Don’t Be Fooled!

The plan: to walk a section of the South West Coast Path, starting at Clovelly and ending at Padstow.

The imagined route: an undulating, easy coastal path with the odd bump, reminiscent of the Seven Sisters cliffs, punctuated by cosy tea rooms.

The reality: a remote wilderness hike consisting of extreme climbs and descents with nowhere to fill a drinking bottle, let alone order a cream tea.

After spending most of the summer hiking the South Downs Way and returning to the Seven Sisters as part of our ‘training’, we thought this one would be a doddle. My hiking friend, Paula, and I have been across the world together on some pretty adventurous hikes but this one would be a proper holiday, we said. Not like Kyrgyzstan or Armenia, where we’d been wild camping and struggling up mountain passes at altitude. Let’s be kind to ourselves, we said. Let’s have a proper holiday in lovely Devon and Cornwall.

Hartland coastline

Trouble is, we thought the guidebook was exaggerating when it said the South West Coast Path, made famous recently in Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path, was ‘challenging’ and ‘relentless’. We thought that was just a warning for people trying to attempt it in flip-flops. Oh how wrong we were.

The first stretch, Clovelly to Hartland Quay was the ‘easy’ day at just over ten miles, but even that had its fair share of ups and downs. It took longer than we thought to reach our destination. However, there was at least a kiosk at one point serving ice cream. As we sat down to dinner at Hartland Quay Hotel (the only place to stay), we read about the following day’s fifteen miles to Bude. The hardest stretch of the entire path… Challenging/severe… Don’t be fooled by the easy start… People in the hotel gave us a look when we said what we were doing. One said we had ten deep valleys to encounter, another said five. Someone mentioned waterfalls. How challenging can it be? we said to each other. Surely not as bad as Kyrgyzstan, where I’d been in so much hip pain I’d had to get on a horse…

Worse. Worse than Kyrgyzstan. More than ten deep, deep valleys to climb into and out again. All the way down to sea level, over a little bridge spanning a waterfall and up the other side again. Relentlessly. No tea rooms. No scones. Just climbing. And then the next day, too: Bude to Boscastle.

Hartland coastline

No one talks about this side of Devon and Cornwall. No one says that it’s proper wilderness hiking with no facilities and no one around. It felt like being on the west coast of Ireland, Scotland – or even Iceland or the Faroes, Paula said (having been to both). And we agreed, this was harder hiking than Kyrgyzstan, which had been the hardest thing we’d both done together (Paula said only Greenland was worse).

We both belong in hiking groups that never venture here. It’s hard to get to and hard to herd groups of people here. We met people in ones and twos doing the same thing, most notably two women in their seventies who were wild-camping the whole thing and this was their last stretch. They didn’t even use tents – they were using tarpaulin to sleep under. “This is what you do in your seventies!” they shouted as we parted ways.

We met a young woman who had walked from Gloucester who was trying to find a suitable place to camp; we saw another who was lying against her pack, waiting for us to walk past so she could pitch her tent. It was next to a herd of goats. We yodelled and I think she heard us.

Speke’s Mill Mouth

As we took on every uppy-downy (as they became known) of the trail, we mused on how, if we’d known what this part of the trail entailed, we wouldn’t have attempted it at all. We wouldn’t have seen the incredible rocky outcrops pushing out into the glittering sea, or heard the crash of the Speke’s Mill Mouth waterfall as it plunges into the sea. We wouldn’t have seen the purple-heathered slopes at Cleave on the way to Bude, my personal favourite moment of the trip, or experienced the pride and joy of looking back at the valley we’d just traversed. Every climb and every descent brought a new ‘wow’ moment and a new angle on the breathtaking scenery and there was barely anyone else there to witness them with us.

We knew when we were approaching a car park or a village because people would appear with dogs and it would feel like an intrusion. As we got closer to the more popular stretches of the path we mourned the loss of the wilder stretches and realised that with cream teas came crowds. At Tintagel we finally lost it. The whole place was shrouded in fog and drizzle, and people were queuing up to walk across a new bridge to the castle from which they could see nothing. Get us out of here! we thought and promptly took a taxi to Port Isaac, which was pouring with Doc Martin fans.

