I pull the wool hat over my numb ears and will the ocean’s roar to send sleep my way and block the churning doubt about what I am doing here. It’s 2am on a freezing mid-April night and I’m shivering in my campervan, in the middle of a field in Wales. Outside the moon casts a cool, white glow over the frosty paddock and beside me, my huge, loveable dog Bruce snores softly. We’d set sail the previous evening from Rosslare to Pembroke, arriving in the wee hours here to Beck’s Bay Eco-Campsite, Tenby.
At dawn, just beyond the campsite fence, Bruce and I take our first steps onto the South West Coast Path (SWCP). The wind barrels up the cliff face chasing away the long journey, uncertainty and sleep deprived cobwebs. I take a momentous selfie and for the first time in months, begin to feel that I’ll be okay.
Most normal people after a break-up, get drunk, have wanton sex or dye their hair. I got new hiking boots, bought a van and decided to walk 100km of the SWCP in Cornwall. The path stretches 1,014km along the rugged coastline from Somerset, hugging the shores of Devon and Cornwall, to Dorset. Like the coastguards who patrolled it until 1913 looking for smugglers, I too was seeking something valuable. Not contraband, but to find peace.
Walking to a better place
I first read of the SWCP, England’s longest waymarked trail, during lockdown in Raynor Wynn’s book The Salt Path. When we couldn’t travel beyond 5km and our relationship hit rocky times, her book gave me hope – the idea that you could walk yourself to a better place. Several months after we parted, I reread a quote I’d underlined in the book, “Life is now, this minute, it’s all we have”. Then booked a ferry for my very own pilgrimage.
After mouthfuls of still warm, flaky, pistachio pastry from the campsite farm shop, we cruise through the dew-laden morning, listening to local radio peppered with lilting Welsh. We play fetch on Tenby’s Castle Beach and wander the quaint, picturesque streets and side alleys. With dogs welcome everywhere, we browse boutiques, cafes and the bustling market hall.
My first veggie Cornish pasty is crumbly, oozy, and steaming hot, devoured on the sunny steps of a white Victorian terraced house. Bruce hoovers up pastry flakes and I watch tourists queue for fishing trips and excursions to the holy island of Caldey.
Breaking the journey
When travelling, to punctuate the solitude, I like to eat local food out. On the long drive to Cornwall, I stop for award-winning tapas and a cocktail served in a hipster copper cup on the roof terrace of The Yard, Appledore, Devon. As the sinking sun trails a shadow over the terrace, full bellied, Bruce and I stretch out our legs and sigh.
Following The Lonely Planet’s advice, I also stop in Clovelly, a captivating village held in time, as though in a snow globe, without the snow. You can peer inside the unseen, but felt, preservation glass for £8.50 during open season. Clovelly is a traffic-free, privately owned village. About 300 people rent to live here. This world-famous fishing village, built into a cleft in a 400ft high cliff, tumbles its way down past whitewashed cottages festooned with flowers, bijou shops, cafes and pubs to the tiny working port.
A steep, narrow cobbled lane is the main access in and out of the village, accessible only on foot. Each family has their own wooden sledge pulled by hand, that replaces the donkeys once used to carry goods, food and fish up and down the steep hill.
Further south is Padstow, my chosen starting point for the SWCP. Once a busy fishing port, it is now a bustling tourist trap, famous for celebrity chef Rick Stein’s foodie enterprises. A lively harbour milling with tourists wearing designer labels, it feels a long way from its fishing and ecclesiastical past.
In the hazy sunshine, Bruce and I climb the headland up and away from the hustle, on a squeeze-through path lined with sickly sweet, blooming hemlock. The trail acorn symbols direct us along awe-inducing fallen away cliffs, past blow holes, sea stacks, caves and arches where the cobalt blue ocean carves and crashes its course below.
Over day one’s 19km, gorse wafts coconut for the pleasure of it and we edge by stratified cliffs to the secluded coves of Mother Ivey’s, and Constantine Bay’s soft, boot-swallowing sand. Though sweat salty, starving and wind swept, I walk a little taller, less burdened somehow.
Wild camping in Cornwall is generally not permitted and scenic areas are patrolled by local authorities. But for £15 and with the owner’s permission, we stay in Trevone Bay beach carpark. A veggie burger sizzles in the pan, the sun paints the sky crimson, lilac and orange and the deserted carpark becomes more glorious than any five-star.
