Anna's Adventures on the South West Coast Path

“S”WCP

One day I decided to take time out from writing newsletters and blogs for Cult Pens and go for a walk. Actually, I didn't 'just decide'; it took a bit of planning and a bit of scheming, and undertaking such an endeavour had been in the back of my mind for more years than I care to mention (because that would make me seem really old. Which I sort of am.) Anyway, having lurched over the hurdles of COVID, the problem of whether my husband would waste away without me to cook for him (he didn't) and assuring my mother that I would do my best not to fall off a cliff (I didn't, though I fell over a few other things), off I went. I started at Minehead, on a dank May morning (little did I know it would get danker - if that's a word - and wetter; anyway, I digress) and walked west, aiming to stick to the coast and make my way around to South Haven Point in Dorset, 630 miles away. I'd done a lot of research into sourcing a good rucksack: it was advertised as 'anti-gravity', and while I wouldn't go as far as saying it was like I was carrying nothing, it did rather hug me like a koala bear and made the load (all 13.5kgs of it) a little easier to... bear (ha!) And since I can turn my ankle in bare feet on a flat bit of pavement, cold hard cash had to be shelled out on a pair of really decent narrow-fitting (because yes, I have thin feet as well as loose ankles) rigid-soled boots.

Now here I must stop. I'm not a huge fan of travel writing, at least, not the types that chart every step of a journey ('I climbed my way to the top of the mountain and from there could see a huge sweep of pampas as far as the eye could see...') It must have been thrilling for the traveller, but I'd rather do it, not read about it. Maybe it's just me. But I did take notes, as well as photographs, along the way and I've been pondering over how to put them all together in - I hope - an entertaining manner. So here goes...

“S”WCP

History of the coast path

I always knew it as being 500 miles long; in fact there is a book called 500 Mile Walkies by a guy who walked it with a borrowed dog. I've tried to find out why this is so, because it's quite difficult to 'round down' 630 miles to 500, and it's equally mystifying to imagine that maybe it had an extra bit added on at some point, because somebody decided 500 miles just wasn't long enough, or the extra 130 miles account for all the diversions over the years. But that would be a astonishing number of diversions! There are quite a few, but not 130 miles' worth. The last section to be designated as part of the SWCP was the Somerset and North Devon bit, which does actually total about 130 miles, so maybe that's where the 500 mile bit came from. But who knows?

Anyway, it was originally a way for the coastguard to keep a lookout for smugglers: they could run along it, keeping a beady eye out for nefarious goings-on. This is why it hugs the coast so closely and dips down into every cove (and out of it again!) All I can say is that the coastguard must have been very fit, with calf muscles like chickens. And that the smugglers must have been very brave (as well as desperate), because a great deal of the coastline is treacherous and completely unforgiving: the seabed is littered with wrecks. Now, it is the UK's longest National Trail, probably the toughest and one of the most scenic I've ever walked (I've done the grand total of... two).

“S”WCP

The People I Met

The Coast Path is a busy one, so I met an awful lot of people. The first fellow walker was a chap called Cameron, who turned out to be a knight in shining waterproofs. My phone had stopped working shortly after fording one of the streams on the wooded Exmoor stretch and I had no idea how to bring it back to life (for the techies out there, it was like the screen had stopped working, but everything was going on as normal behind it, I just couldn't see what it was. And yes, I had tried - in vain- to switch it off and then on again). Anyway, husband Carl was meeting me at Lynmouth and I'd been keeping him up to date on progress, but now my means of communication had failed. Lacking a handy carrier pigeon (and a pen, actually... No, not really! Who do you think I am? I took a Moleskine notebook and an e+m pen with me!), I resolved to stop the next person I saw and ask him/her to text Carl on my behalf, and if it turned out there was nobody on my route, then I'd just keep going. I would find Carl somehow. Lynmouth isn't that big and his car is quite distinctive (in that it's an unusual shade of blue, not that it's a vintage Rolls or a Caterham kit car or some other not-often-seen conveyance). He was also unlikely to go home without me, if I was a bit late. Anyway, after about an hour of being incommunicado I rounded a corner and met Cameron, who not only had a working phone but texted Carl for me, and actually showed me the message going through, so I could be sure he had written a sensible message and not 'help me, I'm being accosted by a technologically-challenged woman with thin legs.'

