The South West Coast Path is one of the most magical trails in Britain. Once used by coastguards to keep an eye out for smugglers, it stretches – all 630 uninterrupted miles of it – from Minehead in Somerset to Poole Harbour in Dorset. And there’s no section of it more enchanting than the path that runs along the edge of Cornwall.
Where else in Britain would you find one epic walk that passes King Arthur’s castle and Merlin’s cave, through villages where witches sold sailors good-weather charms and past pirates’ coves, remote beaches where dolphins frolic, secret skinny-dipping spots and Land’s End – the very western tip of this island?
Rambling along a coast path with a knapsack on your back is one of the simplest, easiest and cheapest ways you can get outdoors on a human-powered adventure. Two legs is often the only form of transport that’ll allow you to venture into some of the most remote and beautiful pockets of the world, and walking is also one of the most contemplative things I know – perhaps that’s why there are so many poems and songs about its glories.
A coastal path is the perfect place to start if your navigational skills aren’t quite up to scratch – with the sea stretching away to one side of you, you’ll always know where you are, leaving your mind free to daydream. An experience to savour I wanted to walk the Cornish coast path, all 296 sea-skirting miles of it.
Before setting off, I met Sophie Pavelle, who hiked the entire trail in one go last summer. She completed an amazing journey, camping each night, making it from Bude to Cremyll in under a month. But I was more keen to savour the Cornish coast path, and complete the stretch over years, decades, perhaps a lifetime, to see different seasons and to dip in and out of its delights. So with a long weekend ahead, I figured out a route that let us cover 20 miles of it, with two nights in seaside cottages.
Before we left, I asked Sophie what her favourite moments of her hike had been. “Cornwall is a thriving place to see wildlife,” she told me. “I never would have guessed that on my walk I’d see a mother and calf harbour porpoise, a peregrine, an enormous gannet, coastal kestrels… The Cornish coast path is constantly rewarding you for your efforts with an amazing view from a cliff, a group of seals below, an unforgettable sunset all to yourself.”
We started gently. The first day was a five-mile ramble between two coastal cottages on the Roseland Peninsula. Our first stop was a lovely cottage in the tiny fishing village of Portloe. Number 9 Coastguard Terrace sits high above the sea, looking down on a harbour where fishing boats bob and lobster pots are piled high. The coast path snaked away up the cliffs, ready for the taking the next day.
First though, we walked into the village for dinner at the Ship Inn, where the locals immediately opened their weather apps and plied us with advice when they heard about our hiking plans. The next morning we set off, backpacks hoisted high. It was early spring, a watery sun hung in the sky and there was a feeling along the path of the earth waking up – the gorse bushes lining the trail were bright with sunshine-yellow flowers and we spotted tiny primroses and sea campion when the path ventured further inland.
I kept an eye out for the wildlife wonders Sophie had promised and a few hours later we rounded a corner and found a gang of sleek seals lolloping on the sand far below us in a tiny, inaccessible bay. They looked huge and ungainly on land, but when one dipped back into the ocean it became a graceful, shining beast, diving and turning beneath the waves. No wonder Cornish sailors used to think (perhaps a little wishfully, after months at sea without setting eyes on comely maids) that the seals they spotted were mermaids.
Mermaids feature in one of my favourite stories – and places – along the coast path. On the other side of Cornwall at Zennor, there’s a pretty church where, so the story goes, a beautifully dressed young woman once arrived to worship. She sang so beautifully that she was able to lure a handsome young chorister back out to sea with her, destined to be her lover forever beneath the waves. Now, when you explore inside the church, you’ll find the pew where the mysterious siren is said to have sat, with a mermaid beautifully carved into the wood.
There’s a darker history to the Cornish coast, too. Centuries of mining have left these cliffs like honeycomb, full of tunnels and secret shafts that stretch for miles underneath the sea. Here, local mining communities tried to eke a living from tin ore. Thousands of once-proud, now crumbling, brick mining shafts still stand tall like sentinels along the coast.
Five miles on, we arrived at Dairy Cottage, a tiny little house perched above Carne Beach, with time for a quick sea swim and a wander on the sands before sunset. The next day, we started early, with the lion’s share of our walk still ahead – 15 miles from the cottage door to the King Harry Ferry on the Fal river.
When you first go on a multi-day hike, your mind (and feet) goes through a series of stages. The first few steps feel gloriously exciting. After two hours, leg muscles are a little strained. But after four hours? You find a new mental state of zen. Bill Bryson put that deep calm that comes from walking long distances best: “Life takes on a neat simplicity. Time ceases to have any meaning. Walking for hours and miles becomes as automatic, as unremarkable, as breathing.”
By the last few miles of our final day, my zen state had ebbed away, the sky had turned iron grey, my legs were shaking and I longed for a hot bath. But as we drove back to Portloe, the evening sun broke through the clouds, painting the ocean pink and red, and I felt a deep sense of achievement and of appreciation for the Cornwall that poet John Betjeman called the land of “the golden and unpeopled bays”, of “shadowy cliffs and sheep-worn ways”.