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United Kingdom: South-West Coast

Completion Under The Covid Cloud: Finishing the South West Coast Path in 2020

by Jim Ayres

I would preface this piece by explaining that is not my intention to trivialise the far greater impact of the coronavirus pandemic on others in the UK and around the world. Nor do I suggest that the frustrations and challenges that I faced in completing the coast path in 2020 are anything other than totally inconsequential when stacked up against the huge and often irreparable losses that others have suffered, whether these are physical, emotional or financial. I want only to express how much completing the path helped me through 2020, how being away from it during lockdown pained me, and that there is hope for all who love the path as I do that we still can, lockdowns and restrictions notwithstanding, get out on it again safely in 2021. I also share my experiences on travelling to and from the path during 2020 in the hope that it may give others confidence to do so themselves. I can’t say that I took absolutely no risks at all by travelling to and walking the path in 2020, but I can say that I did all I can to minimise those risks, and that even following the entirely justifiable government restrictions post-lockdown, it was still possible to continue my travels on the path without palpable fear of infection or infecting others. Completing the path would have given me an enormous sense of purpose and achievement even in normal circumstances, but to complete it last year, with all that was going on all around, was an absolute salvation. I have no doubt that more than ever, many others see being out on the path in a similar way.

On New Years’ Eve 2019, semi-sloshed on the industrial-strength cocktails that I can only justify making on that one day of the year,  I glibly told my wife that I would complete the South West Coast Path before the end of 2020.  On further investigation over the next few days,  I established with some foreboding that “completion” for me would mean around 470 miles of the path to walk, and largely the tougher miles at that. The North Cornwall, South Devon and West Dorset sections of the path that I was later to learn would be the most punishing were, as yet, untouched. 

My wife, well-used to my usually empty announcements of this sort (“I’m going to lose weight!”, “I’m going to learn the trumpet!”, “I’m giving up my job to be a miniature steam engine driver!”) acknowledged my “I’m going to finish the coast path!” with understandably lighthearted skepticism. For some reason, though, through the haze of vodka and knockoff Lidl Malibu, I had an odd feeling that this latest whimsical scheme would stick where so many others had not. This was perhaps partly because already in the second half of 2019 I had already lost weight and gained fitness, completing the gruelling but spectacular section between Paignton and Kingswear on a hot July day, (spoiler: all them nasty hills are concentrated right at the end) then Minehead to Ilfracombe in successive days in the early autumn. Despite really enjoying those experiences, it took quite a lot of booze for the idea of completing the whole thing to (a) pop into my head, and (b) seem like a good idea.

Southern End of the Path, Studland, Dorset (Image courtesy of Jim).

I had always been a walker. In fact, I had moved from my hometown in Surrey to Plymouth to be near the moors and sea in the mid-noughties. I had thought of myself as being reasonably fit and a real walker’s walker (whatever that means), typically walking around ten miles a time when going out for the day. But that long-held self-perception cruelly evaporated during a walk with a friend on the coast path between Looe and Polruan on a sizzling hot day in summer 2018. I had literally broken down on one of the many savagely steep sections west of Polperro, and although we eventually completed the route, it was a chastening experience for me. I had always resisted my friend’s preference for coast path walking, instead preferring instead inland routes, usually on old railway lines. I had told myself that this was because coast path walking was an exercise in futility; the constant ups and downs through all those valleys and coves were simply a waste of energy.  You can see the sea from a beach if you want to, after all.  And, being the type of deeply sad person who finds railways interesting, walking old train lines also appealed to me from a historical perspective. But the reality was, I had avoided the coast path because deep down I was afraid of all those ups and downs. I was nowhere near as fit as I thought, and I was overweight, probably by at least two stone.

In the early days of January 2020, while I was still facing up to this reality and sketching out my early plans to tackle those 470 outstanding miles, the virus we have all come to know and loathe was already in Europe. At this point in time, for me (and I suspect for many others) the growing media coverage of coronavirus was a source of disquiet and grounds for caution, but not a reason to abandon any plans. By mid-March, I had made a great start to my schedule, completing just under 200 miles. Amongst other sections, North Devon was all but done, Hayle-Newquay knocked on the head, and Penzance-Lizard licked. By early March, however, it already seemed sensible to carry hand sanitiser and open the window on the buses I was travelling on around St Agnes. On 23rd March, lockdown struck. I had spent so much of the previous three months on the path, had achieved so much of my goal, and now it had to stop.

