Day 54, Sandford to Okehampton, 22 miles. 'The Best Pub Ever...Again.'
As you might be able to guess from today's title the main theme of the day will be pub-based and to be honest that's just as well because the walking today left a lot to be desired, but before I wax lyrical about one of the finest public houses anywhere I'll give you a quick run down of how exactly I got there.
I had heard Okehampton, today's ultimate destination, was a pretty little place with plenty of pubs and shops so I got an early start this morning in order to spend some time exploring in the evening. The breakfast in my Sandford B&B was delicious and the sun was just beginning to peek from the edge of some rather threatening clouds as I strode out of the door. I did make one error upon departing this morning - I hadn't realised that the keys to my room were still in my pocket - more on this later.
I swung through Crediton, Sandford's bigger brother, and was rather disappointed - I had seen signs for the Crediton flower show all day yesterday and had imagined a picturesque little village with petal-adorned tea shops and misty eyed grandmothers talking excitedly about frilly curtains and frillier doilies (whatever they are) - the reality was a rather bleak and grey high street lined with even greyer puddles and the occasional bearded man drinking quite seriously from a suspiciously large can despite the early hour. I left Crediton as quickly as I arrived, got back onto the monotonous country lanes, and then it began to rain - and not just a light shower, this was that proper rain where, had I have been inside, I would have stopped what I was doing and gone over to the window just to watch the downpour.
Slightly dismayed and thoroughly soaked I plodded on down the lanes for miles with little joy and saw I would soon be arriving into the village of Spreyton - I noted that there was one pub in the town, the Tom Cobley Tavern, and I hoped desperately it would be open. I approached with some trepidation, the windows were dark and not a single car sat in the parking bays out front, but the front door was open so I went in, and found what can only be described as the single best pub I have ever seen (sorry Salutation Inn, if it's any consolation you're a very close second).
At first only the landlord was present, one of the 'old school', with grey handlebar moustaches and warm, smiling eyes. As it transpired I was the only person mad enough to have ventured outside into the pouring rain and therefore had the pub all to myself. Having been out in the torrential weather for over two hours I was overjoyed to be in the warm and dry again and the conversation flowed easily - bizarrely he had taken me for an army man initially, and I sensed a vague disappointment when I advised him otherwise. Talk soon turned to the pubs I had seen on my travels and it turned out the Tom Cobley has something of a rivalry going with the Old Sal - they seem to take turns in winning the best pub of the year, and best pub in the south west from year to year, although it seemed to me that the Tob Cobley was winning, given the outrageous number of CAMRA awards that lined every interior wall.
Eventually a few regulars arrived and I faded happily into the background, content with working my way across the extensive range of real ales and tucking into a very generous portion of Stilton and short-rib pie with honeyed parsnips and garlic mash. After around an hour and a half the rain had abated outside and so I went to settle up and was told that, as I was walking for charity, everything was on the house, furthermore the landlord handed me a freshly washed Dartmoor beer mat as a memento (and to dry off the likely-soaked contents of my pack). Yet again I was stunned by another wonderfully altruistic encounter - now there's sadly no chance of the landlord reading this as he has never used the internet (or even a cash machine!), but all the same fair play sir, your generosity on that rainy day will be remembered for years to come. As I left in much, much higher spirits than when I had arrived, the sun began to shine through, brightening the soaked concrete so my path practically shone in front of me, things were looking up (or maybe I was just drunk, who knows).
I had also taken some advice from the punters in the tavern, my initial plan had been to get to Okehampton as swiftly as possible which would have involved around two or three miles on the A30 however, the road was apparently a death trap and there was a lesser known footpath, 'The Tarka Trail' (named after the famous otter) which would add on a couple of miles but would be well worth the detour. As it turns out, I crossed a bridge over the A30 on my way to see a man about an otter and the locals were right - it was a great brute of a road - a two lane dual carriageway with no verge at all, pleased I missed that one out.
The Tarka Trail was nice, if unspectacular, but looking at the route online I was only joining for a very small section of the 163 mile path so I assume the trail is more interesting elsewhere, still after the grim lane walking of the morning this was a significant step up.
The trail bought me right onto the edge of Dartmoor, which looms oppressively over everything around - the moor definitely had a rugged beauty to it, but I was pleased to not be crossing directly over it - moors have a tendency towards awful weather even at the best of times so after today's torrential rain it may have been borderline impassable. I ambled through the sleepy village of Sticklepath, crossed over a rather ugly bypass, and stomped the last mile or so down the Exeter Road and into Okehampton itself - which was a total and utter disappointment. All the good pubs were closed, my B&B was fairly drab and I know that any given town probably has, statistically, the same number of ugly people as anywhere else - but it really felt like Okehampton was going for some sort of record. As I arrived the rain stirred from its slumber and started going at it again so I nipped to the local Waitrose for supplies (easily the highlight of my brief stay in Okehampton), and slunk back to my B&B and prepared myself for tomorrow.
What's the plan for tomorrow, I hear you all eagerly ask? Actually it's a day I'd been looking forward to for months, as I would be taking the aptly named 'Two Castles Trail' for 25 miles all the way into Launceston, Cornwall - my final county.