As the weather improved, the hiking got easier, but our hearts were still in that wilderness we’d left behind. We’d overcome a psychological barrier and could face a deep valley without dread, just acceptance. We knew if you started counting them it was the road to exhaustion; you just have to get on with them. I had practiced my yogic ‘santosha’ – conscious cheerfulness – to get me through the hard stretches. I smiled and sang to myself, knowing that smiling is proven to make you feel happier. I can confirm that it works. I sang, “One singular sensation” as I walked sideways down hillside steps with my hiking pole, Bob Fosse-style.

The heathered slopes at Cleave

And joy of all joys – I’ve finally invested in hiking boots that are wide enough for my feet. I had no blisters. Nothing. After years of being crippled on day one of a hike. I am like a woman renewed – no hike is too far for me now.

We surprised ourselves on this ‘holiday’ (and agreed that it wasn’t a holiday). We climbed every mountain and forded every stream: without injury, without tears, without blisters. We each employed a different approach and it worked – Paula likes to get up a hill very quickly to get it done, I prefer to plod slowly and continuously and get there without breathing through my arse. Before now, I’ve tried to rush up hills and felt awful. It’s easier when you’re not in a group to take your time. “Steady as she goes” is my mantra. We’d meet at the top and congratulate each other on a job well done.

And can I sing the praises of a pasty as the perfect hiking lunch? A meal wrapped in a pastry case, still warm from the morning’s oven. Thank goodness we made sure we had packed lunches and pasties with us from every town we stayed in. There was nothing in between each stop apart from that first kiosk, the two cafes at Crackington Haven and Sandymouth Cafe outside Bude. They were like oases in the desert.

Crackington Haven beach

At first we were disappointed not to be staying in Padstow (aka Rick Steinville) but then we discovered the YHA at Treyarnon. What a find. A sea view, a glorious beach, food being served through a hatch. I’d definitely go back there.

A woman in her seventies (or eighties?) approached us as we waited for the bus into Newquay, hiking all completed.

“In my day when we were walking, we didn’t allow getting buses.”

Me: *death stare*

Paula, smiling: “We’ve just hiked from Clovelly, actually, and we’re done.”

Lady: “Oh!” *looks Paula up and down incredulously. Looks at husband in disbelief* “Oh wow – you’ve done all that!”

Us: “Yes, yes we have.”

*gets on front seat of top deck of bus and whoops with joy*

Descent into Boscastle – Beeny Cliffs

¡Group!

For my fiftieth year, I wanted to scatter adventures throughout the year, rather than focus on one big one. I began with a return to my beloved Isle of Wight and its hypnotic coastal path at Tennyson Down. Again, I found I had it mostly to myself. I smiled when I saw two older women (older than me) scurrying down the Down towards me one morning. One was obviously a fell runner, the other striding out at speed with her dog. ‘That’ll be me in fifteen years,’ I thought. I hoped.

My first Island adventure three years ago was one filled with blisters and exhaustion. All the hiking I’ve been doing since then has made me more robust and able to take in the miles. My feet have toughened up (whilst still maintaining the acceptable public face of a pedicure). A friend recommended boots that were comfy from the very first wear. You can find them here. (I recommend Ellis Brigham because their in-store service is brilliant).

I’d planned on doing a classic milestone birthday walk on part of the Camino, the network of pilgrimage routes that criss-cross Europe and end up at Santiago de Compostela in Spain. I mentioned it to a few hikers in my London hiking group, and they kept mentioning the joys of a town called Burgos, which sounded appealing. But a few kept mentioning a place I’d never heard of before – Picos de Europa: a spectacular mountainous national park in northern Spain that I would love. No none-hikers I mentioned it to had heard of it (and indeed, even in Spain it’s not widely known) so I decided that was my destination.

The week’s walking would be with adventure-holiday specialists Exodus, whom I’d never tried, but everyone recommended. In the recent past, I’ve avoided group holidays, preferring to ‘fly solo’, but a mountain region in Spain? It couldn’t be done on my own very easily. And having overcome my irrational bias against doing anything in groups (I used to think it was sad), it felt like the right next step. I know from my current hiking groups that people are largely great. There’s always the odd one you fail to click with, but I’ve made some really good friends through it and it’s changed my mind about shared experience.

I decided to throw myself into the group experience, starting at the airport. Most of our 15-strong group had been on the same flight and we’d all done the same thing: looked around for ‘hiking people’ on the flight and struggled to spot any likely candidates. When we met at Bilbao airport we were a disparate bunch – the only thing marking us out being above-average rucksacks with telltale bits of kit and huge ‘I can’t wait to hike’ smiles.

