I wouldn't really consider myself that much of a walker, but my knees were in a bad way at the start of 2003, and I started doing a few walks on the UK south coast to help them recover. Strangely enough I had discovered that walking, even long hilly walks, helped them recover from the biking. The other thing that I quickly discovered about walking is that it is dangerously addictive. Especially on the south coast path. The scenery is dramatic for a start, towering chalk cliffs, deep blue sea, birds and butterflies, fossils, relentless steep ups and downs. And after seeing a few south coast path signposts you start to think 'I wonder where that goes....'.
The first mistake was to invest in a South West Coast Path guidebook. After leafing through that, reading the descriptions and looking at the pictures, it was hard to resist the urge. Then I bought some new super-lightweight walking/camping gear. At that point there was no going back really. So there it was, at the first chance to grab some time off work I was on the friday night train (well 2 trains and 1 bus) down to Minehead.
Here are the day by day notes and pictures. Click on any of the pictures below for a full size version. There are also two separate reports for the later installments, from Newquay to Falmouth, and Falmouth to Poole.
The start of the path at Minehead is marked by an impressive sculpture of hands holding a huge OS map. As suggested by the guidebook, I "paused for a moment of reflection at the momument", although most of that was trying to remember how to work the self timer on the camera. I managed the obligatory picture in front of the sculpture and then I was off. The path disappears between two buildings behind the sculpture, and quickly climbs out of Minehead towards Exmoor national park. The first section skirted Exmoor, complete with resident woodpeckers, before dropping down through a small valley on to the shingle beach at Porlock. There are some decent shops in Porlock, so I stocked up on food and had a late breakfast. There is even a walking shop for those last minute things that you forgot to pack.
After Porlock the path heads through lush green forest before popping out again at the picturesque village of Porlock Weir. There was just time for a quick ice lolly, and then I headed off again. More walking through forest on a small rocky track, and plenty of ups and downs. You don't see much of the sea for a while, not that I'm complaining though, it is lovely walking, and it keeps the sun off too. Enroute you pass the smallest regularly used church in England at Culbone. From Culbone I stuck to the 'Alternative Coast path' which stayed in the forest and avoided a section on the road. Somewhere round here the path crossed over from Somerset into Devon although I can't claim to have noticed the transition.
As I progressed the forest slowly changed, first from deciduous trees to conifers, then to dense rhododendrons, before popping out onto a grassy path round Foreland Point, with excellent views across to South Wales. I wasn't sure whether to head slightly inland into Lynton to find the campsite. But there was an excellent bivi spot near Countisbury, only a few metres from the path, and with a decent pub nearby. Excellent views down to Lynmouth in the evening sun too. Sold!
A leisurely descent into Lynmouth, then a steep climb out again as the path zig-zagged up the steep hillside, repeatedly crossing the cliff railway. There followed a fairly level tarmac path through the Valley of Rocks, apparently a popular victorian attraction (the victorians must have been easily impressed). Well OK, it's reasonably pleasant. And there are a bunch of feral goats guarding the far end of the walk. The next bit was disappointing, the path drifts away from the coast, and worse, spends some time walking along the road, to skirt Lee Abbey. And there was a diversion which added some extra climbing, again on the road.
After Woody Bay things picked up though. The path gained a lot of height through forest. The next section must rank as one of the most memorable bits of the whole path for me. At some point I noticed that the path had stopped gaining height, and was right on the edge of the cliff, with views out to sea between the trees. Then suddenly I popped out of the trees and the rocky path traversed steep fern and heather covered hillside with stunning views of the sea.
At Highveer Point I stopped for a quick tin of soup and half a malt loaf, and to gaze out at the South Wales coastline over the water. Just before Great Hangman, the highest point on the whole of the SW coast path at an oxygen-sapping 318 metres, I stopped to soak my feet in the cold stream. Here I met a chap coming in the opposite direction who had walked all the way from Bridport (over 800 km away). After negotiating the dizzy heights of Great Hangman, the path descended into Combe Martin, described in another trip report that I had previously read as "sounds more attractive than it is", which seemed a good description. Nevertheless, it was a good chance to stock up on food, and sit down and have a quick snack in the sun. After Combe Martin the sun disappeared though and it started drizzling. At Hele Bay, on the outskirts of Ilfracombe, it had got very wet, so I headed up the road to the campsite and pitched up. The owner warned me about getting sheep tics from walking on Exmoor. Sure enough when I took a shower I had to evict ten tics that had taken up residence on my legs....