As depressing as the current January 2021 lockdown may seem, for me at least it was the fear of the unknown, and the sudden and unheralded change to our lives that marked out the March 2020 restrictions. All those who have spent any time on the path will know that it is the very definition of freedom; we are outside, walking as much or as little as we want.  We pass so many natural wonders, and we are at liberty to stop and explore them all. Breakfast on a clifftop, lunch in a valley, beers on a beach. I had grown so used to all this, and now it would have to wait.

Throughout the lockdown, however, I continued to plan, albeit more in hope than expectation. I had always based my overnight stays in budget hotels with cost in mind, and as they introduced more flexible booking and refund policies, I rebooked previously cancelled overnight trips to Newquay and Bude for the second half of the year, and went further, arranging stays in Penzance, Weymouth and Seaton (that’s the cream first Seaton, not the jam first Seaton). As daft as it might sound, just the thought, the distant possibility, of resuming my trips later in the year genuinely helped me through the anxiety of the lockdown and the daily skirmishes with my six-year daughter’s inbuilt resistance to homeschooling.

bude canal photo, bude photo, travel and talkBude Canal (Image courtesy of Jim)

On 10th May, the government announced that “you can drive to other destinations” for “unlimited amounts of exercise”. This announcement was nothing short of a quantum leap; I was back in business. Over the following weeks, I made in the car what could now be perfectly legitimate hour-ish trips to near Pentewan, Portloe, Rock, Salcombe and East Portlemouth. I have always preferred taking public transport to get to walks. It is, let’s face it, the more relaxing way to arrive and depart from points A and B, and the very fact that you can start from point A and finish at point B rather than walking a circle is a major advantage in efficiency (particularly when you’ve a drunken vow to finish 470 miles of coast path to honour). But even using the car and walking only circular routes, I could still start ticking off the miles again. The glorious weather that had greeted the start of the lockdown in March, and had been perhaps the only consolation of the whole beastly thing, continued unabated throughout May and June. I bought a sun hat. And I walked.

salcombe photo, devon photo, travel and talkSalcombe, South Devon (Image courtesy of Jim)

If by some miracle you are still reading, you may have noticed the use of “near” when I list the places I drove to during the great May liberation. This is because, ever-mindful of the reservoir of infection still circling the country, and because I didn’t want to risk bringing filthy Plymouth city germs to the good residents of these beautiful spots, I did not drive to or into these places, and when passing through them, did not dwell too long. I drove to and parked in spaces away from towns and villages, leaving home early each time for extra safety. Google Maps’ aerial view was a veritable goldmine for finding spaces in remoter spots where I could park safely without blocking passing places in lanes. One layby, on the hill leading south from Pentewan, was right on the path, well out of the village, and had a spectacular view of the sea to enjoy whilst urgently rehydrating and getting your breath back.

looe photo, cornwall photo, travel and talkLooe, Cornwall (Image courtesy of Jim)

Out on the path, I immediately found that a quaint etiquette had already developed between fellow users to keep us all safe. By and large, in the many narrow sections people would wait for each other in suitable passing places in a kind of pedestrian equivalent of driving down country lanes. Standard jovial pleasantries were also invariably exchanged. The person waiting would almost be expected to have a quip ready as the other passed them. “Gives me a chance to catch my breath”, “Not a bad place to stop and admire the view”, “I’ll let you go first as you’re going downhill”. The weather, in time-honoured fashion, also came up often. It all felt so quintessentially British. And hand sanitiser, which previously you would only carry in case there was, shall we say, “a personal emergency” was now simply de rigueur before and after touching the day’s share of the 630 miles’ 880 gates. That, or the right-shaped stick to lift and replace the latches in true covid-secure fashion.

Between mid-May and mid-June, I completed around 60 miles of the path (walking over 100 miles to do it, which only serves to highlight why I had been trying to avoid circular routes). Never in my wildest dreams did I think that might be possible during the oppressive days of late March and April.  And, as infection rates ebbed, on 17th July we were told that “in England, from today we are making clear that anybody may use public transport”.  This was an even greater advance than May’s free-driving directive, and meant that together with the reopening of hotels on 4th July, overnight trips to the path would be possible once more (we are a one-car family, and leaving my wife and daughter carless for the weekend would not have been cricket). But it raised for me an important question: would trains and buses feel safe?

