The South West Coast Path Association is celebrating 50 years of creating, protecting and promoting a stunning national trail, as KIRSTIE NEWTON discovers.
Think of the South West, and what do you imagine? The chances are your mind has flown instantly to the coast, perhaps influenced by fond memories of family holidays. Think rolling seas, towering cliffs, lighthouses, sandy beaches stretching for miles, fossil-hunting, the whiff of salt in the air, the cry of gulls on the wing.
Maybe you’re wearing a pair of hiking boots and setting out on a mission, following the acorn fingerposts of the South West Coast Path? If so, then it’s all thanks to a dedicated band of walkers who, in 1973, determined to fill in the missing links and create an uninterrupted national trail skirting the entire peninsula from Somerset to Dorset via the most westerly reaches of Cornwall.
The resulting 630-mile route, from Minehead (the official starting point) to South Haven Point via Land’s End, is right up there with the world’s greatest. The South West Coast Path Association (SWPCA) celebrates its 50th anniversary this year to great fanfare, with a programme of fun events.
First out of the gate is the Trailblazer Walk, which covers the entire length of the path. Participants will leave Minehead on May 12, and South Haven in Dorset on May 27. Each day will be split into a morning and afternoon walk; it’s free to join the walks, but spaces are limited, and booking essential.
On June 3, World Trails Day will be celebrated with a special event at the Jubilee Pool in Penzance, followed by one of the path’s most accessible stretches towards Marazion, with fabulous views of St Michael’s Mount.
The two parts of the walk will meet at the SWCPA headquarters in Plymouth’s historic Royal William Yard on June 15. This is also the launch date of the inaugural South West Coast Path Photographer of the Year exhibition (judges include Coast editor Andy Cooper) in Ocean Studios. Expect to see beautiful images of the coast path that explore personal connections, nature, urban and industrial heritage and climate change; and images by the winner of the first Young Photographer of the Year Award.
Such is the path’s appeal that it attracts nine million users annually. Some walk a short distance, others the whole shebang; many walk the entire 630 miles over several years, while the ambitious tackle Minehead to South Haven Point in one go. Those who succeed are known as “completers”, and can receive a certificate to mark their achievement.
They include authors Raynor Winn, whose memoir The Salt Path recalls a life-changing walk with her husband Moth at a time when they were beleaguered by sudden homelessness and ill health; and Katherine May, who recounts in The Electricity of Every Living Thing how she came to terms with her midlife autism diagnosis by embarking on a physical and psychological journey along the South West Coast Path. Both are now committed ambassadors for the SWCPA.
All walkers contribute £520 million to the local economy – that’s five per cent of the visitor economy, and the equivalent of 10,000 jobs. To this end, the South West Coast Path Passport was launched in 2022, partly in response to requests for an official expedition memento, but also to encourage walkers to support the countless businesses making a living along the path, from cafes to B&Bs and even ferry crossings.
Just over 100 now act as stamping points, in an echo of pilgrims collecting stamps on their journey to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. Revealed by Hotel Inspector Alex Polizzi at the Pack O’Cards in Combe Martin, North Devon, the passport has proved hugely popular, with walkers keen to collect the distinctive stamps from each section of the path, be it the Exmoor pony, the Cornish tin mine or a Jurassic fossil.
The work of the SWPCA has moved on since the 1970s, encompassing maintenance, fundraising, campaigning and awareness. Director Julian Gray lives on the picturesque Rame Peninsula in Cornwall, and travels into work on the Cremyll Ferry. “It’s the best commute in the world,” he says, confidently.
Julian sees the primarily as “a health and wellbeing charity,” encouraging people of all ages and incomes to take in the physical and mental benefits of the trail. “Our purpose is to improve people’s lives by getting them out on the path,” he says.
The association has even commissioned research from the University of Exeter to prove the mental health benefits of the path and estimate its economic value. “It is saving the NHS £75 million, simply by helping people to live longer and healthier lives,” says Julian.
The passes through so many landscapes which are protected at the highest level: two National Parks (Dartmoor and Exmoor), two Unesco World Heritage Sites (Cornwall and West Devon Mining, and the Jurassic Coast in East Devon and Dorset), several Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) and Sites of Special Scientific Interest as varied as Braunton Burrows in North Devon and the Exe Estuary in South Devon.
The National Trust is the largest landowner on the path, managing 30 per cent of the trail. The SWCPA helps to raise funds for necessary maintenance work, and its volunteers keep their eyes peeled for signs of wear and tear, especially during the annual winter survey.
With its ups and downs – the stretch from Hartland Quay to Bude, crossing the Devon/Cornwall border, is often cited as particularly punishing – the South West Coast Path has been described as the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest from sea level, four times. “I understand why it’s so highly rated among the best walks in the world,” says completer Martin Cypher from Corfe Mullen. “It demands respect.
But there are sections to suit all abilities, and the SWCPA is working hard to encourage people of all ages and fitness levels to take advantage of the natural resources on their doorstep. Their two-year Coast Path Connectors project launched earlier this year, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, and aims to support and encourage people who might not normally have the confidence or the opportunity to access the path and connect to nature for health and wellbeing.
The ultimate message is that the South West Coast Path exists for the benefit of everyone. “The trail isn’t owned by any one person,” says Julian. “Rather than seeing the coast path as ours, we see ourselves as custodians, guardians, champions.” southwestcoastpath.org.uk
SWCPA AT 50: KEY DATES AT A GLANCE
- May 12: Trailblazer Walk leaves Minehead
- May 27: Trailblazer Walk leaves South Haven in Dorset
- June 3: World Trails Day. Special event at Jubilee Pool in Penzance, followed by accessible section to Marazion
- June 15: Trailblazer Walk arrives at the Royal William Yard, Plymouth
- June 15-July 27: South West Coast Path Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Ocean Studios, Royal William Yard, Plymouth
All Trailblazer Walk events must be booked in advance – visit eventbrite.com/cc/swcpa-50th-anniversary-trailblazer-walk-1670699