Undiscovered Britain: West Country

To celebrate the launch of the 2016 Best Loved Hotel & Travel Guide, we are pleased to bring you a series of stories on Undiscovered Britain by leading travel writers.

Take Me to the Ria

by Mark Rowe

I learn something new from my walk around the Salcombe-Kingsbridge Estuary in the South Hams: the body of water I’m gazing down on is not an estuary, even though every piece of tourist literature says it is. No major river flows into it; instead it is a ria, a deep-cut harbour or drowned river, a geological hangover from the last Ice Age.

And so, I take the Portlemouth ferry across the ria/estuary from Salcombe. The journey is barely 250 yards, but the alternative land route, via Kingsbridge, is 15 miles. Ferry, though, is a rather grand title, as this is little more than a motorised rowing boat, more Swallows and Amazons than Sydney Harbour. The fare is small change – £1.50 – but the ferry runs all year round and in high summer the queues back up the steep steps from the jetty. I calculate that this must be a stealthily lucrative service.

We slosh up by Portlemouth pier. The tide is out, I unlace my boots and barefoot my way across sand, splattering the edge of rock pools to reach Mill Bay. The beach here reaches deep inland before collapsing into a collage of river and woodland. There, a delightful path pulls away uphill and the landscape quickly sheds the aura of the sea, instead embracing the scents of honeysuckle, damp foliage and kicked-up soil.

I greet a steady stream of walkers. Among them are those who I conclude are taking a constitutional on doctor’s orders, for they give the impression, by walking in fits and starts, that the gentle ascent through woodland requires their last ounce of strength. In truth, this is not a particularly challenging walk. Exhilarating, yes: suddenly, the path springs me into the open air of Rickham Common, an age-old area of shared grazing land that represents another world from that of the jumble of Breton shirts and just-landed sailors of Salcombe.
Then, like a biff on the nose, the wind of the open sea breaks over me, almost visibly scurrying over the crumpled folds of Deckler’s Cliff. I turn west, gazing at the vastness of Bolt Head that stands guard across the estuary – sorry, ria – and pass preposterously wind-pummelled trees as I loop back to the ferry.

I sit on the sands by the jetty and survey the waterscape. Cormorants skim the surface. There is our doughty ferry, cresting the waves, at times playing dodgems, chicken even, with the larger, more showy yachts. And yet on it chugs, shifting back and forward between Salcombe and Portlemouth, as if rebounding like a pinball off invisible flippers.

For a selection of hotels in the West Country, including the latest special offers, visit Best Loved Hotels in the West Country.

Mark Rowe is a travel and environmental journalist and walking expert who writes for several national publications. He is also news editor of BBC Countryfile magazine.