The Walk, or Barbara and Emily Endeavor to Travel Coastal Britain by Foot, or the Southwest Coast Path Part 1: Minehead to Bude

Prelude: Arrival in Minehead


In which Emily boards the Great Western Rail at Paddington Station, having just purchased an emergency supply of cold-weather clothing on the Kensington High Street; Emily agrees to meet Barbara in Taunton for the journey onward; Barbara fears that their itinerary has been compromised before it has begun and endeavors to take an earlier bus from Taunton to Minehead; Barbara is misdirected to the town center instead of the pick-up location at the train depot; Barbara boards the same bus that Emily is scheduled to board several minutes later at the train depot; Emily's train is delayed; the bus that Barbara has already boarded arrives at the train depot but refuses to accept any new passengers because the luggage racks are full; Emily then arrives and learns that she has missed the bus but so too have the other intended passengers and so a replacement bus has been dispatched; a polite and charming young man volunteers information that this is an unusual stuff-up for such buses and expresses interest in Emily's concern about the cool and cloudy weather; the replacement bus arrives and Emily and the young man board along with the other passengers, including several local louts; another passenger chats with Emily about Brexit and the cool and cloudy weather; the local louts remain vocal; Emily and the polite and charming young man begin another conversation in which he volunteers that he is a member of the Royal Navy recently stationed off the coast of Syria; Emily disembarks in Minehead; Barbara and Emily meet; the itinerary begins on schedule.


Day 1: Minehead to Porlock


In which Barbara has jet lag; Emily receives three messages from her significant other reading "This is a Test," "I miss you xx," and "This is a test again"; Barbara and Emily begin the day with a full English breakfast following an evening at the family pub; they depart on time at 9:30 for the first leg of the South West Coast Path; Emily is glad for the cold-weather clothing; the sun comes out; Emily loses her hat; Emily removes the cold-weather clothing; all flowers are purple, all English people have dogs, and all points are two miles from Bossington; Emily and Barbara are unintentionally diverted to the alternate route by a man with a dog who does not know the way to Bossington; Barbara is overcome with awe by the view of the Bristol Channel from the alternate route; Emily experiments with the Ordinance Survey map app; the young man from the bus, who introduces himself as Dan, appears on the alternate route and volunteers directions to Bossington; Emily and Barbara arrive at the tea room in Bossington and find many English dogs and roses in the garden; Emily encounters Dan and his father elsewhere in the garden and learns that they are from Bossington; Emily concludes that the tea service is delightful and Barbara feels the same way about her mackerel salad; Barbara and Emily divert from the Coast Path to the footpath to Porlock and later walk across the rocky beach to attend the Weir Beer Fest where the sun does not set until nearly 10pm.


Day 2: Porlock to Lynmouth


In which more British politicians quit; two liters of water leak out of Emily's water pouch, soaking all of the bedding beneath it as well as the exterior of her backpack while the contents in the interior of the pack remain remarkably dry; Barbara and Emily are repeatedly told that the whortleberry is an acquired taste while they find that the taste to be acquired very much resembles that of the blueberry; Emily purchases a new hat from a mad hatter; the sun stays out; Barbara blends in to the purple flowers; a rhododendron estate fails to deliver; a baby horse greets Emily in the affectionate manner that she ordinarily associates with her cat, Malcolm; en route to Lynmouth, Barbara and Emily meet the owner of the shop adjacent to their hotel and are escorted to the location; Emily can walk no further; Barbara is reluctant about Sunday Roast; Barbara and Emily encounter two American men who announce that they have seen the Beast of Exmoor along with seventy ticks and two black adders.


Day 3: Lynmouth to Combe Martin


In which there are kippers for breakfast; Americans celebrate independence; there are no sandwiches to be had before 10 in Lynmouth; nor does the funicular leading up the hill to Lynton open before 10; Emily encounters a trio of walkers from Bristol also in search of sandwiches and the funicular; Barbara, who has assembled a sandwich using the morning's toast, butter, and English bacon, proposes walking to Lynton and carrying on with the day; flowers are now purple and yellow; Barbara and Emily walk through the Valley of the Rocks, as well as the Valley of the Ferns, and the Valley of the Oaks; Emily trails behind Barbara and the trio of walkers, all several decades her senior, discovering that she is a slow hiker; the four miles accounting for the ascent to and the decent from the Great Hangman are endless and entirely outside of time; Barbara and Emily arrive at a musty B&B unaware that Damien Hirst is their neighbor.  


