South West Coast Path +

A first (cut short) attempt at the UK End to End

March 2020

In March 2020 the weather started to warm up (a little) and after a year of staring at maps I said goodbye to my home and my job and caught a bus to Land’s End. My aim: Cape Wrath, Scotland, in approximately 3-4 months time. Unfortunately at the same time Covid-19 was also doing some travelling and after getting as far as Exmoor I made the sad but necessary decision to return home. Plans are in progress have another go in 2021 2022 and eat in as many cafes as possible, but for now here is the write up of those first few very special weeks.


Section 1 (4 days), Land’s End to Perranporth, SW Coast Path

Day 1: It’s rather cold. I make a very quick tour of the (largely shut) Land’s End attractions, snap a quick photo of the sign post and get very numb fingers trying to work out how to adjust my new walking poles to the right height. There is a distinct lack of fanfare or fireworks to celebrate the start of this rather epic journey and no-one else around on a windy and overcast Thursday morning to cheer me off. So I get moving and spend a faffy few hours working my way to Cape Cornwall (layers on, layers off, sort postcard, find post box, layers back on again, filter some stream water, actually walk a bit, layers off again… you get the idea). I enjoy some quick-cook rice on the headland while watching the sun set and get the tent up for my first night of stealthy wild camping.

Day 2: I’m awakened about 2am by a howling wind which doesn’t show any sign of letting up so at 4 I give up and decide I may as well get the tent down before the rain starts. After an hour of plodding by head torch the sun starts to rise as I reach the Botallack mines and I shiver my way through some breakfast bars waiting for enough light to snap a few photos. The rain passes through mid morning but otherwise it is a dry day with a remarkable amount of sunshine and a cutting 50mph wind that makes it feel well below freezing. The poles prove their worth as I navigate several miles of cow-churned quagmires and the views are beautifully bleak and rugged with a huge swell that means I need to stop and clean my glasses every few minutes. The wind keeps me moving (sideways as well as forwards) and I make great progress, snuggling the tent away in a little thicket just short of St Ives.

Day 3: My little thicket acts as a wonderful wind break and I sleep soundly through the sunrise. Despite this I’m still in St Ives far too early for anything to be open (including the public toilets which are all shut until April!) and most of the morning is spent on roads winding my way around the estuary to Hayle. Feet feeling a bit flat, I stock up on some supplies and am just starting to feel the urge for a pasty when I spot a signpost for “Phillips famous pasties”. Halleluiah. They’re not going to make it onto my top-Cornish-pasties-of-all-time list but it’s great to tuck into some hot food that someone else made for me. I’m on my way out of town soaking up some actually slightly warm sunshine when disaster strikes and I realise that the little nut that holds the fastening on one of my poles is MIA. I forlornly retrace my steps for an hour or so and then manage to make a half decent replacement with some plastic string I find in the verge. It holds for a couple of miles before abruptly giving way as I’m mid leap over a muddy puddle. Despite this setback it is an enjoyable afternoon of bright sunshine, beautiful sand dunes and a rather excellent café stop for a mango smoothie. The kite surfers are out in force and Godrevey head is as always filled with seals (one of the few locations where they reliably appear by the “seals here” sign). I catch a quick weather forecast promising 60-70mph winds and after a brief power-walk am able to put up the tent in the shelter of Tehidy woods just as night falls.

Day 4: It’s another ludicrously early morning to get the tent down before the rain starts and a huge storm cloud soon appears over my shoulder as I cut through the woods towards Portreath. I’m pleased to report that my new system of wearing two waterproof jackets keeps me crisp and dry and I have a lot of sympathy for the rather saturated emu that randomly joins me to walk along its field edge. The weather keeps me on my toes all day with bright sunshine, lots of (rapidly approaching) rainbows and torrential downpours which thankfully never last too long. I’m lucky enough to live very close to the coast path and today sees me back on home turf. I fall through my front door mid afternoon and my diary entry reads “collapsed on sofa, feels weird to be inside”. I later realise that weird feeling was actually the start of a (stunningly well timed) vomiting bug and spend the next 2 days in bed, but we won’t write about those.

