Outdoor aficionado and author of new book Wilderness Weekends Phoebe Smith tells us how to have a wild night out, by building your own shelter beneath the cliffs on Peppercombe Beach, Devon…
Where: Peppercombe, Devon
Duration: 1 night, 2 days
Start/finish: Lay-by just east of Horns Cross SS384231
Maps: OS Landranger (1:50,000) 190; OS Explorer (1:25,000) 126
As children, most of us built dens. We spent hours crafting our mini-houses from sticks and leaves, perfecting these temporary shelters until, finally, it was time to return home and have our tea. This adventure starts in just the same way – but this time round, happily, building a den is only the beginning. This time you’ll actually get to spend the night in your creation.
Along the stretch of coastline between the delightfully named town of Westward Ho! (exclamation mark included) and the ancient portside hamlet of Clovelly is one of the most beautifully secluded beaches in the UK: Peppercombe. Flanked by rising cliffs of burnt crimson on one side and the rhythmic lapping of the waves on the other, with a wave-polished expanse of shingle at your feet, there could be few better places to spend the night.
And I’m not the only one to think so. There is a long history of people coming here to build their makeshift beach bothies along the shoreline, making use of whatever materials the waves deposit among the giant pebbles. Depending upon when you visit, you can find anything from a rudimentary stick shack leant against the rocky cliffs to constructions of shed-like solidity, complete with working doors and even windows. Of course, there are also people who come here to dismantle these structures, and – given their exposed location – many also fall victim to the elements. Wild shelters are, after all, only ever a temporary affair.
When I arrived to build my own bothy I found the wreckage of many other formerly grand structures, now merely driftwood and fishing spoil broken on the sand. Then I came across a half-finished shack, so perfect the builders had even gathered fresh leaves for a pillow. I set to work filling in the gaps with a selection of bamboo stems that I’d found a kilometre away and some large rocks to secure it against the westerly breeze. Then I met the creators: two small boys who told me that every year they come with their family to this same spot and mastermind a structure in which they would like to sleep. They had never been allowed to spend the night in their creation but – they told me with glee – I would be welcome to stay, have my dinner in it and sleep over if I liked. Then they left me to it.
The hours passed and I lit a fire in the small pit the boys had carefully made. The beach bothy was only a short distance from the mini-waterfall where the stream at Horns Cross makes its way down the valley to join the sea, so I had a natural shower on tap. There was not another soul for miles, and I spent the most peaceful night being lulled to sleep by the waves.
After leaving the beach, you can enjoy an excellent walk along the easy-to- follow South West Coast Path (SWCP). Heading up through the oak woodland between Peppercombe and Buck’s Mills, you feel like you’re somewhere with a real story to tell. Some impressive old trees cling to the steep cliff edges, having managed to escape the axe that felled their companions elsewhere. Rare species of lichen festoon their ancient limbs, while marsh orchids are among the wild flowers that grow on the forest floor beneath. Look out for peregrine falcons and ravens riding the cliff updraughts, and in spring listen for the tinkling songs of redstarts. This whole area is protected as a Site of Specific Scientific Interest.
Even the less wild parts of this walk feel suitably remote. Buck’s Mills, through which you will pass en route to Clovelly, features old lime kilns – now crumbling into the sea – along with a handful of houses and the tiny former stone artist’s cabin of Judith Ackland and Mary Stella Edwards. (The two women lived and worked there until 1971; the building is now in the care of the National Trust.) After passing through more woodland, you’ll finally arrive at the quirky village of Clovelly, lining a steep scar of a valley. The picturesque cobbled streets do not allow access by vehicle, so supplies come on a sledge or the back of a donkey. It’s the perfect place to arrive via the most traditional method: your boots.
Nuts and Bolts
Other than a pub meal, you’ll find no food to buy in Horns Cross. Your best bet for supplies is Bideford, which has many supermarkets and shops, plus a range of accommodation options.
A handy bus route runs between Hartland and Barnstaple: Stagecoach line 319 (approx four times a day; less frequent on Sunday). This stops at both Clovelly and Horns Cross, making a linear walk fairly straightforward. National Rail connects Barnstable to the rest of the UK.
When to go
This coast can be a great place to spend a night year-round but, whatever the season, check that the conditions are calm enough to be able to enjoy a restful night. Watch the tide chart closely, stick to low tides and keep an eye on the weather.
If you don’t fancy the beach bothy?
If you’d rather not stay on the beach then you will find some flat spots among the woods above Peppercombe, just off the SWCP. Be careful if pitching among trees: choose the side of the path away from the cliffs and try to pick an area away from the canopy, where there is less chance of an old, rotten branch tumbling on you.
Short of time?
You could either just walk in, camp and walk out again, or – for a shorter walk – just go as far as Buck’s Mills then walk up to the main road and catch the bus back.
Time to spare?
With 1,000km (630 miles) of the SWCP running in both directions from your campsite, the choice is yours. Check out the cliffs and beachside towns to the north around Westward Ho! or continue past Clovelly to Hartland Head and the wild headland beyond.
Taken from Wilderness Weekends: Wild Adventures in Britain’s Rugged Corners (Bradt; 2015)
For more inspiration on where you can have a wild weekend in Britain, including full mapping and step-by-step guidance, check out Phoebe’s new book Wilderness Weekends: Wild Adventures in Britain’s Rugged Corners (Bradt; 2015). Get Get 35% off throughout March and April by clicking here.