“S”WCP

There was a man (who shall remain nameless as I neglected to inquire as to what it was) who I met coming towards me at Peppercombe, on the North Devon coast. He had walked from Penzance, and when he got to Minehead he was then going to find his way to Offa's Dyke and walk that. And then he was going to walk back to his home in Cumbria. As you do.

In Bideford I met a lovely lady called Kate who worked for the Tourist Information Office where I had gone to ask about buses that might go past that night's campsite. She asked if I was in a hurry. I (a little mystified) told her I wasn't. So she said if I could wait until 4:30, when she finished work, she would give me a lift! So I spent half an hour drinking a cup of tea (my first and only of the day) and talking to a park groundsman. And then Kate not only drove me to the campsite, she took me to my pitch! What a woman.

Then, near Porthcothan I met an eccentric called Fergal, who'd walked the Coast Path several times and gave me numerous tips on how to wild camp (I wasn't wild camping - I'd spend all night lying awake expecting somebody to come knocking on my tent - if indeed you can knock on a tent - demanding that I get off their land forthwith) but I hadn't the heart to tell him that after all his advice). I encountered a rather spiffing young man striding up a hill at some point around Zennor. He looked a bit like Ben Fogle, and I just knew that when he opened his mouth it would have a plum in it; I was not disappointed. 'I say!' he said (actually he didn't; he probably said 'excuse me' or something, but I'm setting the scene here). 'Have any of you done the Carbis Bay bit?' (I was standing with an older couple, having just finished talking to them about Cornish choughs). I told him I had. 'Is the path closed?' I told him it was, but there was a train he could take, or there was a diversion inland through the town which, although apparently signposted, wasn't very clear and that I'd already met a bloke who'd got lost trying to negotiate it. (I was very informative). 'Splendid!' he exclaimed. 'Thanks awfully!' and with an orthodontically-aligned bright white smile and a flip of floppy blond hair, he went on his way. I wasn't quite so perceptive with another chap I met though. This was shortly after the tin mines and the lack of waymarkers made me wonder if I was still on the path, so I flagged down the next person I saw, an older man in elderly clothes with wayward grey hair and an ancient, hip-swaying Labrador. I asked him if I was on the Coast Path. Fully expecting a lovely clotted cream accent (yes, I know, how stereotypical of me) I got a 'Yeah, you're orright darlin'!'

“S”WCP

I met a lovely couple in Porthgwarra... and then again in Mousehole... and once more in Penzance. Kaz (if that's how you spell it; it could've been Caz) and Richard had left John o'Groats on their 50+ year old bicycles, the day after I left Minehead on my 50+ year old feet, and arrived in Land's End the same day I did. There was another lovely couple as well who whizzed past me (despite fully-laden rucksacks) at some point after Cadgwith - Nick and Ruth - and who I joined for a cup of tea a bit later at Kennack Sands. Turned out Nick was ex-Army and Ruth was an outdoor pursuits instructor. So I - a humble writer - was no match for a pair such as they in terms of striding energetically up and down hills with nary a pause for breath.

On the Worst Day, which was St Ives to Pendeen Watch, I met somebody who I later found out was called Ronnie (or it could have been Johnny); he was in a narrow cleft brewing water to make tea, and I should point out that he was not the cause of my labelling this stretch the Worst Day. And then I met Naomi and her spaniel Saffy; we continued to bump into each other (not literally, although the sea fog was that bad at times) from somewhere above Gunwalloe along to Lizard Point, where I met her with Ronnie/Johnny (which is how I learnt his name). And then there was Natalia, who was (amazingly, I thought) the only other solo female backpacker that I met who was walking the entire path. Everybody else was doing chunks, or wasn't backpacking, or were part of a couple or a group, or were just walking the Cornish bit (I say 'just' as if this were a minor undertaking; it's not). Or were male. We joined forces up until Slapton, and then met up again at Stoke Fleming where we had to dive into a hedge to escape a flock of sheep blatting blindly along a narrow lane being chased by a farmer in a Nissan Micra, and continued on to Dartmouth, where she progressed to the ferry, and I progressed to the harbour where I met a seagull with an eel in its beak.

