We were broken. As the pub chattered around us, we stared dumbly into pints we could barely summon the energy to lift. My burnt face smouldered; my shoulders throbbed at the memory of the hefty pack they'd borne all day. The bar was just metres away, but the effort demanded to get there was Herculean. I hobbled over for the next round.
"All right?" the barman asked as I flumped on to a stool. I considered this, perhaps more philosophically than he'd intended. My body was in tatters – and I had to do it all again tomorrow. And yet ... actually, I'd never been better.
So ended my first day of walking the South West Coast Path (SWCP), the 1,014km National Trail – the longest of 15 in England and Wales – that has traced the rugged edges from Minehead in Somerset to Poole in Dorset since opening in 1978. From next week, the path is hosting a range of sponsored hikes to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the SWCP Association, the independent voluntary organisation that campaigns to improve and safeguard the path. About 70 per cent of the trail runs through national parks or protected areas, encompassing cliffs, coves, dunes, beaches, valleys, lighthouses, tumbling fishing villages and arty seaside towns.
Six years ago, my boyfriend and I decided to sample it, starting part-way with a two-week hike along Cornwall's shores, from Bude to Falmouth – my first real attempt at independent multi-day walking. We'd set off full of fried breakfast and inexperience, toting bags far too heavy, but enthused by the challenge. We arrived in Boscastle – nine hours and 27 brutal but beauty-blessed kilometres later – realising we'd underestimated our task, but fallen unconditionally in love with it.
In hindsight, selecting Bude to Boscastle was quite a baptism. Here, the SWCP – which in total involves almost four Everests' worth of ascent – is at its most undulating. I remember the most wonderful scenery, passing Dizzard's dwarf forest, gazing out from rocky promontories and discovering smugglers' coves. (The path was established in the 19th century so coastguards could patrol every cranny to keep out contraband.)
I also recall knee-twinging descents followed by sheer climbs. Yet, as the days passed, our limbs became trail hardened and we melted into a basic rhythm: wake, walk, eat, sleep. Although we often dipped into towns and harbours, the real world scarcely intruded. By the time we reached St Ives (day eight), we felt like professionals. We cooked fresh pollack on a camp stove and ate on a bench looking over the sea. The next morning, we hit the path with the rising sun. Looking out to the Carracks rocks, we gasped as a blob popped above the waves: a seal. Then another. A third appeared – or so we thought. No, this was a black triangle slicing the blue. It was a basking shark, the first of several that we'd see.
As we sipped our final pint in Falmouth at the end of the fortnight, I knew I had to complete it all. A few hardy souls yomp it in one six-week odyssey. We settled on four chunks over five years. Our second stage (though sequentially the trail's first) was the North Devon section from Minehead to Bude. While the Cornish coast had felt mystical – laced with Arthurian legend, witchcraft, ruined mines and bootleggers' bays – North Devon was high drama. The cliffs here are the SWCP's highest, threaded with switchbacking paths through gorse. This time we had stronger legs and smaller backpacks. Still, it was a test: villages such as Lynmouth and Clovelly are so appealing precisely because they squeeze into deep, narrow clefts. And the final day, from Hartland Point to Bude, was a wild, wave-clattered geological roller coaster. It's generally considered the toughest part, and we had quite a day for it. The mist hung thick below us as we walked, the sea a raging, invisible beast. Whenever the trail plunged down, we dipped into a fearsome world of white water crashing on razor rocks that cut through the surf like dragons' tails. This was the path at its rawest.
It was on this section that we met a man going the other way ... all the way from Land's End to John O'Groats; a trip, he reckoned, of some 70 or 80 days. It was quite something to contemplate – to remove yourself from the everyday activity of the rest of the world, instead setting muscle and mind to the simple task of moving forwards. That's the lure of long-distance walking – the joy of what you can absorb when all other complications are filtered out.
I still had plenty of SWCP to finish first, though. Section three was a softer beast. There was still plenty of climbing on the route from Falmouth to Exmouth, and plenty of wild shores, but it seemed much more civilised. Here, the path is more frequently interrupted by fishing harbours and seaside honeypots, some cute (Polperro, Fowey, Noss Mayo), some less so (Par, Brixham, Paignton). It was also incised by several waterways. Although, as "veterans", we'd packed waterproof trousers, our planning still wasn't perfect. Reliable ferries took us across the genteel harbours of Dartmouth and Salcombe, and from stately Mount Edgcumbe into the bustle of Plymouth. But we only just caught boatman Billy in time for a lift across the Yealm, and had to book a taxi to detour around the inconvenient Erme estuary.
Three-quarters done, I reflected on the trail so far. Friends wanted to know which were the best bits, greatest views, finest clifftops. But having met walkers along the way, we never heard the same SWCP favourites. Votes had been cast for Lamorna Cove and the lighthouse at Start Point; for the view back to Gurnard's Head and the secluded beach at Porth Joke; for the Valley of the Rocks and swanky Salcombe. I had my own opinions, of course – influenced by mood, weather and quality of cream tea. But then, perhaps, the best was still to come.
So, finally, last year, we embarked on the last section, the Jurassic Coast from Exmouth to Poole. Having grown accustomed to the previous stages' increased incursions by humanity, it was a surprise to find Dorset so contrastingly wild. Inland rolled bucolic green, but the county's Channel-facing edges were a formidable barricade evidencing millennia of geological mastery: the fossil-flecked cliffs of Lyme Regis, glowing Golden Cap, the rock arch of Durdle Door. In places we felt like the first to set foot there since the Iron Age.
But while the landscape had taken a turn for the primitive, our comfort levels had not. Having mostly camped on previous stages, in Dorset we treated ourselves. A different B&B full-stopped each day, reducing the size of our rucksacks, and making us more sanguine about the weather – rain is far less dispiriting if you know a warm bed and solid roof await.
To the end, the SWCP never failed to deliver. Indeed, our penultimate day – the 33km from Lulworth Cove to Swanage – was one of the best. Leaving Lulworth's perfect scoop of a bay, we were soon traversing the military ranges: MoD ownership means access is limited, but also means the land is preserved in all its natural savagery. Seagulls were tossed by the wind as we fought along the clifftops and hauled up to the ancient hill-forts of Bindon and Flower's Barrow; the surviving earthworks provided shelter and astonishing views. We passed paddlers at Kimmeridge Bay and watched volunteers fix dry-stone walls at the top of Houns Tout Cliff; struggling up to St Aldhelm's Head, we even overtook some pirates – an incongruous stag do ooh-aaarring breathily up the stiff climb.
I like to think of somewhere like St Aldhelm's – or maybe Cornwall's Lizard, or Devon's Hangman Hill – as a final Coast Path vision. The actual terminus is a slightly damp squib, the trail dribbling out on the sand of South Haven Point beside a monument that seems inadequate reward.
But then, the reward isn't really about making that final mile. Whether it takes weeks, months, years or decades, it's all about the journey.
To go counter-clockwise (Minehead to Poole) take a train to Taunton, then bus to Minehead (75mins). The end, South Haven Point, is a short ferry ride from Sandbanks/Poole Harbour; a bus connects to Bournemouth train station. Other places on the path with rail links include: Barnstaple, Newquay, St Ives, Penzance, Falmouth, Par, Looe, Plymouth, Exmouth and Weymouth (08457 48 49 50; nationalrail.co.uk).
Buses link smaller hubs (travelinesw.com). The SWCP crosses many rivers and estuaries but not all ferries run all day or year-round. Luggage Transfers (luggagetransfers.co.uk) can deliver to stops on the SWCP from £6.50 a bag for a two-bag transfer.