It was a wet night, and my bivi bag/thermarest/sleeping bag were all fairly damp in the morning when I woke up. There was a short section round the small hill of Hillsborough to reach Ilfracombe, and to add insult to injury there was a concrete shelter that would have made for a nice dry bivi had I walked 15 minutes further from Hele Bay. Oh well, at least it had stopped raining, and Ilfracombe didn't seem too bad, probably because it was 8am and deserted. No cafes were open either, so I pushed on towards Lee in the hope of working up a good appetite for a substantial breakfast.
It was a huge disappointment at Lee to find that the hotel didn't do breakfasts, and the shop wasn't open until lunchtime. Oh well, I sat down in the sun for half an hour, laid out the bivi bag, sleeping bag, and thermarest to dry, and ate half a malt loaf and an apple for breakfast. The route got a little more hilly as it passed the lighthouse at Bull Point, but then gradually eased off. As I turned the corner at Morte Point, Woolacombe came into view, and the outline of Baggy point in the distance seemed very far off.
No such problems with amenities at Woolacombe, and I enjoyed a full cooked vegi breakfast and pot of tea for a very reasonable three pounds fifty. Woolacombe was quite busy with tourists, but there were also lots of surfers wandering around in wetsuits, which seemed to give the place a better feel. From Woolacombe the path headed out along the 2km long car park of marine drive and then went along the road past the caravan site and hotel at Putsborough Sands, not particularly inspiring.
After Putsborough Sands the path left the road and headed towards Baggy Point. The circuit of Baggy Point was fantastic, another one of the more memorable parts of the whole path. Maybe it was the just the sudden contrast after spending an hour walking along the tourist car park and road. But as soon as I turned onto Baggy Point, the crowds instantly melted away, and I was completely alone, with the path skirting the edge of steep grassy slopes that fell away to cliffs, and large numbers of butterflies. Then the dramatic slabs at the end of Baggy Point, with squawking seagulls flying in and out. The path back from the point towards Croyde Bay was wider and flatter and more busy, but by then I was on a roll. There were excellent aerial views of two kestrels that were working their way along the grassy slopes below the path.
Croyde Bay was a funny place, a mix of hardcore surfers & surf shops, and holiday mega-parks with hundreds of caravans and laid on entertainment. I pitched up in one of the more low-key campsites. The kids from the tent next door seemed fascinated by the hooped bivi bag, and were amazed than anyone could fit in such a small tent.
It was drizzling in the morning when I left Croyde Bay, and across the sea I could see Lundy glistening in the sun. After Croyde Bay there was a highly unpleasant bit on the road, with fast moving traffic, blind corners, and no pavement, shoulder, or even verge to speak of. I think this ranked as one of the worst bits of the path for me. It wasn't helped by the fact that the signpost for the right turn onto Braunton Marsh seemed to have disappeared. So I missed the turn, spent even more time on the road, and I had actually reached the outskirts of Braunton before I realised (there is actually an alternative route which gains some extra height but avoids the road - highly recommended). At this point it was tempting to skip the circuit of Braunton Marsh, and just push on towards Barnstable. But of course that would miss out some of the official route - a heinous act for a bona-fide coast path walker. So I glumly took a right turn onto Braunton Marsh to pick up the proper path again, and did the full circuit (to get back to Braunton again).
The section across Braunton Marsh was fairly bleak, and it started to drizzle. My only company was a bunch of squaddies that turned up in a minibus then instantly disappeared into the dunes. At the tip of Braunton Marsh I was able to look across the river at Appledore, maybe half a kilometer away as the crow flies, but another 35km of walking along the tarmac cyclepath of the Tarka Trail.
Most of the large estuaries on the coast path have a ferry crossing, saving a huge inland detour. Unfortunately the River Taw doesn't have a ferry. So there is only one thing for it. The coast path heads inland along the Tarka (the Otter) Trail to Barnstable to cross the River Taw, back out a little way, then inland again to Bideford to cross the River Torridge. So for the sake of 500m of water you need to walk 35km, mostly on a flat, tarmac cyclepath, which is rather tiring on the feet.
