The South West Coast Path

(WARNING: a 750km walk so it’s a long read!)

After a hot and lazy summer in Canada we had planned a trip to the Western USA with a focus on the National Parks. We were keen to get moving and get active again, and get back to a life in the great outdoors. At the last minute, a detail in the fine print of Daniel’s travel insurance thwarted our US trip and we were back to the drawing board. Following a quick scan of our options for a trip which wouldn’t require much planning, still fit with our desire to walk and camp, and presented no travel insurance or visa headaches, we had booked flights to the UK. Arriving in mid September we commenced in Scotland where we did 10 days walking along the West Highland Way and Great Glen Ways. And anticipating a wet Scottish autumn we then headed south to England for the month of October to walk part of the South West Coast Path.
The South West Coast Path is a 630 mile (1,000km+) trail that runs from Minehead in Somerset to Poole in Dorset. It crosses Exmoor in Somerset, then skirts the west coast of Devon, runs down the Atlantic coast of Cornwall to Lands End, before turning and heading East along the English channel. It passes through a village or town most days, so giving regular access to grocery stores, cafes and pubs. cp1050321 It’s such a luxury to have a long distance walk with so many facilities en route, and deservedly, it is a popular summertime walk. Most visitors walk a few days at a time, staying in the B&Bs that are well spaced along the walk, and availing of the luggage carrying services to lighten their load. With the path being along the coast we figured it would be fairly flat, and so suitable as a re-introduction to hiking after our slow summer in Canada, and a nice build-on from our gentle walking in Scotland the week before. Our plan was to walk and camp for a few weeks, mixing nights of wild camping with nights in commercial campsites. Not being trail fit yet, and carrying a tent, we reckoned on walking around 20kms a day. We had no set destination in mind nor exit flights booked. Rather, we decided to keep walking as long as the legs held up, the weather was on our side and campsites and cafes remained open.
Arriving in Bristol we made our way to Minehead, where we had our first sight of the coast that was to be our constant companion in the weeks ahead. It was a sunny Sunday and the promenade was full of holiday-makers. We stocked up on groceries for a day or two and headed west along the coast, passing a monument that marks the start of the South West Coast path. cp1000831As we left town we climbed our first slope on the far side and enjoyed a view over the landscape ahead of us. We had just entered Exmoor National Park and it was surprisingly forested, with trees and shrubs running right to the water’s edge.
We spent 3 days traversing Exmoor, crossing the pretty villages of Porlock and Lynton before reaching Combe-Martin. On our third day we ascended the highest point on the SWCP, the top of Great Hangman at 318m. Not a large hill in itself, but just one of many, many hills climbed that day. It was cold and windy at the top and we didn’t linger to savour it (or even take a single photo – which shows just how tired Daniel was!), but pushed on down to a reward of fish and chips and a campsite in Combe Martin. So far the trail had been surprisingly tough, far removed from our first few kms strolling the promenade at Minehead. We reasoned that that was probably because we were in Exmoor, with its remote and rugged coastline, and surely easier days were ahead.

Upon leaving Exmoor we also left the county of Somerset and entered Devon, where we spent the next 6 days. Where Exmoor was rugged forested slopes, Devon was more varied, with long sandy beaches such as that of Woolacombe, endless sand dunes near Braunton as well as more dramatic cliffs. What continued however, was the relentless climbing and descending and we began to think we would never again walk a flat stretch of path. The trail eased up as we reached the town of Braunton and followed the River Taw estuary for several kms before joining up with The Tarka Trail, an old railway line that has been converted into a walking and cycle path.

Knackered on the Tarka Trail

We gladly hammered out the kms on those flat surfaces, and flew around the estuary into Barnstaple and back to the coast at Instow. We would have happily stopped for the night in Instow but there being no campsite, or suitable wild camping spot, we had to push on up to Bideford and ultimately Abbotsham. That day we covered 35kms, and our feet were burning from the hard surface of the cycle trail.

