South West Coast Path National Trail
The South West Coast Path National Trail is by far the longest of Britain's nineteen National Trails, and perhaps the most challenging of all. At an official distance of 1,014 kilometres, it is more than double the distance of the next longest National Trail, the Pennine Way, and longer than the combined distance of the four National Trails that I have previously completed.
For me, the path began at South Haven Point, by the mouth of Poole Harbour in eastern Dorset. The path follows the coast west through Dorset, South Devon, and Cornwall, rounding Land's End before heading back eastwards along the north coasts of Cornwall and Devon and along the edge of Exmoor to the town of Minehead in Somerset.
The path is generally well-signposted in both directions, and from the fact that all three guidebooks I've read describe the path starting in Minehead, I have the impression that the majority of walkers tackle the path in the opposite direction to the one I chose. My choice of starting point was made because I had previously walked around the coast from the Thames Estuary to Poole, and it made sense to keep walking in the same direction.
Along the way, the path passes through many historic coastal towns and villages, and the bustling maritime city of Plymouth. In between the many coastal settlements are the real highlights of the path -- secluded coves and beaches, windswept headlands, splendid country pubs, spectacular clifftop views, lighthouses, castles, follies, smugglers' secret haunts, landslips that regularly reveal fossils, scenic preserved railway lines, the remnants of a once-thriving mining industry, and even an outdoor theatre carved into a cliff.
The coastline traversed by the path is constantly changing. This is particularly evident on exposed parts of the south-facing coast, where fierce winter storms regularly batter and erode the land, causing sections of the South West Coast Path to be temporarily diverted while repairs are made, or sometimes permanently re-routed when part of the path slips forever into the boiling sea. The winters of 2012 and 2013 seem to have been particularly harsh, with around thirty diversions in place along the path at the beginning of each of the subsequent summers -- guidebooks for the path get out of date very quickly.
As well as the lateral distance covered by the path, anyone who completes the entire route will also have climbed and descended more than 38 kilometres (or around four and a quarter times the height of Mount Everest). While there are occasional flat stages of the path, most days involve a few climbs, and some days are real rollercoaster rides.
The Coast Path crosses quite a number of river estuaries, and uses ferries to cross several of these where the nearest bridge is a long way upstream. This is all part of the experience and should not be considered cheating -- the ferries are part of the official route of the National Trail, though at least three of them have very limited operating hours and walks must be timed carefully to avoid a long wait or a lengthy detour upstream.
While it takes just a few hours to drive from Poole to Minehead, walking between the two took me much longer; 54 walking days, spread out over three summers. This is definitely a path where the journey is more important than the destination.