What: Padstow to Falmouth on the South West Coast Path
Where: Cornwall, England
When: May 15-28, 2022 (13 days)
Distance: about 186 miles
Highlights: fantastic scenery, spring wildflowers, ice cream, good weather, easy logistics
A-Z from Collins publishes a series of official maps for the UK’s National Trails. There are five maps in the South West Coast Path (SWCP) series. These exceptionally good maps are compact and they contain all of the information needed for a trip, including the OS maps, mileage tables with information about services at each location, and ferry information.
The South West Coast Path Association website has comprehensive information for all aspects of planning a trip, including a shop that sells the A-Z map packs.
Other than the A-Z maps, the only reference material we needed before and during the trip was a smartphone: google maps for public transit information; apps to book rooms (primarily airbnb); Gaia GPS with route and maps that we had downloaded for offline use.
There are other guidebooks, including the SWCP Association’s annual guide, but these are not needed. They often include detailed instructions that no longer necessary, given the efficacy of using an app like GaiaGPS or CalTopo to navigate on the occasions when the routing is unclear.
Why we went
We hiked about a third of the 630 mile Southwest Coast Path (SWCP) in 2002, and the remainder of the path in 2005. Since then Amy has always wanted to return and hike the whole thing all over again. We have taken other great coastal hikes, but Amy has always had a soft spot in her heart for this one, perhaps because it was our first coastal hike.
James has a strong preference to explore places we have not hiked previously and outside of our local hikes, prefers to visit new destinations. Amy, on the other hand, enjoys revisiting beloved locales. In the spring of 2022 Amy was feeling ready to travel overseas, but James was still reluctant to do so given the COVID situation. So when our friend Alison expressed an interest in a taking a two-week hike in May the stars aligned for Amy and Alison to hike a section of the SWCP.
This hike was fabulous, and this path stays on my Top Ten list.
I was slightly nervous prior to departure that it would not live up to my rosy recollection of our 2002 and 2005 trips. Perhaps I had only remembered the parts I loved, and revisiting the path would be a disappointment. But in fact I loved it just as much as I had twenty years ago. Everything was as satisfying as I’d hoped: beaches, waves crashing on the cliffs, flowers, ice cream, great cider, coastwatch stations, choughs and fulmars and robins, rising and falling tides, centuries-old quays and harbors, ferries, and cool pleasant weather. Every mile was beautiful and fun, and the simplicity of following a well-maintained trail makes for stress-free hiking.
Traveling with Alison was easy and fun, and we found that we have compatible hiking styles.
Perhaps most importantly, I got a bit of the feeling of being on a long hike. In the six years prior to the pandemic, we had taken 11 multi-week trips, totaling 423 days, and I had been thoroughly enjoying the experience. In March 2020 that came to a halt. We took 11 backpacking trips during the pandemic, but none were long enough to develop the feeling of living on the trail.
When Alison and I started in Padstow, we agreed that we would take each day as it came. We had no pressures, no agenda, and nothing except a line to follow. What a delightful way to live.
I am looking forward to a future year, when I get off the bus in Padstow and start hiking clockwise, or take the train to Falmouth and hike counter-clockwise. We hiked just 186 miles of a 630 mile path; there are so many remaining miles.
This was my second coastal walk (the other in Northern Ireland) and it did not disappoint. When we were looking for hikes, I suggested various options but Amy only wanted to come to the SWCP. I now know why and am so happy that she was unwavering. It is a gem. The vast cliffs, sweeping views and historical items kept me highly entertained. The section we chose also took us past the Minack Theatre https://minack.com/ where, for 25 quid I sat outside, listened to the waves crash and watched actors do their thing. And, for the TV watchers, we were quickly made aware that we were walking through several settings of the Poldark series. The SWCP is quite the diverse walk.
It was a complete joy traveling with Amy. It has been a long time since I’ve taken a solo trip with anyone besides my husband. Amy and I shared a post-pandemic focus to just be outside, be happy walkers and enjoy being away from everyday life back home.
My one caution to future hikers would be to watch the time of year you embark. The big months of June/July/August will be booked and super busy. We traveled in May, just before Memorial Day and the Queen’s Jubilee, which allowed us some last minute booking flexibility. My guess is after Memorial Day, such flexibility may be gone. That said, several campsites we had targeted were closed due to the timing of pre-season.
