So much has happened in the last two weeks, it’s hard to know where to begin. I must admit I was a nervous wreck well before this trip began. I had been reading about English trails in books and on the internet and quickly learned that the Southwest Coastal Path, England’s longest hiking trail (about 630 miles long), is not for the weak or timid. It is a strenuous, difficult, challenging hike, with rocky steep ascents and descents and dangerous cliffs that drop precipitously to the ocean. Since I am not a fan of rocky root-strewn trails, even when they are at sea level, I had reason to be anxious. In addition, my recent falls and broken bones had left me with an abiding fear of possible future accidents. I readily admit that my nerves were frayed for a full month before this trip even started. It also dawned on me that I would be traveling alone to a foreign country (albeit one where English was spoken) and I would have to find my way in unfamiliar airports and hotels all by myself. I tried meditation; I tried progressive relaxation; I tried long slow walks and fast speedy walks. Nothing helped to allay my misgivings.
Nevertheless, I put my concerns aside and forged on ahead. I paid my money to Timberline Adventures for their Cornwall Hike Odyssey and was determined to get as much pleasure out of the trip as I could. Walking across England’s many footpaths had long been a dream of mine and the earlier walks along the Thames River this past June only succeeding in whetting my appetite for more and longer adventures. So, here I was, packed and ready to fly to London Heathrow on August 30 for the start of my Cornwall excursion. Fortunately, the day before I was to leave, I had decided to stop in at Brasington’s, one of our few outdoor supply stores, to see if I could find some trekking poles. Many hikers swear by them and I thought having a pair on hand might be a good idea. I am so glad I did! The young salesman had used poles to hike the Appalachian Trail so he was extremely knowledgeable. He helped me select a pair of lightweight foldable Lekki poles that turned out to be my constant companions for the next two weeks.
My plane was due to leave at 12:55 pm, or so I thought. Good thing I checked because it turned out the time was moved up to 12:35 and we had to hustle to get to the airport. My husband dropped me off and I checked my large suitcase and boarded the small CRJ 200 with my little suitcase and my new over-the-shoulder bag from LL Bean which was just big enough to carry my 4 pairs of glasses, my toiletries, and my Bose headphones (all essential items for long flights). My first flight was short and uneventful; with several hours to spare in Atlanta, I made my way to the international terminal and shored up at the Sky Club there, sipping club soda and munching on hummus, cheese, veggies, and crackers until time to board the 767 for London.
My seat was in the first economy row, right behind the more generous economy comfort seats. I probably should have splurged for the more comfortable seats but it was too late now. The young man sitting beside me seemed nice enough; his arms and legs were covered in tattoos and I thought he might be in a rock group, but he was not very talkative and preferred to watched movies on his laptop the entire flight. Dinner wasn’t served until after 8 pm (cold chicken slices on a bean/corn/lettuce salad). I ate my fill, brushed my teeth in the lavatory, and tried to rest but I managed to get a couple of hours of fitful restive sleep. I woke up about an hour before we landed and managed to down a cup of hot coffee, half an unripe banana, and a little bit of spicy egg croissant.
Dazed, exhausted, parched, I followed everyone off the plane, through immigration and customs, and then managed to find my way to the buses outside terminal 4. Unfortunately, here’s where things went sour – if only I had really read and assimilated the instructions more carefully! I thought I knew which hotel I was supposed to go to but I had misinterpreted the directions. It was totally my fault and I felt really dumb. There are 3 Holiday Inns at Heathrow and I chose the wrong one. When I realized my mistake, the clerk at the incorrect hotel offered to get me a taxi to the correct one. I agreed gratefully, since the idea of lugging my bags back to the airport on the hotel shuttles (which cost about $7.50 each way) and then leaving again to arrive at the right one was just too much for me at that point. The taxi driver charged me the equivalent of $35 to go 2 miles. Heck, I could SEE the other hotel but I just couldn’t get there because of traffic and no sidewalks. I felt I was taken for a ride, literally, but I was too exhausted to protest much. And at least I was finally at the right place.
