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Meet the 80-year-old man who walked Devon’s 350-mile border

PUBLISHED: 12:16 10 April 2018 | UPDATED: 12:16 10 April 2018

David Beanland

David Beanland


Walking 350 miles around the boundary of Devon was David Beanland’s way of marking his 80th birthday

Every decade is a challenge; a challenge every decade. That’s the message to myself.

It started when I was 60. It’s a significant age which I wanted to mark in some way. A charity walk for Age Concern seemed appropriate, so I spent about five weeks trekking along the Italian Alps from the Mediterranean to the Matterhorn valley.

At 70 I decided to raise money for the North Devon Hospice. That involved walking west to east along the Pyrenees.

At 80, a more modest challenge came to mind: why not follow the Devon county border?

Borders historically rarely run straight. This is especially true of what I call the top and bottom of Devon, where you have to find roads and footpaths which closely follow the county line. Elsewhere, the coastal route is satisfyingly obvious.

Cliffs at North Devon Cliffs at North Devon

Because of the vagaries of the terrain, it’s hard to determine how far I went, but my rough estimate is around 350 miles. And it was hard. My earlier walks had involved wild camping; this time I had the constraint of B & Bs, except where I could be ferried to and fro by my patient wife.

Sitting in an armchair, planning this trek, it was easy to overestimate my ability and to underestimate the distances. Thirty kilometres a day? Easy. But it’s not: there are a lot of ups and downs in Devon; furthermore, a kind of cumulative tiredness accompanies the growing fitness.

I didn’t weigh my rucksack, although I wondered why a few maps and clothes created such a load. A kilo of water didn’t help.

I’ve learnt over the years that two walking poles save a lot of wear and tear to one’s legs, and they protect doddery ancients from falling over. Another useful ploy is to carry spare footwear, so I would switch from boots to trainers and vice versa through the day.

We all know what a beautiful county Devon is and my journey reinforced that. April is a good month for walking. It is usually bright and dry, with a cool wind. The leaves are unfurling and the flowers are remarkable. Is there any other region with such beautiful banks and hedgerows?

The North Devon coast The North Devon coast

My trek began near Porlock, on the coast at Glenthorne. Soon I was in Doone country and moving onto Exmoor, past Hoar Oak, to a point above Withypool. Then the border follows Dane’s Brook down to the Barle.

This is a landscape of broad views which narrow to the intimacy of combes. At Exebridge I finished my second day in the Anchor Inn where the landlord kindly gave me a free pint in celebration. Such acts of spontaneous generosity are not common. One B&B reduced the price a little, but the most affecting gift of £20 came from a couple in a Dartmouth restaurant.

Inevitably, the freedom of the moor gave way to the restriction of minor roads. As Devon has more thoroughfares than most counties, it is possible to walk parallel to the meanderings of the boundary, and sometimes a bit of judicious trespassing helps.

Larger roads, like the one along the Blackdown Hills, can be tiring, causing what I call camber fatigue. And major routes can be terrifying, particularly where the verge provides little sanctuary.

It was a relief to reach Lyme Regis and the coastal path. The French Lieutenant’s Woman had made me aware of the Undercliff, that area of landslips colonised by thick vegetation and tall trees. In parts, roots claw at the path as though Jurassic beasts are emerging from the earth. It is an enchanted place.

After a while I felt it was inconsiderate of Devon to run so many streams and rivers across my path. There’s the effort involved in descending and ascending, as well as the problem of ferry timings. On the North coast there are fewer estuaries, although the Taw/Torridge outflow causes a long detour.

Both sea borders, thankfully, are free of heavy industry so the views across the green undulations of cliffs are unspoiled. Your eyes can focus on pink thrift and then lift to the blue margin of the sea.

There were others enjoying the views, mainly elderly couples with dogs. Their numbers diminished as I tracked the Tamar northwards. As with the top section, it was not easy to keep close to the border. There is, for part of the way, the Tamar Discovery trail, as well as anglers’ paths, but there are also fences and inquisitive bullocks to contend with. For much of the route I endured the punishment of roads.

At the Tamar Lakes I knew I was close to the coast. Both the Torridge and the Tamar shun the nearby Atlantic and flow contrarily south, while the border sidesteps towards Welcombe. North Devon is one of the country’s least populous areas; you feel it as you walk along its fringe.

The guidebook I carried rated each section of the coastal path from Easy to Severe. Whilst the southern part of my trek had a number of Strenuous hikes, only on the northern edge did I find a Severe, and that was around Welcombe and Hartland Quay. But, by then, I was used to the climbs and descents.

The walking becomes easy around Barnstaple where the Tarka Trail follows the estuary. After the joys of Clovelly’s cliffs, this is less appealing, a kind of lull before the uplift of Exmoor, although there are some fine beaches to soften the footfall.

I ended my charity walk at The Blue Ball on Countisbury Hill; a challenging 19. Earlier, as I was picking my way down a slope near Hope Cove, a man muttered to me: “Why do we do this?” I replied that I’d asked myself the same question and hadn’t found the answer.

A George Mallory would say: “Because it’s there” (the border that is), and it’s true that I chose to do the circuit as it’s a recognisable concept, something people could envisage. I also did it because I wanted to beat the bounds of age; to prove that, if you’re fit enough, you can do more than you think.


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