I bought the same guidebook by Paddy Dillon, and as soon as the lockdown restrictions were lifted in Britain in July 2020, I bought a train ticket to Minehead. I was still weak having suffered from post Covid fatigue, I was weary about leaving home for the first time in months, there was no certainty about camp sites being opened, and I was nervous about wild camping in England where it is illegal. Yet a powerful sense of wanderlust spurred me on, so I packed my light tent, a sleeping bag and a mat, and I was off.
The current record of walking the entire 1,014km (630 miles) path stands at 10 days 15 hours and 18 minutes, according to Paddy Dillon's guidebook. The author himself breaks the Path into more sensible 45 day sections but having covered 14 days so far, I can tell you honestly that the hiking is strenuous. In terms of distance, the days range from 16km (10 miles) to 37.5km (23 1/4 miles) and take 5h - 9h of walking. The difficulty are the cliffs you have to climb and descend many times a day. The guidebook indicates 1,000m (3,280 ft) ascents, and even though the entire trail is at sea level without the additional challenge of altitude, if you are carrying a tent and everything else, every step counts.
There are many companies and resources online which help to plan the hike to your liking. It is possible to break the walk into shorter stages and book hotels and B&Bs to stay at. Even though many people were still reluctant to travel last year, B&Bs were full or charging at least £90 a room a night, including full English (but trust me, you don't want that every morning!). There are campsites on the coast but many tend to be off the Path adding hours to your already exhausting days. Many campsites were closed for hikers allowing camper vans or cars only. Some campsites were terrible (noisy, cold showers) but some were splendid indeed. After initial nervousness, I did camp in the wild several times. I never left any traces and left early in the morning. It is however illegal, so it's possible that some busybody might ask you to pack up and leave. Still, in the absence of open campsites or other available accommodation, I dared and had the most wonderful experience.
The South West Coast of England is stunningly beautiful. You set off in Mainhead which isn't particularly pretty but the scenery gets from picturesque to jaw-droppingly stunning in a matter of hours. Devon is gorgeous, and then you enter Cornwall and you think you've arrived. On a sunny day it is impossible to come up with a more idyllic setting. There are cliffs and the sea, wildflowers and blueberries. There are so many shades of blue and green that you begin to curse the inadequacy of your own vocabulary even when you are simply trying to add a quick comment to an obviously gorgeous photo on Instagram. After being locked at home, just one breath of fresh sea air is enough to lift your spirits all the way to heaven.
The English weather didn't disappoint - I saw it all. It rained in Mainhead on the very first day; I camped in the rain; I experienced seriously strong winds, which are not at all unusual. Still, after a few grey days you appreciate the blues skies and the warmth of sunshine with such intense gratitude that it's possible to convert any old atheist to embrace God.
London has never been a friendly place, you certainly don't expect someone to strike up a conversation on the tube now wearing a mask. Yet as soon as I started walking, I found myself stopping for a chat. I mostly talked to locals walking their dogs or people coming to the coast for a holiday and enjoying day walks; very occasionally I met other long distance hikers. The rucksack on my back and a big smile often prompted people to say hello and ask me about my hike. Very often I heard people say how they always wanted to do the whole Path but somehow they never got round to it...
I found people incredibly friendly but only to the extent their Britishness would permit. A couple of years ago I was hiking in Kyrgyzstan where it was rude to pass by a yurt without coming in for a cup of tea or a bite to eat. To make progress, I learnt not to walk too close to the huts unless I needed a break. By contrast, in Devon I was chatting to a lady by her doorstep. She asked: "Would you like a drink?" I couldn't believe my ears - no one has invited me in previously but before I could reply, she said: "We have a very nice pub in the village. It might be full but you should give it a go." On another occasion, on a rainy and windy afternoon I arrived at a large campsite only to be told that no walk-ins were allowed. "Anyway, I hope you'll find somewhere to stay", the manager said, not unkindly. It was my first wild camping experience in a sheep grazing field behind the car park. (I didn't see any cattle at night but the curious animals woke me up at the crack of dawn).
A goal of reaching point X by sunset was beautifully straightforward - unlike making myself heard on Zoom or ensuring a meaningful contribution in my role at work. Everything was so simple: I didn't have to second guess the ferry timetable or the unfortunately closed pub where I was hoping to rest at lunchtime. I had to walk a little faster, take it on the chin, deal with it. I think the simplicity of challenges set to us by nature is a blessing. The weather isn't rainy for some ulterior purpose, and the ascent isn't steep for some personal vendetta. Being in nature is a wonderful lesson of how not to overthink or take things personally.
Walking can be a meditative experience but actually it's quite difficult to clear your head completely. Instead, walking along the sea creates space between you and your thoughts. It's as if you want to keep obsessing about a problem but the great cold beast beside you reminds you that whatever dwells in your head is tiny relative to the ocean. Walking through the forest is similarly soothing, not because it's quiet but because you can hear hundreds of birds chirping at the same time. Not every one of them is a maestro but it doesn't discourage them from singing along.
It would come as no surprise that I cannot wait to set off again. Soon I'll be heading to Newquay and will be turning the corner around Land's End to get to the South section of the Path. I'll end up somewhere in Mount's Bay a week later - probably exhausted, a little windswept but definitely happy - and with plenty of miles still to tackle.