Notes from a journey through a secret, wild, and unforgiving landscape
Looking east from Great Hangman towards Heddon's Mouth, along the wildest section of the Exmoor Coast
The swell slaps at my feet, licking along the narrow sandstone shelf like a dragon's tongue before swirling into a through-cave. Reflected light glints on the water on the other side. Swimming across the cave, I point out to The Psychiatrist, will cut off a few hundred metres of climbing, saving us precious time. The sun has started to sink into the sea with the coming of evening. Just then, a massive swell set slams into the cavern, and the constricted entrance takes on the form of a cataract on the upper Brahmaputra. The Psychiatrist looks at me quizzically.
“Not such a good idea, perhaps?” he suggests. I look back at him, shiver, and laugh. This is the point we decide to abandon ship.
In case you're wondering, I’m not recounting a stint in rehab. The Psychiatrist is my partner in crime, Dr. Grant Farquhar. He is also largely responsible for the fact that we're traversing towards the base of the highest cliff in England, Great Hangman, three hours before sunset. It’s just after high tide, and we both have mild hypothermia. In early June 2013, when this mission took place, the waters of the Bristol Channel were still only 12 degrees Celsius after one of the coldest winters in a decade.
We've been on the move for eleven hours already on the Exmoor Coast Traverse, Britain's longest climb. We're attempting a one day ascent of the principle and most demanding section of the route: Lynmouth to Combe Martin, a distance of some 17,500 metres: twice the height of Everest from sea level. It's a mammoth undertaking, and has all of the atmosphere and seriousness of a big alpine climb on an unexplored peak. It had never previously been attempted in a single, unsupported, one-day push.
Great Hangman, England's highest cliff. The hooded man awaits those who venture here in the wrong conditions
The 17,500 metre Exmoor Coast Traverse is a mammoth undertaking, and has all the atmosphere and seriousness of a big alpine climb on an unexplored peak. It had never previously been considered feasible in a single, one-day push.
Three decades earlier, in 1978, Terry Cheek, Trevor Simpson, Graham Rogers and Robert Simmons made the first continuous ascent over four and a half days, using ropes and an expedition-style approach with a support team. The route involves serious and, in places, difficult climbing on wet rock, with only a handful of safe exits in its entire length. Our approach, by contrast, was fast, light, and totally unsupported. We climbed solo, wearing modified 2/3mm wetsuits and approach shoes, and carried compact dry bags for our food and water. David Kester Webb and Elizabeth Webb explain the real nature of this route in their superb book The Hidden Edge of Exmoor :
“[This] is a serious mountaineering venture that is compounded by a tide that can rise vertically over six feet an hour and by cliffs that tower over six hundred feet in places. Out of sight of civilization, it is an awe-inspiring wilderness, boasting the highest cliff in England, a waterfall as high as Niagara, and a colony of ancient stunted yew trees that may prove to be the largest in Britain.”
The author setting off from Lynmouth just after sunrise at high water on his 2013 attempt at the Exmoor Coast Integral. He and his partner covered approximately 75% of the 17,500 metre traverse over 11 hours before they were forced to abandon the effort due to the onset of hypothermia.
The seriousness of the undertaking is multiplied by the fact there is no phone reception at the cliff base anywhere along this part of the Exmoor Coast. In this respect, as in others, the traverse is actually more serious than a big climb in the Alps, where helicopter rescue is just a speed-dial away. If you had a bad accident anywhere along this desolate shore, you’d likely die there long before help arrived.
We made good progress, covering three quarters of the distance between Lynmouth and Combe Martin in eleven hours. The Psychiatrist is a proficient surfer, and I’m an experienced open water paddler. But with mutual respect for the power of the sea, we called the 'Brahmaputra Cave' our full-time whistle, and made our escape up the steep incline of Red Cleave, a fine eleven-hundred foot, fifty-degree bramble-festooned couloir.
"A serious mountaineering venture that is compounded by a tide that can rise vertically over six feet an hour. It is an awe-inspiring wilderness, boasting the highest cliff in England and a waterfall as high as Niagara"
- from The Hidden Edge of Exmoor by David Kester Webb and Elizabeth Webb
Looking down Red Cleave in evening light: "a fine eleven-hundred foot, fifty-degree bramble-festooned couloir"
Lynmouth to Combe Martin in a day, or 'The Exmoor Coast Integral', is undoubtedly feasible by a highly proficient lightweight team of two or three, and under more favourable sea conditions than those in which we attempted it. This alpine-style adventure, completed without boat support, is undoubtedly one of the last great challenges of physical endurance, logistics, commitment, and route-finding skill in Britain, and presents the possibility of a whole new sub-genre of climbing. The Psychiatrist and I like to call it ‘aqua-alpinism’.
