Walking the South West Coast Path
I decided a few years ago that I would like to walk the South West Coast Path. The only part I knew at all well was between Poole and Weymouth, but I had done other odd little bits here and there. My original plan to do it all in one go was, I realised, impractical. This was partly because it would take about three months, would require a lot of planning and was a big ask that I would be fit enough to do it straight off. In any case I couldn't see the day (or did not want to) when I could afford to take that length of time out of the rest of my life.
Early in 2008 I felt that now was the time to start. I would do a week in September and see how it went. I didn't want to overstretch myself, as I knew it would be only too easy to overestimate what I was capable of. It was nearly 4 years since I stopped running, but I felt I was still quite fit, and had a pretty good idea what my body was capable of. However 64 might seem quite an advanced age to do your first backpacking holiday. I have had plenty of experience of holidays where I have done long, sometimes hilly, walks, and in 1997 I climbed Kilimanjairo (to the crater, but not the summit). However I had had porters then, and otherwise I've never had to carry more than my lunch and a raintop or sweater.
I joined the South West Coast Path Association and found their guide book invaluable not just for planning the route, but also recommending places to stay.
Minehead to Barnstaple - September 2008
I wasn't sure what I was letting myself in for, but I was reasonably confident that I could complete what I had planned. I had expectations that my fitness would carry me through even though it was a long time since I had done any running. In the event, my running experience helped me more than I anticipated.
I had memories of times when I felt exhausted just three miles into a distance race, yet a few miles later I would be flying. So here, while early on the second day I was wondering what on earth I was doing, a couple of hours later I was convinced that barring injury or something seriously untoward I was going to complete the week. I had also memories of long training runs that were a series of aches in one part of my body being replaced by pains somewhere else. So now I was aware of where I was hurting and feeling tired, and knew I could get over it with a short rest or by concentrating on something else. Furthermore one of my strong points was my speed of recovery, so while I had always had enough at the end of one day, I was fit and ready to start off the next morning.
The thing I was particularly pleased about was that it was my pack that was causing most of my problems, so that I felt that without it I could have walked considerably further. The first two nights I had problems sleeping because my legs ached so much. However I seemed to feel at the end of each day, that once I had removed my pack, there was plenty of walking still in my legs.
Next time I will try to make my pack lighter. The heaviest item I was carrying were my trainers which were very comfortable to wear once I had removed my walking boots. However I am sure I can find some footwear just as suitable that weighs less. I also had a change of shirt, socks and underwear for every day, whereas I am sure that if I put a mind to it I could find a way to wash things at my day's destination. A large towel was probably unnecessary, but apart from a brief spell of drizzle it was dry all the time. However I would rather carry something that I didn't really need than suffer because of something I was missing. My pack might have been heavy, but its discomfort took away the pain from other parts of the body.
I learnt several useful things that I tried to put into practice that are probably obvious to experienced backpackers.
- Don't try to rush off in the morning. Enjoy your cooked breakfast and give time for your digestion system to do its job. That is one less thing to worry about during the day.
- Make sure your pack is on tightly. It will then feel more comfortable.
- Take plenty of rest. I never went for more than an hour at a time without a stop, and as the day went on it was more like half an hour per stretch. The breaks were often 5 minutes or less, but they did the trick.
- At the end of each day's walk, have a shower as soon as you can rather than lie around feeling sorry for yourself. The warm down had always been recommended after a hard run, and made recovery that much quicker.
Barnstaple to Bude - September 2009
One year on from completing the first section, I tackled the next phase. This time I had a better idea of what I was capable of. The main decision I had to make was whether to attempt the section from Hartland Quay to Bude in one day, or break the journey at Morwenstow. The SWCP guide book describes the 15.4 miles of this section as "probably the most difficult section of the whole Coast Path". In the end I felt that discretion was the better part of valour, and decided to split the journey.
I bought a pair of shoes suitable for wearing at the end of the day, that were considerably lighter than the trainers I carried the last time. Otherwise my load was about the same as last time, though I replaced the large towel with a small one. It certainly seemed lighter than last year.
This was a comparatively short stretch but one of the trickiest apparently. I was able to complete it all reasonably comfortably. The main change I will make next time is to get myself a walking pole. They are a nuisance to take on a bus or train, but I realised several times what a benefit it would have been to have one. In particular I am not comfortable going down steep slopes, especially when it is wet, and I lack confidence in my ability to stay upright and control a heavy pack when the ground is uneven. I will also get myself a watch with a strap, rather than a clasp. By the end of the day my hand tended to have swollen so much that I could not remove my watch.