Section 2 (4 days) Perranporth to Boscastle, SW Coast Path

Day 5: Leaving home for real this time gives an odd mix of emotions. It’s beautiful and sunny and for the first time the wind had died down a bit and it actually feels warm. It feels strange to lug my backpack and (repaired) poles through such familiar territory though as I’m used to running this section of path it feels like I’m on a serious go-slow! I’ve changed onto Harvey maps (who do a very handy coast path strip map) and the new scale takes a bit of getting used to. Reflecting on my illness and sore feet I realise I’ve walked far too fast in my first few days so I book myself into a youth hostel for tomorrow to force myself to slow down a bit. I use the same reasoning to stop at our favourite Newquay café (Box and Barber) for a super fancy toastie but despite this still end up walking almost to Mawgan Porth. The winds return mid afternoon and I struggle to find anywhere sheltered to camp eventually opting for a flat and comfy bit of grass if nothing else. I get the tent up in the daylight (a first!) and snooze away the last bit of the sunshine before waking in the dark to realise I never had dinner…

Day 6: It’s a very very very windy night and, though I’m pleasantly surprised with how well the tent holds up, there is a limit to how well one can sleep while being battered about the head with the inner. I decamp by the combined light of a full moon and the first hint of dawn and make it into Mawgan Porth about 3 hours before all the cafes advertising cooked breakfasts actually open. A very kind dog walker gives me 20p for the toilets and becomes the first person to ask me where I’m headed to with that enormous rucksack. I’m cold and tired and it feels rather overwhelming to answer “Scotland”. I make it halfway to Bedruthan before finally finding somewhere sheltered enough to set up the stove and rather belatedly have last night’s dinner. I feel vastly better for it until it starts hailing, horizontally and with fairly extreme force. I hide behind a wall and feel rather bad for the flock of sparrows that have to depart in a hurry and find somewhere else. Having walked further than planned yesterday I end up at Treyarnon Bay youth hostel by 12. I’m already hungry again and tuck into a jacket potato for lunch then, rather than spending the afternoon with my feet up as I probably should, I set off sans rucksack to walk around the headland so I can cut off a corner tomorrow. It’s become sunny if still super windy and it’s rather nice to walk without the bag. On the way back I stock up on some more appetising looking lunchables including half a kilo of homemade flapjack (can vouch, it was worth every gram).

Day 7: I sleep superbly well though still wake with the dawn and set off early into a much calmer day bright with early morning sunshine. The new snacks and warmer weather allow for more rest stops but I still make it into Padstow for midday. Checking through my e-mails I find out I need to be in Wales for a job interview in 4 days time which somewhat breaks up the continuity of the walk but never mind! With a forced break on the horizon I keep up the pace on the walking and get the ferry across the Camel as a light drizzle sets in. It’s a lovely calm (if mildly damp) afternoon to finally explore some new and beautifully craggy headlands as for the first time I’m on a section of path I’ve never walked before. The rain keeps everyone else away and I get the tent up early in a lovely little woodland clearing and settle down to a pan full of left-over pasta from my rather exuberant youth hostel cooking.

Day 8: The morning dawns cool and dry though the tent is saturated with condensation – maybe there is such a thing as too well sheltered. I attempt to soak up the worst of it with my wash cloth but despite wringing out copious amounts of water it never feels any drier. Emerging from my hollow the winds are gusty and the sky is grey and it’s another day of fairly continuous walking with little in the way of breaks. The coast line is stunning with a major change in the geology giving high slate cliffs and some huge open mines which are so well weathered that it takes a while to see them for what they are. I make it to Tintagel castle for mid afternoon and a brief break in the clouds. I had planned to camp out for one last night and get picked up for the interview in the morning but the forecast is for heavy rain until midday so I decide to walk as far as Boscastle and then treat myself to a night in my own bed. It feels a bit like cheating and I have to remind myself that I am ultimately doing this walk entirely for fun and there are no rules to be broken.

Section 3 (4 days) Boscastle to Bideford, SW Coast Path

Day 9: I get the bus back to Boscastle with a job offer to start 1st July which is fantastic news but does add a bit of time pressure to get the walk done. Having missed a few days of spectacular sunshine while I was away its back to a steady drizzle, though this time with the wind completely gone and a thick cloud base which merges into the sea to blot out the horizon. Stocking up on food the first signs of coronavirus emerge with a 1m barrier around the shop counter that makes paying rather awkward. Solo wild camping in drizzle makes for perfect social distancing and on leaving the village I don’t see anyone for the rest of the day. If you want to pick a single day’s walking on the coast path I would strongly advise against this one. The dramatic cliffs are gone and instead the path climbs and descends its way over so many valleys that I feel I have gained (and lost) almost as much vertical distance as I have horizontal. I get the tent up early in a tiny disused field at the bottom of one such valley and, this time having brought my kindle along, spend an enjoyable last hour of light reading Dracula. It occurs after darkness falls that this probably wasn’t appropriate reading material for solo camping.

Day 10: The rain is still pattering down peacefully this morning and thick cloud hides the view so I get my head down and get walking. What is less peaceful is the mud, the rocks have changed again into a sedimentary clay-ish something and it’s the perfect ingredients for a thick claggy quagmire. I soon abandon any thought of avoidance and spend the morning sliding and squelching my way over yet more valley tops and bottoms towards Bude, where I hide myself in a plush-carpeted pub and try not to catch the staff’s eyes as I peel off my outer layers. A few hours and a lot of good food later I emerge to find the sky has brightened somewhat and for the first time in 2 days I can actually see the horizon. The coast line has straightened out in all dimensions and I make good progress along the cliffs tops before tucking myself away for the night.