The wildness of the west Exmoor Coast as seen from the top of Great Hangman on a blustery spring evening
In the same way that para-alpinism links climbing or mountaineering with BASE jumping, aqua-alpinism links rock climbing with extreme coasteering to produce challenges that are beyond the scope of either activity alone. In order to complete the Exmoor Coast Integral, you will need to be a strong, experienced climber and an equally strong and experienced coasteer and swimmer. You’ll also need to stay up all night and get lucky, as Daft Punk might say.
In the same way that para-alpinism links climbing with BASE jumping, aqua-alpinism links rock climbing with extreme coasteering to produce challenges that are beyond the scope of either activity
When the late Swiss alpinist Erhard Loretan pioneered his 'night naked' approach for climbing technical routes with maximum efficiency in the Himalaya, it's unlikely he imagined his theory might be used on a sea level traverse of an obscure section of the southwest coast of England. The beauty of climbing in general, and alpinism in particular, is its stubborn refusal to conform to a single definition of what it might be. This is surely one of the many reasons I’m so drawn to these strange, dangerous, and exhausting activities.
Clearing Foreland Point at dead low water: a serious tide race often forms here with standing waves. It is only navigable by paddleboard or sea kayak in favourable conditions.
Fast-forward five years, and the prize of the Exmoor Coast Integral remains a ripe fruit waiting to be plucked by a budding explorer. The Psychiatrist’s family commitments mean it’s unlikely he can take the time off for a second attempt. Without the enthusiasm - or for that matter the courage - for a solo attempt at the Exmoor Coast Integral, but with the place still very much on my mind, I conjure up a more practical, less time-consuming, but still highly adventurous means of exploring this compelling place: a complete Exmoor Coast voyage by stand-up paddleboard (SUP).
After extensive testing over hundreds of miles of open water, using various different boards, I’m convinced that an inflatable 14 foot touring SUP, piloted by a strong paddler, has similar capabilities as a sea kayak in all but the most extreme swell conditions. In heavy seas, a sea kayak will always be the wiser choice of vessel. But in smaller swells and smooth water, both craft are an equally viable option, with similar speeds and handling abilities.
Heading west towards Bull Point on the last of the ebb tide
With this knowledge in mind, I set off for a solo ten mile paddle from Porlock Weir to Lynmouth in August 2017. I timed the trip well, passing under the awesome, lonely stockade of Glenthorne House just after mid-tide. This meant I could clear Foreland Point - where the most dangerous seas on the Exmoor Coast can occur – just before dead low water, and in the most favourable conditions. My presence off Foreland Point caused a degree of amazement in a fishing boat heading east; the only other vessel I met on this section of the trip.
Glenthorne House commands an awesome position on the coast between Porlock Weir and Lynmouth, and has one of the longest private drives in England
As I planed past the fishing boat, with the board cutting through the water carried by a light easterly tailwind and the last half-hour of the ebb tide, one of the boat's occupants simply exclaimed “I think you’re bloody mad!”. I guess he didn’t expect to see a guy on a paddleboard gliding effortlessly past one of the more treacherous headlands in south west England.
The drone of the fishing boat’s inboard engine quickly faded as I entered the vast semi-circular sweep of Lynmouth Bay, and was replaced with nothing but the quiet dip of my carbon fibre paddle in the blue-green water and the cry of black-backed gulls soaring overhead. These disconsolate birds, wheeling high and wild in the darkening sky, were my watchful companions on this journey.
Life at sea a mile off Porlock Weir, heading towards Foreland Point and Lynmouth on a strong ebb tide
A few weeks later, I took advantage of an exceptional high pressure window at the end of August to make the journey from Lynmouth to Combe Martin: the most westerly and arguably the most spectacular part of the entire coast.
By waiting for the right tide and a window of ideal weather to make the voyage, I could take advantage of near-perfect sea conditions. A strong ebb stream took me along the most impressive section of the Exmoor Coast between Woody Bay and the Great Hangman, just east of Combe Martin. Passing Bull Point, another spot where a powerful tide race can occur, a big Atlantic Grey seal popped up ten metres from my board and stayed with me for the next mile. Flying around the jagged rocks offshore of the point itself, carried along by the powerful tidal stream, I remembered the challenging and time-consuming climbing along this section from four years before: the coast is much more easily travelled - and arguably better appreciated - on the water than on land.
