Planning a South West Coast Walk trip.

Planning a South West Coast Walk trip.

Planning a South West Coast Walk trip.

My name is Melanie.  I am a 61 year old American and a double 2,000 miler (someone who has hiked the entire Appalachian Trail). This year my big adventure is backpacking four English National Trails (South West Coast Path, South Downs Way, North Downs Way, Thames River Path) and the Isle of Wight. 

I have had lots of hiking experience;  I section hiked the Appalachian Trail between 2010 and 2015 and thru hiked it in 2016.  My thru hike started at Springer Mountain in Georgia on March 26 three days after retiring.  It ended six months later, after walking 2,189 continuous miles through 14 states (Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine) on top of Mount Katahdin in Maine on September 20.

Exploring some of the southern English long distance paths is a new challenge for 2017. After flying across the “Big Pond” on April 24 and arriving at London Heathrow, I took a bus to Taunton then another bus to Minehead.  I wanted to start out fresh on the South West Coast Path so planned to spend the night at a local hostel.  I found Minehead Base Lodge on line and sent Wendy and Graham Boswell an e-mail enquiry.

Graham responded and went out of his way to accommodate me.  There was a sole-use booking at Minehead Base Lodge before I arrived and Graham was going to be away at a botanical meeting.  But Graham worked out how to get a key to me and gave me detailed instructions.  Now that’s British hospitality!  And a reason why independent hostels in the UK have the fine reputation they do.

I looked forward to staying at Minehead Base Lodge and other hostels during the four months I was in England.  It is always most welcome to get off the trail to take a hot shower, resupply, launder dirty cloths, and sleep in a real bed.

The South West Coast Path: Somerset & the North Devon Coast Section

Excerpts form my Diary

I’ve been on the trail for four days now.  This incredible adventure is unlike anything I have ever experienced.  I hike along rugged cliffs next to the ocean (the ups and downs are steep!) and see mountains that I  hiked two days earlier or will hike two days hence.  There are lots of birds, including magpies and wild pheasants, and many different kinds and colours of wildflowers, including the English bluebell (like the Texas bluebell).  I’ve seen a fox, rabbits, squirrels, sheep, cows, horses and wild goats (only a few feet from 1,000 foot drops to the ocean below).   One rainy day, I saw hundreds of large snails with beautiful black and brown stripped patterns on their shells on the Tarka Trail (named after Tarka the Otter, a popular children’s book over here). The Tarka Trail is a paved bicycle trail that runs congruent with the South West Coast Path for 15 miles.  The South West Coast Path is well maintained and has good signage.  The Ordnance Survey maps I carry are helpful. I love talking to people.  The words spoken in some British accents are hard to recognize.  The words in other accents sound very proper and sophisticated.  On the first day of hiking, I met Liz, a 70 year old woman who was finishing walking around the perimeter of England.  There are lots of dog walkers.  The dogs are well behaved.  Everyone I meet is friendly.  I feel safe here.

south west coast path
A typical view from the South West Coast Path

Saw a beautiful sunrise from the top of a hill at the camping ground outside Braunton I stayed at last night. This morning I stopped at St Peter & St Mary Magdalene church (700 years old!) in Barnstaple to attend the Sunday service and partake of communion – very emotional. Then got out of the rain at The Cornish Bakery and ate a Cheddar Ploughman’s Brioche (cheddar cheese, red onion, and sweet pickles on a freshly baked chewy roll – delicious). I love being free, open to new experiences, and not tied to a set time schedule and required number of miles per day.

The photograph of the waterfall below was taken not far from the Elmscott Hostel. I bought some supplies there one morning and Margaret let me charge my telephone. Margaret has volunteered at Elmscott Youth Hostel for ten years. It is humbling and inspirational to think about the thousands of hours of service put in by volunteers at the independent hostels throughout the UK.  I did eight hard miles today (up to the top of a cliff then down to a stream, or in the case of the attached photographs, a waterfall, flowing into the ocean.   Didn’t see anyone all morning. I am in the tiny hamlet of Morwenstow. I ate lunch at a traditional English tea room, part of the Rectory Farm (AD 1296). Bought a slice of Cornish cake for breakfast tomorrow. Drinking a pint of real ale at the Bush Inn (AD 950), a monk’s rest on the pilgrimage route from Wales to Spain.

South West Coast Path near Morwenstow
South West Coast Path near Morwenstow

I am at the local pub in a tiny village (Port Gaverne) right on the ocean enjoying a half pint.  I am tenting at a local farm about 1/3 mile down the road. I average 11 miles a day – steep ups and downs. I am humbled and inspired by the grandeur, vastness, and history of the countryside I pass through.

