The 50 Greatest Walks of the World - Barry Stone (2016)
12. SOUTHWEST COASTAL PATH
Distance: 1,014 km
Grade: Moderate to Strenuous
Time: 5-8 weeks
The 1,014-km-long Southwest Coastal Path, the nation’s longest national trail, begins at Minehead in Somerset and heads south, shadowing the well-worn trails of the coastguard - men whose job it was to clamp down on the rampant smuggling trade of the 18th and 19th centuries. The trails of the Southwest Coastal Path owe their meandering nature to these trails, trails that began being trampled into existence in the early 1800s after the establishment of the Coastguard Service in 1822 to rein in smugglers who had been bringing illegal goods into the country ever since the government slapped burdensome duties on to imported goods in the 1700s. The nature of their work meant the coastguard had to be able to peer down into a myriad of isolated and naturally sheltered coves and bays, which meant tracing pathways alongside some rather vertical cliffs - pathways that in many places are still followed today. Though long gone now, the coastguard’s presence still echoes here as you pass by old stone stiles, the remains of dry stone walls, and the coast’s smattering of repurposed coastguard cottages - accommodation that the coastguard were forced to build themselves as their presence was not welcomed by communities who were doing very nicely accommodating and feeding illegal smugglers.
Created in stages (there are 52 in total) with its final segment between Somerset and North Devon opened in 1978, it is now widely held to be England’s finest coastal path, and is one of the world’s must-do walks. The path is mostly, though for no particular reason, walked in an anti-clockwise direction, beginning in Minehead. The very fit can do it in four weeks (although bear in mind its approximate total elevation gain is somewhere between three and four times the height of Mount Everest). If this is your first time, however, then you’re going to want to take it much slower than that. A natural history showcase of uplifted, eroded coastlines, the jewel in its crown is the Jurassic Coast in Dorset and East Devon, England’s first natural World Heritage Site which provides a window on 185 million years of earth’s geological history. And there is significant human history here too, with areas that have been inhabited since Neolithic times when dense inland forests forced hunter-gathering communities to live along more open coastal fringes.
The varied nature of this trail becomes evident south of Somerset as you enter Exmoor National Park, an upland expanse of open moorland with its coastal heaths a Site of Special Scientific Interest, before linking with the Coleridge Way which takes you through a series of sites connected to the poet Samuel Coleridge (1772-1834). There is so much ahead of you at this point it defies summarising. In North Devon there’s Great Hangman, the path’s high point at 318 m and the highest sea cliff in England; in North Cornwall the remains of Tintagel and its castle with its mythic connections to King Arthur and Camelot; in West Cornwall there is the gorgeous sweep of St Ives Bay; and then Land’s End, England’s most westerly landmass - before skirting Lizard Point on the Lizard Peninsula, Great Britain’s most southerly point, as you turn northwards in the direction of bustling Falmouth.
Plymouth and Dartmouth provide plenty of great accommodation options before a crossing of the River Dart takes you into the ‘English Riviera’ through the coastal towns of Goodrington, Paignton and Torquay, birthplace of novelist Agatha Christie. The path melds with the South Devon Railway sea wall from Dawlish Warren to Dawlish and again along the promenade at Teignmouth, then once through Exmouth the climb begins to the High Land of Orcombe, the start of the walk’s most spectacular stretch along the Jurassic Coast. The assemblage of Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous cliffs provides an almost complete record of the Mesozoic Era (252 to 66 million years ago), and there are plenty of natural wonders besides such as the limestone arch of Durdle Door at the end of the 120-m isthmus that connects it to the mainland. The path runs along the entire length of the Jurassic Coast, which is where you need to pause and take one of the many guided walks that lead you among its eroded rock formations and provide insights into ancient habitats, and ecosystems long-since vanished.
SOUTHWEST COASTAL PATH
Photo: Dietrich Krieger
A host of charming villages lie ahead of you, including the sloping cobbled streets of Lyme Regis, the fishing hamlet of Seatown, Abbotsbury with its lovely 14th-century St Catherine’s Chapel, and the Georgian and Regency-style houses that line the seafront of Weymouth, much-visited by George III. There is the 144-million-year old fossil forest near Lulworth Cove, the gorgeous murals at Swanage painted by local artist Nina Camplin, and finally a walk across Studland Beach to Poole Harbour, having completed a rollercoaster ride of clifftops and hidden coves, of tin mines and forested subtropical creeks, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and five Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty - a walk with a surprise around every corner.