the Two Moors Way begins, PART 4 of my first solo hike.
I wasn't going to head inland without a little time on the coast here, and I really wanted to see the Valley of Rocks for myself - so I decided to cheat a little and head east out of town while leaving my bag back at the hotel. I say 'cheating' because I really felt strongly about carrying all of my gear at all times. More on that later... Obviously, the weather couldn't have been better, even at 7am. Oddly enough, while walking on the coast path, it felt really uncomfortable, like people shouldn't be walking there or something. I passed plenty of local dog walkers, and the goats living on the vertical cliffside didn't seem to mind the surroundings, so maybe it was just me. Or the 30mph winds bouncing off the hillside? Either way, as lovely as it was, I was looking forward to heading inland. Naturally, after that experience, I've booked 6 days hiking the Cornish coast path next May.
After clocking the first few miles of the day, I ate breakfast at the hotel and was on the trail by 9am. The owners of the Fernleigh Guest House were lovely, as I would come to expect of all the inn owners I encountered on the trip. Highly recommend! I sauntered on down the hill from Lynton to Lynmouth, at which point I was able to take a break from noticing how gorgeous the wild garlic growing from the hillside along the trail was to think to myself 'if i'm going DOWN this far this quickly, i'm going to have to go back UP very shortly...' That thought was quickly forgotten once I realized that while strolling along the riverside in Lynmouth and looking for treats to bring on the trail, I couldn't find the Two Moors Way starting point. I probably spent over 30 minutes going in wrong directions, asking other hikers that were also clueless, and using the maps and GPS to try and find it. I was already tired, sweaty, and it was 10am and I was still at the starting point.
This is the point in the trip in which it becomes less about the minutae of getting there, finding the hotel, and that sort of dry recollection, and it becomes more about the journey itself. Also it's time to talk training and tips, because many blisters, sore muscles, nettle patches, and missed trails lie ahead.
have to say that it's pretty enjoyable to recount the trip for this blog, 7 months later, because it's showing me that I haven't forgotten as much as I worried I would, and jogging my memory for what I had forgotten has been helpful in reassuring me that it's a good idea for me to go back again next year. It's that thing that happens when you start exploring a new project or try to solve a problem you haven't encountered before: once you commit to it, dive in, and start experiencing things, you realize how very far you have to go before you reach a conclusion or high level of expertise....
Back to the route - once I found the trail marker and started UP UP UP out of Lynmouth, the scenery quickly warped into a mix of desert, tropics, and prairie -woodland mix. My husband remarked at the end of my trip about how drastic the landscape changes were over such a short distance, and even on that first day I saw variation that might have taken weeks to experience in North America. The trial underfoot was pretty uneven but well-worn, and in the first few hours I never saw a soul, despite the nearly perfect May weather. I'd be lying if I didn't have twinges of exhaustion and some worries about making it through the day's route in time - there was a lot of up, down, up, down, up, and that was before I made it to the moors of Exmoor. I don't remember lunch being anything other than what I had in my bag, probably a banana and some of the trail mix and chocolate I packed from home. I DO remember my legs killing me, and of trying to make the best time I could, even curtailing my photo taking and not stopping to rest, after wasting all that time finding the trailhead. The scenery was gorgeous though - as I'm writing I have to keep reminding myself that the bits and pieces in my mind from the first day were ALL on that first day. It seemed to span several days and many more miles than it did, that's for sure, but in a good way.
Soooo.... notice how the trail goes from hillsides lovely woodland greenery - the magical forest landscape that I was craving - to a more stark, empty landscape. About halfway through the day or so, the river valleys and hilltop climbs slowly ended as I entered Exmoor National Forest. 'Forest' seemed to be an interesting choice of words, because the area around the Two Moors Way had maybe one tree. I noticed that the map had a 'Hoar Oak tree' on it, and I think I found that one tree, but I also could have been wildly wrong. Somewhere in the afternoon hours the grasses and lack of beaten track blended together and I could tell that I was not really LOST, but definitely not surely on the trail. The local horses, both wild and saddled, had their own trails, local jeeps had cut ruts criss-crossing the moors, and the sameness of the landscape made it easy to be guessing on which trail was correct. In some places I could see half a dozen separate worn paths in the moorland surrounding me. At this point I also determined that the compasses, both in my phone and the old-fashioned ones, needed to be shook a few times to show consistent direction. The time it took me to figure that out was enough to make me realize I should doubt my location on the map. I also began to realize that I was going to run out of water, and I hadn't seen ANYONE on the trails in hours. The only thing I did know is that there were roads on the horizons, that revealed their location when a tall enough car or truck would sail on by. I made the decision to walk off-trail in the direction of a road, so that I could re-orient myself to the map. It didn't take long, and luckily there was a parking lot (liberal description of a gravel shoulder with a trash can and P sign) and a road crossing not far off. There were a few cars parked there, but no people in sight, so I trudged on, trying my best to place myself on the map using that intersection, and going off-trail again because there was no visible trail entrance in the moors across the road. Soon I again noticed that the crisscrossing of paths was not adding up, and after an hour or so I realized that I would have to head to another road. IF I was on the right track, I was about 2-3 miles from my hotel. IF I was wrong, I had a feeling I was walking 90 degrees to where I should be going. At this point I had the bright idea to scrap the compasses and use my shadow, to verify I was walking south. The only problem was that if I went too far south without hitting the 4-building 'town', I could be really really lost. I kept my eye on a road to the south, picking my way across the piney-grassy moor, which wasn't very difficult. If it had been rainy this would be a very different post, I assure you. I noticed the road was a busier one, and as I approached it, I determined it was one of two roads on the map - if it was one or the other, I would know how to follow it to my hotel. Thing is, though, roads in the area don't have signs along them with their names, those only seemed to be identified at intersections. So I resolved to flag someone down to ask them, and since the road was pretty constant traffic, it didn't take long. The first car didn't stop, the second one was a junky looking truck, so I pretended to tie my shoe and look very NOT lost. The third was a wine delivery truck, and he stopped - I asked which road this was, and he used the local name, not the road code from the map. He said he could drop me at the Exmoor Forest Inn when he made his last delivery, but then he had to turn around and go back this way afterward. Seeing as that was my hotel, I hopped in. It was maybe a 4 minute ride. Looking at my map when I got to the hotel, I had missed the trail by maybe 500 feet at that road. Turns out I wasn't very lost at all, but I was still happy to be done with the day.
The Exmoor Forest Inn was a sight for sore eyes - a charming stop with plenty of rooms and a nice pub, in an idyllic little hamlet that felt to be in the middle of nowhere. As I was arriving another hiker was exiting the path - the correct way, on foot - and he was in a lot of pain, limping in with terrible shin splints. Lucky for him, this pub had ice, which I learned later was a rarity anywhere in SW England. He was a Belgian man, taking a midlife break to walk from Lands End to Edinburgh, meeting his wife in two weeks. He was the first of many friendly and open people that I met along the way, and I really hope he was able to finish his hike without too much pain....
TIP: Take advantage of the heated towel racks to dry clothes washed in the sink each night - this was so key to me being clean and comfy for the whole trip. Shower and wash everything when you check in, hang towels over the hot racks, put the clothes on top, grab dinner, then come back and flip everything around so it dries all the way overnight. You can probably get away with 2-3 changes of clothes for 1-2 weeks if you can do this daily.