Why coastal walks are an adventure into a frontier zone
If push came to shove – if I was held against a wall and given no option but to name in detail my single favourite pastime here in the Westcountry – then the answer would have to be coastal walking.
It is profoundly different from any other outdoor experience – and somehow, I'd venture, more exhilarating. Of course, swimming, cycling, horse riding, fly-fishing and countless other countryside pursuits have their own thrills, kicks and pleasures – and walking itself comes in many different enjoyable guises.
I love hill-walking and strolling through forests – few things can beat a gentle summer meander along the side of a river – but it's striding along by a vast, salty, restless, ozone-spilling ocean that does it for me.
Why? Well it might be something to do with all that ozone giving the walker just that little bit of a high. Add that to the intensive light that you get when sunshine is bounced off thousands of square miles of sea and you start banishing things like seasonal affective disorder in a trice.
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But I think it's also got something to do with the excitement of being on a frontier. For that is really what a coast is…
If you are walking in an anti-clockwise direction along the coast path (ie from Minehead around the 630 miles to Poole), then everything on your left will be terra firma. That is our zone – our human habitat. But everything on your right will be liquid and foreign, dangerous and mysterious, moving and changing.
To your left the known world will have absolutes and restrictions. It is a brittle place full of rules and certainties – responsibilities and realistic expectations.
To your right there are only waves and dreams. The immense blue plate of nothingness out there stretches beyond reason – it extends in its dangerous, seething, vastness to places that you can only dream about.
Walk on our most westerly cliffs and you know that the next thing out there in one direction is New York. In another you'd come, eventually, to tropical beaches. Such thoughts are wild and crazy. There's you, being buffeted by a winter gale out on the granite rock stacks somewhere past Zennor – and you know that if you were somehow magically able to travel far enough across the blue disc, then you'd hear the honk of big yellow taxis or the haunting cry of rainforest birds.
And so a walk beside the sea isn't just a matter of hauling yourself up and down all those ascents and descents that are the hallmark of the South West Coast Path (SWCP) – it is somehow an adventure into a frontier zone between the known and the unknown.
Think I'm being far too fanciful? Well, the SWCP is believed to be the most popular long-distance trail in Europe and is estimated to generate more than £300 million for the regional economy each year.
That figure is from research undertaken in 2003 – I would imagine it's much bigger now, which makes it by far the most important entity for our region's tourism-based economy.
Of course, you can make statistics say almost anything you want – and as you can see from the above, I am biased when it comes to coastal walking – but don't just take my word for it. The new Great Adventures book, published this month by Lonely Planet, has described the SWCP experience as "walking at its most diverse, most spectacular and most delicious".
The glorious maritime right of way is the only walk in the UK to make it into the highly respected guide.
Yet despite all this, funding for the path's maintenance has shrunk in recent years – which some people, me included, think is the municipal equivalent of killing geese that lay golden eggs. It's simply not good commercial sense – you cannot imagine even the meanest of businessmen thinking: "We've got to cut costs – so let's downgrade the one thing that brings in our biggest income stream."
There are increasing concerns when it comes to costs for ongoing maintenance of the profitable path, let alone improvements and upgrades to make it more accessible.
To raise funds to give the 630-mile route some much-needed tender loving care and to celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2013, the South West Coast Path Association (SWCPA) is encouraging people to take part in The Great South West Walk.
The event will see a series of 56 sponsored walks, done in relay, staged to cover the entire length of the path from Minehead to Poole. For more information, or to sign up to take part, visit the dedicated website at www.GreatSouthWestWalk.co.uk. You can also keep up to date by following the event on Twitter at @LoveSWCoastPath.
But to mark the move and re-branding of this newspaper's Westcountry Walks column from Fridays to Saturdays under the new name of Classic Walks, I've been asked to outline a little round-up of my own favourite coastal walks gleaned over 13 years of traipsing up and down the peninsula.
Oddly enough, they're not all on the celebrated SWCP, because some of the best lie 28 miles west of its nearest mile at Land's End. I refer, of course, to the Isles of Scilly – which actually offer the best coastal walking anywhere.
I say that for several reasons, but lack of traffic amounts to something and the overall oceanic experience caps the lot. Each of the five inhabited isles is circumnavigated by its own coast path and I'm not going to get into the business here of preferring one over another. They are all fabulous. If you haven't been over to the archipelago and enjoyed one of these round-island walks and ever get any chance whatsoever to go, I heartily recommend you do so.