Day 4: Combe Martin to Woolacombe


In which Barbara lodges a complaint about the rollaway bed in the musty B&B; the downtrodden lady with her dog in the breakfast room unfortunately resembles the stock TV character of the downtrodden English lady with a dog; Emily concedes that making bacon sandwiches in the morning is the most practical approach to lunch; some of the flowers are now red; some of the trail is on the road; Barbara and Emily learn that Ilfracombe is "distinctive"; Barbara and Emily fail to recognize Verity as the work of Damien Hirst; Barbara and Emily round Morte Point; The path to Woolacombe is diverted because of a land slip; an English couple with a dog escort Barbara and Emily to their B&B, where they are upgraded to a room with a view.


Day 5: Woolacombe to Braunton


In which Barbara and Emily begin the day by walking across the beach of which they had a splendid view; they ascend to Baggy Point where they encounter a colony of black sheep; they descend on Croyde where Barbara advocates for a walk over the dunes and a diversion for ice cream; Emily enjoys her chocolate ice cream with chocolate sprinkles; Barbara and Emily neglect to walk through the golf course at Saunton and encounter more dunes; they arrive at a military zone, which they exit with the help of an officer, the Ordinance Survey app, and a couple with a dog; they decline an offer for a ride to Braunton from the couple with the dog; Barbara appears reluctant to stop; Emily eats her bacon sandwich while traveling a road also traveled by tractors and combat-ready tanks on exercises; the road gives way to the Braunton marshes; Barbara calculates that they have walked 17.5 miles; Barbara and Emily question the verity that a certain establishment sells the best fish and chips in the South West; the inn keeper washes and folds Barbara and Emily's laundry.


Day 6: Braunton to Instow


In which Barbara and Emily present the inn keeper with flowers at breakfast; more British politicians quit; a lynx escapes from a Devon zoo and roams the woods afraid of human contact, a shy beast; Barbara and Emily roam the asphalt of the Tarka trail, bypassing Barnstaple; they again encounter the trio of walkers from Bristol, now reduced to two and on bicycles; Barbara and Emily find a certain trail-side tea room to be satisfactory but neither heavenly nor divine as advertised; placards on lawns encourage them to "vote leave"; Barbara and Emily arrive in Instow just as the seafood shack shuts, Barbara, having recently tried her first Cornish pasty, now drinks her first scrumpy; Barbara and Emily learn that fresh seafood appears only on specials boards in Instow and not on advertised menus; Emily speaks to her significant other on the phone while sitting on the stairway outside their room at the pub.


Day 7: Instow to Westward Ho! 


In which more Americans are shot; Barbara and Emily encounter a local couple both skeptical of Brexit; in Bideford, Barbara repairs her camera while Emily buys a cake from the Souperman at the Pannier market; Emily concludes that the cake is heavenly and the Souperman may indeed be divine; after six miles of walking, they arrive on the other side of the narrow estuary from the place where they started and at another branch of the same deli from which they had carried their lunch; they fail to sample the ice cream from Appledore's famous trucks; Barbara and Emily purchase a guide to the ongoing marshes and correctly track the golf course; they encounter another local couple in favor of Brexit and skeptical about immigration; they are unaware of the arrival of transatlantic telephone line.


Day 8: Westward Ho! to Clovelly


In which the inn keeper greets Barbara and Emily in full chef's whites; Scotland's first minister pursues new allies in Europe; Barbara and Emily find a cave that may be the birthplace of Merlin the Magician, as well as the dwelling places of several hermits; there are faces in the oaks; Barbara and Emily observe the same ship from different angles throughout the day; in Clovelly, the flowers are made of yarn and the people are Stepford Wives.