The Holiday Inn where Timberline had made pre-tour reservations was definitely not as nice as the ‘wrong’ Holiday Inn, which was upscale and luxurious. The one we stayed at was small, a bit rundown, and not very attractive, but it was close to several restaurants and seemed clean. After checking into my room, I walked to a nearby McDonalds for a breakfast and a large coffee. The caffeine and fresh air helped revive me a little, but I had to admit that when I returned to my room, I looked longingly at the bed. I resisted. I was trying hard to stay awake at least until 4 pm. I succeeded until 9 pm and then found it hard to fall asleep. Oh, well.
Saturday, August 31 – our group was supposed to meet in the lobby of the hotel at 9 am. I checked out of my room at 8:45 and stood around the front desk with my suitcases looking for other likely candidates for the trip. Sure enough, I saw a lady with a Timberline Adventures (TA) shirt, surrounded by several women who looked to be in their 40’s and 50’s, maybe even a little older. That was a relief – I was concerned I might be the oldest person in the group. The TA lady introduced herself as Kisa, one of hike’s leaders. People continued to gather and introduce themselves (although several of them knew each other, either because they had been on other hikes together or because they were already friends). Our driver soon showed up and began to load our luggage into the roomy van. We piled in as well. We left London and began our trip to Bude, a small seaside village on the northern coast section of the path; this was to be our starting point for the hike. It was about a 5 hour drive, not counting several stops for potty breaks and lunch. We passed by Stonehenge (we could see it from the road) and I remembered when I had visited it on my first trip to England 40 years ago.
We arrived in Bude in the early afternoon. Our rooms at the Falcon Hotel were ready and though tiny, my room was clean and attractive. It was here that we met Dick and Carol, the other leaders of the hike. They had been in England for several days scouting out the path and locating good places to eat and visit. We all met before dinner to discuss the ins and outs of the trip. This is where I had my first truly agonizing moment – Dick and Carol described the path and told us that we needed to follow the acorns on wooden posts that marked the correct trail. We were to ignore the ‘social trails’ that were informally created by hikers but that were not the actual national trails. I was familiar with the acorn markings from my Thames walk and I knew that sometimes the markings were absent or confusing. I asked – ‘why do we have to note the trail markings? Won’t we all be together?’ and was told bluntly that ‘no, we all walk at different speeds, so sometimes we may be by ourselves and it was important to know where to go.’ This totally threw me – one of the reasons I took this trip was to be with other people and not have to worry about getting lost and finding my own way on the trail. The problem of having to switch my glasses from distance lenses for walking to reading glasses for interpreting maps is time-consuming and difficult. And I didn’t want to get lost! I returned to my room in a dither, with my anxiety level now well over the top. I began to study the South West Coast Path book I had brought with me, paying close attention to the maps and directions and marking them with yellow highlighter. At dinner, I could barely eat anything. The fish casserole looked good but was tasteless; I was too worried to enjoy my food.
I had good reason to worry but not so much for the reasons I had thought. It turns out that Carol usually forges on ahead with the speedy people and Dick stays closer to the end with the slower ones; Kisa often takes an alternate route (via taxi or bus) with people who choose not to do the entire day’s hike. But I didn’t know that then and I didn’t realize that was how it was until well into the trip. More critical, on this first day, was the difficulty of the actual hike. There were long steep rocky ups and downs, with crude steps hewn into the cliffs, and these took me forever to navigate. I had to use my two trekking poles like extra arms, setting them carefully into the rocks or dirt for stability to help me maintain my footing. Pictures simply don’t illustrate how difficult this actually was. I was cursing at myself for signing up for this trip. I went ever so slowly up and down, up and down, and managed somehow to get through the day. I was the last person to make it to Crackington Haven, our stop for the night; even Kisa’s 82 year old dad with Alzheimer’s managed to come in before me (he actually was a pretty strong hiker). One other lady, Deb, was also on her first official hike and had trouble more with stamina than with balance and footing. My energy level was fine, and in fact I never reached a point of physical exhaustion during the entire two weeks, but my mental state was another issue entirely.