 

South West Coast Path near Port Gaverne
South West Coast Path near Port Gaverne

I am in what was once one of the largest tin mining areas in the world. One photograph below shows a capped tin mine. (I saw quite a few of them today). The other photograph is of a stone tower that housed a vertical pump. A man I talked to said the mines were deep, so large, powerful pumps were needed. The raw material mined was shipped to Wales for processing. I am staying at Unicorn Hostel, (they also have a restaurant, bar, pool table, and television/sitting area) in Porthtowan. I am the only one in the hostel so feel fortunate to have my own private place next to a pretty beach.

Cornish Mine Workings close to Porthtowan
Cornish Mine Workings close to Porthtowan

I’ve been hiking the Southwest Coast Path for eleven days now. What an adventure! The spectacular scenery is varied, the people friendly, and the food (many new dishes this American has never eaten before!) good. Every day I look forward to what new things I will see. The English Bluebells are at their peak – whole hillsides covered with them.   Last night I stayed at Northshorebude Backpackers, an independent hostel. Sean was so kind to give me my own room with toilet and sink at the same rate as if I’d have to share it with three others. Sean’s wife Janine gave me a delicious slice of cake to enjoy with a complimentary cup of coffee.

Independent Hostels on the Somerset/Devon section of the South west Coast Path include Base Lodge, Butter Hill Barn (Groups Only), Exmoor Bunkhouse (Groups Only), Ocean Backpackers, Mullacott Farm Camping Barn and  Elmscott Hostel.

The South West Coast Path:  Cornwall

I’ve been on this exciting adventure over two weeks now and a daily rhythm has evolved that I believe will sustain me for the duration of this trip.  Due to the northern latitude of England, it gets light early, about 5:00 am.  I awake to bird calls and lay comfortable and warm in my sleeping bag inside my cozy tent for awhile, anticipating what the new day will bring.  I get up, break camp, fix breakfast, then get on the trail about 7:15 am.  Even though I see few human beings in the morning, I am surrounded by abundant life.  Pink, purple, lavender, yellow and white wild flowers are at their spring peak. Cows, sheep with lambs and birds of all kinds are prevalent. The scenery is majestic, powerful, varied and always interesting. At times, I can look behind or in front of me and see where I have been or will be two or three days prior or hence.

I look to my right out across the Atlantic Ocean towards the United States of America and all that is dear to me there. By mid afternoon, I am ready to find a place to stay for the night.  Like the scenery, flowers and animals, overnight stays have also been varied:  hostels, St Bueno’s Church nestled in the woods outside Culbone, the village green in Fremington, a grassy plot next to the garden at The Bush Inn in Morwenstow, behind Andrea’s Café next to the ocean in Crackington Haven, camping and caravan parks, and holiday (the British word for vacation) resorts. The weather has been conducive to comfortable hiking – not too hot and little rain.  It cools off at night (one night we got frost!) then warms up to the 60’s during the day.  Winds range from light to moderate.  I am grateful there haven’t been any days yet with high winds, especially when I am walking on the cliff tops next to sheer drops to the ocean below.

I am staying at Matt’s Surf Lodge, also known as MOR, in Newquay. The man at reception when I checked in was nice enough to give me my own dorm room (two bunk beds, a sink, toilet, and shower) for the same price (20 pounds) as if I had shared a dorm room with others. I go to bed early and get up early so I appreciate what he did. The continental breakfast included in the price of the stay is a nice added touch. I also like the hostel being close to the town centre as I needed to go to the post office, library and grocery store to get resupplies. 

Yesterday I was at the Cohort Hostel in St Ives. The security curtain at each bunk is a brilliant idea (I’ve never seen that at a hostel before). They had a copy of The Independent Hostel Guide for reference and also sold them. What a brilliant resource – detailed, complete, full of information and photographs included. Tonight I am staying at Penzance Backpackers. I am in a clean, light and airy bunk room with a bay window that has pretty palm trees in front of it. I never knew England had palm trees! How funny. I spent some time watching the fishing boats at Newlyn. They were loading lobster or crab pots onto the boat and baiting them. There are shops next to the harbour that sell fresh fish to the public.

I have never been to a place where there is such a diversity of scenery, sights and experiences in a relatively small area than what I have encountered in southwest England. I don’t believe there is another footpath in the world that runs next to an ocean for 630 miles. The National Trust does a superior job of keeping the coastline unspoiled and for the most part, undeveloped.