The Weather I Weathered

“S”WCP

We as a nation are obsessed with the weather. It's because it's unpredictable and makes for interesting conversations; sometimes, anyway. I chose May as the month to begin because a) it's not too cold and b) it's not too hot and c) it's not too wet. I was deluded. Rain put in an appearance on each of the first four days, but nothing that waterproofs couldn't handle. Day 5 was stupendous in its sun: it came out early from its bed of clouds and stayed out all day, parading around the sky in all its golden gloriousness. But its showy-offiness had a price: on Day 6 it was firmly shut away by the Rain God, and the Wind God bolted the door. I - blissfully unaware of the weather forecast for that day - ventured out onto the path and headed for Clovelly. Once I climbed above sea level I was bashed sideways by gale-force winds which were - quite unnervingly - offshore. I've never been so grateful for gorse bushes, which is all that stopped me from flying off the cliff! I thought my weighty pack might act as ballast, but it didn't. And then the rain came. I put the raincover on my rucksack, which was a fruitless exercise as it got blown off straightaway by the wind, so I resigned myself to the fact that things might get a bit wet. I trudged on, giving myself a bit of a stern but uplifting Enid Blyton-type talking-to, and almost cried with relief when the path rose up from the tiny weeny hamlet of Buck's Mills and trees rose up around me, kindly acting as buffers against the maelstrom. I reached Clovelly feeling I'd weathered the storm. Literally.

But I hadn't quite yet. The following day was even worse. There was water, water, everywhere. It came vertically from pregnant purple rainclouds; it slashed horizontally from, well, the horizon; it even defied the laws of gravity and came upwards. And the upshot of it all was that I felt (and indeed looked) like I'd gone for a swim. Everything was wet, from the tips of my toes to the crown of my head; waterproof boots and clothing are no match for really determined British weather, the sort that helps each other out; you know, Rain God says, 'hey, Wind, if you blast a little bit at ooh, forty five degrees or so, it'll just open up a gap at the jacket cuff and I'll lash in and wallow around in there a bit.' And Wind God replies, 'No problem, Rain, but in return I'll need you to pour down on the hood so that I can then come in from the front, blow it off her head and we can really do a thorough job.' Hum. So as well as being as wet as a wet thing, I was also extremely cold, colder than the time I went to Loch Ness in January about 20 years ago. So I called on my latent wussiness and decided to head inland to my campsite, rather than carrying on around the coast. I had to navigate by instinct, as there was no way my phone would survive being rained on. I have an underdeveloped sense of direction, so this was a gamble of epic proportions. Fortunately, after traipsing across a field and climbing clumsily over a couple of farm gates (no mean feat with numb fingers) I found a road sign and followed it gratefully to Hartland. It was a village, rather than just a hamlet. What's more, it was a village with a cafe. Even better, it was a village with a cafe that was open, and whose proprietor did not seem to mind that I dripped all over her floor and spent - because of fingers that weren't working properly - a much longer time than usual trying to pay for a cup of tea and a sausage bap.

“S”WCP

It didn't rain all the time. Sometimes it was foggy! Now that was an experience. Cornish fog is the foggiest of all fogs. It might have helped the smugglers of old, but I'm not a smuggler and it didn't help me. I stumbled through it from St Ives to Pendeen, and then again from Mousehole all the way round to Lizard Point. It stole the senses, in that I couldn't see further than about ten feet; sounds were strangely muffled, and it was difficult to work out the direction that any sound that did make it through the murk was coming from. All I could smell was damp and everything I touched was damp as well. What I didn't do was stick my tongue out and see if the air tasted of anything, but if I had, I bet it would have been damp. The worst thing about the fog, though, was that I could see precisely nothing of all that amazing scenery. St Michael's Mount - among other landmarks - remains a place I've yet to see.

When it wasn't raining or foggy, it was sunny! And quite a lot of the time, too. But scribbling about sun has a tendency to take on a travel-writing feel: 'I crawled out of my tent and sat in awe at the ball of molten gold rising majestically from the horizon...' Yeah, yeah. Sorry. Don't get me wrong, though, I love the sun: if I could have a perpetual summer I probably would, but I might need to become a professional cricketer and travel between the hemispheres to achieve that goal. The feel of a sun-warmed wooden deck or stone terrace beneath bare feet is one of life's simple pleasures, and I love the smell of sun screen. As I smelt of factor 15 every day on my trip around the South West coast (it doubled as face cream), I thought the novelty might wear off. Happily it didn't.