Everyone’s a surfer here, and Newquay is their Mecca. Once a quirky little town, flanked by famous Fistral Beach popularised in the 1960s, I expect a hippy, laid-back vibe. I get an Asda, a bus-lined high street, beat-up rusted vans and vomit splattered footpath – I trust my gut and move on.
On the right path
On a whim, I stop in St Agnes village and stay in Presingoll Farm Campsite on the hill gazing across to The Beacon, previously used as a Napoleonic War signal station. I park beside Zoe, who in 2019 ended her decades-long marriage, bought a campervan and embarked upon a new life as a full-time van dweller, working seasonally, travelling wherever she pleases.
As a single, child-free 42-year-old woman with dogs, I’ve felt lonely and exposed on this life, on the road less travelled. Like the trail’s acorns, Zoe is a way-marker: I’m on the right path.
The coastal path from St Agnes to Portreath is spectacular. There are mine shafts and evidence of the local tin mining heritage throughout – atmospheric, deserted places with a deep sense of history. That evening I feel deserving of the buttery, grilled crevettes and cocktail in the cozy, traditional Peterville Inn, St Agnes. A huge dog is a great icebreaker, and we are invited to share wine with locals.
With Bruce limping a little, we head away from the trail to The Eden Project. Located in a reclaimed china clay pit, the complex is dominated by two huge adjoining domes that house thousands of plants. One is a rainforest – lush, humid; the other, Mediterranean, with olive groves and a wine terrace. I learn of devastation caused by palm oil, the importance of biodiversity and marvel at Eden’s living proof that we can be the change.
We only regret the places we didn’t explore, the chances we didn’t take. If like me, you’re walking the path alone, at least for a while, don’t let it hold you back. Think big, take the trip, build your theatre of dreams
Theatre of dreams
In a guidebook, I read how Rowena Cade and her gardener Billy Rawlings hand carved The Minack Theatre into cliff face rock. Since the first 1932 performance, they worked on this legacy to their final years. Rowena’s formidable spirit breezes along the tiered seats whispering to dream big and that ambitions take time, effort and perseverance.
Nearby Porthcorno, is straight out of a Mauritian holiday brochure. The looped walk to Penberth is a worthwhile 5km past Treryn Dinas, a promontory iron age fort sliding into the sea. The giant boulders over 3,000 years old create a spiritual place of fortitude. I lose an hour here and gain some perspective.
The week flies by. Heart full, I wave goodbye from the ferry. The salty air clings to my clothes, soaks through my skin and there it shall be held, until next time. We only regret the places we didn’t explore, the chances we didn’t take. If like me, you’re walking the path alone, at least for a while, don’t let it hold you back. Think big, take the trip, build your theatre of dreams.
Never is it more important to listen to our intuition than when travelling alone. I feel a great sense of ease with Bruce: he’s 41.5kg, a formidable looking creature who’s always beside me. But keeping us safe is not just his job!
I tend to park up near other campers close to public areas, rather than very desolate, remote spots. Official campsites offer a firm sense of safety and provide the companionship of other campers. On the trail, I carry a personal alarm, a head torch, Swiss army knife, first aid kit with a foil blanket, rain coat and enough water and snacks to see me through a night should I ever get stuck. For me, hiking is about getting away from technology – going off grid – but for safety I keep my phone charged, topping up while driving and a battery booster in my bag. It’s also a good idea to let someone know where you are day to day.
When deciding to walk the SWCP, there are three factors to consider: your fitness levels, hiking experience and time available. I had five days available for walking and I can easily walk 20km or more per day over moderate terrain. This helped me decide how far I could go and the type of terrain I wanted to trek as some parts of the path are more challenging than others.
I did a lot of Googling on the most scenic parts and chose walks that were considered both scenic and relatively easy.
I found the website hillwalktours.com very useful for distances and intineraries.
I joined the Facebook group ‘South West Coast Path – Discussion Board for Hikers’ and asked lots of questions about buses for looping back to the van and walking with my dog.
I borrowed The Lonely Planet Guide Book for Devon and Cornwall from the library and purchased a book called South West Coast Path Padstow to Falmouth by John Macadam.
Based on one adult. Prices may vary seasonally.
Evening meal & drink