Apart from that I enjoyed my walk, and am looking forward to the next section. I need to do it more than once a year if I am to complete the Coast Path by the time I am 70.
Bude to Newquay - September 2010
In the event almost a year passed before I was able to tackle the next stretch. With the North Cornwall coastline you don't get much opportunity to balance your efforts. The seven days walking were graded according to the SWCP book strenuous, strenuous to moderate, severe, strenuous (with a small easy bit at the end), easy, easy, moderate. I was anticipating maybe one or two late finishes, but the distances were manageable, so that never occurred. I could probably quite easily have completed days 5 and 6 in one go, but in the end I appreciated having the morning off in Padstow. The shortage of places to stay rather limits your options on this stretch, but maybe a better idea would have been to have a rest day in Tintagel. I would have liked to have visited the castle, but did not have time.
Since last year I had purchased a walking pole, which when collapsed fitted into my rucksack, as well as a watch with a strap rather than a clasp. I also tried to economise on the clothes I carried, anticipating doing a bit of washing.
This section was rather unbalanced, being four hard days followed by three easy ones. Maybe a better use of the time would have been to take a day off at Tintagel, as I regretted not having the time to visit the castle and further explore this interesting place. With more energy then for the next two tough days I would have been able to manage the stretch from Padstow to Porthcothen in one day.
I have also decided to make use of kit transfer in future. It costs more money, but on the other hand I would be able to enjoy the walk more, particularly at the end of a hard day. As well as Tintagel, I would like to have seen more of Boscastle and Port Isaac, to name just two places, but at the time only wanted to get the rucksack off my back.
Newquay to Penzance - May 2011
This section was different for a number of reasons. Firstly, the time of the year, previous trips having been in September. Temperatures were similar but the emerging wild flowers led to some very attractive scenery. The downside was the blackberries not being out and the consequent lack of frequent snacks. Secondly, rather than staying in a different place each night, once I reached St Ives I stayed there for the rest of the trip and used the local buses to travel between there and my daily start and finish points. This generally worked well. Rivendell was a very friendly establishment which I would have no problem recommending, even though it wasn't in the guidebook. My room was rather small but they were very friendly and served a good breakfast. I'd given myself five days for what was manageable in four, so I could spread the walking as I felt like, rather than being tied to a predetermined stretch. The down side was that it was a week before the summer schedules started, so the buses were less frequent than I would have liked.
The big difference was that rather than lug all my belongings around in my rucksack, I took advantage of the services of Luggage Transfers, who picked up my belongings each morning and dropped them off at my next destination. Everything worked smoothly and I don't know how I ever managed on the previous sections.
Using Luggage Transfers was certainly a wise move. Without pretending that I wasn't ready to get my boots off at the end of every day, I never had those feelings early on in the day that I wasn't really enjoying it.
Using a single base for several days walking was useful in that I was able to spread myself around in the room and was not repacking every morning. It also meant I was able to get to know the owners of Rivendell and some of the guests quite well. The down side was at the end of a day's walking knowing I might not be back to my room for maybe two hours. On at least one occasion I went straight off for a meal and didn't shower or change my clothes until later. The pros and cons are rather academic as this is the only phase of the whole path where this is feasible.
Penzance to Falmouth - August 2012
For various reasons more than a year passed before I found the time to do another section. I was back to booking accommodation for single nights, but I left it late to make arrangements. My original intention was to go as far as Par, but I had problems finding places, so ended up in Falmouth for three nights. I had planned to try to get at least as far as Mevagissey in the extra two days, and find buses back to my guest house. In the event I effectively took the first day off and on the second day did a walk described in the guidebook for when the St Mawes to Place ferry is not operating.
I used Luggage Transfers again which has the added advantage not just of saving me carrying all my stuff around, but also being a reminder to my destination that I am due - I would hope that if my rucksack arrived but I didn't that they would contact the coastguards.
I had been lucky with the weather on all my previous trips - the only bad day, as far as I could remember was the last leg to Newquay. I didn't think it could last, and I got the lot this time, though the worst probably was as I was setting off home from Falmouth. The main problem was the mud which was inevitable after such a damp summer. My boots provided excellent protection but needed to be hosed down or dipped in streams, while my trousers were not a pretty sight.