Mornings and evenings were cold
We took our first rest day in Abbotsham spending two nights at the farm campsite there, and hours each day under the amazing electric shower! It was a chance to wash not just ourselves, but our clothes, and tend to the multitude of blisters and “hot spots” on our feet. And give a rest to our aching hips, which were the only really troubling aches we had. From studying our online guide to the trail we discovered that the toughest days’ walking on the entire route were just ahead of us – 3 days in a row crossing a wild town-less stretch of Devon and Cornwall on a relentlessly undulating trail. cp1020031Well restored from our rest day, we set off, carrying extra food and water as there were no services en route. We counted 14 significant ascents and descents on one of these days, often on steep paths that didn’t bother with zigzags, but took a direct line up and down. It was torture on the achilles tendons, and a reminder we were not as young as we used to be! By late afternoon we were totally and utterly knackered, and began our hunt for a flat sheltered patch to pitch the tent. The terrain here was generally grassy fields, but all the best fields seemed to have cows grazing. One evening, having pitched in an empty field, we awoke before dawn to the sound of thundering hooves. An industrious farmer had just opened some gates and his herd had come racing in to examine us. Another morning we awoke before 4am to the sound and lights of a tractor, and scrambled up thinking we could be mown down in the early morning darkness. A false alarm though, as the farmer was in the neighbouring field, just sounding closer through the thin walls of the tent.
During those 3 tough days walking we reached the border between Devon and Cornwall, and congratulated ourselves on passing into our 3rd county. We had really enjoyed the Devon section, not just the stunning and varied coastline, nor the Devon cream teas, but the warm and welcoming people we met en route. We were constantly amazed by the friendliness of the locals, with people offering us snacks from their own picnics and chatting at length on the trail or in the supermarket. We also met some lovely people in the campsites, and were invited into neighbours’ caravans for wine, coffee and even on one occasion a Sunday roast dinner! North Cornwall was equally beautiful, and the people equally friendly, but as we journeyed further south toward New Quay and Lands End, there were more tourists in the towns, and it was more difficult to meet the locals.
Overall we wild camped half the nights, spending the other half in commercial campsites. Among the campsites still open in that shoulder season we picked whatever was closest to the trail, and found ourselves in all sorts of places. From holiday parks that felt like villages, complete with cafes, bars, supermarkets and pools, to rustic farms that gave over one field to caravans and tents. We saw only one other tent in all our nights camping, with the other guests being in campervans or caravans. In the nicer campsites, we met many English people from further north or east, who returned to the south west to holiday year after year. One couple we met had been returning to the same campsite for 28 years, another couple for 24. They generally had very comfortable caravans, with real beds, heating and showers, and they seemed to feel sorry for us in our tiny tent. They laughed in disbelief when we told them how comfortable our tent was, how well we slept and how we wouldn’t trade places for the world. cp1010270Some of the more basic campsites had permanent residents living in small ancient caravans, too small to have bathrooms or much comfort, and it was sad to see elderly folk living in these conditions. There was a distinctly less holiday atmosphere here than in the larger holiday parks, and unless we were desperate for a shower, we preferred to wild camp. These more basic campsites often had showers on a timer, fed by tokens, with warmish water in cubicles of dubious cleanliness. We groaned in frustration to find shower timers, and it was always a gamble to shampoo our hair, wondering whether the hot water last through the rinse. Our worst shower experience was in a converted shed where the owner – in wellies – actually hosed out the stalls as if it still housed animals. It was very cold in the mornings and evenings, and stripping off in those outhouses for a warmish shower was oh so far from pleasurable.
As we walked through Cornwall the amazing October weather continued. We had day after day of sunshine with almost no rain; ideal conditions for multi-day hiking. Despite the dry weather, our tent was wet every morning from dew and condensation, and often while we had our morning coffee in a town, our tent was to be seen strung between benches or hanging over a wall drying in the sun. cp1010335The afternoons were so warm that we found ourselves wishing we had packed shorts instead of our as-yet-unused raingear. Although we dressed lightly in the afternoons, we wore every stitch we had during the cool mornings and evenings. Emerging from our tent in the mornings, repacking the rucksacks and unpitching the tent, we usually found ourselves frozen and dying to get moving. On those mornings we skipped breakfast and waited till we were warmed through before stopping to eat. We had brought a cooker with us but we opted not to carry gas and large amounts of dehydrated food, and instead eat whatever we could find in the village stores we crossed most days. That meant we could limit the food we carried, while also enjoying fresh bread daily and whatever took our fancy in the local shops. One delight we discovered early on was Cornish pasties, and the aroma of the hot cheese filled pastry usually drew us in to whatever bakery we passed.

The further we walked, the more we were struck by how loyally the path followed the coast. In and out around every headland, up and down as the coastline went, no shortcuts whatsoever. The trail never left the coastline, and we deviated only to wander through a village in search of a coffee, some grub, or a campsite.

As we continued into Cornwall we began to meet more walkers on the trail. Whereas further north we had just met local dog walkers, in south Cornwall we began to meet holiday makers out for a stroll. Many asked how far we had walked and where we camped and some lifted our packs to check the weight. We met one other middle-aged couple who were walking further than a few hours; they were out for a 4-day walk. The first time we saw them was early one morning not long after we had unpitched the tent from our wild camping spot. We crested a hill and came upon the lady from behind, just as she was pulling her trousers down for morning ablutions. Poor woman, that is every hiker’s worst nightmare! And unfortunately for her she was to see us again and again as we crossed each other during lunch or break-time over the following days.

