Spectacular and beautiful – but just don't go there
Continuing our Secret Seaside series Martin Hesp has been using every ounce of fitness to visit one of the loneliest beaches of them all.
There's always a "but" – and this week's Secret Seaside has a bigger but than most.
Today we're going to visit the best beach to be found along a 60-mile stretch of the Westcountry's north coast between Combe Martin and Weston-super-Mare. It's a shore boasting many acres of fine golden sands – BUT hardly anyone ever goes there.
For good reason. Selworthy Sands is extremely difficult to get to – and if you do somehow manage to get yourself down on to this most secret of all seasides, you will have a very good chance of being cut off by the second biggest tide in the world.
In fact, I must not write another word of this article without making the firm recommendation that you do not attempt to visit this beach. Here's one reason why: if you go by the normal route and approach the place from the massive hill that hides it, you will first have to descend some scary scree – then you will be confronted by a near vertical 60-foot cliff.
Someone has tied a rope to a boulder here, and you might be tempted to make your way down with its help – but the rope ends about 20 feet before you manage to get all the way down to the beach.
Having left you dangling in mid-air, I also ought to warn you that local coastguards and the Minehead Lifeboat have been rescuing people from this extraordinary bit of littoral on a regular basis for as long as I can remember.
And that includes a time years ago when there was a proper path down and not some flimsy bit of rope. A very scary path, I'll admit. But one which I used as a teenager nearly 40 years ago when I camped down on the beach with a girlfriend.
I dread to think of the fuss that would ensure if some teenagers did that today. Walkers would be ringing rescue services on their mobile phones and there would be helicopters buzzing about the place and goodness knows what.
But back then there were very few walkers, and no mobile phones. And because Selworthy Sands is right off the beaten track – by which I mean that it is even off-limits to the all-seeing all-marching South West Coast Path – it is one of the most hidden places in the entire Westcountry.
I'd better tell you where it is – and how you can safely reach a vantage point which will give you fabulous views of the wondrous beach without you having to risk life and limb attempting to actually be on it…
The best way is to aim for the little car-park in the almost unbelievably pretty, chocolate-box village of Bossington, a mile-and-a-half north-east of Porlock. Cross the footbridge that looks as if it's been inspired by the one at Claude Monet's lily-pond, and turn left along the riverside.
The path ascends gently towards Hurlestone Point – the dramatic headland which not only commands the eastern tip of Porlock Bay, but also does a massive job of effectively hiding Selworthy Sands.
There's a ruined coastguard look-out that sits squat on a shelf some 200 feet above the end of the jagged point and I recommend strolling out to its airy realm. From it you can peer around the corner and see the wide expanse of Selworthy Sands stretching east under the great hill.
What you will not see from this truly panoramic vantage point is the secret sea-tunnel which passes through the very end of the headland 150-feet beneath your feet.
It is called the Gull's Hole and only a handful of people in the entire world know of its existence. Which is why I'm slightly dubious about writing about it here. However, it has recently been mentioned in an excellent book called The Hidden Edge of Exmoor by Kester and Elizabeth Webb, which is basically an encyclopaedia for those wishing to explore this most dangerous of all the region's coastlines.
The pair describe Hurlestone Point and its secret sea-cave thus: "The ridge tapers as it descends, forming a sharp headland poking out into the sea. It looks, from the air, like a huge fossilised dragon. The top jaw of this monster is formed by a graceful anticline and, at the centre of the arch, some seven beds of rock have been punched right through by the sea, leaving a 12-foot, and very draughty, thru-cave.
"This Gull Hole, with arched ceiling and convex floor, provides an easy half-tide passage from Eastern Cliffs and Selworthy Sands through to Western Cliffs and Bossington Beach."
For the likes of Kester and Elizabeth, who are two of the Exmoor coast's most experienced guides, the Gull's Hole does offer an "easy" kind of access to the secret world beyond. But I'll once again issue a warning about this place should you be minded to go there – you will need to be able to scramble up steep wet seaweed-covered rock to pass through the magical hole in the dragon's jaw – AND you must only make the attempt when the tide is right.
By which I mean – when it is falling. Only at half-tide or lower can you reach the Gull's Hole by scrambling across the rocks from Bossington Beach – and, once you are through, you'd better put a move on if you are intending to boulder-hop the half-mile to Selworthy Sands, and then return via the same route.
On Thursday this week I did this scrambled adventure with my brother John – who knows the place well having lived in nearby Bossington for many years – and although we were back in plenty of time, I could see the incoming tide would have caused us major problems had we dallied out on the Sands for another half hour.
I'd also add that we are fairly fit blokes for our age – do not even think of trying this route if you are not in tip-top health or if you have trouble with leaping across gaps from giant boulder to giant boulder.
Once you are on the Sands you find yourself being awed by the massiveness of the place and by the vast boiler-plated cliffs that rise heavenwards to meet even bigger hogs-back hills which loom more than 900 feet above the shore. Of all the places in the region, this is the zone in which humans feel truly dwarfed by their surroundings.
I have never seen another soul down here – save for that girlfriend I mention who shared a dreamy weekend with me here all those years ago. That ended in tears, by the way. My tears. And they were wept through pain.
The lethal currents around here are powerful enough to gouge large indentations into the sand – and sometimes, when the tide is out, these can be wide and deep enough to swim in. How cheerful was I when hurled myself deep into the sun-warmed waters of one of these natural pools…
And how agonised was I to discover the thing was filled with a million almost invisible stinging tentacles of a dead Portuguese Man of War jellyfish. My dreams of acting the part of some handsome young Robinson Crusoe disappeared under a thousand red weals.
A far more memorable image is one described in The Hidden Coast of Exmoor in which Kester and Elizabeth write about the occasion in 2009 when five small aeroplanes actually landed on Selworthy Sands.
It had all been carefully arranged and the pilots of four old Second World War Austers and one modern Cub were greeted by a ground-crew who'd been taken down by Kester.
I cannot imagine that Selworthy Sands will ever see anything like it again – but then, it's a place that has played host to very few human activities down the years. Long may that continue.