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.