14.Babbacombe to Dawlish – the final day and its aftermath, highs, lows and reflections from a safe distance.
I’d decided that the walk from Babbacombe to my home in Dawlish would make a fitting last day. The familiar walk was uneventful but, accompanied by Pat and my best mate, Peter, I still felt elated when I finally reached the finishing line. Cue a bottle of champagne and a decorated congratulatory chocolate (no expense spared) that Pat had arranged. It felt odd ending a 633 mile epic on my own front drive. An “odd” feeling; but a warm one.
My initial elation was not to last and I discovered that “coming down” from this high would be harder than I imagined.
I’m writing this a couple of years after completing the walk: it was not planned that way, but in retrospect I reckon that the passage of time has given me a better perspective on the walk and also on the impact that going back to my new life as a retiree had on me.
I don’t want to exaggerate, but the experience had an affect that I could never have imagined. I’m reluctant to use the word “depressed,” as that is insulting to those who have something to be depressed about, but I did experience some pretty wild mood swings.
Of course, it wasn’t just (or even mainly) “the walk.” Completing the SWCP happened to coincide with a major change in my life – retirement. We don’t realise how important a job is until it’s not there anymore; I had been lucky enough to love my work, so when it was gone there was a big gap to fill. The odd thing was that I had dreamt of early retirement; why wouldn’t I, having lots of interests to fill my time and a good pension to fund our travel plans. So, nothing could have prepared me for the unexpected sense of loss I felt.
I’m informed by Pat and a couple of good friends that my behaviour did change: they tell me that I became a little withdrawn and a lot bad tempered. Although I realise this now – I did not acknowledge it at the time. After a few months of this sort of unreasonable behaviour I settled into a new routine and am now kept busy serving as a charity trustee and volunteer and Chairing Devon and Cornwall Police’s Joint Audit Committee. Life is good and I feel guilty that, having so much going for me, I felt so sorry for myself.
Let’s put the violin back in it’s case and return to the walk —— I had regarded the SWCP web-site’s description of the path as “one of the world’s great walks” to be well over the top. But now I’m not so sure – and I say that as one who has been privileged to trek to the foot of both K2 and Everest and see more than my fair share of the world’s other high and wild places. I think the SWCP is certainly harder than many people imagine and is, from start to finish, a breathtakingly beautiful delight (well maybe excepting that bit around the china clay works at Par!).
I thought that, having completed it, I would never want to set foot there again, but that is definitely not the case and we are now trying to fill-in the “gaps” of those sections that Pat didn’t do, so that she can also join the SWCP “Hall of Fame.”
Many people have asked “what next?” Well, the immediate “what next” was my marriage to Pat, my best friend and partner for over 11 years. I originally drafted a long, sentimental paragraph here, but it didn’t feel right, so suffice to say that on my final day I Tweeted a picture of Pat with the caption;
“I could not have done the SWCP without my chauffer, caterer, strategic planner, laundry operative and chief moral supporter”
“Say no more” you might think, but a few people have asked me about my “highs and lows,” so here goes;
My top five “Lows” would be:
- Getting sick at East Portholland and the fear, after walking just over 350 miles, of not completing the trail.
- The greed of some B&B proprietors, who charge premium rates for what often amounts to minimalist accommodation.
- The interminable cycle track around the Taw Estuary. Probably a great bike ride, but the attraction grows a bit thin after walking 15 miles of flat tarmac in misty drizzle
- The false hope at the end of so many days that the end of the walk was in sight, only to discover several more ups-and-downs and ins-and-outs.
- Sleeping, bent double, in my nursery bed at Perranporth.
While my top five “Highs” are;
- Watching a colony of seals near Godrevy Point. Unexpectedly coming across a beach full of over 30, including many pups.
- Drinking a pint in the sun, with Pat, outside the Hartland Quay Hotel, after a great day’s walk. The sound track of waves crashing against rocks will live with me forever.
- Walking across the River Erme at low tide. An unusual experience to be wading across this river – impassable for all but a few hours each day. Perhaps the “rite of passage” for all SWCP walkers?
- Finishing. A great feeling of achievement and elation, well worth the previous 633 miles.
- By far the nicest memory was seeing Pat waiting for me at the end of so many days and marvelling at her unswerving loyalty and dedication to me and my daft project.
And I think that’s a good enough place to end