Sue and I packed British sun and optimism when we began our trek in Minehead on the South West Coast Path on September 8. More than three weeks and 200 miles later, fierce winds and horizontal rain could not keep us from our finish at Land’s End.
Back home in Ashland, Oregon, still packing jet lag, it is time to reflect.
Best parts: Astonishingly rugged coastal scenery, remoteness, walking cliffside, the weather, few other trekkers, Hartland Quay-to-Bude section, unyielding climbs and descents, thousands of stairs.
Worst parts: The weather, remoteness, Hartland Quay-to-Bude section, unyielding climbs and descents, thousands of stairs.
How can that be? The weather was mostly great the first two weeks; just two days of rain, not bad for England. Then it turned on us and only let up for brief spells the rest of the way. Fierce winds nearly blew us (and our packs) over on precarious cliffs. One day, we had to turn back. On a couple of days, the winds made it too dangerous to walk at all. That is when the remoteness became a negative; if anything happened, we could be stranded far from help.
The Hartland Quay-to-Bude section tested us like no other trail ever; 9,000 feet of mostly steep elevation change, 15 miles, 10-plus hours. But over our pub dinner that evening, we were exhilarated because we had done it. That is what keeps us trekking. It tests us, extends us, and sometimes slows life to a crawl. We thrive on its simplicity and routine.
Backpack life: We lived out of several Ziploc bags that contained our rolled up, super lightweight moisture-wicking clothes. We sat on each one, zipped them shut, and stuffed the compressed bags into our packs in just a few minutes each morning. Our packs weighed about 20 pounds each, although Sue’s was a couple of pounds heavier. Plus the weight of water in our bladders.
Accommodations: We stayed in B&Bs, hotels, a hostel, and several apartments. Most included breakfast. Lunch was a picnic on the trail, sometimes wet. Dinner was usually in pubs, unless we had a kitchen…then we enjoyed dinner at home.
Thru hikers: We were surprised that there were not more people on the trail. Most were day walkers; some told us they were walking a section, then catching a bus back to their starting village. Some were walking for several days, but we did not meet anyone who planned to walk more than that. Sue talked to an English couple who had walked the entire 630 miles of the trail, but had done it in sections over years.
Jam or cream first? How one dresses scones is a hotly debated topic in Devon and Cornwall. But, why does a country with clotted and double cream put low-fat milk in their tea and coffee?
Animals: Sheep, goats, pheasants, and cattle (and their poo) were abundant. We often walked among them; once, a cow refused to budge off the trail, forcing us to detour.
Shipwrecks: Monuments and plaques mark the demise of many ships off the rugged coast over the centuries.
Gates: We climbed, squeezed through, and passed through more gates than I could count. Kissing gates, stiles, latching gates. Even some kinds I had never seen before.
Health: Sue and I each got hit by a bug that, thankfully, lasted only about a day. Sue wore a knee brace for a few days as a precaution and her careful foot care prevented any major blister problems. We battled soreness, especially in the morning. Once again, Sue was the stronger walker, especially on the relentless climbs. Neither of us is fast, but you can trust your bets on Sue conquering just about any trail.
Fitting end: As we sat in the restaurant at the Land’s End Hotel, the setting sun was our dessert. Like the trail, it made us appreciate the moment. We put on our boots and packs each morning and plunged into the unknown, knowing that no matter what was ahead, we had to do it. Each day was unique, but most were cause for celebration.
Climate change activists were out in force in Trafalgar Square, blocking the streets, but otherwise demonstrating peacefully.
We topped off our stay with a visit to Kew Gardens. The UNESCO World Heritage Site covers 326 acres and features the largest and most diverse collection of plants in the world. We were smart to wear our hiking boots – from Kew Palace (top left) to the spectacular greenhouses, there’s a lot to see…regardless of the season.
The deck chairs scattered about St. James’s Park were just too irresistible on Sunday afternoon. We’d been on our feet for hours, wandering through London’s Chelsea district, through the Victoria and Albert Museum and making a quick pass by Buckingham Palace. We scanned the perimeter of the park for an empty bench…with no luck. The chairs looked far more comfortable but there was a catch.
No such luck. The eagle-eyed Park Bouncer spotted us immediately and made a beeline over to collect his deck chair cover charge.
Wandering beyond the city walls of Bath we discovered the beautiful Prior Park Landscape Garden. Originally designed in the 1700s, the garden spills down a hillside below the Prior Park Mansion (now a private school). Meandering paths lead through woodlands and around lakes.
On a clear day one can take in stunning views of Bath far below. Weather was not so kind to us.
What a treat it’s been to spend these last three days in Bath, England. Our backpacks sit empty on the floor of our apartment, our belongings strewn about, as we explore the nooks and crannies of this historic city.
Our guide allowed us a few stops on our tour to the top of the Bath Abbey Tower. After a short lesson on the history and workings of the bells, we were led into a side room where we saw and heard for ourselves just how powerful the bells are.
The next stop had our group crowded together in a cubbyhole behind the tower clock. We learned the clock was once kept illuminated by fire, carefully watched by one whose job it was to keep the fire burning…without allowing it to ignite the entire Abbey. Apparently, this was highly paid, but rather boring work.
Eventually, we made our way to the top where we enjoyed 360 degree views of the city. Spectacular!
Our soggy, arrival at Land’s End will forever be imprinted on our memories, a goal we worked extremely hard for some days. However, our last day of walking was filled with visions of the historic remains of the region’s tin mining industry. Fortunately, the rain caused me to pack my good camera deep inside my pack, or I’d probably still be out on the bluffs snapping photos.
Much like the Doc Martin series put the little village of Port Issac on the map, the BBC series Poldark brings the world to the Pendeen Coast, where the Geevor Tin Mine (closed in 1990) remains open as a tourist attraction.
As we walked out of Pendeen, we were surprised by the number of crumbling remains of a once thriving mining industry. While it all seems very romantic now, history tells a different story of the dangers that lurked underground.
As pleasant as the above scene looks, Sunday morning brought horrendously strong winds to the area, foiling the plans of any walker in his or her right mind. Our host was kind enough to keep our packs for us until we could catch the afternoon bus to Pendeen, our stop for the night.
The photos really don’t do the wind justice, but trust me, it was howling. Fortunately, St. Ives is home to the Tate, where we wandered through 10 galleries of modern art, pretending to understand what we saw.
The mine closed in 1990, but a museum and underground tour (complete with hard hats), are both available to the public. We skipped past the big ticket items and wandered down to check out the ruins of the original North Levant mine.
Tomorrow we will arrive at Land’s End, our stopping point and the end of our South West Coast Path adventure. We really hope to walk the last section…rain or shine. We’ll see what the morning brings.
Our days have been a wild mix of gusty winds and drenching rain showers. Unfortunately, blustery conditions have kept us off the trail. Evenings, on the other hand, have been fairly calm and quiet.