The South West Coast Path (SWCP) is England's longest long-distance hiking trail. It is 630 (1,014 km) miles long, starting in Minehead (Somerset), and ending in Poole Harbour (Dorset).
Back to the trail
After a couple of weeks going in other directions, taking me to Scotland and Ireland, I finally got a spare 10 day window to get back on the SWCP.
Restarting in St Austell after an overnight coach trip, the views and hills are still here. The pace may be a little slower as I still have 140 race miles in the legs and recovering from a bug, but it's all forward progress.
Week 2. 148 miles. 275/643 complete (days turn to weeks)
Due to the patchy nature of phone coverage the further West you go on the SWCP it's been harder to get to a place where I can comfortably blog. I may unexpectedly get a signal on a windswept hillside at 7am but frozen fingers aren't very good at typing.
The hike has been going well, with no further injury and strength building on what are now becoming incessant short, sharp hills. Before I set off I made a mileage chart between major towns and colour-coded it with severity. All the green and yellow (easy, mild) are now gone and we're into big blocks of red.
The daily mileage has dropped, mostly due to my aversion to walk clifftops in the dark, so now I'm limiting the day to 07:00-17:00.. 10 hours hiking into which I have to fit the regulation Full English Breakfast, lunch with a pint of local ale, and an evening fish supper. This is turning out to be more a culinary tour than a hike.
The weather has been amazingly good so far, with crisp clear sunny days and mild nights. I've only had bad frost once which froze the condensation inside the tent, but my layers and down bag coped well, and I still have a fleece and long sleeve top in reserve. I think it got down to -7c and not knowing what temperatures I'll encounter on the AT, I may add a microfleece liner to the bag. Just to be on the safe side. Nobody wants to be carried off the mountain as a human popsicle.
Day 6. 22 miles. 128/643 complete
After a lot of patching, fixing, washing and drying last night I packed away all my clean, dry kit and set off towards Exmouth in beautiful sunshine. It was bitterly cold to start with but a huge improvement on yesterday's rain, and with a cloudless sky the temperature soon climbed and I was eventually walking in a Tshirt.
The section from Seaton to Sidmouth was marked as "Challenging" on the SWCP website, and though there were plenty of short, sharp hills I was still taking things easy trying to protect my knee as much as possible, so felt relatively fresh and decided to continue on to Exmouth.
The day passed without event until I reached a field of ponies. One was standing by the gate and I had to shoo him away to get through. As I walked up the hill he followed closely behind, stopping each time I turned around. As I got my phone out for a picture he nipped the foam mat at the back of my pack, pulled from the webbing and galloped off with it, so I chased. Eventually the pony realised it wasn't edible and dropped it. Apart from some mud, a hoof print and some minor nibbling it was unscathed.
Last time I trust ponies. Keep your kit close, people. You don't know what's out there.
Days 4+5, 21+6 miles, 106/643 complete
Day 4 started in the rain with several miles of shingle underfoot. This stuff is awful to hike on as it forces you to take small, flat-footed steps. Try to stride out and you end up wasting energy as the pebbles shift under your feet.
Then I left my gloves on a bench when changing out of my waterproofs, tore my trousers on barbed wire climbing a stile and twisted my knee on a couple of downhill slips. Bad things happen in threes and by the time I got to Charmouth I was looking forward to a warm pub and a pint. Then I saw the "closed for 3 days" notice. OK.. 4.
Knowing the next section to Seaton was technical and with it getting dark, I decided to camp out and found a great spot under a conifer between two roads. There were lots of cars passing but no pedestrians, plus the tree branches almost reached the ground with just enough clearance by the trunk for my tent. I also found out my gaiters make a good groundsheet for the doorway.
Day 5 started off misty and wet. I packed up and set off to Lyme Regis, but as soon as I stepped away from the tree a spear of pain shot through my knee. I took some ibuprofen from my medikit and limped the two miles into town. Initially I thought I'd have to take a zero day, but as the painkillers kicked in I found it easier to walk and after several coffees I decided to carry on and clear the tough section to Seaton.
Going slowly and watching every step I got through the innumerable climbs, dips, steps, twists and tree roots and got to Seaton by dusk. It was still raining and getting cold so I found the nearest bar and booked into a hotel. Once there I washed and dried all my kit, sewed up the tears and got some new gloves from town.
All set for the next 100 miles.
Day 3. 23 miles. 79/643 complete
The day started damp with drizzle already soaking the tent as I woke. With the outside being cold and wet, there was quite a bit of condensation inside so I'd have to remember to unpack at lunch and dry out the tent.
The climb up Merchants Incline followed grooves cut into the rocks by the gravity railway used to transport Portland stone down to the town. I love to see the marks and indications of history and the scars and quarries from it's stone-producing past are all over Portland.
As the rain passed the whole south coast opened up revealing mile on mile of cliffs, the same ones I'd slogged up over the last few days. From here they looked tiny sawtooth bumps stretching out to the horizon.
The views around Portland were stunning, and there were so many grassy ledges close to the cliffs I wished I'd have walked on further last night so I could wake up to the views. But then I'd have missed the abandoned hospital and the views during the climb. Noted for next time.. Camping at Portland.