The Things I Saw

Now, I haven't said much about the scenery so far, have I? Well, there's a reason for it: it has a tendency to morph into travel writing. However, let's give it a go... The coastal path scenery isn't second to none - there is too much in the world that is stunning scenery-wise, but for sheer variation within a relatively short distance (630 miles didn't feel short, but on a global scale it's a two second jog) it was astounding. You start off on this so-called 'coastal' walk at Minehead by almost immediately diverting inland up a steep hill and there you are - on Exmoor, surrounded by shaggy ponies, shiny black slugs, twittering larks and other creatures not normally associated with the sea. Then you wind through some woodland, wading through streams, where the odd small bit of sea is glimpsed through branches. And it's so quiet! Wave pounds are muffled and bird tweets are muted - the mournful hoot of a wood pigeon is about as loud as it gets. The march into Lynmouth is where the coast comes back into view - and what a view! It's incredibly uncompromising. In dull weather it's 'look, here I am, take me or leave me. Yes the sea's grey and yes, the rocks are greyer, but what you see is what you get. Live with it.' The route onwards into the holiday spots of Combe Martin, Ilfracombe and Woolacombe (all these combes! That's steep-sided little valleys to you and me) was... tamer, in a way. That's all I can think how to put it. The waters were still grey when they had to be, and the cliffs were just as steep, but there was no defensiveness about it; it was the hippy to Lynmouth's punk, a 'really sorry about this; I know it's raining but it won't rain forever, and just look at that sweet little harbour (it was) and you never know, you might see a dolphin!' (I didn't, but never mind). The flat bit between Braunton and Westward Ho! was, well, flat. It was a sunny day and easy walking, and there were lots of people around. Oh no... See what's happening? It's turning into travel writing. I know that because I'm boring myself and keep abandoning this section to write about something else. Let's try again...

“S”WCP

Some people have asked me what my favourite bit was, but I can't answer that, because favouring one stretch would be suggesting that the rest didn't pass muster, and it really did! Most of it anyway. Hayle was a bit dismal (sorry, persons of Hayle). I really liked the whole bit round from Padstow to Porthtowan, which is actually a good chunk of the north Cornwall coast. The cliffs were high; the sea was sparkly in the sun and exhilarating in the wind and rain; the beaches were yellow; and the landmarks - the huer's huts and the abandoned mine workings - were straight out of a BBC drama. I can see why people want to go there on holiday. And Land's End wasn't as tacky as I thought it was going to be. It was actually beautiful. I was on a slight high, though, having achieved a bit of a milestone. It's not half way, but it sort of felt like it was.

Land's End round to Mousehole was just stunning, despite having to negotiate a very bouldery bit around Lamorna Cove. I felt like I was at the ends of the earth. I've long yearned to see the Minack Theatre, and although it was en route from Land's End to Porthcurno, I'm still yearning. The path goes through the car park but there was no chance of actually seeing the theatre itself (without watching a play there, which I'm quite happy to do, or paying three quid for a look, which I'm not) unless I flung myself off the cliff and had a quick gander at it as I sailed through the air. I couldn't see it even when I'd carried on around the coast and looked behind me. It must be built into the cliff in a very cunning way.

I was looking forward to seeing the Lizard, particularly Gunwalloe, Kynance Cove and Coverack. I've visited these little villages before, but it was more than thirty years ago (good Lord) and I was on a geology field trip. However, when I got there I didn't recognise anything, apart from Kynance (and even that was a case of 'well, I think I recognise this'). However, the sea fog probably had something to do with that. Or the fact that I'd been 18 on my last trip and fairly oblivious to what was going on around me; not a particularly good attribute when studying rocks. (Unsurprisingly, I got a D in my A'level. Actually quite good by the standards of the 1980s).

