11 days in SW England, OR 47 beautiful beaches and some really sunburned feet.
It’s been bugging me that it’s been nearly 6 months since my most recent hiking sojourn in Devon and Cornwall, and I haven’t yet written about it. I knew I didn’t want to write the day-to-day recap that I wrote about last year’s trip, but I couldn't really decide on how to approach it. All this space has given me plenty of time to think about the trip, for sure, but at this point I realize that my thoughts don’t change much regarding it. Most days, my thoughts are a permanent cycle of 2 or 3 things running on high-speed repeat, and one of them is the playback of my walking trips. Mentally, I can recall so easily the smells and sounds and the unnamable sensations around the miles walked, and they live barely below the wafer-thin surface of my conscious mind. Obviously I’ll go back - I’m one of those people that, once I discover something that resonates with me, I need to REALLY get to know it, poke around it, try it a million different ways, and bat it around a bit before deciding I’ve had enough of it. Yes, I also noticed the feline characteristics of that description while I was writing it, and i’m leaving it in because self awareness is super fun…. People have asked me why I am not considering anywhere else, like some of the U.S. trails, or Spain, or the Inca Trail, etc., and really it’s because I’m just not DONE with Britain, and in particular SW England, yet. There are bits on the east side of Dartmoor that I want to see again, and rivers aplenty that I want to swim in. After tasting the South West Coast Path I now want to finish all of it over the next 5-10 years. I want to find the best bits of all of it and find a way to con my family into coming with me - so far I have found opportunities for my son to golf, my husband to swim in sheltered ocean coves, and lots and lots of cheese and ice cream for my daughter to sample, but it’s not enough yet to seal the deal on all that hiking that goes along with it. For those of you that want a little chuckle at my strange love affair with the great outdoors in England, I admit that this year, while on the coast path and Dartmoor, I only had drizzle on my day off in St. Ives, and for 6 days straight it was 68-72 degrees and brilliant sunshine. I hit the weather lottery. I live in a world of denial that next time, it might be 45 degrees and raining upwards, as it was for most of our trip in August 2015, when I first tasted southern Dartmoor and vowed to come back and saturate myself in all its mossy, wild garlic and orchid covered goodness.
Isn’t it amazing that we have machines that fly us thousands of miles in just a few hours?? I mean, think about that for a second - I don’t think anyone really does anymore. What a damn luxury.
Now that we’ve reminded ourselves of that minor miracle, how about this wilderness bit I found on the edge of Hyde Park? I met my lovely friend Alex for lunch between my flight and my train - she has met me in London several times now, and it’s one of the bright spots of these trips - and we strolled through the park to find a bite to eat and it was like walking through a forest preserve. The coexistence of humans and nature isn’t like this in the US, soft around the edges and with the people crammed in tight and the open spaces between sorta left alone. We tend to spread ourselves out and level the land, remodel it, then repeat. Obviously this is a symptom of the available terra firma, but it does change the mindset of the inhabitants quite a bit, I think.
After the usual GWR trip west from Paddington, it was off to Okehampton. Now at this point I need to admit that it’s been literally 5 weeks that I’ve been working on this post - most recently a hotel WiFi snafu ate about 300 words and 20 photos - so I think I need to change my approach, just to get it done. I said I wouldn’t make it a boring recap, mile by mile, so maybe the universe is telling me something. In that spirit, here’s a gallery of my favorite shots of the Dartmoor section of my route, which was days 1-4. Please do check out www.dartmoor.gov.uk for more info!
ok, so that was probably too much photo content, but imagine how much I did NOT include… and I couldn’t leave out the video of that pony, because he would likely get his feelings hurt - he really liked being on camera.
Like it was on my first visit, Dartmoor is full of lush, saturated, green, thick goodness - places where the forest and the grasses surround you with so much oxygen and birdsong and green that you almost forget about buildings. The May bluebells, the old leats with crystal clear running water, the tiny villages tucked quietly at the bottom of shallow valleys, it was all there on the western edge, as much as it was on the eastern parts that I walked last year. I also found my way to Lydford Gorge, which did not disappoint despite my getting lost on the way there and nearly having to run through it to get out before the gates locked (it’s a National Trust property with admissions and whatnot). The second and third days also had the side show of the Ten Tors Challenge which put big groups of older teenagers and the occasional adult hyperathletes out onto the trails in an orienteering event sponsored by the Army. It was fun to watch them, and stroll through their camps and ask the soldiers how it was going. That provided a little distraction from the cold as well, because while Dartmoor can be luxe and squishy and a wooded fairyland, it can also be bleak, windy as hell, and a monotonous shade of khaki straw in places. Namely almost all of the northwestern quadrant of it. At the end of the third day, I gave it a ‘f this!’ and adjusted route off the top of the moors and down into the river valley shortcut, because i’d gotten my fill of solitude and suffering. That’s the double-edged sword of wanting to challenge oneself but also being familiar enough with a situation to know you can take short cuts and get on with things. The last day I swung past the China Clay Works, which are still very much working, and that was interesting in a school field trip sort of way. ‘oh, this is modern industrial mining and landscape destruction. see? hurry along now and don’t miss the bus!’ I came down off those peaks and into the southern edge of Dartmoor via a visit to the Dartmoor Zoo. The Zoo was lovely and had the most cynical looking owl i’d ever seen, I wish I could have chatted with him in some Disney-esque manner in which all animals in this part of the world seem to communicate with each other. Stopping here felt a bit lonely, since a zoo visit, and this one in particular since my kids have seen We Bought A Zoo, would have been something we’d do as a family. instead I took pics and sent them back home, and discovered that they aren't nearly that interesting to the recipients that way. I’d run out of time to make my train by this point, and hopped a bus into Plymouth, then on to St. Ives. I was entertained by the school kids that rode the train home, as even is this far-off and sort of resort/rural locale, the kids acted just like my kids and their friends, in that they were all staring at their phones and playing Clash Royale with each other or Instagram shaming kids not in our train car.