Walking through Cornwall we passed some famous towns, including Tintagel, home of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Past Tintagel and we came to the lovely stone houses of Port Isaac, home of Doc Martin from the well known TV series. Next up was Padstow, a charming fishing town, synonymous with the celebrity chef Rick Stein, who owns a multitude of restaurants there as well as a cookery school.

It’s a lovely town, well endowed on the dining front, and we spent a rest day here to enjoy all the town had to offer, in particular the cornish pasties. Two days later we arrived in the regional hub of Newquay, which seemed down on its luck. Many of its grand old buildings were dilapidated and its high street was full of arcades, pound shops and surf shops. We hurried on through to the lovely coastline beyond. More well-heeled was St-Ives, with its picture perfect location on a promontory and beautiful views up and down the coast. cp1030977South of St Ives is the Cornish mining heritage area and the coast is dotted with dozens of old tin, copper and arsenic mines. It’s spectacular to see the old engine houses and chimneys set against the dramatic coastline and was fascinating to learn of the birth and death of Cornish mining. The mines are a well visited site and the paths around were busy with fellow walkers. Overall, the coast from St Ives all the way to Land’s End was well used, being both a popular tourist area and mid-term break while we passed through.

English lifeguard attire!

As we approached Land’s End, we couldn’t believe our eyes when we rounded a headland and saw the village of Sennen Cove up ahead. Its shores were packed with hundreds of kids surfing, watched by Mummies and Daddies in their designer wellies and gilets. The parking was end to end Range Rovers and Jaguars. Clearly a Londoners’ holiday spot, and it felt surreal to suddenly be in the midst of that. The crowds peaked at Land’s End, and it was so jarring after weeks of tranquility that we flew past the point, without lingering or photographing the landmark. Beyond Land’s End, once again we were alone on the path.

Despite the rigours of the trail, the bodies held up well, and we had nothing to bother us other than achey hips and a few blisters. Nothing that is until one day, mid walk, Clara started to have pain in her right shin. Within an hour she couldn’t put weight on it and Daniel gallantly shouldered both packs for the final kilometer into a campsite. As luck would have it, it was the mother
What a hero!

of all campsites equipped with a cafe, bar and supermarket among other facilities. We rested here and Clara strode out 2 days later fully recovered. Our gear too held up, until in the final week, 6 things broke. The most worrying of which was a large rip in the tent fly sheet. It was an over eager zipping by Daniel that triggered it, and luckily for him, it was on his side. He seemed secretly pleased, seeing it as a chance to use the duct tape he had stored wrapped around his walking pole 4 years earlier (which we also used that week to repair a sleeping bag and a camera!). It was an emergency patch, which wouldn’t hold up in a downpour, but amazingly the fine weather continued.

Towards the middle of October we had noticed cafes and campsites closing and reasoned that walking beyond the Halloween weekend would be impractical. With that in mind, we booked return flights to Ireland for early November and set ourselves the goal of rounding Land’s End and reaching Falmouth. As it happens we couldn’t get to Falmouth as the ferry we needed to cross the Helford river closed for the season one day before we were due to arrive. So we contented ourselves with walking a little on the Lizard peninsula, before retracing our steps and having a break in the town of Penzance for our final few days. Penzance is a lovely town, well equipped with cafes and fish and chip shops, and importantly for us, good train connections to return to Bristol airport and our flight to Ireland. Our campsite in Penzance was actually 5kms from town, so even on our “rest days” we got a good 10km walk in.
As we enjoyed our final days in Penzance, we were invigorated by the walk, by the endless days of fresh air and exercise, and proud of how far we had come. It was the first time either of us have walked for such a long stretch of time – 6 weeks counting our time in Scotland – and it has definitely given us a taste to do more. All in all, we had walked about 750kms, split roughly 600kms in England, and an initial 150km in Scotland. It reminded us how much we love to walk, how much we enjoy the sensation of our own two legs carrying us on, day after day past town and village. Daily as we stood along the cliffs, it was immensely satisfying to look back at the landscape we had come through, the hills we had ground our way up and the various headlands we had crossed. And to look ahead to the next promontory and wonder what coastline that would reveal. To walk means to know the landscape intimately, to notice the little details that we miss when we speed by in cars and busses: the quirky signs on gates, the beautifully crafted stone walls, the weird grenade-like mushrooms.
More than anything we appreciated the amazing access we had to cliffs and beaches, and the foresight that resulted in a public right of way all along the coastline. It is a gem of a path, well maintained, well signposted, passing through a beautiful and varied landscape, and friendly and interesting towns. Walking the second half, from Lizard to Poole, is now firmly on our wish list.

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