Falmouth to Plymouth - May 2013
This section, while having its challenging parts, is not as difficult as some, with no parts graded severe. After the mud of the previous episode, it was noticeably dry underfoot pretty well the whole time, and my boots were comparatively respectable throughout. However the bad weather of the previous year had taken its toll as there were two major diversions due to cliff falls that had occurred since the 2013 guidebook went to print, and there were several other places where the path was rerouted because the original route had disappeared or was considered too unstable.
For the first time I had digestion problems. I had always enjoyed my cooked breakfast, but on the third day I was presented with a particularly large one that was very salty, and I could taste it for the rest of the day. On the next day it was more sensible, but after an hour or so I started to feel ill, and the rest of my walk that day was most uncomfortable. So I abandoned cooked breakfasts, and felt much better for it.
I'm certainly beginning to feel that my recovery time is longer. I finished with a gentle day, apart from a 15 minute walk from the bus to the station carrying my full pack, which was a real effort. How on earth I managed the first three sections I don't know. Once I got home, I did very little for the next three days as my whole body felt tired, not particularly my legs. I still hope to finish before my 70th birthday, but that will involve three sections in little more than a year.
Plymouth to Torquay - August 2013
Another section with its challenging bits, particularly between Dartmouth and Brixham, which I assumed would be quite easy. However there were again no severe days. Weather was generally kind apart from the third day, where it was a case of plodding on hoping for it to ease off soon. Once again there were three cliff falls, one of which entailed a particularly long diversion on a quite difficult part. A theme of this section was river crossings, involving several ferries and on one occasion a taxi, the only practical means of reaching the other side.
The whole thing got off to a grim start, as there was a long delay at Bristol Temple Meads because someone had committed suicide just north of the station. Trains were being halted and buses provided, but eventually a train appeared that was heading for Plymouth. The authorities were clearly doing the best they could in a situation that could not have been foreseen, and ticket restrictions were waived. I eventually arrived at Plymouth about an hour and a quarter late, after which there was a one hour walk to the Boringdon Arms at Turnchapel. I realised soon that I had left my walking pole at home. It was the end of the Fastnet race so the area was full of sailing folk, include two noisy chaps in the next room.
I am beginning to get to familiar territory. Paignton brought back memories of the Torbay Marathon which I competed in twice. On both occasions I completed it OK, but ended up in the first aid tent. I certainly felt a lot more comfortable on this occasion. Only 130 or so miles to go.
Torquay to Weymouth - May 2014
I was particularly looking forward to walking by the railway between Teignmouth and Dawlish Warren, so I followed with great interest the news about the storm damage at Dawlish and the severing of the rail link. I was very pleased when the line was repaired so quickly, but not surprisingly making safe the walk along the sea wall was not a top priority. The storms had caused problems in other areas, particularly around Lyme Regis.
I booked into a hotel in Dawlish for two nights, so that I could take the train from there to Torquay and walk back, which would save one lot of unpacking and repacking. The Blenheim was unusual in that the proprietor did not live on site, and arriving late I had to phone her to let me in. Once she arrived I was made most welcome. It was also unusual in that there was no dining room, but breakfast was served in my room.
This was an interesting stretch for the landscape, in that it was clear how much the coastline changes. While the storms of recent years have clearly had a significant effect, it is a continuous process, and one imagines that in a comparatively short space of time parts would become unrecognisable.
Weymouth to South Haven Point - August 2014
And so to the final stretch. Only 5 days walking so the shortest, but a significant amount of category severe. As I was starting by walking round Portland, I booked myself for two nights at the Galway Guest House in Weymouth. Cheap and cheerful, but not used to walkers. They had never heard of Luggage Transfers, and when the driver phoned to say what time he was picking up my bag, they assumed he would be taking me as well. They were quite impressed when I said I was walking to Lulworth.
I left my car at Chippenham station and caught the train to Weymouth. It was about half a mile walk from there, the last serious bit of rucksack carrying!
So I've made it with a week to spare before my 70th birthday. I've enjoyed so much of it, and I don't think I have a favourite section. From the final stretch I particularly remember the views along the coast in both directions from Portland, and the bleak cliffs between Lulworth and Kimmeridge, but that is perhaps because they are freshest in my mind. And I always enjoyed the first day of each trip, being out on my own back walking.
Generally I was very lucky with the weather, only rarely getting really rained on. At the same time, the days when the weather was stormy were some of the most memorable, particularly between Portcothan and Newquay, and round Bolt Head.
I have no plans to undertake a similar challenge. What I would really like to do is go back and visit some of the places I didn't get a chance to enjoy, particularly around the Tintagel/Port Isaac area, where I was still carrying my heavy pack on pretty challenging paths.