In Crackington Haven, I entered my room at the Coombe Barton Hotel, really a pub, and discovered that my bathroom was in the hallway instead of in my room, although I did have a small sink in the bedroom. I couldn’t wait to take a shower and wash off the dirt and sand and grime of the day. Afterwards I made my way to the bar downstairs and ordered a local ale. This was another mistake. Later I read in my guidebook that ales were unpasteurized and served at room temperature. I think the ale probably upset my digestive system and wreaked havoc with my already suppressed immune system. In any case, and for whatever reason, I had a digestive upset that completely turned me upside down for several days. I had no appetite for the fish and chips I ordered at dinner and could barely make it back to my room afterwards. I was shaking with chills and dived for the covers, too sick to answer the text from my husband on my Iphone.
The next morning we divided up. The day was supposed to be difficult, very similar to the preceding day, so a few people opted to take a taxi partway and then hike the rest of the walk to Tintagel. I intended to be with that latter group but at breakfast I realized I was too ill even for that. Kisa called ahead to the next hotel to see if they had a room I could lie down in; fortunately they were able to find one for me. I stayed in the cab the entire 12 miles to the next town, was led by the hostess to a room, and promptly fell asleep. The day was a complete blur. Except for feeling miserable, I have no recollection of what transpired. Tintagel was supposedly the birthplace of King Arthur and there was a castle there but I saw none of it. Our hotel was a huge old building, with majestic ceilings and beds, large bedrooms (but tiny bathrooms), horrid artwork on the walls (painted by a co-owner of the hotel), and strange décor. It was kind of creepy but fascinating. Dinner for me was cheese and crackers and I was able to eat a little of it, so that was a positive. I also began taking Imodium and that helped as well. I was thankful I had packed extra tablets before I left home.
By the next day, I felt well enough to try to hike the three miles into Trebarwith Strand where there were several cafes and a pleasant beach. I took off my shoes and waded in the cold water, stepped around the mussels and limpets on the sand, had a ginger soda to help settle my stomach, and then took a taxi with several others to Port Gaverne for the night. We stayed at the Port Gaverne Hotel, an old pub but very clean. That afternoon I walked to neighboring Port Isaac, noted for the filming of the British television melodrama ‘Doc Martin,’ and had my photo taken in front of his house. For dinner, I was finally hungry and ready to eat. I ordered grilled lobster, crab risotto, and ice cream for dessert.
From Port Gaverne, we all took a bus to Polzeath, saving ourselves 3 miles of cliff walking, and then we hiked along the beach to Rock, an upscale seaside community where we had lunch. Carla and I shared a sandwich here, since I was still pretty full from last night’s meal. Every day we had a packed lunch for our walks, but I could rarely eat more than half of a sandwich. Because of the tides, we had to take a brief ferry ride to Padstow, our next stopping point. Padstow was a neat town, a bit larger than the others we’d visited but not so large to be overwhelming. Once we disembarked from the ferry, I made the mistake of staying with a group of hikers who decided to walk several miles along the path in the other direction. It would have been wiser for me to go with the group that walked into town. I had thought it would have been more of the gentle walking we had done earlier in the day, but instead it was rocky and replete with roots. And we still had to walk the two miles back into town. We stayed at the Old Customs House here and I had a pleasant room overlooking the main street. At dinner, I shared a platter of sweet potato gnocchi with Carla and had an exquisite chocolate torte for dessert.
The next day – from Padstow to Magwan Porth – was one I really enjoyed. It was the first day I can honestly say I was not overwhelmed with worry. The walking was mild, with only a few rocky ascents and descents, and those ups and downs were not very extensive. The path was mostly on dirt and grass high atop cliffs overlooking the ocean (but with a span of gorse on the cliff side so we were not too close to the edge). It was more like what I had imagined the coast path to be. Although the day began somewhat overcast and drizzly, we soon had a mixture of clouds and sun which was quite pleasant. This evening’s accommodation, the Bedruthen Steps Hotel, was a 50’s looking establishment that catered to families. My ‘single’ room had a large double bed and two twin beds with a roomy living area and a large picture window overlooking the beach. It was attractive in a modest Scandinavian way. For dinner, I had Welsh rarebit and a platter of Jerusalem artichokes, mushrooms, and pasta. I discovered I didn’t like Jerusalem artichokes.
