So I walked on, the sun in my eyes and the sea on my side, along red cliffs bitten away by landfalls old and new. In places the path veered very close to the edge and you could see cracks in the dry earth. The guidebook I had reluctantly purchased at the cut-throat price of £15.95 warned walkers to keep away from overhangs, so I had a very cautious peek. Below the sea shimmered in the mid-morning sun, the blue of its waters reddened near the shore by crumbles from the cliffs.
Feeling I had risked enough for one morning (I could see the headline in the next day’s Exmouth Express & Echo: ‘Incredibly Stupid Indian, holding guidebook that warned of cliff fall, falls off cliff’), I clambered back and pressed on, passing dog-walkers, two trail runners, a sprightly lady not a day younger than 80 headed to Budleigh Salterton for a bit of sun on the beach, and several day-hikers making their way to Exmouth. Everyone looked happy and exchanged pleasantries (“Lovely view, isn’t it?”). Even the trail runners who were puffing up a slope broke their stride to grimace a smile and greeting. All of us were making the best of an unusually glorious day along one of the most beautiful coastlines on earth and it was good to acknowledge that. It was all very pleasant.
That is the thing about the South West Coast Path. It is among the most pleasant, gentle trails you could ever find out there. It is quite accessible and you will find walkers of all abilities, from hardcore thru-hikers to sprightly septuagenarians, in sections of the path. As trails go, it is pretty non-threatening: there are no bears, bobcats, wolves or snakes; no poisonous plants; no swift-flowing rivers to navigate; no crazed murderers waiting for hapless hikers, axe in hand; and no hill-billies on the lookout for naive idiots like yours truly, mumbling “fresh meat” like you see in the movies. At no point are you really away from amenities. There is always a village, town or beach a few miles one way or another, and it is safe to say you could take your grandmother for a stroll along the path. In fact, many people do.
Yet, the SWCP is a most impressive trail and completing it takes more than a pair of sturdy boots and a new rucksack with orange straps. The longest trail in Britain, originally created by coastguards to patrol for smugglers, it runs from Minehead in Somerset to South Haven Point in Dorset, covering 630 miles. This may not seem a great distance when you compare it to, say, the Appalachian Trail in the US (2,180 miles) or the Great Himalayan Trail of Nepal (1,000 miles), but trust me, when you lug a backpack and begin to walk it — actually, walk it — it is a long way. A determined thru-hiker would take a month at least to complete the trail, but the fastest time is by an ultra-marathon runner named Damien Hall, who ran the path in 10 days, 15 hours and 18 minutes.
But such attempts are rare, and most people are content to tackle the path in sections, spread over years. The SWCP official site features some 122 people as South West Coast Path Completers (I suspect the real number is higher than this). By the time you get to South Haven Point, you would have climbed up or down 30,000 steps, crossed 288 bridges, and ascended 115,000 feet. To put that last statistic in perspective, that is nearly four times the height of Mount Everest. Tell me you are not impressed.
But it is not for its steep climbs over rolling hills alone that the SWCP has made it into the National Geographic Journey’s of a Lifetime as one of the Top 10 Distance Trails in the world. On its way from Minehead, the path passes through 5 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, 17 heritage coasts, 1 National Park, 2 World Heritage Sites, and 2 UNESCO locations. The Jurassic Coast stretch, the 95-mile section of the SWCP that I was now attempting, is not just a spectacular sight but a record of 185 million years of the Earth’s history. A walk along it is a Walk Through Time (I am borrowing the catchline used to promote the coast here), across a stretch of cliffs straight from the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, through places where the first discoveries of dinosaurs were made.
And to think all this — this rich history, geology — lay at my doorstep! Bournemouth, where I live, is just five miles from South Haven Point, and I had never really appreciate the coastline for anything other than its natural beauty. Feeling a little chagrined, I made my way down to Ladram Bay to have a look at the spectacular red sandstone stacks.