In the transition between summer and autumn, the sun in retreat, the landscape is smudged by early morning mists and encrusted with heavy dews, signs that autumn is ready to hold sway. Trees await with resignation and commendable dignity a wind strong enough to strip them of their summer vestments. A recent Sunday started murky before blossoming into a warm, sunny day.
I parked the car in Breakwater Road and headed inland along the route of the canal. Many others were taking advantage of the fine weather to take the air and enjoy the beautiful scenery. Above the Falcon Bridge, with the old lifeboat house serving as a picturesque backdrop, ducks – in Bude, like in many other resorts, seasoned photographic models - were posing for the amateur photographers who were compiling portfolios that they hope might contain an image that will be selected for next year’s Countryfile calendar. There were casual walkers, some of whom were encumbered with pushchairs which often contained a suitably sized infant, others were walking the dog – or was it the other way round? – and still others who were equipped with rucksacks, walking poles and heavy duty boots signalling that they were serious-minded walkers, firm of purpose, and that they had longer distances in mind. Inevitably, to break the standard measure adopted by the majority of participants, a lone jogger passed, flushed and shiny from his exertions. I felt, as a fellow human being, relief for him that the circuit he had wisely chosen was level as he looked unhealthily close to apoplexy, and I was sure that even the slightest of inclines would have tipped him over the edge. On the higher ground to the north-west, some dull variety of root crop was being harvested with what, at first glance, seemed to be an unearthly contraption. It must, surely, be being operated by an alien, possibly on a work experience or student exchange programme. With the aid of binoculars, however, the operator of the monstrous machine could be identified as someone recognizably human – or was it a clever alien ruse?
Although the valley is sheltered, there was enough wind to give movement and voice to the reeds along the canal’s retaining banks and the trees of Whalesborough Woods; the reeds quivered and quavered and the trees rattled and flapped their leaves as if they were brash bunting. The lake below Weir Bistro was crowded with geese – a squadron had landed as I arrived at Helebridge - which were loudly complaining about the solitary angler who was fussing over the wriggling contents of his bait box. Such tetchiness seemed a little unreasonable as there was enough space for him and them. But, of course, it is that time of the year when migratory fowl are nearing the time when they set off on their transcontinental flights and are anxious that they might not have been as diligent about preparations for this year’s journeys as they should have been. The weather, for one thing, has been so confusing: wet one minute, the next the hint of a chill in the air, only for the temperature to rise again to a spring-time mildness; for another, there were the gulls who were always teasing them for being soft and disappearing to warmer climes. I avoided the bistro and the opportunity to buy an ice cream and took the path towards Salthouse and the sea.
Sheep in the field were taking an afternoon rest, black faces raised to the sun, unmoved and unmoving as I passed among them – there’s nothing quite like ovine indifference to put you in your place. Trickles of water ran along the ruts and escaped their confinement to spread in a miniature Okavango delta at the gateway to next field. The maize in this field, which earlier in the year had been vividly green, was pale, shrunken and silent. The climb to the gateless entrance to the next field achieved, there was a moment to stop and look back over the hills and vales to the east, patchworks of greens, browns and bleached yellows, with hints of reds and oranges in the wooded borders to the precincts.
I followed the contour as far as the next gate, from which the sea came into view. The gate clapped behind me in the second of its snatched kisses. A rabbit feeding in the unploughed margin of the succeeding field froze at the sound, perhaps mistaking it for distant gun-fire. As I continued on my way, the rabbit tensed as if it was preparing to dash into the refuge provided by the hedge, but stood its ground, realising that I was just another harmless - and to it aimless - rambler. The gentle descent to Widemouth and the coast path was achieved without further encounter with any of the local fauna.
The beach, however, was well-stocked with surfers, a native species to this habitat, enjoying some good waves; many of the cars that passed along Marine Drive had surfboards on their roofs or in more privileged places inside the cars. The car park at Longbeak was full, and the ice cream van on station there was doing a good trade. I resisted the temptation to buy one – virtuously delaying gratification until I reached Bude - and continued along the coast path, with my shadow leading the way.
Wave after wave after wave, thin curtains of spray blown off their tops by an opposing wind, curled onto the rocks beneath the cliffs, rolling out flatly on to the beach at Summerleaze and depositing their shipments of surfers on to the puddled sand. The flagpole that is the companion of the Storm Tower at Compass Point was slapped by the halyard like an insistent child demanding an answer to the question why there wasn’t a flag flying from the pole. Below on the breakwater, there was a steady flow of pedestrians to and from Chapel Rock. The stub of the canal wall at the sea-lock was populated with dedicated watchers of the sea, sand and sky – all doggedly enjoying their ice creams.
It was, after all, just another ice cream Sunday.