Once back in town I toyed with the idea of walking Chesil Beach but the map showed a firing range further up the coast and it would be a long walk back if it was in use, so I took the correct path which wound around the lagoon so much the 12 muddy miles to Abbotsbury were only 6 as the crow flies.
On arriving in town I could see there was a pub marked on the map (I use OS 1:25,000 scale on the Viewranger app) and hoped it was open. I always carry two sets of dry socks/briefs/Tshirt and was going to try to dry my Cheviot fell shoes and change socks. The pub was open, warm and very welcoming so I checked online to see if it had rooms. Double with en-suite for £35. I was booked in like a shot and showered within minutes, as the tent hung over the wardrobe to dry I also did some sink laundry. That's me set for the next few days under canvas.
The forecast tomorrow is for rain. I don't have waterproof shoes but will try a trick I picked up in the AT forums - sandwich bags on feet..
Day 2. 28 miles. 56/643 complete.
Waking up to daylight usually causes me some concern. Having wild/stealth camped for the last 30 years my golden rule is "pitch late, pack early" to avoid any problems with landowners.
This morning I knew I was OK as I'd found a lovely secluded spot in woodland well away from roads and footpaths, so I listened to the morning birdsong for a while before packing up in mild frost.
A few miles of road walking completed the diversion round the firing ranges and I was back on the SWCP and glorious sunshine. Even though the sun was mostly behind me all day I still ended up with mild sunburn from the intensity as it reflected off the sea.
Today's trails were taking me along the course of my first Ultra; the Dorset Doddle in 2012. Back then I was a distance walker, regularly taking on 40-50 mile hikes on a Sunday (in competition with others using GPX tracking app Endomondo). I hiked the first half then realised I was feeling OK with the hills so ran the second, my first and last negative split :)
Passing Durdle Door I took 30 to enjoy the view and realised I was still in ultra race mode.. I was in a hurry to get moving and begrudged talking any downtime. The ethos used to be "constant forward motion". It's going to take some time to learn to slow down and smell the roses.
Rain finally caught up with me as I approached Weymouth so as tradition dictates I found a pub and sat it out with a pint. It soon cleared and I continued down the causeway to Portland Bill, finding a spot behind the visitors centre by the fort.
Just as I was settling down I was treated to a 10 minute firework display, which was nice, but my birthday was yesterday. Appreciate the sentiment through Portland, and thanks for the welcome ;)
Day 1. 28 miles. 28/643 complete
The hike started with a ferry ride from Poole to Studland Beach where we had to find a path through the dunes due to the high tide.
We stopped off at a cafe at around 10 for breakfast and then got to grips with the wind over Old Harry Rocks. The forecast was clear and 5c but with biting winds from the NW the wind chill had us both wearing multiple layers and a buff to protect the face.
Unlike my happy-go-lucky approach to the hike, Chris had done some checking and the military ranges at Kimmeridge were in use all weekend, meaning a 13 mile detour. 13 more on 13th. A good start.
But it is what it is, so we chatted, slid around in muddy patches, pushed through brambles on a "short cut" that turned out to be a sheep track and chatted about life, the universe and everything.
Pretty soon it was getting dark, but there was still just enough light to make it to Kimmeridge Bay and take the road detour up to Wareham. We stopped at he local chippy for battered sausage and chips (all good calories) and a couple of birthday Guinness, then headed in opposite directions, Chris back to Poole and myself towards Lulworth in search of a grassy spot to set up camp.
Within a couple of miles I found a wooded grove a few hundred feet from the road so pitched tent, set up the sleeping gear and was sparko within minutes.
Being a gear and data nut (previously a data Analyst for banks. And before you ask, I joined well after the crunch), I just have to put up my kit list. It's taken me 30 years of hiking, running and wild camping to pare it down from a week hiking the Lakes with a 60L pack and cheap leaky tent to being comfy at -10C with 22L. All of it is trial and error, picking up ideas from FB forums, blogs, websites selling bloody expensive crap and (most valuable) recommendations and reviews. So:
The "big 3":
And that is the sum total of my 14lb pack. Guess I'll see how it holds up in the next few weeks.
The idea was to take a train to Poole, then the ferry from Sandbanks (posh bit of town) to Studland Beach (nudey bit of town with dunes) and camp out for the night.
The one problem with plans is they tend to go wrong. And mine did. Ten minutes into the train journey I tore my pack trying to squeeze everything I'd need for three weeks of winter hiking into a rucksack that just about carried my summer JOGLE kit.
So rather than kicking off with a thoroughly enjoyable night camping in sleet and snow, I have to endure a modest hotel room and hours of patching, stitching, a few tinnies and Jamiroquai off the playlist.
Tomorrow the fun starts. 630 miles over the South West Coast Path. The plan is to average 30 miles a day as a tester and training for the Appalachian Trail in April.
I've never been a lover of hills, but with 91,000 feet of climb (4300 a day) this is a good trainer for the much bigger numbers the AT throws at you. I'm not even getting into that at the moment. It's scary.
Anyways, back to the sewing...
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