Let's return to the mainland and its famous coast path and start at Minehead, which is where the majority of walkers who want to hike the whole 630 miles tend to begin.
Despite having sold its soul to the Devil (by which I mean a large and loud holiday camp) decades ago, the Somerset resort is rather lovely, if you know where to look, and is rich in excellent walks.
The one I'd recommend takes you from Minehead Station around the coastal flanks of North Hill to return over the big ridge via Woodcombe. Much of this six-mile circular route is coastal – and most of it affords fabulous sea views.
Moving west, we come to one of two great corners that change the direction of the Westcountry's north coast – by which I mean Bull Point. The rocks out there on the penultimate finger of North Devon are of the knife-edge variety. It is an ever narrowing land of a thousand vertical razor-backs – and the hike that takes you from Mortehoe out to the end of Morte Point then north around Rockham Bay to Bull Point before heading inland back to the village is one of the best in the area.
Now let's head down the North Cornish coast to mighty St Agnes Beacon. This circular coastal jaunt takes us five rather dramatic miles from Trevaunance Cove just under the village of St Agnes, west along the coast path to St Agnes Head, south to Wheal Coates Mine and then inland over the beacon hill and back to the village.
In some ways this is one of the most iconic of Cornish walks in that it's got it all – two sandy surfing coves, huge crags, classic tin mine ruins clinging impossibly to cliffs, and plenty of Celtic-style legends.
Much could be said for many of the hikes in far-flung West Penwith. And icons don't get much more famous in the Westcountry than Land's End, which is a compulsory draw for people visiting the far west – and there are some truly excellent coastal walks to be had both sides of the famous headland. One of the best and most interesting is the five-mile walk north to equally iconic Cape Cornwall, though I'd prefer to do it the other way around. The great thing about walking in West Penwith is that an excellent bus service plies around the peninsula on a regular basis.
So take the walk from St Just to Sennen Cove via inland and coastal paths – and from there it's a quick but amazingly dramatic half hour's stroll along the cliff tops to Land's End. You'll have done five miles of some of the best coastal walking in the region and have earned your bus ride back.
Now to another big corner – and they don't get much bigger than the Lizard, which is one of the richest areas for circular coastal walks there is. Finding circular routes by the seaside is not always easy, but peninsulas lend themselves beautifully and down at the end of the Lizard you are spoilt for choice. The one I'd go for on a pleasant day would be the walk that takes you from Lizard Town, south to Lizard Point, and then west and north-west in a great loop to Kynance Cove – to return via inland paths.
If a westerly gale is blowing, go east from Lizard Town to Church Cove and then north across inland footpaths to Cadgwith before returning south via the coast path.
Galloping fast up the south coast, we pass countless fantastic walks – but in a brief round-up like this we haven't time to wheel, seagull-like, around any, let alone describe their routes. So let's settle for a coastal stroll around the Penlee Point and Rame Head peninsula from Cawsand.
The coastal area located across the Tamar west of Plymouth is known as Cornwall's Forgotten Corner – visitors from upcountry tend to pass by when heading further towards the big blue Atlantic – but they are missing a wonderful treat. The coastline is wonderfully wild and scenic – indeed, it is hard to imagine you are just a few miles from the 11th biggest city in the country – and this circular route along the seaside to Rame and back via inland paths will show you the best of it.
Further east, we reach Devon's South Hams which, arguably, offer some of the finest coastal walking in the entire peninsula. If you want a big, exhilarating one-way march, try the Hope Cove-to-Salcombe section which will take you seven miles along one of the south coast's least messed-about-with areas.
Prepare to be awed. Prepare to stop and stare on a regular basis. Be ready to linger far longer than you planned. This seven-mile hike will take more time than you think, quite simply because there is so much to admire.
Lastly, let's leap east again – ignoring literally hundreds of potential coastal hikes as we go – to land swan-like at the lovely ancient village of Abbotsbury in Dorset. There's a simple walk to be enjoyed here and, I promise you, it is a lovely one – quite different from the others in this round-up. All you do is march from Abbotsbury Swannery up to St Catherine's Chapel and then west along the coast path to Chesil Bank – to return via the bridleway to the village.
Easy. But then, all the walks mentioned in this all-too-brief round-up, are simple to follow. Don't think for a second, though, that simplicity translates to tedious and mundane. No way. These are some of the very best walks in the region – which in my opinion makes them some of the best in Britain.