South Devon was glorious. And still is, obviously. Some might say I'm biased, because I spent many happy holidays there as a child (conveyed there from the English midlands by parents in a mini (astonishingly) along with two siblings and an inflatable dinghy). Or that I'm just saying that because I was fed restaurant-grade food, given a bed for the night and welcomed into the bosom of a lovely family (thanks Claire!) on my way through. But I'd say that even if I hadn't had those lovely experiences. Picking my way along the narrow coastal path up on the cliffs, being able to look down through trees to pristine yellow beaches fringed with turquoise water and just the right number of rock pools, and then navigating the stunning Start Point was a privilege indeed.

When I'd tucked Exeter behind me, I met a few people who tried to convince me that I'd already walked the best bit of the path and that from then on, it was pretty boring and I might as well give up now and save myself the trouble (they didn't actually say that, but that's the impression I got). Well, I disagree. The scenery had certainly changed; there were still cliffs, and they were still steep, but the rocks were less rugged and more rollercoastery and there were meadows, filled with all types of grasses and wildflowers, with a backing trill of larks and blackbirds instead of sheep-cropped snooker table fields and the raucous shriek of gulls. I could see a fair way inland: hedgerows, hamlets, the odd Massey Ferguson chugging back and forth, and it all conveyed a sort of peace. It was very pleasant. Then shortly after Burton Bradstock (I was now into Dorset) the cliffs sort of petered out. It was as if the coast path had run out of steam and had shambled into an endless scattering of pebbles. Yes, I'd arrived on Chesil Beach. But it wasn't as eye-opening as Studland Bay! I'll leave you to do a bit of Googling and find out why. It was a good job I covered it on my last day, as I really needed somebody to laugh about it with (sorry, Studland Bay frequenters).

“S”WCP

No matter how I write this, I can't avoid sliding into travel writing, and however I write it, I can't quite convey just how special the South West is. Everything anybody has ever written about the scenery around England's south west coast is absolutely true - it's emotional in its awesomeness. You'll just have to go and see it for yourself. 

The Obstacles I Overcame

All challenges come with obstacles, and my odyssey was no different. The Coast Path changes. Not drastically: it doesn't suddenly direct you through a town (well, not usually; thanks to the G7 Summit it did this year) but because of landslips and so on you do come across the odd diversion. And sometimes you get to them before the officials do and have to devise your own way of getting past them. Like trees. Now, I like trees. If I had a choice, I'd have a garden full of trees and nothing else. But when they've been uprooted and are lying across a narrow track, they become a bit of a hazard. The first one I came across required a kind of burrowing technique: head down and working through. I felt like David Bellamy. The second one necessitated more of a Tarzan-like approach: hanging onto branches above while steadying myself on those below. But the most interesting physical obstacle in my path was a cow, which was grazing contentedly right in front of a stile I had to climb over. 'Come on,' I tried first, 'off you go!' The cow turned her head and looked at me. She chewed her cud. 'Look,' I reasoned, 'I have to get over this stile. I can't go any other way, or I'll get lost.' She looked up again. She chewed her cud. So I remembered all the farm-type TV programmes I'd ever seen, took a breath, hoped nobody was watching and yelled 'GAAARRRN!' while waving my arms. It worked. She trotted off, moderately alarmed, bits of cud trailing from her jaws.

With a coastal walk come rivers; they're sort of part of the package. Some are but streams, to be forded (in the case of the Exmoor ones) or jumped over. Others are rather bigger, requiring a ferry, a study of tide times, a paddle or a walk inland. Sometimes all four! The Rock ferry (not an album by Duffy but a means of getting from Rock to Padstow) was possibly the easiest: it entailed a walk across a very pleasant beach and getting on a tiny ferry. If you missed one it didn't matter because they ran all the time. Navigating the Gannel estuary was a little frustrating. You can cross it at low water by using stepping stones. They call it a footbridge but it looked like stepping stones to me. Maybe I was looking for the wrong thing. Anyway, when I got there it wasn't low water, but it wasn't high enough for the ferry to operate. So I had to walk all the way round. However, I didn't mind all that much because this was a really pleasant bit of the path, and I met lots of lovely people along the way to say hello to; so many my cheeks were aching by the time I reached the other side. I felt like Farewell Barbie in Toy Story ('Bye bye now!')