The next day was the first day of bad weather we had on the trip. Other days had been sunny or at most overcast. If it rained, it did so at night. On this morning, however, it was rainy, blustery, and cold (48 degrees) but it soon turned mild. I dressed warmly and ended up taking off my jacket and tying it around my waist. It was a good walking day, without many rocky ups and downs. It was also a relatively short day, with only 6 miles of hiking. We spent the night in a hotel just outside the tacky surfer town of Newquay, with its tattoo parlors, souvenir shops, and tourist traps. The Atlantic Hotel was once quite elegant but it was my least favorite of the places we stayed. The rooms were fair but the walls were paper thin and I could hear the television from the room above me all night. The dinner here was also not very good; the fish stew was inedible but the dessert (a chocolate brownie toffee concoction) was delicious.
One of the problems with this trip was the fact that it was a new adventure for our group leaders as well as for us. On day 8, neither Dick nor Carol had hiked the entire 12 miles and so they couldn’t give us any advice about how difficult it would be. I gambled and walked with a few others into town to take a bus to Perranporth which would cut out about 8 miles of what we thought would be hazardous hiking. Then we walked the remaining 4 miles into Trevaunance Cove, our destination for the evening. The first 2 miles of this section were SCARY! The path went very close to the edge of the cliff and I became extremely queasy. I couldn’t look to the ocean side at all because I felt dizzy. I had to be careful and watch every step I took. I found myself leaning to the left to avoid any chance of falling but if it had been windy, I would have been a goner. Several times I had to stop so I wouldn’t lose my balance. I was so glad when that section was behind me. Later I found out that the first 8 miles were relatively easy and similar to the previous two days; it turns out I did the harder section. If I had only known! I was glad when it was over. Our stay this evening was at a pub called the Driftwood Spars. My room was in a building outside the pub proper. It was large, worn but clean, with a big double bed as well as bunk beds, and a pristine bathroom. Since I had some extra time that afternoon, I walked into St. Agnes, a small nearby village with several craft shops. Here is where I did some souvenir shopping, purchasing an acorn pin (as a remembrance of the trail markers) and some earrings made in Cornwall. For dinner, I had fish and (sweet potato) chips and a pear feta cheese salad and ice cream.
We had been warned that the next day had several steep ups and downs plus several too-close-to-the-edge-for-comfort zones. I copped out and took the bus for the 9 miles from Trevaunance Cove to Portreath with Carla, who was having severe back pain and had to take buses and taxis for the second half of the trip. I was glad I did so because the previous day’s experience had left me very wary. I had also slept poorly during the night and kept waking up every 30 minutes. I might have ended up sliding off a cliff from sheer exhaustion. While waiting for the bus, Carla and I chatted with several British ladies; the bus ride took about an hour and was a pleasant way to spend a morning. We arrived in Portreath about 1 pm, too early to check into our rooms, but not too early to head for a café for a cream tea. Afterwards, Carla settled on a bench overlooking the ocean and I went for a walk along an old mining trail. That occupied a couple of hours and gave me some much needed walking mileage.
Portreath is a tiny seaside town and our group had to stay in 3 different places. My room was in a bed and breakfast called Cliff House. It looked kind of old and fusty from the outside but the inside was spotless and attractive. My room, though small, had a double bed, desk, chair, and television, with a large window facing the street. For dinner, we all met at a neighboring hotel. I had rustic bread with olives for a starter, a tasteless penne for dinner, and toffee fudge cheesecake for dessert (very worthwhile).
Our last day of hiking! It was to be a long day mileage-wise considering the shortened days I had been doing, but it turned out to be very worthwhile. Getting out of Portreath was a challenge because of several long steep ascents and descents at the beginning and one short bit too close to the cliff edge for comfort, but once those initial sections were over, the rest of the day was clear sailing all the way to St. Ives. We walked across rolling pastures atop the cliffs, past cows and wild Shetland ponies, and lots of sand dunes that were fun to climb up and coast down. On the sand dunes, I found myself smiling the goofy smile that I usually have during races and thought to myself ‘now, this is a good time.’ The last few miles were on asphalt (hooray) and we made our way into the outskirts of St. Ives and took a train for the last few miles into St. Ives proper. We were booked at a fashionable boutique hotel with tiny rooms; this was one of the few times I had a single bed on the trip. But everything was clean and tidy and worked. Dinner was pleasant – grilled hake (a white fish) and mussels for the main course and a chocolate fudge brownie for dessert. Everyone was relaxed and in a good mood, exchanging addresses and emails and taking some final photos before the trip ended.
