I am so wrapped up in concentrating on the steep, slippery path under my feet that I almost forget to pause at the top of the steps and prompt my swimming partner to take in the view. This is her first visit to Watcombe and she’s impressed. Through the bare tree branches we can see the glittering sea washing up a tiny white wave fringe onto the rust red sand.
It’s only a small beach which faces due east down an inlet flanked with high cliffs and the sun is nearly full on to the beach, hence the early morning visit (proper planning is that). However, the sun is positioned just sufficiently off centre that the cliffs to the left are lit up, the red sand shining with a glow that no-one would believe if you painted it whilst the cliff to the right, overgrown with trees, is already in dark and mysterious shade.
The beach is ours alone if you discount the man in the small boat out beyond the headland. It looks as though he is checking lobster pots. The engine chugs into life and the boat putters across the water and behind the headland before we have got our shoes off.
Clouds sweep the sky plunging us from warming sunshine glare into shade and back again. The water is milky green but clears a little further out from the beach. Away up the coast we can see Bell Rock, Maidencombe, Exmouth and as the gentle swell lifts us up even the cliffs at Sidmouth. Down the coast in the far distance is Hopes Nose, Babbacombe, Petit Tor and close by Smugglers Cliff.
The cliff leans over the sea, bulbous, with a hairlike fringe of trees, their branches drunkenly clutching at the sky for support as their roots tear from the thin soil at the cliff edge. Meanwhile down at sea level the cliff is undercut into a series of caves. The furthest is no more than a boulder filled scoop. The biggest is at the center, its entrance resembling an open mouth ready to receive you in. I am quite happy to swim in on the basis that if anything was going to fall down it would have done so last week when it was exposed full on to the easterly storm, thus the chance of incident is vanishingly small.
That is of course when I kick a submerged boulder. I don’t have to look to know that I have gouged my foot on barnacles. I look anyway; oh yes, that’s a proper mess but thankfully my feet are sufficiently chilled that blood flow to the skin has more or less shut off.
I cannot resist the third entrance. This is 2 hours after low tide and by high tide the entrance will be hidden under water, perfect timing. The cliff makes a narrow funnel to a small dark triangle and I am inside the cave. And it is a cave, 20 feet x 20 feet with 10 feet of roof clearance, and yes there is a way through to the next cave. But the entrance is not a tunnel, more of a crack in the overhanging rocks, which dip the surface of the water whilst beneath is a curtain of green light. Now, if you came at high tide and swam into the big cave and then through to this one you would be in a low roofed cave and if you were here in the morning and the water was clearer the whole thing would be lit from below.
Outside again and the wind has strengthened, throwing water into our faces as we work back towards the bay. Then the headland shuts us in and it is a gentle cruise back to the beach. Have we really been out there over half an hour? I wouldn’t have guessed.