I got going though, and a few kilometers along the path there was a small stone shelter, where I stopped for elevenses, put my feet up, and treated myself to a tin of cold soup. After that it started to warm up a bit, the sun even came out, and by Barnstable it was positively balmy. In fact, by Barnstable I was feeling very drowsy and I laid down on a wall and promptly fell asleep for quarter of an hour. Still feeling a bit washed out, I adjourned to a cafe beside the river bank and got some lunch, a pot of tea, and a pint of iced water.
I didn't hang around in Barnstable, but just crossed the bridge and headed back down the other side of the river. Now I could look across the river and see where I had come from, which gave me a psychological boost, and made me feel like the situation was under a bit more control. The river views were fairly pleasant, and there were lots of birds on the river. Considering it was a weekday I was passed by lots of families out on bikes, and it almost felt quite continental. Things took a sudden turn for the better at Fremington Station, apparently once a thriving port, but now a popular cafe. The surface of the cyclepath abrubtly changed from tarmac to gravel. Maybe it was just psychological but this seemed a lot easier on my feet for walking. The slice of carrot cake and two cans of coke from the cafe didn't do any harm either.
I pushed on to Instow. There was a nice little row of shops beside the waterfront, and I stocked up on food and had a snack. To be honest I was more than ready to stop for the day, and my feet felt completely wrecked. I was tempted by the Youth Hostel symbol on the OS map, but it turned out to have closed down the previous year. What a disappointment. So I continued onwards, out of Instow on the cycle path towards Bideford. A group of oystercatchers made a huge racket as I went past them. I was keeping a careful eye out for bivi opportunities, but the cyclepath was hemmed in between the road and the river, so there wasn't much scope. Eventually I crossed the bridge at Bideford, and pitched up a few kilometres further on, right on the shore of the river near Northam. There were good views back to the cyclepath on the other side of the river, and plenty of cyclists cruising along in the evening sun. And great views back up the river to Bideford after dark.
After Appledore, the path started with a circuit of the popular dogwalking destination, Northam Burrows park. At the tip of the dunes, I was able to look back 500m across the river at the point I had reached 24 hours ago. At Westward Ho! The town seemed a bit bleak, with lots of boarded up attractions, and I had a quick cooked breakfast, stocked up on food, and then got going again. There was a little wind blown drizzle in the air as I left the town. The first part of the path was gently rolling through gorse and grassy meadows. Soon it was raining more heavily. After a while the path entered the trees, and stayed in them for the rest of the day. It was great forest, and the trees kept some of the rain off.
The path passed through the tiny village of Buck Mills. Small cottages were tightly packed together, with front doors literally opening out onto the path. The one thing missing in Buck Mills was a small pub. And I could really have done with it.
Eventually though I reached that most picturesque of destinations, Clovelly. Possibly the most photographed village in Devon! You can see why though. An incredibly steep narrow cobbled main street dropping down through whitewashed 16th century cottages to a small harbour. No motor vehicles are allowed in the village, and deliveries are by made by wooden sledges that you can see parked up outside the cottages. There were a few tourists wandering around taking pictures, and lots of different foreign accents. But in general the village was very quiet, maybe because of the poor weather. Since I had had a long day walking in the rain, I treated myself to a night in a B&B, for a fairly reasonable 20 quid. To be honest, I wasn't convinced my legs could make it all the way back up the "extraordinarily steep hill" (as described by the guidebook) out of the village. And best of all, the pub was a whole 30 seconds walk from the B&B.
On leaving Clovelly there was a little bit more forest, and I passed a small shelter that might make a good bad-weather bivi opportunity, then further on a strange seat with a roof. The forest finally came to an end, and the path skirted fields with hedgerows and borders thick with grasses and flowers, and lots of butterflies. Great views of Lundy in the sun. Things got more rugged after Hartland Point, more rocky coastline and plenty of ups and downs. At Hartland Quay I adjourned to the Wreckers Retreat for lunch.
It was raining heavily by the time I left the pub, but it eased off quickly. For the rest of the afternoon it was spitting a little when you were in the wind, but eased off as soon as you descended into a valley. Completely unexpectedly I came over the top of another hill, and came across Ronald Duncan's hut. It was open, so I went inside for a rest. It was a nice respite from the wind, and I got stuck into reading all the articles and poems on the walls. In fact it was so comfortable that I had trouble rousing myself to leave the hut.
