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 AT 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 take 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 arrive 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 look forward to staying at Minehead Base Lodge and other hostels during the four months I am in England.  It will be 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

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 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 fox, rabbits, squirrels, sheep, cows, horses, and wild goats (only a few feet from 1,000 foot drop offs to the ocean below).  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 with some British accents are hard to recognize.  The words with 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

Saw a beautiful sunrise from the top of a hill at the campground 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 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.

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. he photograph of the waterfall 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. Last night I stayed at Northshorebude Backpackers, an independent hostel. Sean was kind to give me my own room with toilet and sink at the same rate ad 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.  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), a paved bicycle trail that runs congruent with the South West Coast Path for 15 miles. 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 drop off 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. The attached photograph of the seaside scene is at Crackington Haven.

I stayed at Cohort Hostel in St Ives. The security curtain at each bunk is a brilliant idea (I’ve never seen that at a hostel before.) and should be noted in their listing in your hostel guide – a definite selling point. They had a copy of your hostel guide for reference and also sold them. What a well done (Good job Editor Sam!) 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. The photograph of the fishing boat was taken in 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 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.

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.

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.

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


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 also enjoys walking the Long Distance Paths of the UK