I am staying in The Snug (see photograph below) tonight at a campground outside Portscatho. It is the cutest thing – a couch that makes into a bed, wood burning stove, wood, end table, lamp. All for seven pounds. I think the owner gave me a discount. When I arrived, Deb invited me in for tea and cake. She and some of her friends were having a birthday party. There is a baby bunny rabbit that has his home in the hedgerow right in front of The Snug.

glamping near portscatho
Glamping near Portscatho

 

I have been hiking a section of the coastline that has been shaped by the full force of the Atlantic. One day, for example, huge waves were crashing into the rocky bottom of dramatic cliffs, sending salt water spray high into the air. Where fresh water flows into the sea, it means a step descent then a step ascent. These small rocky coves are an explorers paradise. Streams emptying into the ocean also mean beautiful sandy beaches – some small, some lengthy. On more than one occasion, I’ve been the only one hiking along pristine beaches. Rivers require walking inland until a bridge is found or, if available, taking a ferry from one shore to another. The difference in feet between low and high tides is significant. If I enter the harbour of a fishing village at low tide, I see boats sitting on mud. Later, if staying overnight or in the morning upon leaving, I see the boats floating on water.

Traditional walls on the South West Coast Path

Along the South West Coast Path, there are many different types of rock, metal and wooden stiles and gates one has to go over or through that separate fields and/or property boundaries. My favourite is the doggy door stile – two wooden steps on each side of three lateral boards with one vertical board to the right or left that one lifts to let poochy go under the stile. Rock stiles are so old that the surface of the stones are smooth and shiny from so many steps being taken on them. 

At first the fields I saw were for livestock. Now I also see fields of crops. I have been hiking the South West Coast Path for one month. Yesterday, I passed the halfway point. Today I am in Falmouth. It has the third largest deep water natural harbour in the world.

The huge granite cross (see photograph below) is on the south western tip of Dodman Point, a headland that juts out into the Atlantic. I had seen it for two days before getting to it. It was built as a navigational aid by the vicar of Caerhays in 1896. The inscription at the base, applicable now as it was 121 years ago, reads “In the firm hope of the second coming of our Lord JESUS CHRIST, and for the encouragement of those who serve HIM, this cross is erected A.D. 1896.

D-day training exercises at Slapton Bay in Devon
Dodman Point and Slapton Bay

A beautiful section of trail yesterday but emotional. Google D-day training exercises at Slapton Bay in Devon, England. Hundreds of locals had to leave their homes and farms because the coast at Slapton Bay was similar to Utah Beach in Normany. Eisenhower ordered that live ammunition be used in the Operation Tiger training exercise. Over 700 American soldiers lost their lives, more than the number that died on the day of the actual invasion. A local spent 30 years researching the real story and getting a tank that sunk, because it didn’t have it’s protective skirt on, removed from the ocean floor. I am camping at a holiday park near Brixham – lots of families on holiday. It is half term. Hope to stay at Torquay Backpackers tomorrow.

I am staying at a farm that has been converted to a caravan and camping park. It is so cool – goats, horses, sheep, chickens, canaries in a huge outside enclosure and a pig! Last night I stayed at Backpackers International Hostel in Torquay – guests from all over the world. I heard languages spoken that I didn’t known what they were.  

Everyday I see the results of what the National Trust has accomplished here. They are a great organization. I am grateful that I benefit from their hard work. It amazes me how much unspoiled land is set aside for all to enjoy.

Independent Hostels in Cornwall on the South West Coast Path include: Beach Head Bunkhouse (Group Only), Cohort Hostel, Lower Penderleath St Ives Farm Hostel, Penzance Backpackers, Penrose Bunkhouse (Group Only), Falmouth Lodge Backpackers & Edens Yard Backpackers.

The South West Coast Path: South Devon Coast and Dorset.

It has been a rainy week with high winds and no WiFi. I’ve been hiking along the Jurassic Coast, a spectacular section of the South West Coast Path. The red rocks were laid down at the dawn of dinosaurs.   Set high on a hilltop overlooking Chesil Beach and the Isle of Portland, St Catherine’s Church was built in the late fourteenth century by the monks of the nearby Abbotsbury Abbey as a place of pilgrimage and retreat.  I went inside it this morning – Sunday morning.

St Catherines on the Jurassic Coast
St Catherine’s on the Jurassic Coast

 I finished the South West Coast Path this morning. It is a lovely day as the last four days have been – warm but not hot, sunny, pretty blue skies, not too windy.

End /  Start at the South West Coast Path
End/Start at the South West Coast Path

Independent Hostel on or near the South West Coast Path in South Devon and Dorset include: Staykation Hotel For Backpackers, Exeter Globe Backpackers, Monkton Wyld Court, Bunkhouse Plus, Mytime Outdoor Centre and Swanage Auberge Bunkhouse.

Find out more about walking this route on our South West Coast Path Map

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About Melanie Harmon

Melanie is a 61 year old American and a double 2,000 miler (someone who has hiked the entire Appalachian Trail). She enjoys walking the Long Distance Paths of the UK and has covered many miles, mainly in the South. Her writing gives an outsiders impression of the people, places and peculiarities she encountered on her travels.