I felt a little underwhelmed but also at fault for not being as bowled over by those days on Dartmoor as I had last year. I hurried along, and wasn’t as enveloped by the experience as I was the first time. Not fully settled in, like a resident that can’t wait to see the latest seasonal changes at their favorite creekside spot, but not as green as a new visitor that won’t any have mental space available to think about the bullshit that exists outside of the moments of newness that a challenge like a long distance hike provides. I floated somewhere in the middle…..
On to the South West Coast Path!
I had only tasted a few minutes of the coast last trip, so I went all-out and picked a 6 day section, starting at St. Ives and heading NE to Tintagel. We had been to Tintagel on our road trip back in 2015, but it was raining upwards into our eyelids that day, so I felt a do-over was in order. I spent a day ‘off’ in St. Ives, doing laundry and attempting to relax, and on that day it drizzled, but that was the only damp I had this whole trip. I highly recommend hiking in England when it’s 67 degrees and sunny out, especially on the coast. Arrange it in advance if you can…
Picking photos for this longer stretch was a bit easier, mainly because the terrain is repetitive day after day - sunny beaches of golden sand, pastureland with a trail along the cliff edge, dramatic sea views of turquoise, seal-filled waters, vertical climbs up a sandstone bluff with an inviting stream running playfully down to the beach below, that sort of thing. over and over and over again. I felt horrible for saying to myself ‘oh goody, another hill climb with a poetically abandoned tin mine overlooking a cliff with kestrels hovering above lilac-tinged brush, with a beach for cooling the feet on the downslope beyond… yay….’ On these days of the trek, I had to take many phone calls and deal with work headaches that don’t wait for you to finish your cliffside dalliances across the globe, and that sucked. A lot. That fact may or may not have affected my overall attitude. I did make time to sunbathe on the beaches, have an ice cream or 4, and enjoy the fact that while the phone allowed me access to work, it also allowed me to chat with the kids before school while I was overlooking a sunny cliff or surrounded by grazing sheep on my lunch break. it almost made it feel like the hike was my ‘job’ and I commuted via Heathrow and O’hare and headed back home in the evenings. One last bit of advice regarding the SWCP is that it’s crowded - really crowded - on holiday weekends and during good weather. Near Newquay I was dodging families with little kids, tour groups, elderly couples out for their Sunday morning stroll. I was more of an oddity there than just a hiker - I heard people making comments about me, kids asking their parents why I had sticks to walk with, etc. No one stopped to chat or make eye contact, the thru-hikers are the odd man out in these situations. On my miles from Exmoor to Dartmouth last year, the chance occurrence of another person crossing my path led to conversations about the maps, the trail conditions ahead, where we are from, and I remember each of those meetings. Being a hiker amidst other people’s vacation strolls is far lonelier than encountering only 2-3 people over 12 hours of walking.
After all this, I still feel the same as I did on our little family walk from Bovey Castle into the village for dinner, in august of 2015. We walked beside a little stream, in drizzle and near darkness, and I said to myself ‘well, I have to come back and do this all the way - finish all of it’. I didn’t know quite how I would do it, I just put it in the back of my mind, and when I really needed to GET OUT, I knew right where to go. As a kid, I was fascinated with all things history, and especially Anglo-Saxon history for whatever random reason, so I relished so many miles of treading over land that has seen thousands of years of habitation. I love how the land echoes with layers of human, plant, and animal activity, and bears timeworn scars of daily life hidden in plain sight. I have a long way to go til I’ve ‘finished’ these footpaths and trails, and I hope next time I go, I get something different out of it than I've gotten so far. I’d love to bring friends or family along for the ride, and see how it’s different for them - but if I have to go alone next time, that’s fine too. I’ll be sure to adjust my route to steer clear of the holiday places and hope to meet more lovely strangers and find out why they trudged out that day to put miles under their feet. Maybe next time i’ll be able to get a post about it done before 6 months go by, too! ha - of course that won’t happen. I have 5 more drafts waiting behind this one to get to already! And that reminds me, I should get back to work, which will hopefully be more productive now that this is off my plate!