Path rejoins the coast on Quantock's Head (picture 34). From the peak there was a nice view across the green fields towards Kilve village (picture 35), while back to the west I could see some bad weather approaching over Minehead Bay (picture 36).
I was safely on my way back to Minehead before the rain arrived however, feeling like I had made the most of my last walking day for this visit to England. The following day would be spent on the West Somerset Railway before beginning the long journey back home to Brisbane.