Hiking has taught me many things but this holiday taught me some more. It taught me that I am fit enough to walk up 1000-metre ascents with virtually no stops, whilst being able to play word games with fellow hikers. It taught me that the youngest person in the group is not necessarily the fittest – in our case, a 70-year-old man was the fittest, and most eager to scale peaks. I was happy to walk in his wake with his wife – we were the three Welsh ‘mountain goats’.

It taught me that some people hum or sing involuntarily when they’re happy and you know when they’re feeling below par because they stop. It taught me that unlikely people enjoy singing songs from the musicals, specifically My Fair Lady (I’m looking at you, Richard…), and that a slight, quiet man walking with poles, who knows everything about anything, can be a retired fireman with a heart of an ox, who has saved people from burning basements.

I learned that the group rally round people who are struggling. I attempted to scale a very small peak and freaked out about the vertiginous nature of the climb. I was ‘talked up’ by my more courageous colleagues and given a helpful arm to hold on to on the way down by the guide. It was one small step for womankind but meant the world to me.

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Me being triumphant on the peak wearing my new Picos t-shirt

I learned that it feels a bit rubbish not to join a splinter group for a more challenging ascent. As I waited for the others on the slopes below, I knew I’d made the right choice not to go (it was a scree slope with an even more vertiginous drop) but it wasn’t nice being left out. It occurred to me that the group thrived on shared experience, and each time we split up, it eroded that joyous feeling a tiny bit. They returned with ‘I did it!’ faces and it made me feel defensive and sad.

On the last day of hiking, I was striking out with my fellow mountain goats, mostly ahead of the pack. It was suggested to me later that some people had deliberately slowed down so that they could support people who were struggling at the back; that they could’ve gone faster, but chose not to. I felt selfish in my urge to strike out, to get the most out of the experience for me. Should I have held back?

I was reminded of the guy who sacrificed his own time in the London Marathon this year to help another who was struggling. I’ll confess that I’ve looked at that footage more than once and thought, “I’d run over the line first then go back for him”. Or maybe not. It’s made me question my self-professed team-player status. Am I in it for the team? Or am I just in it to get my personal best?

I think part of this thinking comes from a feeling of having been held back by people over the years. Held back from the horizon ahead, from crossing the finish line. I felt it when I finally made the decision to go to university (four years after sixth form), with no one around me suggesting that I should. My ballet teacher, whom I’d been working for, exclaimed, “if I’d known you were clever I would’ve suggested it years ago!” Indeed. Thank goodness I got there under my own steam.

I felt it when I’d got over the point where both my parents had died and was about to forge ahead unbroken, and my ex-husband’s parents started dying. It wasn’t his fault, but I wanted to run away and be free.

I felt it when I was on holiday with him and I’d want to walk over the next horizon, or stay out for that extra drink with the locals, and he didn’t. I’ve felt it when I’ve been out with friends who want to go to home early on a night out and I’m still yearning for action.

I’ve met all of these challenges by striking out on my own to continue the voyage, feeling like I’m peeling people’s clasping fingers off me as I pull away, thinking: “You can’t stop me doing what I want to do, stop trying to hold me back with you, I want to go further than you.” I’ve walked over the next horizon, stayed out for that extra drink and now it feels like my default setting.

But the best moments of this trip took place as a shared experience with the group (our Spanish guide, Alvaro, shouted ¡Group! when he wanted our attention). I genuinely forged connections with most of the group that I hope will last. After I’d hugged the last one coming through passport control at the airport, I had to rush off otherwise I’d have got upset.

All ages, all backgrounds, all experts in something fascinating (Janet and her plant knowledge!). Sharing G&T orders, bottles of cava, hairdryers, baguettes, bizcocho and an admiration for the guide.

I think my experiences over the years have caused me to be wary of other people trying to hold me back. That’s made me concentrate on the quality of my own experience, and that’s what solo holidays have given me the opportunity to do. But oh, the group.

Team Mountain Goat. You taught me oh so much about myself, about alpine plants, about Spanish history, about canals engineered in mountains, about hiking socks, about not washing waterproof jackets because they’re never the same after. But the main thing you taught me was how great people are. Especially hiking people.

Dedicated to Team Mountain Goat: Janet, Gill, Pete, Chris, Manisha, Anthony, Jenny, Vanessa, Hugh, Alvaro, Jennifer, Susan, Mandy, Richard and Jas.