I had a similar experience in south Devon. The route from Plymouth round to Bigbury-on-Sea involved crossing the River Yealm and the River Erme. A ferry over the Yealm to Noss Mayo runs from 10am to 4pm. All well and good. Then there is a 9 mile hike to the River Erme, over which there is no ferry, but it can be waded through an hour each side of low tide. Low tide on that particular day was 11am. With the best will in the world, there was no way I could have got from Noss Mayo to the Erme in 2 hours, in time to catch the latest possible wading-time. And there was nowhere to stay. And I was not about to sit down and wait until 10 o'clock at night to wade across a river! So... I walked from Plymouth to Brixton (not the one in London) and stayed the night. Then I took a bus to the tiny village of Holbeton and walked from there to the eastern side of the Erme, unwittingly (well, wittingly actually, but I spent a pleasant hour or so along the way dreaming up excuses should I meet an irate landowner) crossing private land. Not as adventurous a solution as some walkers would devise, I imagine, who would probably knock up a raft from driftwood on which to float their rucksack and boots, and then swim across, bare as an egg. If I tried that I'd be out to sea in no time and requiring extraction by the coastguard.

“S”WCP

The River Teign was a near-miss, as in I thought I'd missed the last ferry of the day. There I was, on the beach, watching the boat motoring away from me and I was resigning myself to having to walk inland to cross the bridge when I thought, I'll just call them. So I did. 'I'll be back in a minute, love, don't worry!' Angel. It had been one of the longest day's walk (22 miles) and I wasn't in the mood to add any more.

But not all obstacles are large ones. A tent pole isn't very big, after all, but less than half way through my trek I realised one of them had split, and was incapable of supporting my little one-woman tent. Luckily, Carl (who I've mentioned before and who is an engineer) had insisted I pack a roll of gaffer tape (and a head torch, which I never actually used, but never mind). So I used this tape (and the knife element of a multi-tool gadget thing he'd also insisted I take) to wrap around the split. I put up my tent. It worked. I was rather pleased with myself. Another tent-related problem concerned tent pegs. I didn't pack a mallet for obvious reasons, opting to rely on a good stout boot to help drive them into the ground. But what I didn't account for was bedrock, which in some areas (most of Cornwall actually) is rather close to the surface. In those cases you have to push the peg in at a very shallow angle (and hope a windy night is not on its way). You can't boot a peg in that way; you have to use your hands. And I did, for a while. And then they got bruised and a bit painful, so I had to find another way. I determined to look for a palm-sized, fairly flattish piece of rock, the next time I was out on the path (which was the next day, of course). And I found one (there were loads). That night, I used the rock, cradled in the palm of my hand, to drive in the pegs. It worked astonishingly well, to the extent that I was mightily proud of myself and have kept this sacred rock: it holds pride of place on the mantelpiece in the lounge.

The final obstacle to be overcome was that of firing ranges, or a least areas that belong to the military. There seem to be quite a few in the West Country. Some could be walked through (sticking religiously to the path of course or I could have found myself in a court martial, Jack Nicholson-style) and others had diversions in place if firing was taking place. One such firing range ran all the way from Lulworth Cove to Kimmeridge Bay, which is about 8 miles. Luckily for me it was open when I got there. There were signs everywhere warning walkers to stick to the path at all costs and not to stray beyond the regularly-spaced yellow posts in case of encounters with potentially lethal military ordnance. What I couldn't fathom was the fact that sheep had obviously roamed there fairly recently (they leave behind recognisable deposits) and how did they know not to stray? Had the MoD had any cases of exploding ruminants? I'll probably never know.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

