By Kirstie Newton
The magnificent South West Coast Path stretches 630 miles, from Minehead in Somerset (the official starting point) to South Haven Point in Dorset via Land’s End.
It’s up there with the world’s greatest trails, and it’s exactly 50 years since a dedicated group of walkers set out to fill in the gaps and create an official, uninterrupted, publicly accessible footpath around the peninsula.
To celebrate, the South West Coast Path Association (SWPCA) is hosting the Trailblazer Walk, which left Minehead on May 12. It enters Cornwall – where the campaign started - on May 21, and will spend the next few weeks passing through stunning coastal scenery, from towering clifftops to wild moorland, tin mining heritage sites to sandy beaches.
On June 3, a special event will take place at the Jubilee Pool in Penzance to commemorate World Trails Day, followed by one of the path’s most accessible stretches towards Marazion, with stupendous views of St Michael’s Mount. Each day will be split into a morning and afternoon walk; it’s free to join the walks, but spaces are limited and booking essential.
A second leg leaves South Haven Point on May 27 and heads west along the Jurassic Coastline into Devon. The two parts of the walk will meet at the SWCPA headquarters in Plymouth’s historic Royal William Yard on June 15, which is also the date and location of the launch of the South West Coast Path Photographer of the Year exhibition.
The path attracts nine-million users annually. Some walk a short distance, others the whole lot, whether in chunks over several years or in one ambitious expedition. Those who succeed are known as “completers” and receive a certificate for their efforts. All contribute a collective £520 million to the local economy – that’s 5% of the visitor economy, equivalent to 10,000 jobs.
To this end, the South West Coast Path Passport was launched in 2022, to encourage walkers to support the countless businesses making a living along the path, from cafes to B&Bs and even ferry crossings (in Cornwall, the Camel, the Gannel, the Helford, the Fal and the Fowey all require nautical help - Gillan Creek, on the Lizard, has stepping stones and needs careful timing or a planned diversion).
Just over 100 businesses now act as stamping points, in an echo of pilgrims collecting stamps on their journey to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. Each section of the path has its own distinctive stamp, be it the Exmoor pony, the Cornish tin mine or the Jurassic ammonite fossil.
The path passes through so many landscapes that are protected at the highest level, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Cornwall and West Devon Mining, Cornwall Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), and Sites of Special Scientific Interest from Cligga Head on the north coast to Penwith Moors in the far west.
The National Trust is the largest landowner on the path, managing 30% of the trail. “But the trail isn’t owned by any one person,” says SWCPA director Julian Gray, who lives on the Rame Peninsula. “Rather than seeing the coast path as ours, we see ourselves as custodians, guardians, champions.”
Today, the work of the SWPCA includes campaigning and raising awareness as well as funds for necessary maintenance work. Its extensive network of volunteers keep their eyes peeled for signs of wear and tear, especially during the annual winter survey.
The impact on coastal and surface erosion means the costs of managing the path and keeping it open are rising. Mile Maker donors currently pay £1,500 towards the annual cost of maintaining a mile of the path, but that is likely to increase.
Julian sees the association primarily as “a health and wellbeing charity”. Research from the University of Exeter estimates its economic value at saving the NHS £75 million, thanks largely to the physical and mental health benefits it offers. “It’s like a super-vitamin: a Natural Health Service.”
Many are inspired to walk the path after hearing the accounts of others. The Salt Path - Raynor Winn’s tale of walking the South West Coast Path following sudden homelessness and husband Moth’s ill health – was a huge literary success. The couple now live in south Cornwall, and Raynor is a willing SWCPA ambassador.
“Nowhere else can you hike 630 uninterrupted miles of coastline, crossing wild headlands for weeks - or months for some of us - with the calls of oystercatchers in your ears and the smell of salt-laden air ever present,” she says.
Podcaster Rachel Hadley-Leonard achieved “completer status” in October 2022, raising £5,000 for three charities: the RNLI, the YHA and, of course, the SWCPA. In honour of the SWPCA’s half-century, she is recording 12 monthly podcasts under the title 630 Miles - An Audio Journey, meeting the volunteers, artists and business owners who form part of the path’s daily life.
Rachel carved out a two-month slot for the challenge and spent nine months planning, turning to the SWCPA for advice. “It’s now my number one charity,” she says. “The work it does, in enabling people like me and others less fortunate to access the path, is astonishing.”
Indeed, one of the SWCPA’s current campaigns is to encourage those less likely to walk the path to discover its charms and benefits. The Coast Path Connectors two-year programme was launched earlier this year, using National Lottery Heritage funding, and there are now five hubs around the South West - including a super-hub in Cornwall, covering the urban areas of St Austell, Newquay, Redruth and Penzance.
Surprisingly, there are Cornwall residents who have never walked the path. “While many people have the confidence to go out and explore the coast path, others haven’t had the same opportunities,” says project manager Alex Turner. “But you don’t need specialist equipment to do it, and it’s free. You don’t have to walk all of it; it can be broken down into easy bits that are accessible to a lot of people, often by public transport.”
Feeling inspired? “Do it, 100%,” says Rachel. Adds completer David Worcester of Highleigh in West Sussex: “If the South West Coast Path could be packaged and prescribed, it would be a perfect physical and mental antidote to this evermore troubled world.”
All Trailblazer Walk events must be booked in advance – visit Eventbrite.
For further information, visit www.southwestcoastpath.org.uk