Heading west half a mile off Hurlstone Point: the Welsh coast is just visible in the distance
Just east of Bull Point, the shingle beach at Heddon’s Mouth provides a possible landing spot, although I continued past, needing to clear the Great Hangman before low water - or otherwise I’d be in deep trouble. According to the testament of former German submariners, Heddon’s Mouth was used by U-boats during WW2 for restocking fresh water. It’s one of the more remote beaches in England, flanked by 600 foot cliffs on both sides.
If you ever visit Heddon’s Mouth, just imagine landing here by dingy at 3 a.m. on a winter night in the early 1940s; you’d have to be quick filling your jerry cans from the river.
Heddon's Mouth, one of the more remote beaches in England
If you ever visit Heddon’s Mouth, just imagine landing here from a German U-boat at 3 a.m. on a winter night in the early 1940s
Westwards from Heddon’s Mouth, the coast becomes even more impressive, culminating in the epic 1200 foot sweep of Great Hangman, which is said to be the highest cliff on mainland Britain. It’s named after the striking hooded shape of the summit: a caped figure standing watch over this lonely coast.
Again, I timed the tide just right, and cleared the Hangman just before low water. This is the last bastion of the Exmoor cliffs before the coast falls away to the west, and the quaint fishing village of Combe Martin provides a welcome refuge and landing spot after the awesome terrain you’ve just passed through.
The final section of the coast that remained to explore was the easternmost part, from Minehead to Porlock Weir. Whilst not quite as high and less dramatic overall than the western part of Exmoor, the brooding cliffs that plunge straight into the sea around Hurlstone Point, which must be passed to enter the wide expanse of Porlock Bay, make up for the lack of real verticality elsewhere.
Dr. Kelly Vargas 'chillaxing' on a 2.5 knot ebb tide a mile off Porlock Weir. Why bother to paddle when you can just use the gravitational effect of the moon?
On this section - completed in October 2017 – Kelly and I soon hit the first of the westerly groundswell barrelling out from Hurricane Ophelia as we left the sanctuary of Minehead Harbour, and were glad to be paddling together on the wild approach to Hurlstone Point. Rising and falling on the water half a mile out to sea, with the waves crashing into the empty shingle beach beneath the undercliff, our two boards must have made a strange spectacle for hikers on the coast path to the south. Half a mile off Hurlstone, though, the swell suddenly and inexplicably dropped away. We’d moved into the sheltering effect of Foreland Point, 15 miles to the west, and the northerly tip of entire Exmoor Coast.
Perhaps the best aspect of any voyage along this section of the coast is the fact it’s possible to land at Porlock Weir about thirty metres from the fifteenth century Ship Inn, one of Devon’s best pubs. As soon as we’d pulled the boards up the steep shingle, I began to think about paddling the coast in two longer sections, the first from Minehead to Lynmouth, and the second from Lynmouth to Ilfracombe. Spring tides, prime sea conditions, and some serious motivation would be essential for these long, committing voyages.
Landing at Porlock Weir after the voyage from Minehead. The 15th century Ship Inn is just a short walk up the shingle.
Of course, the uncompleted non-stop terrestrial traverse of this shoreline – the Exmoor Coast Integral – still lurks at the back of my mind. This epic, multi-dimensional journey along England’s wildest stretch of coastline still remains there for the taking. When it is finally completed in a single, aqua-alpine push, it’ll be one of the more impressive feats of adventuring achieved anywhere in the British Isles.
Full Fathom Five.
The tide race off Mort Point (Death Point) in a force 8 winter gale. Mort Point is the northwesterly point of the North Devon coast. If you get it wrong whilst exploring the Exmoor Coast, you'll arrive here eventually.
Notes on paddling the Exmoor Coast
The Bristol Channel has the second largest tidal range in the world after Canada’s Bay of Fundy. This means the tidal stream acts as a useful supercharger to any long distance paddle, if you time it right. On spring tides you’ll experience a 2 knot speed advantage on the Exmoor Coast. This can increase to as much as 6 or 7 knots around headlands like Foreland Point and Bull Point, where serious tide races often occur, and where good paddling skills are essential.
As Mark Rainsley says in his excellent South West Sea Kayaking guidebook, "The sea is one of the most committing and dangerous environments. Conditions can change quickly and dramatically. When planning to venture out, ensure that your knowledge, experience, ability and judgement are appropriate to the seriousness of the trip."
- with thanks to Dr. Grant Farquhar and Dr. Kelly Vargas -