I am also now an advocate of doing more coastal walks and look forward to searching out new ones (for me) and/or completing this one.
Notes for Potential Hikers
We were limited to two weeks. Because I enjoyed all parts of the path on our 2002/2005 hikes, the choice of a starting location was a bit arbitrary. For those who have a limited amount of time and want to hike just a section, my advice is to not worry too much about which section you choose, just pick a place and start walking. If you enjoy your walk, you can return in a subsequent year and pick up where you left off. Our hike had three parts:
- For the first 11 days we just followed the SWCP, starting at Padstow and walking as far as we got each day. We left the path twice. On May 19th we had a reservation at an AirBnB in St Just, a roughly 19 mile hike. But the path was more rugged than the prior days, and our progress was slower. When we reached the half-way point at about 3:00, we agreed we would just walk as far as we got and hitch or call a cab to get to St Just. Then, on May 22, we had reserved a room at a very appealing AirBnB that was not directly on the path. From the trail we diverted inland just a few hundred meters, drank some great local cider and chatted with the locals, and then took a taxi to our room. In both instances, we returned to the path on foot the subsequent mornings.
- We reached Falmouth after 11 days of walking, and that evening we made a plan for how to spend our final two days before we needed to return to London. We made a spontaneous decision to spend our 12th day walking inland along the estuary to the King Harry Ferry, then catch a bus to Truro, and a train to an AirBnB in St Austell.
- On our 13th day we took a very enjoyable day hike, including 3 ferry rides and a bus ride.
The entire SWCP is heavily used. There are people out for an hour walking their dogs, people out for half or full day loop hikes, and people on multi-day hikes. In 2002/2005 we saw thousands of day hikers, but very few other hikers on multi-day trips. But in 2022 we saw many dozens, perhaps over a hundred, multi-day hikers. It seems that the SWCP is getting the attention from long-distance hikers that it deserves! I was quite surprised by the number of backpackers we saw.
Many multi-day hikers use a service to pre-book accommodations. Information on these services is available at the SWCP Association website. The services make it possible to take a trip like this without spending any significant time planning. The booking companies usually offer optional baggage transport services, allowing people who do not want to carry a pack to enjoy the path. In addition to hikers using these services, we saw other hikers who were carrying camping gear. There were other SWCP hikers in the campgrounds we used. We met a few people thru-hiking the entire path, and many hikers who were walking one-week sections with the goal to eventually hike the entire route.
Getting to and from the SWCP
There are trains from London to many destinations in Devon and Cornwall, and an extensive network of buses. The SWCP Association divides the trail into 52 segments, providing information about transit options for each segment.
Wild Camping, Campgrounds
We carried our camping gear, but used it on only three nights when we stayed in campgrounds. We booked most of our accommodations about 24 hours in advance, based on the weather forecast and our mood.
Wild camping is not technically allowed, although we had wild camped on this trail in 2002/2005, and on many other long hikes in the UK. We saw a few wild campers on this trip. There are numerous campgrounds along the route, and our stays in campgrounds were convenient and pleasant. We did not wild camp on this trip. In our opinion, the SWCP can absorb a small number of wild campers if they are rigorous about stealth camping practices. But this landscape is not like the long trails in the US, where wild camping is legal on the vast majority of the routes, or like the Alps or Pyrenees where it is permissible, common, and acceptable to bivouac on most of the route.
My only big disappointment on this trip is that the independent B&B’s have largely disappeared. In 2002/2005 we could walk into any coastal village and find at least several and often many B&B shingles. During our past trips we would walk as far as we got, arrive at a random village, and easily find a room. On this trip, however, we saw only a couple of B&B shingles. We used AirBnB when we wanted to find a room, and frequently found only limited options. We enjoyed the flexibility that comes without pre-booking rooms, and we were prepared to camp if we didn’t succeed at finding a room. Hikers who do not want to camp will need to do one of three things: pre-book everything; be willing to take a taxi inland where there are more accommodation options; or, pay a premium for a room that is near the path. We booked many of our rooms a day in advance using AirBnB and were satisfied with all of them.
Good to see you back hiking in the UK and the south west! Not surprised its busier this year. We have done about 2 weeks out of 6 on this trail and would like to return too.
All the best
Brian from Scotland