Fiona Barltrop celebrates the popular South West Coast Path

THE 630-MILE LONG SOUTH WEST COAST PATH – originally known as the South West Way has been growing in popularity for more than 40 years. Now part of the almost 3,000 mile England Coast Path, it opened in stages in the 1970s: first Cornwall, followed by South Devon and Dorset, then the Exmoor coast, and finally the Somerset and North Devon section. The creation of the National Trail was based on the old coastguard paths dating to the 19th century, when a Coastguard Service foot patrol was established to control smuggling, which had been rife. Much credit for both the completion of the route, and the many improvements made to it over the years, goes to the South West Coast Path Association, which was formed in 1973, and still continues to play a very active part caring for and promoting the Path. .

It can be easy to take such a superb trail for granted when it’s been in existence all this time, but today’s Path is a huge improvement on that of 40 years ago. Compare it with, say, the much more recent Wales Coast Path, and what sections of that were like before its completion – many, like the SWCP in the past, frustratingly inaccessible to the walker, requiring inland detours (as I experienced walking both the Ceredigion and Lleyn Peninsula coastlines) – and it makes you appreciate just how fortunate we are today.

No matter the weather – and I’ve walked it at all times of the year and in all sorts of weather – the South West Coast Path never fails to revitalise and uplift one.

Wondrous, balmy days

It’s over two decades now since I first walked the South West Coast Path, covered in three separate fleet-footed, mile-devouring trips during the late spring and summer of 1996. I started with Dorset and was duly hooked. The north coast from Minehead to Land’s End followed, and finally the south coast, from the Dorset/Devon border, again walking east to west, as I prefer. Unencumbered by a heavy pack, it was a joy. (I had my own personal baggage transfer service, aka my mother, who acted as chauffeur moving the tent and other gear on each day to the next overnight campsite so I could move fast and light with the limited time available.) Wondrous, balmy days when the sun – at least in gilded memory – seemed to shine for much of the time, enhancing the pleasure and exhilaration I was newly experiencing in walking this most beautiful and glorious of coastlines for the first time.

Clifftop flowers

Since then I’ve returned most years to spend time at different locations getting to know better and savouring individual stretches. The more familiar I become the more I love this coast path, and no more so than in May – appropriately enough for its anniversary – when the myriad wild flowers which festoon the cliff-tops are at their best. No matter the weather – and I’ve walked it at all times of the year and in all sorts of weather – it never fails to revitalise and uplift one. As a long-standing member of the aforementioned Association, whose twice yearly newsletters include reports by those who have completed the Path, it’s clear that many others feel the same way.

Fiona Barltrop

Fiona Barltrop

This article first appeared in The Great Outdoors (TGO) magazine in June 2018, and is re-published here with the author’s permission. Copyright © Fiona Barltrop 2018. All rights reserved.
Fiona Barltrop is a freelance outdoor writer and photographer, with a particular love for coastal walking. She has been a regular contributor to UK walking magazines, including The Great Outdoors and Country Walking, for many years. She is also a member of the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild and available for commissions.

Books and maps for this part of the coast