South West Coast Path

The South West Coast Path, often abbreviated to SWCP, is Britain’s longest National Trail – at least until the England Coast Path is complete. The SWCP itself makes up part of the England Coast Path, and as such was one of the earliest chunks to be in place.

The South West Coast Path was opened as a National Trail in 1978. It’s 630 miles or 1,014 km long making it more than double the length of the next longest. It’s a mighty undertaking to walk this trail, and would usually take a couple of months if doing it in one go. Many, however, largely because it is so big, do it in sections over a much longer period, which is what I’m doing.

The trail officially starts in Minehead in Somerset and heads anti-clockwise around the coasts of Somerset, Devon, Cornwall, Devon again and Dorset to an end at South Haven Point near Poole. As you would expect from a coastal trail, it’s a walk of lots of cliffs, beaches, town seafronts and the like. It’s one National Trail you can pretty much guarantee getting an ice cream every day.

In places the trail covers some quite rugged terrain, and it is common for a day on the Path to involve big descents followed immediately by a big reascent, then a short respite of walking over a headland, before doing it all again. A day walking the South West Coast Path will typically equate to as much ascent and descent as a day walking in the Lake District, for example. It’s not an easy trail.

Day 3 - the best scenery of the trip

My Walk of the Trail

In a conversation with my father in 2007 we talked about doing some walking on the Dorset coast, scene of several childhood family holidays.  Realising the the SWCP covered all of the area we were looking at, the idea morphed into doing the path itself, although originally we were only really looking at that first stretch and had no firm plans to do the whole thing.

The 4 days my father, brother and I did in June 2008 were hot and sunny and it was a great few days walking – so much so that we decided to continue with the path and to do it in annual chunks. 2008’s walk was followed by sections in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2,019.

The table below shows all of the walks in the order of the path from Poole (South Haven Point) to Minehead – so technically walking it backwards.

Where we bailed out and left a gap, the subsequent return to fill that gap in is in italics. Similarly, additional walks along the coast path that weren’t part of the main project are shown, but also in italics. Where a section was walked backwards, it is still shown in the main order, but the fact it was walked backwards is indicated in the “To” column. The write-up for each day’s walk can be found by clicking on the date.

SectionFromToDistanceAccommodationDate Walked
1South Haven PointSwanage12.2 kmThe Limes, Swanage06 June 2008
2SwanageKimmeridge21.1 kmBlackmanston Farm (***)07 June 2008
3KimmeridgeLulworth13.5 kmBurngate Farm, West Lulworth08 June 2008
4LulworthWeymouth19.1 kmSunbay Guest House, Weymouth09 June 2008
5WeymouthPortland Bill16.2 kmOld Bill House, Portland Bill14 May 2009
6Portland BillEast Fleet17.3 kmHeathwick House, Chickerell15 May 2009
7East FleetBurton Bradstock23.6 kmOld Pottery Annexe, Burton Bradstock (basic but excellent value)16 May 2009
8aBurton BradstockLyme Regis (stopped at Seatown)9.9 km (to Seatown)Smugglers B&B Lyme Regis17 May 2009
(8bWest BayLyme Regis18.2 kmCampsite near Chard, Somerset02 Sept 2014)
9Lyme RegisBranscombe17.2 kmMasons Arms, Branscombe (£)18 May 2009
10BranscombeSidmouth10.8 kmn/a19 May 2009
11SidmouthBudleigh Salterton10.7 kmAppletree Cottage, Budleigh Salterton13 May 2010
12Budleigh SaltertonTeignmouth23.6 kmRingmore Lodge, Teignmouth14 May 2010
13TeignmouthTorquay17.1 kmAshleigh House B&B, Torquay15 May 2010
14TorquayBrixham17.2 kmSea Tang House, Brixham16 May 2010
15BrixhamDartmouth (Kingswear)12.3 kmn/a17 May 2010
16DartmouthTorcross16.1 kmWaterside B&B, Torcross18 May 2011
17TorcrossSalcombe21.4 kmWaverley B&B, Salcombe19 May 2011
18SalcombeBantham19.0 mThe Sloop PH (£)20 May 2011
19BanthamRiver Erme15.1 kmLittle Orcheton Farm (*)21 May 2011
20River ErmeRiver Yealm21.6 kmTravelodge, Plymouth (xxx)22 May 2011
21River YealmPlymouth19.8 kmTravelodge, Plymouth (xxx)23 May 2011
22PlymouthCrafthole25.8 kmLiscawn Inn, Crafthole19 May 2012
23CraftholeLooe15.4 kmPencarrow Guest House, Looe (2012)
Little Harbour, Looe (2013)
20 May 2012
24LooeFowey20.3 kmWell House B&B, Fowey (**) (2012, 2013)21 May 2012 and 23 June 2013
(24aLooeTalland Bay12.1 kmHoliday home in Looe21 April 2019)
25aFoweyPar12.0 kmn/a22 May 2012
25bFoweySt Austell18.1 kmPen Star Guest House, St Austell (xxx)24 June 2013
26St AustellGorran Haven15.0 kmSwiftsure, Gorran Haven (***)25 June 2013
27Gorran HavenPortscatho19.7 kmTrewithian Farm26 June 2013
28PortscathoFalmouth21.4 kmBraemar GH, Falmouth07 Sept 2014
28aFalmouthFalmouth5.7 kmBraemar GH, Falmouth06 Sept 2014
29FalmouthSt Keverne21.4 kmWhite Hart (PH), St Keverne08 Sept 2014
30St KeverneKuggar14.1 kmLyndale Cottage GH, Helston09 Sept 2014
31KuggarMullion18.5 kmLyndale Cottage GH, Helston10 Sept 2014
32MullionPortheven12.1 kmCarnson House, Penzance (x)11 Sept 2014
33PorthlevenPraa Sands6.8 kmCarnson House, Penzance (x)12 Sept 2014
34Praa SandsPenzance15.0 kmWhiteways GH, Penzance (x)01 June 2015
35PenzancePorthcurno19.2 kmWhiteways GH, Penzance (x)02 June 2015
36PorthcurnoSt Just18.6 kmWhiteways GH, Penzance (x)03 June 2015
37St JustZennor (walked in reverse)21.4 kmWhiteways GH, Penzance (x)04 June 2015
38ZennorSt Ives10.9 kmn/a (2015)
Lord Ryans, St Ives (2016)
05 June 2015
39St IvesGwithian18.6 kmNanterrow Farm (*)03 May 2016
40GwithianPortreath14.6 kmPortreath Arms, PH04 May 2016
41PortreathPerranporth19.7 kmSeiners Arms, Perranporth (x)05 May 2016
42PerranporthNewquay16.7 kmGriffin Inn, Newquay (x)06 May 2016
43NewquayPorthcothan17.0 kmOld Macdonalds Farm07 May 2016
44PorthcothanPadstow22.1 kmRoscrea B&B, Bodmin08 May 2016
45Padstow (RockPort Isaac19.9 kmToppesfield House B&B, Camelford (***)05 July 2017
46Port IsaacTintagel (walked in reverse)15.5 kmToppesfield House B&B, Camelford (***)04 July 2017
47TintagelCrackington Haven (walked in reverse)19.6 kmPendrin GH, Tintagel (x)03 July 2017
48Crackington HavenBude (walked in reverse)16.6 kmPendrin GH, Tintagel (x)02 July 2017
49BudeMorwenstow16.3 kmBush Inn, Morwenstow08 July 2019
50MorwenstowHartland16.0 kmClouds B&B, Stoke09 July 2019
51HartlandClovelly17.6 kmHamlyns / New Inn, Clovelly (x)10 July 2019
52ClovellyAbottsham20.5 kmLower Winsford B&B11 July 2019
53AbbotshamBideford24.3 kmLower Winsford B&B12 July 2019
54BidefordBarnstaple19.1 kmn/a13 July 2019
*=Great accommodation, £=expensive accommodation, x=bad accommodation