“S”WCP

Where campsites were concerned, some were fantastic. Not because of their facilities, or the views, or anything else that normal campers value, but because of their attitude to coast path hikers. Gwythian Farm, between Portreath and St Ives, gets top marks. I'd barely shown my face over the hedge before the owner told me where the one-person tent brigade was, asked me if I needed to charge anything, gave me the WiFi password and pointed me in the direction of the local pub. Carlyon Bay Camping Park was another brilliant one with exactly the same attitude, with the added bonus that they had a little shop - and it sold fruit! Neither was particularly pricey. One campsite between Newquay and Perranporth (I won't name it because that would be mean) gets a big fat zero, way, way down the list; right at the bottom in fact. They'd go lower if there was anything lower than bottom. This was an enormous campsite, up the hill, out of town with mansion-sized tents, Sky dishes on campervans and a golf course next door. And it was the only one around. They charged me for 2 nights, as that was their minimum stay, on a premium pitch because that's all that was available, and were completely deaf to my suggestion that I occupy a tiny corner of their overflow field (which was empty). They were a prime example of how not to think outside the box. Thankfully, the majority of campsites employed a workforce that were not quite so nice-gene challenged and were very willing to accommodate a backpacker. Some were atrocious in terms of facilities (like charging for a shower - what??) and others thought it was perfectly okay to charge twenty quid for composting toilets and solar-powered showers (they're not very effective: this is England, not Greece), but wrestling with campsites was all part of the fun. Before I set out on my journey, the wussy part of me wasn't really looking forward to sleeping under canvas (or nylon as most tents are now, but 'sleeping under canvas' sounds much better) because I'm not overly keen on the dark (yes, I know, how very wet of me). I needn't have worried. I was asleep long before full dark.

And what have I learnt?

  • It was tougher than I thought it would be: it's those hills, all 35,000 metres of them (almost four times the height of Everest!)
  • You can't walk the Coast Path and gaze at the scenery at the same time, sadly. If you did you'd fall over because the majority of the tracks are either narrow, rocky or steep (or all three), and require a measure of concentration worthy of an A'level exam. So what you have to do is stop every now and then and just look. It's better that way.
  • I can do more than I thought I could. Most of us can; it's just finding the opportunity to prove it. I have to admit I did enjoy standing still on occasion and looking back at the coast and thinking, 'Goodness me, I've actually walked all that!'
  • I don't like hills. Well, I don't like walking up them or down them - I quite like the view from the top.
  • No matter how many miles I walk, I will always have thin legs.
  • I really don't have much of a sense of direction. At least with the Coast Path, if in doubt, I kept the sea on my right (slaloming up and down certain hills had the potential to be confusing though). I don't think I will be attempting the Pennine Way, unless somebody else comes with me: I could end up in the Lake District!
  • The single most useful item I took with me was a buff, a ridiculously simple tube of stretchy fabric which is washable (I took it into the shower with me) and quick-drying (it spent most nights flapping gaily from one of the guy ropes on the tent). This remarkable piece of kit worked as a sunhat, headwarmer, sweat band, ears warmer, neck warmer, face mask, wash cloth, blood soaker upper (sorry) and a handkerchief (sorry again). And if it had had to be pressed into service as a tourniquet (thankfully it didn't) it would have done a grand job.
  • I have a lovely family. Well, I knew that already, but it's nice to have it confirmed. Husband Carl and Daughter #2 (Caitlin) provided transport when I was close enough to home to allow it. My 16 year old Mini now has over 210,000 miles on the clock and needs a new exhaust (its fourth, incidentally). Daughters #1 (Erin) and #2 (Niamh) frequently peppered our family chat with uplifting comments such as 'don't give up Mum!' and (commenting on the photographic evidence of my arrival at Porthallow, the half way point) 'your legs look very thin with those chunky boots at the end of them'. A somewhat concerning message asked 'who's the insurer for the Mini?' And my parents, handily situated near Honiton, supplied bed, breakfast, evening meal and a taxi service for a week of walking.
  • The Coast Path is sporadic in its waymarkers. Some sections are really well posted, and these are without exception the bits that go through or past MoD property. Some sections are shocking in their sparseness. One of these was the Worst Day - the bit from St Ives to Pendeen - an arduous and challenging section which crossed heath, cliffs (very Wuthering Heights) and required the navigation of a sea of enormous boulders. This was a path that didn't want to be walked. The weather was inclement: thick fog blanketed everything, and though I could hear the sea I couldn't see it (or anything else really). I picked my way carefully across the moorland, looking in vain for markers that didn't materialise, and realised 'Bad Moon Rising' was playing in my head.

So what's next?

Er.. Does there have to be a 'next'? It took me forty years to get around to walking the Coast Path; if it takes me that long again to do something else I might have shuffled off this mortal coil and have to do it in spirit, if not in body.

Thank you for reading (this was a bit epic - sorry). If you want to see a few more photos, you can have a look at my Instagram page: Anna Evans (@theannablog)

But you have reached the end - phew!

As did I.

20 September 2021


Comments

    Back to top