I woke early the next morning and walked around the hotel and into town and watched the sunrise over the ocean. Our coach didn’t leave until early afternoon, so we had time to explore the gift shops and restaurants. St. Ives is a very popular art colony and was still bustling with tourists even though the high season was over. I bought some souvenirs, a tee shirt for my husband, and some cards, prints, and clotted cream toffee, and returned to my room to pack.
The trip back to London was uneventful. We stopped for lunch at Jamaica Inn, made popular first by pirates who used the cove for smuggling activities, and later by Daphne Du Maurier who wrote a novel with the same title; years ago I had read several of her historical novels and couldn’t resist purchasing a copy of Jamaica Inn to reread. Our driver, Rowley, was a peach. He agreed to drop me and another lady at Heathrow’s terminal 4 (where my hotel was located), saving me time and a bus ride from the Holiday Inn back to the airport. I arrived at the Hilton around 7:30 pm, checked in, printed my boarding passes for the next morning’s flights, and took a large glass of red wine back to my room where I relaxed and finally fell asleep.
The Hilton at terminal 4 is a great place to stay. It is within easy walking distance to the gates (Delta flies in and out of terminals 4 and 5 at Heathrow) and the nearby Sky Club serves a full English breakfast (eggs, baked beans, bread, cheese, mushrooms, the works). I ate my fill, boarded my plane on time, and endured the 10 hour flight back to Atlanta. Once there, everyone with connecting flights had to go through Customs (which had a nationwide slowdown so we had to stand and wait for about 30 minutes), gather their checked bags, deposit them again, and go through Security before moving on to our respective gates. I arrived home around 6 pm Eastern time but my internal clock said it was 11 pm. My feet had swollen to twice their size so it was bed and elevation of my legs. It was good to be home. It was great to see my husband again and tell him all about my journey. Would I do it again? Not this trail for sure. Timberline plans to offer two more segments of the South West Coast Path over the next two years. I can hardly wait to return to England and walk again on some of the paths, but I will select more moderate and gentle walks next time.
Some assorted and random impressions about my experience:
• There were advantages and disadvantages to staying at different places every evening versus staying at one or two hotels and taking walks from those centers as occurred with the Thames walk. I enjoyed it both ways. Staying at a single place for several nights meant no constant repacking and that was relaxing but changing hotels every night was exciting and I knew if I didn’t like a place, I would be staying somewhere else the next night
• The hikers on this trip were friendly and welcoming. They never scoffed at my fears (at least not outwardly!) and were very easy to get along with
• Things I will remember – the rabbit holes we had to watch for (so we didn’t twist an ankle), the seals whelping on the beach, the wild ponies we passed as well as the many cows and sheep that sometime blocked our path
• Food and beverages were definitely above average – although the quality did vary from place to place. I enjoyed the cream teas, with scones split and filled with strawberry jam and clotted cream. Since we were on the coast, fish was plentiful and delicious – crab, mussels, hake, fish and chips, and more. The Cornish beer (as opposed to ale) was terrific; I especially enjoyed Skinner’s Cornish Knocker and brought the empty bottle with its colorful label back with me to use as a vase. I also liked the several varieties of cider, especially Cornish Rattler
• The scenery was breathtakingly beautiful – cliffs, coastline, beaches, villages – all were picturesque and memorable
• People both on the trail and in the villages were mostly helpful and encouraging
• Dogs were everywhere, in pubs and restaurants, in shops, and on the beaches. People took their dogs on holiday with them. The dogs were on leash and very well-behaved and turned out to be great ice-breakers and conversation starters
• The Southwest Coastal Path is not to be underestimated. It is difficult, even for experienced hikers. Dick admitted at the end of the trip that this hike was the MOST strenuous one offered by Timberline (lucky me!). It was indeed a challenge
• Walking poles are essential for a walk of this nature
• Staying a day before and a day after the official dates of the hike is a good idea. It gives one time to decompress, overcome jet lag, and totally relax before the long trip home