The South West Coast Path - 1. South Devon

"It's good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end" Hemingway

I'm nearly two hundred miles into this odyssey already, so I'll try and catch you up. I've started running around the South West Coast Path (SWCP), it's a long way - 630 miles in total, from Poole to Minehead, and covers some incredible scenery. I'm doing it in bite sized chunks and that tactic lends itself quite well to a blog, with a few pictures and some words, coupled with a growing passion for it, and maybe some lessons learned about kit, training, logistics and nutrition, that perhaps this might be a useful resource for anyone else who has it on their to do list.

Todays soundtrack:

So I started from Beer, near Seaton in Devon. Having bivvied out on Beer Head itself to watch the Perseids with George, getting up the next day and running along a very hilly section to Budleigh Salterton was the 'start' for me. At first about half of my motivation for running along the often brutal hills was as training for mountain days. I've used the SWCP successfully before for training towards holidays in the Alps, or domestic trips to the mountains. But the rest of the motivation, sorry to say, but I'll put it out there: was Distraction Aversion therapy. A way of getting some head space away from thinking about a relationship, or maybe to think about it, both probably. Time alone to be processing stuff. Running as meditation, but also just making it less easy to text her, or call, or mope. Like a rubbish Forrest Gump, only with no one following me.

Beer Head

So having got to Budleigh, with transport home from George, I'd sown a seed. Some of the hills along this stretch are outrageous. I was painfully naïve. Around Sidmouth and Weston, I swear I had to put my hand down on the grass more than once, it was that steep.

The ups and downs from Beer to Budleigh. More savage than they look.

Then a few days later, I ran from Budleigh via Ladram Bay and Exmouth, then along the Exe Estuary to 'home', in Exeter. A week later again, I ran with my Dad (riding a bike) along the other side of the Exe to a nice pub at Cockwood called The Anchor Inn, and then I'd stitched together about 30-35 miles or so, and it felt significant enough to build on. But still not a concrete plan, just thinking I'd cover a big section and see if I felt like doing more. Or if I still needed more therapy. But once I had a little completed stretch to build on, the urge to build on it was there, for sure. I really wanted to go further, and see more. I printed out a little map of South West England and drew a bright red line along the little stretch of coast that I'd run along. I started to look at the map and see the next bit, and the next, and really wanted to make that line longer.

The next leg was another very steep one. Running from Cockwood to Berry Head was about 32 miles (my last training run before an amateurish Bob Graham Round attempt), and it included vertiginous sections between Teignmouth and Babbacombe that made even walking hard. Quite a lot of time spent in the woods here - lovely and atmospheric, but not much view of the sea or the coast. The woods were punctuated by a few glorious coves with crystal waters and small beaches. Beaches with pubs on. People sitting and enjoying their days. Envy. Why wasn't I normal? This leg was very chastening, physically. It also covered some of the least beautiful ground so far: running the sea front streets of Torquay, Paignton and Goodrington, dodging seagulls and dozens of holidaying families - I must admit to being in a grump, and hating human-beings. Chavvy, Monster drinking families with screaming kids, dogs on long leads, pushing baby-buggies while texting - not only made running a zig-zagging hazard, but were a stark contrast to the serenity and solitude I'd been experiencing for the previous 3-4 hours.

Hidden cove near Maidencombe

My times were demoralizingly slow too. Warts and all (taking photos, having a wee in the hedge, scoffing a squashed sandwich, adding and removing jackets, and walking up hills) I was doing about 10 minutes a mile. This felt embarrassing. But I don't think sweat stopped dripping from my nose from the moment I started to the moment I stopped, so I couldn't have pushed much harder really. I wasn't doing this for self-flagellation, just meditation, and I wanted to enjoy it as well. In late September I was lucky enough to fly to Menorca for Trail Running Magazine and complete a 3 day Ultra around the Menorca coastline. Without meaning to sound arrogant - this was an absolute breeze by comparison. Hearing other participants confessing their intimidation of - and then seeing them struggle on - the hilly sections, and then actually tackling them thinking 'that's not a real hill!' gave me a confidence boost that the SWCP certainly wasn't easy, and it had got me fitter, and I wasn't as weak as I'd thought.

Leaving Berry Head and seeing Start Point looking frighteningly far away.

The next leg I started with Justin - how he likes to conduct his business meetings. He set off from Berry Head like a bloody whippet, and I immediately struggled to maintain conversation and resorted to asking lots of open questions. He turned around at the Kingswear - Dartmouth ferry and I carried on - excited to be heading into what must be one of the most beautiful stretches of the entire track: The South Hams. Then: Cramp. The heck? What do you mean, cramp? Shut up legs. This was pretty annoying. I'd taken my fitness for granted a little bit and just assumed I'd muddle through, but in hindsight, I'd been too big for my boots. Neglecting any actual 'training' and getting by just winging it on one long 20+ mile leg every 7-10 days. Consequently each leg would leave me battered for a day or two, and each leg I'd be conking out by the end, gradually tightening up, shortening my gait, settling into a sort of death trudge, and muttering darkly as I inched towards the days end point.