There was a huge disappointment at Morwenstow though, when I took a detour inland to get a swift half and some food but found that the pub was closed. I waited for twenty minutes as a steady stream of punters turned up, unsuccesfully tried the pub door, looked wistfully through the windows, and then drove off looking confused. Eventually I got sick of waiting, I was getting cold too, and retraced my steps back to the coast, and pushed on. I bivied at sharpnose point, next to an old ruined lookout shelter to try and keep some of the drizzle off. Inside the shelter itself would have been pretty good, but for the fact that it didn't have any windows anymore. I had a quick tin of cold soup and some cold baked beans (who needs a hot pub meal anyway), and then I was tucked up in my bivi bag before 9pm.
The next morning was awful, heavy rain blowing almost horizontally. As I expected, the inside of the ruined shelter had turned into a huge puddle, apart from one small corner which was dry, and just big enough to stand in. I ferried my stuff into it and took my time packing it all away. I didn't feel particularly motivated to head out into the rain, and hung around for quite a while, occasionally peering out and convincing myself that there was a brighter patch on the horizon, and that it would dry up if I waited a bit longer. But the brighter patch turned out to be just wishful thinking, and eventually I headed off. My feet were soaked in less than 5 minutes.
Further on I started coming across frogs hopping across the path. Not a good sign. In the wet cloudy gloom I passed a huge eerily lit radar station on top of the headland that looked completely deserted. It was a very distinctive landmark, and everytime I looked back over the next couple of days I could see it in the distance. At Sandy Mouth a lone surfer was heading out into the surf. The hills gradually eased off and I started seeing views of Bude. By the time I reached Bude, late morning, it had dried up a bit, and the sun even came out. I adjourned to a cafe and took stock of the situation. Everything was wet, even the stuff in plastic bags - camera, route guidebook, and my trip notes which had almost turned into papier mache. I stocked up on food in the local co-op, and invested in a roll of freezer bags to double wrap everything in the next time it rained heavily.
The next section was OK, through fields on the edge of the sea, lots of gorse, heather, and butterflies. Nearer to Crackington Haven there were a few sharp pulls, and the path went along a ridge with cliffs on one side and gorse and heather falling away on the other side. It was early evening when I reached Crackington haven, and I had a meal in the pub, then walked on to find a good camping location. At the other side of the small peak of Cambeak there were a set of grassy ledges leading down to the sea, that could have been tailor made as a scenic camping spot. The bivi bag was still wet from the previous night, so I turned it inside out and let it dry off for a while before pitching up. I had just settled into the bivi bag, at about 9pm, when I heard a loud sneeze outside. I poked my head out and there was a pack of feral goats, standing a few metres above me on the hillside watching me. They stood there for a few seconds, then they all jogged off. From my bivi site I could see them frolicking on the side of Cambeak.
It was dry when I woke up, but once I was on the trail it started spitting then drizzling. I met another coast path walker who was heading in the opposite direction and had started at Lands End 7 days earlier. We bemoaned the apalling weather the day before, he had gone through four sets of socks trying to keep his feet dry, and then pushed off in our respective directions. There were impressive black cliffs at Pentargon, riddled with large caves. The path along the cliff top was thick with wild flowers and grasses, with a strong lavender-like aromatic scent. Further on the black cliff was teeming with gulls. Suddenly without any warning Boscastle Harbour came into view, just in time for breakfast. I passed by the Youth Hostel, right on the coast path, and overlooking the harbour itself, and walked the short distance up the road to find a cafe and some shops.
After breakfast, and stocking up with food, I pushed on towards Tintagel. For some reason the path got very busy near Rocky Valley. In fact it was the busiest bit of the coast path since starting off at Minehead. It was quite muddy and wet too, so people were sliding about in trainers, in jeans, trying to hold umbrellas. Tintagel was busy, and I didn't hang around. The path passed by another nice looking Youth Hostel, right on the clifftop, then went past a church high up on the headland. I seemed to be completely out of sync with the youth hostels, I always reached them in the middle of the day, never at the end of the day when I could actually use them.
After Tintagel there were lots of old slate quarries along the cliffs, with unquarried pinnacles here and there, and strewn with spoil. I reached Trebarwith Strand and stopped for a mid-afternoon snack. There was a narrow rocky inlet, where the waves piled up in a dramatic fashion, and a group of kids were taking turns throwing themselves off the edge of the inlet into the big waves. By the time I finished eating it was past 4pm and I was reluctant to try and push on for another few hours to Port Isaac. On the other hand it was a bit early to stop though. And the next section didn't look too bad, a few ups and downs at first then it seemed to stay high up before descending into Port Isaac. So I decided to head on.
