My love affair with solo long distance walking began just a couple of years ago. In five days I walked the Great Glen Way from Fort William to Inverness staying in hostels and B&Bs on the way. I’d always enjoyed walking but had never before walked particularly far or over several days. After that first, fairly gentle introduction, I’ve discovered I can manage just fine walking 15-20 miles a day for a week with a backpack and tent, camping along the way. It’s become addictive and I find myself while out for a walk with Finn, daydreaming as I spy an unknown footpath leading off up a hill and wish I could follow it to see where it goes. Instead I slow down, look back at my son and encourage him along, hoping that in another year I’ll get the opportunity for a week long walk again.
This year it was dramatic cliffs and salty air that called to me and after evenings reading my inspirational ‘The UK Trailwalker’s Handbook’ I settled on walking the first 100 miles of the South West Coast Path, which in it’s entirety stretches 630 miles around the indented coastlines of Devon, Cornwall and Dorset. Feeling more confident after having completed a few long distance walks and given the ample facilities along the route I’d done very little preparation for this trip, aside from booking my trains and taking a cursory look at camp sites.
As I set out on the 10 hour journey south I looked forward to exchanging the cloudy skies of South Lanarkshire for the sunny climes of Devon. I obviously have a jaded preconception of the weather in the south as I spent the first two days wet, but feeling right at home, after continual, heavy rain. I had a couple of soggy, mildly unpleasant nights camping, yet, while I was walking, I embraced the rain. It was freeing to be outside with all my senses alive to the natural world and to have miles of wooded coastline all to myself as the torrents of rain had scared everyone else away.
My journey didn’t start so well. I was almost stranded in Taunton train station when the driver of the last busy bus to Minehead refused my Scottish five pound note. “We only accept pounds” he said curtly and turned away. “But these are pounds”, I replied. “Look, it even says ‘Pounds Sterling’ on the note!” I appealed to the queue of women behind me who backed me up but he wouldn’t so much take a further glance at my note and our exchange continued going round in circles for several minutes as I started to get more and more frustrated. I appealed once more to the queue and one of the women kindly paid my £4 bus fare. I was thankful and relieved but my exchange with the bus driver left me shaking with rage, despite my futile attempts at deep breathing and trying to enjoy the journey. Thankfully, this was the only negative experience I had and the rest of my journey was filled with the friendly, life-affirming encounters that I’ve experienced on every solo walk I’ve done so far.
The first stretch of the footpath is rugged coastline, alternately open and wooded with deep clefts entailing steep climbs and descents. Climbing out of Minehead towards Porlock felt like steeping into another world, dominated by verdant, dripping woodland and drooping creeper plants. Combined with the humid weather, the mist (which looked like rising clouds of steam) and the lack of people (I didn’t see another soul for hours), I felt like an intrepid explorer trekking through virgin rainforest. The strenuous ascents fuelled my appetite and by 10.30am, I’d eaten all the snacks I’d brought for lunch. Every so often, there’d be a gap through the trees where I’d be treated to a view of one wooded headland after another, capped by a top of mist. It was magical. I startled a red deer which loped gracefully away and then I caught up with it again twenty minutes later. All was quiet except for the rain dripping off leaves and the occasional chirruping and rustling of birds in the undergrowth. The spell was broken when I arrived at the quaint little hamlet of Bossington but with it’s charming thatched architecture, so different from that of Scotland it continued to feel like I was somewhere exotic. Arriving soon after in Porlock I felt the closest I’ll probably ever come to being a celebrity when a local woman on hearing of my lone escapades proceeded to introduce me to everyone we met walking through the village, including the local policeman.
Aside from the stunning scenery, the characters I met are what made the walk special and this has been a feature of all the solo treks I’ve done. On a daily basis I made connections, heard interesting stories and shared personal conversations with people I met. Until his fast pace defeated me, I walked for a while with a retired ex-army officer who disclosed how his perspectives had changed when 6 years ago he received a letter from one of his identical twin daughters explaining she was trans-gender. I sat and drank tea and mused over the meaning of life with a Swiss couple visiting Clovelly and I stood talking for over an hour to an unemployed south Londoner who had been walking vaguely round the coastline for over 6 weeks week with no map, sleeping wild. And as always I was asked over and over again… “Was I travelling alone?” “Didn’t my husband mind?” “Wasn’t I lonely?” “Was I afraid?” Yes, on some occasions I was afraid, but always as a result of my over active imagination as opposed to any real threat. Of course, real threats exist; we hear plenty of bad news and horror stories through the media. However television and newspapers seldom report on the kindness, generosity and feelings shared by the majority of people. On a previous walk along The Cumbria Way I was one day invited in to the home of a retired couple for tea, cake and a chat and the next day, in a café at the end of my walk, I had my meal paid for me anonymously by a stranger.
After three days of walking the landscape changed and I exchanged the wilder hills and cliffs of Exmoor for the wide expanse of beaches that North Devon is well known for. The type of tourists changed too, from middle age walking and wildlife enthusiasts to surf dudes and bucket and spade wielding families. The character of the camp sites was also notably different and I got a few quizzical looks as I pitched up my tiny solo backpacking tent between the huge static caravans at Woolacombe. I turned down the free bingo and entertainment and opted instead for the best entertainment there is; watching turn the sky red as the sun set behind Lundy Island.
Nearly everyone I met advised me to take a bus around the next stretch of flat walking around the estuaries between Saunton and Westward Ho!. The landscapes weren’t as dramatic as the Exmoor coastline, or as stunning as the sweeping beaches, but the small settlements I passed through had a character all of their own that made the otherwise monotonous miles worthwhile. I had trouble communicating to those not walking that taking a bus would defeat the point of a journey on foot. Following a linear route in it’s entirety at walking pace you experience the changing of the cultural landscape and geography in a way that you don’t appreciate when you’re being whisked along in a car. My destination was arbitrary. It was the journey that was the experience and the knowledge that it’d be my own self-reliance getting me there.
My final evening’s walking was the best of all. It was the end of a long 23 mile day, the sun was out, the evening light was enchanting and I was enjoying rugged cliffs once again with a view to the cascading village of Clovelly. Another backpacker had informed me of a tiny, basic camp site, half a mile inland of the coast path, that wasn’t marked on any map. There was only myself and a couple of other campers and after pitching up I doubled back to the coast to watch the sun setting out over the ocean and daydream about just carrying on and following the path ahead.