Blackpool Sands. Devon in November!

Slapton Sands - seeing that much flat ground is a blessed relief!

Bullock Cove!

So that got me as far as Torcross. I hobbled into the village along the gorgeously aesthetic sweep of Slapton Sands, pretty much spent truth be told, when my actual aim for the day had been Salcombe! Ha. Eyes bigger than belly again. It's pretty easy to sit at home and look at the map and think 'right, I'll just run from there to there'; and then the reality of the terrain slaps you painfully back into your place.

It was also at this stage, that the time on my own started to make a real impact on me. Hours and hours and hours alone. Hardly passing anyone. Lots of time admiring the ever changing sky. Starting to feel slightly mazed by it all. I lost track of the amount of 'moments' I had, where I might startle an entire field of partridges into noisy flight, or see a peregrine chasing seagulls, or catch a starling murmuration, or notice a seal in the cove. What had started off as a tick-list exercise, had become something more existential. I thought of her a lot. Running over conversations in my head. Thinking of cleverer replies that I wish I'd used at the time. Never managing to get my camera out fast enough to share with her a picture of a dolphin pod breaching in the bay, or a herd of horses briefly galloping alongside me. I never run with music and instead listen to the rhythm of my breathing and footsteps, and try to soak up the elements, but all that time in ones own head, constantly exposed to natures ways... I know how it sounds. I saw so much amazing light, sea and rocks, and really felt like beauty is out there every single day. You just need to put yourself in the way of it.

How can you not want to run along a path like that!?

Code red God-beam situation in the South Hams

If you miss the Salcombe ferry, be prepared for a 45 minute taxi ride to the other side, or an icy swim across a tidal estuary

My first logistical near miss was at Salcombe. Turning up tired, wet with sweat, and quickly chilly in the December gloaming; I realised with dread that I might have taken the ferry for granted. East Portlemouth was a ghost town, and after a mild panic I saw that there was timetabled to be one more crossing on this day, at this time of year. It was still a long anxious wait, 'what if he knocks off early?'. The estuary cuts deeply into the surrounding land, complex, tidal, and frankly a long bloody detour. I asked the ferryman "So how long is it to get around without your help?" He said "Well, it's a 45 minute car ride". Gulp. That would have been a long, cold walk in the dark. I would have considered swimming.

The next leg from Salcombe to Noss Mayo was the best yet. I was getting the hang of it now. A dream of a run where every corner turned seemed to present a new jaw-dropping deserted cove. Past iconic little landmarks like The Bantham Hand and Burgh Island, and even a waded river crossing in the Erme Estuary that felt like getting stuck in to a mini-adventure. With the tide on it's way in, this got as deep as that area of inner thigh that makes you do an involuntary high pitched yelp. I've got a friend who ran this stretch and swam all 3 river estuaries. That's hardy (and admirably pure), but she's a legend, this is December, and I'm not made of such stern stuff.

Leaving Salcombe

Bantham Hand (bottom left) and Burgh Island

Crossing The Erme, thankful it wasn't a December swim

Noss Mayo and "The Best Chips in the West Country"

Finishing that leg at Noss Mayo, empty of energy, but high in spirits was really nice. I was close to Plymouth now, and close to having done all of the South Devon path. Noss Mayo was a real hidden gem as well. Salcombe, Dartmouth, and numerous other coastal towns and villages here are very beautiful, and wonderful places to live or visit. But Noss Mayo made me say 'wow', out loud. Wonderful. One of many places I'd dearly like to spend some time with her.

My last South Devon stage from Wembury to Plymouth was physically much easier, and scenically, not as spectacular. It starts wild and windswept at Wembury with great views of Mew Rock.

Wembury beach and Mew Rock

Geographically not as hilly either - the bus driver said, 'as flat as a witches tit, boy', and shorter too at only 13 miles, this leg was akin to tying up a loose end. Plymouth Sound is impressive to see, and with more time you could explore the various historically significant Naval sites. But beyond that the path winds through some very urban ground. Housing estates, docks, industrial estates - all a bit grotty, some litter and graffiti and a culture shock after what's passed before in the South Hams. Then Plymouth Hoe and into the City Centre and then suddenly that was South Devon done.

Plymouth Sound

A spring in my step as I 'finish' South Devon

Sunset from the Plymouth Hoe

It felt very satisfying to have run the whole of the South Devon coast. Very rewarding to have made a large linear journey. I was excited to cross the border into Cornwall and see how it compared. It had a lot to live up to, but thoughts of the iconic sites I'd pass: Bedruthan Steps, Kynance Cove, The Lizard, Lands End, Sennen and Bosigran, Porthcurno, the aesthetic arc of Mounts Bay... my appetite was well and truly whetted, and besides, my contemplation wasn't over yet.