3. Overview – the ultimate challenge?
The path wends its way for 633 miles around the bottom left-hand corner of England, from Minehead in Somerset to the edge of Poole Harbour in Dorset, and involves climbing 115,000 ft, or almost four times the height of Everest. It is the UK’s longest national trail and the SWCP Association describes it as “the ultimate challenge for the long-distance walker” offering “some of the finest coastal landscapes to be found anywhere in the world”. Indeed, it’s regularly referred to as one of the world’s greatest walks.
I think the Pacific Crest or Appalachian Trails in North America (at 2,650 and 2,200 miles respectively) could both lay claim to the title of the ‘ultimate challenge’. But after completing the SWCP my initial scepticism has been overcome and I don’t think the SWCP Association’s slightly more modest claims are at all far-fetched. And I say that as someone who has been lucky enough to indulge a passion for walking in more than my fair share of the world’s high places.
I found that the character of the path changes markedly as you travel anti-clockwise around it. From Minehead to Newquay it is sublimely wild and rugged, the feeling of remoteness perhaps amplified for me by walking before the main tourist season began. Newquay was the first really busy tourist town and from there to St Ives it becomes more populated and touristy as the number of settlements and camp and caravan sites increases. My assessment of this stretch was also coloured by the fact that it contained the worst B&Bs on the whole journey (of which, much more later).
The far west of Cornwall, from St Ives to Falmouth, was enchanting with sustained interest the whole way. Apart from the unremarkable, and at times positively unpleasant, area around Downderry and Plymouth.
The remainder of the path, from Falmouth to the finish by Poole Harbour, presents a sequence of pleasant coastal towns and picturesque villages linked by paths that, at times, particularly along the ‘Jurassic Coast’, were as dramatic and tough as anything encountered.