Day 9: Clovelly to Hartland Quay


In which there are no newspapers in Clovelly; the wind picks up; the trail disappears; a radar station rises like a mushroom cloud; there are cream teas in a shed; the lighthouse is off limits; the hotel is just around the bend; the wifi doesn't work. 


Day 10: Hartland Quay to Bude

In which, such as there are mountains in England, Barbara and Emily scale ten of them. 


One Corner of Hackney

I fell into the Thames. More accurately, it was Regent's Canal, which branches off the Thames. But that instant event eliminated any ambiguity about how to begin this post. And if I was going to slip and fall, it was better to do it here than on my last Translational Movement adventure. To provide a little bit of context (always a favorite word of mine), here is, or was, the corner of Vyner Street and Cambridge Heath Road in Hackney, London, where Nick and I were staying on an Airbnb-rented houseboat. Hackney shares a geographical area and a demographic distribution with Shoreditch, which I've written about before, but the energy is less playground and more routine.

I'll share that routine here. On trips like this where where quantum physics appear in a Tom Stoppard revival and the newsletter of a British Buddhist organization, where the same wave-partical experiment is a metaphor for the Cold War and spiritual enlightenment, where it feels both like everything is going wrong but life is still good and like everything is going right but you don't enjoy it the way you expected to, where the connections and contradictions are infinite, it can be comforting to scramble up the gangplank to safety (when you can do that) and focus on your little corner of the world.

And on the corner of Vyner Street and Cambridge Heath Road, in addition to any number of access points to the canal (by foot, by bike, or by boat) and the striking visual and vocal presence of a medium-sized population of swans, there are more than a few local establishments with flexible functions (of the kind that betray more disposable income than residents might admit to) where you can spend an entire day gaining focus and/or looking for distraction. I would start at the Hive of Vyner Street, a sustainable (biodynamic, organic, preservative free) wine bar and shop but also a cafe that doesn't shy away from the caffeine in coffee (though I do) and makes a version of that faddish smushed avocado on toast that is worth paying for, bedecked as it is with unctuous brie-like goat cheese and toasted sesame seeds. They also somehow make a water-based kefir drink with turmeric and ginger that sometimes sells out and would only impress me more if it turned out to be as medicinal as it is delicious. When it opens at 11, I would explore Victor Wynd's Museum of Curiosities, a cave-like shrine to taxidermy that is at turns scientifically relevant and fictitious--if you want to take the analogy between East London and Brooklyn further (and it is hard to resist) this is the equivalent of the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Gowanus. I might stay for a drink at the bar after paying the four-pound admission fee, or I might walk on to the Hackney Bureau. Here, you can get different snacks for different times of day though the avocado toast isn't as good as across the street. The cocktails made with single-malt scotch are as good as they sound, and fairly priced to suit this combination of English pub and modern mixology. There are galleries winding around Vyner Street though they seem to be in flux, those listed on smartphone maps closed and new ones opening. There's also an artists' studio that doubles as an Italian grocery, a kind of quantum experiment where you can buy a tube of anchovy paste that will fit nicely into your suitcase for the trip home. I'd end the day with more Italian food at Ombra. It isn't one of the best restaurants that you can find in London (or even in Hackney, especially on Broadway Market, just up Andrew's Road, another circuitous side street that starts on the the other side of Cambridge Heath Road and tracks the canal) but because it's nice to be close to home and because the pastas, like lasagna with spinach and winter squash or spaghetti with eggplant and capers, are warm and wholesome. I would end the day out back at the Hive. My suggestions: Treat yourself to an orange wine or a rosé. Tread carefully.

Landing Page

I would like to eradicate anger and doubt. Of course, without anger and doubt, there might be no essays. That might be why I feel so ambivalent about my presence here at something called the NonfictioNow conference in Flagstaff, Arizona, an exploration of the essay form by over a hundred writers from the margins to the mid-list. That statement, I know, if not only doubtful but angry, intended to insult and insulate. And ambivalence is impossible to eradicate though so many of us in the American middle class make it our business to try. So let me so say the same thing, honestly, in a different way, before I make my escape: there is so much incredible stuff to read here, all the more so because most of it is probably completely unknown to you. (These pronouns--you, I we, they--are necessarily ambiguous, shifting, dependent upon context.)

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