Spectacular scenery, and some challenging climbs, walking South West Coast can be tough but is well worth the effort.
It’s a crisp clear morning in March. I’m standing with my wife Charlie on the sea front at Minehead beneath the starting point of one of the most challenging and beautiful coastal walks in the UK – the South West Coastal path.
Between here and the path’s terminus in Poole lies 630 miles of undulating pathways, steep climbs, rapid descents and jaw dropping scenery. It can be a tough ask at the best of times, but now we have an added complication – in the form of the one year old Tabitha. We’re about to see how easy it is to complete this path with the added burden of a baby.
As with anything walking the path is all about preparation and breaking those 630 miles into manageable chunks. To get us started we’re spending the next couple of days walking the first and arguably most challenging section, across Exmoor. From here we’ll travel roughly nine miles to Porlock Weir where, all being well, we’ll stop at the Ship inn.
From there, it’s a 13-mile hike to our campsite at Caffyns Farm just outside Lynton and Lynmouth before we tackle the path’s highest point at the summit of the Great Hangman.
Walking the path with a baby, it turns out, is perfectly possible as long as you come prepared. Slung on my back is a baby backpack carrier which has enough room for the baby and most of our kit.
Add a tall sun shade to cover the baby, a hat and, a good helping of sunscreen, together with some toys to keep her occupied and you’re ready to go.
Aside from that you’ll need all the usual things to guide you on your way. Most of the path has pretty good mobile reception so we’re able to find our way using the OS app. The distances on here tend to be somewhat more reliable than the sign posts which seem to pick a figure more or less at random. For back up, though, we have also come with a guidebook and map.
On our feet, we’ve both got a sturdy pair of walking boots. It’s been raining recently, and the path is likely to be a little slippery, so it helps to have as much grip as possible. However, due to the strenuous nature of the walking it can also pay to bring a pair of trainers as back up.
Half way through our walk Charlie’s feet start to wear in the boots, so the chance to change into a softer pair of trainers is a life saver. Most of the pathway can indeed be walked in any kind of footwear.
Getting the right clothing is also essential. As we start the day is just beginning to warm up, so it’s important to dress light. However, the weather can be unpredictable on the path so you’ll need waterproofs and warmer clothing on standby.
And of course – no matter what the weather, a little sunscreen is important. The cool breeze coming off the sea at Minehead, disguises the strength of the sun. It’s easy to get burnt without noticing it.
Walking the route
So, with everything prepared, it’s time to get started walking the South West Coast Path. The pathway starts innocuously enough at first before entering the first of several steep climbs through the woods. From there you can choose an easier path along the cliff top or a slightly more arduous route up and down the undulating coves leading into Porlock. The latter can be tough but is by far the more attractive and exciting option.
Once the paths converge you’ll enjoy an incredibly steep descent down into Porlock Bay. You’ll only appreciate the scale of what you’re coming down once you look back up it as you arrive in the village.
From Porlock Weir you’re quickly climbing again and the path begins to take on a similar pattern. Again, you can choose between the high road featuring stunning cliff top views or a lower undulating pathway through the woods.
Either way the walk becomes more spectacular the further you go in. The landscape becomes more rugged, the path a little narrower and the drop off to the right somewhat more disconcerting. If you don’t have a head for heights, this might not be the most enjoyable segment. If you have a baby strapped to your back it really concentrates the mind.
Once in Lynmouth we head up to a beautiful little campsite at Caffyns farm which is perfectly set up for walkers. As well as access to a beach it also offers some pony trekking and cycle hire for those who are tired of the path. Best of all there’s a great breakfast which steadies us nicely for the third and most demanding stint.
The walk from Lynmouth to Combe Martin clocks in at almost 14 miles and is possibly the most strenuous of the entire route. The highlight is the Summit of the Great Hangman which, at 318 metres, is the highest point on the entire path. The locals warn us it will be tough, but it’s well worth the effort.
As we arrive, exhausted, at Combe Martin, we can take time to reflect on how tough this path can be and, but if we’re in danger of feeling smug about our achievement, the couple who pass us at a quick jog put us firmly in our place. Tabitha, meanwhile, has survived the ordeal in tact and has taken the opportunity to have a little kip.