This breathtaking walk can rival the Yukon or Sintra...
Last week found the author of this Classic Walks page trying out the art of snow-shoeing in the icy Yukon Mountains, which may sound like name-dropping in a travel-nerdy kind of way, but I mention it for two reasons. The first is to say how lucky we are that we don't need to don snow shoes when we want to go walking. It was all very exciting and novel for me, but far too much like hard work. One mile with your feet attached to two tennis rackets is like doing ten in walking boots.
The other reason I mention my Yukon-adventure is because I was walking with a group of travel journalists from around the world and they all pooh-poohed the idea that anything could be as dramatic in homely old Britain.
I knew better. Because, although the Yukon can offer vast landscapes on a mind-blowing scale, it does not have the drama of instantaneous variety. I showed a couple of the travel writers photos of Lynton and Lynmouth – which I believe to be an ideal example of landscape-diversity at its best – and they began to agree.
Within a mile of the twin North Devon communities, you have vertiginous cliffs, rock stacks, deep valleys and woodlands, tumbling streams – all with the mighty backdrop of an ocean…
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No wonder Robert Southey described the epicentre of all this scenic glory as "the palace of pre-Adamite kings" – adding that the Valley of Rocks contained "the very bones and skeleton of the earth".
Indeed, he went on to claim the Lynton and Lynmouth area to be "the finest spot that I ever saw, with the exception of Sintra in Portugal".
Even the drive there from Porlock is one of the most dramatic in the country, or even in Europe, in my opinion – which is why so many car manufacturers have used it down the years. And the final view of Lynmouth Bay from lofty Countisbury is nothing but 100 per cent spectacular.
We began our visit down at the bottom – by which I mean the pay-and-display car park just beyond the famous Lyn Cliff Railway. A quick warning here for those who might visit in the next few weeks – if you are hoping to begin this hike by letting this remarkable train take the strain, forget it. The 500ft-high funicular is closed for annual maintenance until the beginning of March.
Mick Sims was painting the upper structure of one of the old carriages as I passed, and he allowed me to go in to get a closer view of the flat-bed truck on which the ornate wooden shell sits when in service. Lynton's Lyn and Exmoor Museum has photographs of the flat-beds being used to transport vintage cars up and down in the aftermath of the Lynmouth Flood Disaster and I have always wanted to see for myself what the devices look like minus the carriages.
Anyway, the footpath up the hill is just as dramatic as the funicular – the higher you go, the more grandiose the whole scene becomes, which is not surprising really given that the tallest cliffs in England are just across the bay.
At the top we wend our way into Lynton's main street. Just to our right is the imposing town hall with its extraordinary mixture of architectural styles. Gothic, neo-Tudor and Art Nouveau all combine to make the wonderful old place look like something dreamed up in some Baroque fantasy by Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle. Actually, Sir Arthur officially opened the place 102 years ago and in a way his man Sherlock Holmes paid for it. The building was funded by Sir George Newnes, part of whose wealth came from publishing Conan-Doyle's stories.
To the right of this there's a footpath which will take you west out to the Valley of Rocks on the perpendicular seaward side of the hill.
Warning No 2: there are folk who find walking in such places a little too much on the vertiginous side – sufferers of vertigo might want to avoid this particular path, although it is paved and quite safe.
It eventually enters the Valley of Rocks at one of the two places where the great defile spills into the sea. The gorge is peculiar in that it has no watercourse and it runs parallel to the shore, rather than directly towards it. The theory is that it was once the main valley of the Lyn Rivers when the sea level was a good deal higher than it is now. The ancient waves and river waters eroded the softer sandstones in the valley and gave an easier route of egress which is the one that now forms the valley down at Lynmouth.
Directly in front of us where our path enters the valley stands dramatic Castle Rock – and a detour up this craggy pyramid is compulsory in my opinion. At the top you can see the jagged hole in the rocks that is known as the White Lady – but only because the outline could look like an old-fashioned female in a bonnet, if you ignore the over-stated breasts.
Opposite the valley, inland, we can see the Devil's Cheesewring – a tall rock-stack that may or may not have been home to legendary Mother Meldrum.
For those who are feeling fit, there is a route up, up and up past the rock-stack to the footpath which runs along the very brink of the slope called South Cleave. By turning left along this path you can make your way back to the heart of Lynton.
Those who do not fancy the near-vertical 300ft climb can simply walk back up the bottom of the Valley of Rocks, passing the famously picturesque cricket pitch as they go. Passing also, a pleasant-looking tea room and gardens which was closed the other day… In its tree-lined garden we noticed a life-sized witch who'd been strung up by the neck – so real was the mannequin dressed in a witch's wardrobe (complete with broomstick) that we did a horrified double-take before we realised this version of Mother Meldrum was nothing but a three-dimensional joke.
Continuing on into Lynton, we found ourselves in Belle Vue Avenue, which we walked along to turn left into Lydiate Lane. This is part of the grid-system of central Lynton and the lane will take us down to a smaller thoroughfare called Blackmore's Path which, in turn, takes us out on to Sinai Hill. A biblical-sounding street named after a rock called Mount Sinai which used to be a favourite viewpoint hereabouts. Where it is now and why it was named after a Middle Eastern height, I have no idea.
At the bottom of the slope, where Sinai Hill meets Queen Street, you'll see The Globe Hotel which was apparently Lynton's first inn. A quick plug here for the excellent Lyn and Exmoor Museum which is in adjacent Market Street…
If Lynton has an actual centre then it is probably Church Hill with its shops on the left as you walk up, and St Mary's church and the vast Valley of Rocks Hotel on your right. Bertrand Russell apparently stayed in one of the rooms with his wife Dora in 1924, although I can find no mention of what he thought of his visit to this most dramatic of English resorts.
North Walk Hill passes between the graveyard and the hotel and leads to the zig-zag path that takes us back down to Lynmouth.
Perhaps this little jaunt doesn't have the unbelievable grandeur of the vast Yukon, but it is extremely dramatic and scenic nevertheless.