Day 11: There’s more up and down this morning with two lovely surprises. The first, on crossing a footbridge is a marker post to say I’ve reached Devon (whoop!) and the second shortly follows in the form of Ronald Duncan’s hut, a one-room open-to-all place to sit and watch the waves. I enjoy a second breakfast while reading about his life and poetry, and also flicking through the guest book where I find quite a few other long distance walkers on their ways to all sorts of places. I wonder how many of them have now completed their journeys. Back out on the path the wind has changed direction, bringing what the forecast claims to finally be that lovely settled bit of weather that I’ve been promised for weeks! The clouds break up nicely and I’m back to great open views with some fascinating bays where the rock beds have been tilted almost vertically leaving barcode-esque stripes running out to sea. I stop for lunch by the stunning Speke’s Mill Mouth waterfall and late in the afternoon round the corner of Hartland Point. This is a major milestone on the walk and time to head east away from the sea. I wave goodbye to the distant headlands that have been behind me for so long and head into a much greener world of tree-filled valleys that is coming alive with primroses.

Day 12: Having spent the night on a high wooded cliff top I have a long walk this morning to reach a suitable stream to fill my bottle. The path follows a wonderfully flat old road that contours through the woods and a rather chilly looking stone carved bench dates these “new” 833 yards of it to 1901. After a chilly start to the day the sun pops out as I leave the road and return to the rises and falls of the coast path. The tide is out revealing a rocky beach covered in driftwood from the recent storms and I briefly take to it to avoid a couple of hills. The rocks turn out to be the perfect size to make walking really difficult and I clatter and crunch my way through them for an awkward half mile before scrambling back up the bank to the refuge of the path. Reaching Westward Ho I say goodbye to the sea which I won’t be beside again until Sandwood Bay at the very top of Scotland. I get a parting gift when my glove blows away and I get soaked feet rescuing it. Realising that communal hostel dorms are probably an excellent way to catch coronavirus, I treat myself to a private en-suite room in a B&B in Bideford (Corner House Guest House, which I highly recommend) where I am the only guest.

Section 4 (2 days) Bideford to Exford, Takka Trail and MacMillan Way West

Day 13: Unlucky for some. Today all cafes and pubs are shut by the government and we are advised that we should travel only if essential. I begin to realise that my walk may be shorter than intended but with the weather getting brighter and warmer by the day I’m loathed to give up now and make a tentative plan to continue as far as Bristol, exclusively camping and doing a smaller number of slightly larger food shops to reduce the number of people I come into contact with. There are still lots of people out and about enjoying the sunshine and I join the Takka Trail which follows an old railway line in a gentle curve into Barnstaple. Today is my fifth day of consecutive walking and my left foot is not enjoying the tarmac with an inflammatory-feeling pain starting to build in the ball of the foot. I down a couple of ibuprofen and keep to the grass verge as much as possible which seems to keep it at bay and on leaving Barnstaple for the woods and fields only a small niggle remains. Still, it is a reminder that coronavirus or not I need a rest day and I decide to stop for two nights in a youth hostel in Exford that offers camping. To get there is still a pretty long way and I push on well into the evening, eventually finding a section of woods with a little platform behind two ancient oaks where my tent is largely hidden from the path.

Day 14: I have a bad start to the morning when I get charged at by an entire field of sheep and then manage to offend three farm dogs (it’s a public footpath I promise!) which do a lot of teeth baring and growling as I edge my way around their yard. Soon I’m back into wild country with the path running through miles and miles of woods (ok, some of them are plantations) alive with bird song and dappled sunlight. I’m finding it difficult to enjoy it though with the growing sense that I’m doing the wrong thing in carrying on. I’m also fairly exhausted and decide to press on to the youth hostel and enjoy my rest day before making any big decisions. By midday I’m climbing a long grassy ridge onto Exmoor and there’s not a cloud to be seen. I break out the sun cream and make it down to just a single fleece. The horizon merges into the haze but from the top of the moors I can just make out the sea and am slightly awed by the distance I have walked in just two days. The rest of the day is pleasant enough and I’m almost the only person out. I make it into Exford for 5pm, sporting a bit of a limp after 5 miles on the road to try and reduce the distance. The youth hostel is a lovely old red brick house, bathed in sunshine and completely shut. So much for the reservation I'd made only 2 hours earlier! My only alternative is heading back up to a wild camp on the moors and in a state of moderate exhaustion I just can’t face it. It is with equal parts sadness and relief that I decide to end the walk. Many thanks go to the staff at the White Horse who are kind enough to hide me in a back room and feed me scones (Devon style with the jam on top, weird) while I wait for my poor long-suffering Robbie to drive 2.5 hours to pick me up.