Walking along the South West Coast Path in Somerset
PUBLISHED: 09:52 22 January 2019
Simone Stanbrook-Byrne takes a look at a long-distance path that has just celebrated its 40th birthday
The 40th year of anything is always a bit of a special time, and when the celebrant is a long-distance footpath it is a definite milestone (pun intended).
2018 saw the anniversary of the opening of the final section of the South West Coast Path (SWCP), linking Minehead in Somerset to Poole Harbour in Dorset. At 630 miles it is this country’s longest national trail. It is also one of the most challenging, its many undulations ensuring that walkers undertaking the whole route ascend almost four times the height of Everest.
The south west peninsula was once a busy place for smugglers, bringing in illegal contraband such as tobacco or alcohol. The route’s origins lie in the paths once used by coastguards, patrolling the cliff tops on the lookout for these rather romantic miscreants. Fisherman also used the paths, keeping an eye on the state of the sea and looking for shoals of pilchards and other species.
For its 40th year the South West Coast Path Association set a fundraising challenge to raise money for the maintenance of this iconic path. It is walked, at least in part, by more than 9 million people each year.
We are extremely lucky to have this access to our coastline and although a relatively short stretch of it is in Somerset, it is the Somerset end at which the majority of those setting themselves the challenge of walking the whole way start.
With a new year just round the corner now is the time that we all start to think about trying something different. So how about it? The whole SWCP is a serious challenge but doesn’t need to be done as one continuous walk. It can be undertaken in sections, walking different segments over a period of months. A friend of mine did this, raising vast sums for her chosen charities – and this amazing woman undertook the challenge despite the fact that a road accident had robbed her of her right leg and arm.
But it doesn’t have to be all 630 miles. Grab your boots and select just a few of those miles to explore. You won’t be disappointed.
The first time I saw the giant hands in Minehead they stopped me in my tracks. Holding an equally giant map, this arresting monument marks the start of the SWCP and was based on the design of local artist, Sarah Ward. It is a fitting start point.
But stopping you in your tracks is not the intention – setting you off along tracks is.
From Minehead, the SWCP heads west for about 26km (16 miles) before crossing into Devon. Occasional choices can be made between coastal or more inland routes, with differing views and terrain; a ‘there and back’ walk could incorporate these options. All the paths are clearly marked, the views spectacular.
Exmoor’s coastline is dramatic with mighty cliffs plummeting to the sea. The paths through this area can be steep and strenuous.
Throughout the route snippets of history lie in wait. Within 3 miles of Minehead a short diversion leads walkers to the remains of the medieval Burgundy Chapel, whose origins are cause for speculation; it is probably the ‘Bircombe’ Chapel referred to in the Dunster Castle accounts of 1405.
Beyond here the SWCP divides: the more northerly option runs closer to the sea with thirst-quenching views along the rugged coastline; the more southerly route eventually takes walkers up to the breathy heights of Selworthy Beacon, where a short detour leads to the trig point at the summit. It’s worth this extra effort for the panoramic views – as long as it’s a clear day: look out for Wales and the islands of Flat Holm and Steep Holm. Inland is Dunkery Beacon with its mighty stone cairn, the highest point of Exmoor.
Continuing west the alternative paths reconvene on the slopes of muscular Bossington Hill before dropping down towards sea level at Bossington village – a place of enticing tea gardens (check opening times).
Between Bossington and Porlock Weir the SWCP runs behind the coast, although paths lead to the stony beach if you wish to explore. In 1996 the ancient shingle ridge across Porlock Bay was breached during a storm. For centuries this ridge afforded protection to the fields behind the coast, but after the breach these flooded at high tide, killing trees that could not tolerate salt water. The area is now changing from farmland to salt marsh, providing a rich wildlife habitat.
Beyond the marsh Porlock Weir offers refreshment stops and a bit of boot rest. Porlock village, with more facilities and a Visitor Centre, is just inland along footpaths; the two are also connected by bus, or you can divert from the coast path before Porlock Weir to reach Porlock.
From Porlock Weir the SWCP continues on its way, passing through Yearnor Wood where a visit to Culbone Church, just off the SWCP, is a must. This bijou place is the smallest, still-used church in the country and can only be accessed by footpath; there has been a Christian community here since monks arrived in the 5th century.
Beyond Culbone there is another choice: the more direct cliff-top route or the more southerly way that shares some of its passage with the Coleridge Way. Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge lived in Somerset for a few years at the end of the 18th century; years which were some of his most poetically productive. His well-known Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Khubla Khan were born during his sojourn in Somerset.
The alternative routes reconvene on the slopes of Sugarloaf Hill and the SWCP continues west through the Glenthorne estate, an estate created within a glorious landscape by the Rev Halliday in the 19th century and more recently owned by Christopher Ondaatje.
It is here that the SWCP crosses the county boundary into Devon and it is possible to follow paths inland to the road at County Gate, where toilets are situated. (These inland paths leave the SWCP just before and just after the county boundary.) Alternatively, walkers may wish to venture into Devon, where another 8km (5 miles) brings you to the excellent Blue Ball Inn at Countisbury and 11km (nearly 7 miles) sees you in Lynton.
So, with the Somerset section under your boots you’re now warmed up and ready to do the rest. Just 614 miles to go.
Minehead to Porlock Weir distance:
a) more southerly route, approx 15km (9½ miles)
b) more northerly coastal route, approx 17km (10½ miles)
Porlock Weir to county boundary distance:
a) more southerly route, approx 9.5 km (almost 6 miles)
b) more northerly coastal route, approx 8.5km (just under 5½ miles)
Maps: One map covers the section of the SWCP in Somerset: OS Explorer OL9 Exmoor.
The route is way-marked in both directions, with a distinctive acorn logo.
Website: The excellent SWCP website (southwestcoastpath.org.uk) is vital for anyone embarking on the route. Here the whole 630 miles is split into different itineraries to suit varying walking speeds and distances per day.
The site gives information on public transport, accommodation and many details of short walk options for those wishing to sample small sections. It is an excellent aid to preparation whether you are embarking on the whole route or just looking for a good tea shop walk.
From this website you can also purchase The Complete Guide to the South West Coast Path. Although much information is online, there are areas of the route where no internet access is available, so a ‘real’ book is a reassurance. Various other guides are also detailed on the website.
More useful websites: Minehead Visitor Centre: mineheadbay.co.uk
Porlock Visitor Centre: porlock.co.uk/contact
Extra walking tips:
When walking the SWCP be prepared for sudden changes of weather and take appropriate clothing and sunblock. The terrain can be extremely rough underfoot so stout boots are essential. Never be without a bottle of water and at least basic first aid supplies.
The SWCP in Somerset goes through Exmoor, an area rich in wildlife. Attractive Exmoor ponies, our oldest native breed, and magnificent red deer, our largest wild land mammal, roam freely. The birdlife can be abundant, so if this is of interest, take binoculars and a good identification guide.
Simone Stranbrook-Byrne is the author with James Clancy, of ‘A Dozen Dramatic Walks in Somerset’ and other walking guides for the West Country. All walks are circular and many include the SWCP.