Guidebooks and Navigation

As you can imagine, the duration of this project means that guidebooks and maps have evolved since we started. What we used on any particular section has tended to vary as my preferences have changed, and as new books/maps became available.

Another complication is that guidebooks and maps tend to break the South West Coast Path down into separate sections as the trail is so long. It is quite common for a publisher to break the path down into anything from 3 to 6 sections.

As a long established trail, and one of the most popular, all of the main guidebook publishers cover the SWCP, so it becomes a matter mainly of personal preference which one you go for. So offerings by Trailblazer, Cicerone, the official guide etc are all available.

Personally, route finding is a minor issue on the SWCP – there is a lot of truth in an approach of keeping the sea on your left or right (depending on which direction you’re walking). I can’t think of any significant instances where an inland detour isn’t well signed – maybe if there has recently been some erosion of the cliff, that may be the case.

The path itself is well signed with the acorn, and in places many of the gates and stiles have OS Grid references attached (this largely seems to vary according to which council area you’re in).

So, a guidebook and/or map is primarily useful for two things:

  • Confirming how far down a particular section you are / how far to the next facilities etc.
  • Helping you plan logistics

How much you need either of these things will largely be a factor of how you are tackling the path – in one go, or in sections, or as individual day walks.

Logistics

The hardest thing about planning a walk of the South West Coast Path is the sheer complexity of the logistics. You’d have thought that following the coast and passing through loads of seaside towns and villages would make it simple, but it’s not quite as easy as that.

When we planned the sections we did, the crux was accommodation – booking for single night stays, not as a couple but a couple of guys wanting a twin room rather than a double was problematic. We found the best way to plan was to research all the accommodation options for each of the daily stages, then start with the most scarce or tricky place and sort that out, then fit everything around that. Our logistics was further constrained by my Dad not wanting to camp or stay in hostels, so it had to be B&Bs each night. This tied us to stopping in actual civilisation each day. On several occasions we had to head a mile or two inland, tired at the end of the day, for accommodation that met our requirements. And it was usually uphill too.

The problem was compounded by the fact that if we couldn’t find accommodation where we wanted to end the walk, we may have to shorten or lengthen that day to find somewhere we could stay. Which then created a knock-on issue for the next or previous day. We used several strategies overall, mostly driven by necessity rather than choice:

  • basing ourselves in Penzance and using the buses to get to the start and end of the walk each day – when we were down the far end of Cornwall.
  • Staying two nights in one place and using the bus or car to cover the gap.
  • Heading inland and staying well off path, using bus / train links.
  • Unusual accommodation choices because that’s all that was available – a converted garage on one occasion.
  • Tying in our overnight stop with a big inland detour to avoid a river crossing my Dad wasn’t keen on doing.

Getting food and drink each day wasn’t really a problem – because we stayed largely in places where people lived, there were usually shops to buy supplies at the start of the day, even on the days when there wasn’t much in the way of cafes or shops en route.

I found the website of the South West Coast Path Association (and the book they publish) to be particularly helpful. Other than that I used a variety of books and maps and a lot of Google.

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