The answer to that, based on my own experiences between mid-July and mid-October, when I finally finished the path, would almost exclusively be “yes”. I found that transport providers had made excellent provision for social distancing and protecting their staff, mask wearing was widely practiced, and most of my fellow passengers respected the rules. It was also warm enough to open windows, which I found a great comfort having read about the importance of good ventilation. The brilliant open-top buses around St Ives, Penzance and Lands End were a particular blessing in this regard. I found too that travelling early or late in the day was a big help. I can’t imagine that the 06:48 Saturday bus from Bude to Hartland is ever particularly jam-packed, but the September morning I caught it, I had a whole floor of a double decker to myself. Likewise, the 20:11 from Poldhu Cove near Mullion wasn’t just empty as it hammered around the corner on a chilly early-October evening, the internal passenger lights were switched off. I’d still be marooned in Poldhu today if I’d not waved my phone torch from the darkness as the bus approached.

land's end photo, cornwall photo, travel and talkPortgwarra, near Land’s End, Cornwall (Image courtesy of Jim)

There were one or two hairy moments. The day I travelled home from Chapman’s Pool near Wareham, having just finished the coast path in that sensational spot, was genuinely unnerving. Just a few weeks earlier, the 10pm pub curfew had been announced, and my train passed through Exeter St Davids at 10.30. All of a sudden, my previously serene carriage filled with maskless, boozed-up people, many of them holding crates of cans for the journey home. Let’s just say social distancing did not seem a priority to this crowd. When half a dozen women started dancing in the aisle three feet away from me, I’m not ashamed to say that I scuttled off and hid in a vestibule until I could walk along the platform to the other, quieter set of carriages on the train at the next station.

There was also the constant possibility of not being able to board the service you wanted, particularly buses, if full. While this was not really a problem in places like Weymouth and Portland, where I twice had to wait an insignificant quarter of an hour for the next bus when the one I wanted was full, I found myself constantly making contingency plans in case this happened on a less frequent bus or train. Being stuck15 miles from my accommodation at sunset, having already walked 20 miles that day, and during a viral pandemic really did not appeal. I quickly learned that either getting a bus earlier in the day and walking back towards where I was staying, or avoiding the very last service of the day, in case I couldn’t get on meant that I could relax and enjoy the walks I had travelled to do. In the event, I was never stranded anywhere, and I was never denied entry to buses on critical journeys.

Despite the increased physical and logistical challenges that completing the path in 2020 posed, I nonetheless found myself on the beach at Chapman’s Pool on 17th October having finally ticked off all 630 miles (and with sore legs- don’t go to Dorset expecting a billiard table). The culmination of many months’ physical exertion and careful planning actually took place at an unassuming and unromantic patch of gravel at the top of the valley north of the Pool, where the previous day’s walking had ended. Even my choice of where to finish the path was coloured by coronavirus. I had originally planned to finish it at Lulworth Cove, but having walked through there the previous day and seen the crowds, and wanting to be able to sit safely and enjoy the moment, I decided this would not be wise. But I’m glad. Anyone who has had the chance to spend any time at Chapman’s Pool will know what a special place it really is.

chapman's pool photo, dorset photo, travel and talkChapman’s Pool, Dorset (Image courtesy of Jim)

Having finished the path in 2020, needless to say I immediately decided that the only sensible course of action was to do it again in 2021. This time, I would aim to get all 630 miles done by the end of this year, which would be a greater challenge as I had started 2020 with only 470 miles to complete. I completed the path the first time in entirely piecemeal fashion and in no set direction, and although I sadly do not have the time or money to commit to completing it again in a linear way, I will at least be walking the various sections in the opposite direction as much as possible. And this time, I will take my time a little more. In my tunnel-vision mission to get the path complete in 2020, I sometimes bit off more than I could chew in terms of distances and the time I allowed myself to complete the sections (hint: trying to do the savage 25-odd miles between Exmouth to Seaton in nine hours’ sunlight on a single day in February is a really, really stupid idea). Beyond 2021, I am making plans (and furiously flogging my possessions on ebay) to complete the 870-mile Wales Coast Path over three years between 2022 and 2024. That will of course take a good deal more planning, travelling and spending than the SWCP which is, relatively speaking, on my doorstep. But for now, as I prepare for my SWCP “Second Go Round” in 2021, I have booked accommodation in various parts of the South West from March onwards. Like many association members, I now anxiously await news of whether those trips can take place. But I know that whatever happens, I will get back on the path eventually, as will we all.

widemouth bay photo, cornwall photo, travel and talkWidemouth Bay, Cornwall (Image courtesy of Jim)

This article was originally submitted to the South West Coast Path Association in January 2021, and may also appear on their website later this year.