Climbing out of Trebarwith Strand I got great views of a large bird of prey hovering over the slopes, and occasionally dropping down in front of the cliffs, to a cacophony of squawks from the resident seagulls. The path followed the edge of fields, and the bit between the path and the cliffs was thick with flowers and grasses. Needless to say there was a lot more ups and downs than I had estimated back at Trebarwith. I got to Port Isaac very tired and with very sore feet, and booked straight in to the first B&B that I found with a vacancy.
After leaving Port Isaac there was a lovely stretch of path, winding through gorse, rolling up and down, passing some good cliffs and caves. The cliffs got more dramatic at Rumps Point and Pentire Point. In Tintagel the previous day, I had noticed a strange spiky headland in the distance. It turned out to be Rumps head, with its distinctive row of descending rock spikes, which made it look from a distance like the tail of a huge dinosaur. From here the path gradually descended to reach the beach resort of Polzeath. Polzeath was significant only as a demonstration of the high packing densities that can be achieved with holidaymakers on the beach. I pushed on past the nearby field which had turned into a gigantic car park. Some people were relaxing in their folding chairs next to their cars. Incredibly, looking out to sea I could still make out Lundy in the distance, but it was very low, and about to disappear over the horizon. The crowds quickly vanished again as I crossed the side of Bree hill and walked through the dunes to reach the ferry across to Padstow.
The harbour at Padstow was straining at the seams with people, so I quickly stocked up with food, bought a couple of cold cans of drink, and headed out on the path towards Stepper Point. Even out of town the path was still quite busy, but eventually, after passing the last beach, the crowds fell away and by Stepper point it was quiet again. I sat and looked at the view for a while, and watched two Kestrels hovering above the grass and wild flower covered slopes below me. I continued along the path towards the rocky headland at Gunver Head, high above impressive cliffs, and looking down on the deep green sea. The path stayed high though, so it was very easy walking.
After a snack and pot of tea at Trevone Bay I pushed on past a huge caravan park, and found a good bivi spot in a small hollow on Trevose Head, completely hidden from the path. Sitting in my bivi bag in the evening sun, I had fantastic views all the way back along the coast to Stepper Point tower (passed earlier in the afternoon), the prominent church on the headland at Tintagel (passed the previous day), and the radar station near Sharpnose Point (passed a whole 2 days ago).
I woke up to a dry but fairly dull day. From Trevose Head it was a short and easy walk to Porthcothan. I stopped at the shop for some breakfast, and rang the hostel in Newquay to book a bed. The backpackers hostel was full, but "The Zone" (International traveller and surfer hostel) had a free bed in a dormitory. A bit pricey at 17.50, but I imagine thats cheap for Newquay. At Bedruthan Steps there were a row of rock stacks on the beach, apparently another highly popular tourist attraction for the easily-impressed victorians. At the top of the steps was a small teashop, perfectly placed for elevenses. Suitably fueled with a pot of tea and cake I pushed on further down the coast.
At Watergate bay the path popped out at the road, and I actually recognised it from the end-to-end. At this point it started raining heavily, and I was passed on the trudge up the hill out of the bay by four bedraggled looking blokes in t-shirts and shorts heading for Newquay.
The outskirts of Newquay weren't the most inspiring sight, rows of non-descript hotels, a huge traffic queue, and the rain made it look all the more grim. Described in another trip report that I found on the internet as looking like 'Slough with a few beaches', which didn't seem too far off the mark. The traffic was even worse in the centre, with groups of tourists wandering aimlessly from one shop to another. From the center I headed down to the harbour, then walked round the headland to reach Fistral Beach, and then up to the hostel. The part of town near Fistral beach was a bit more inspiring. There were surfers in wetsuits walking barefoot through the traffic carrying surfboards, heading down to the beach. In fact the surfers were incredibly keen. From my dormitory bed I could see them jogging down the road to catch some evening waves, even as late as 9pm. And then in the morning they were out before 7am, presumably to get a quick session in before work.
And that was it. From Newquay, one bus and two trains to get back home. All in all an excellent trip. Awesome scenery. A pity that I chose the worst 10 days of weather in the whole summer, but then you take your chances in the UK, and I would only have been complaining if it had been blisteringly hot and sunny instead.
Just to prove that the South Coast does contain a few hills, here are the technical facts for the walk: