Taking our time to complete the 630-mile coastal route around the South West peninsula — the UK’s longest National Trail
By Tor McIntosh
Admittedly two and a half years to cover 165 miles isn’t record-breaking speed for walking part of the South West Coast Path (SWCP) from Minehead to Padstow. And with 465 miles left to complete the 630-mile path around the South West peninsula, I may well be drawing my pension by the time I finish the long-distance walking route.
The idea of walking the whole of the SWCP began when my partner and I moved from our city lives to a village in North Devon. Having both grown up in rural coastal settings we’d hit our mid thirties and craved a quieter life by the sea. But the reality soon hit that after a decade of city living we’d grown accustomed to urban weekends full of cultural delights — our rural village couldn’t quite match Bristol and Exeter for urbane entertainment. Suddenly our weekends became a bit empty, especially in the winter months.
Not long after moving we decided to challenge ourselves to walk the 170km Tour de Mont Blanc (TMB) trail the following summer. As long-distance-walking newbies it was clear that we needed to start training for eleven days of trekking in the Alps. Although the undulating North Devon section of the SWCP isn’t a patch on the long alpine climbs we’d be experiencing while circumnavigating Mont Blanc, it was a good excuse to get outside and explore our new home. Also, we had an accessible, easy-to-navigate and stunningly beautiful walking route on our doorstep and little else to entertain us during those winter months. So we started. Not at the beginning of the SWCP, but quite literally on our doorstep with a 9-mile hike along the coast from our house in Braunton to Woolacombe.
At the end of that first day hike we were hooked and made the pledge that we’d walk all 630 miles in our lifetime. No deadline. No rush. And only in decent weather. Yes, we are fair-weather SWCP walkers. But that’s the beauty of taking our time to complete the challenge and having easy access to the North Devon and North Cornwall sections from our home. Very little can beat the restorative value of walking along the coast with clear blue skies, sparkling sea and sunshine, either wrapped up warm from the biting winter winds, or stripped down to shorts and t-shirt in the warm summer months. The formula has been simple: a free day at the weekend + good weather forecast = another section completed. It’s been that easy.
Growing up in Cornwall I spent many years walking along the coast paths and beaches of my home turf in West Cornwall with my family and our dogs — so yes, technically I have walked a few more miles of the SWCP, but not since my partner and I made our pledge to walk the whole route together. In my insular teenage mind, North Cornwall was miles away. Apart from a handful of visits to Budehaven Community School to play a tennis or hockey match, the northern reaches of my home county was unknown territory. In fact, as a proud Cornish lass I was embarrassed to admit to my partner how little I knew about North Cornwall when we finally started to explore the coastline. Nevertheless, this part of the SWCP has been the highlight of the challenge so far. It’s provided some of our longest and toughest days of walking, but the beauty of the remote and rugged landscape has offset the relentless lung-busting ascents and knee-busting descents. And it wasn’t just the stunning scenery that proved its worth; we were also spoilt by wildlife appearances from seals, kestrels and porpoises (along with Highland cows and Soay sheep!).
Although I’ve left my heart in North Cornwall, the Exmoor coastline triumphs for jaw-dropping coastal views. It’s along this stretch that you’re treated to spectacular scenes of the moor dramatically falling into the sea, before your eyes move across the Bristol Channel to the outline of South Wales. On a clear day the steady climb up Countisbury Hill on an exposed section of the coast path offers views along the coastline that are truly stunning. And waiting for you at the top is a well-earned pint of local ale in the quaint Blue Ball Inn.
Now that I’ve completed the Tour de Mont Blanc circuit, experienced 5 days hiking the GR10 in the Pyrenees and walked 165 miles of the SWCP, I feel I’m in a position to state that — in my humble opinion — the SWCP is as tough, as spectacular and as satisfying as walking in the Alps or the Pyrenees. The experiences are clearly very different, but what our continental cousins may have in altitude, the South West more than makes up for when it comes to walking sustenance — I’m all for a pint of ale and a Cornish pasty at the end of a long, tough day of hiking.
And soon we’ll be tackling the next stage: Padstow to Porthcothan…