(In the deep mid-winter of 2003/4, I hit upon the idea of walking the 630-mile South West Coast Path. I envisioned this would take as long as it took although my tentative plan was to make two week-long trips each year over four years. I invited many of my friends to accompany me on each leg but resolved to walk it anyway, whether alone or with others. Below is a piece, personal and anecdotal in nature, written beforehand outlining my limited acquaintance with the area and published as one of four essays about the path in my anthology ‘While Giants Sleep’. It is salutary that, while this huge boundary between land and sea persists through the ages, three of my closest friends mentioned in this piece are no longer with us).
The South West Coast Path starts at Minehead and runs westwards through Devon and Cornwall, around Lands End and then eastward along the south coasts of Cornwall, Devon and Dorset all the way to the edge of Poole Harbour. It is calculated to be 630 miles in length.
Some people I once met whilst walking the Tour du Mont Blanc asked me, with more than a hint of disapproval, whether I was a ‘serious walker’. Looking them up and down, with their toggles, whistles and plans for every eventuality, helped me realise that I am essentially a frivolous and light-hearted walker given to lapses of doggerel and pretension. So, this is a quick tour through some of the attic clutter memories that this region holds for me.
Although I was born and grew up in Weymouth, the South West Peninsula was an area almost unknown to me throughout that time. If we went anywhere, it was usually towards Bournemouth thirty miles to the east or, twice in my growing up, to London, towards the centre and away from the periphery.
Following the course of the walk, my first place of acquaintance will be Woody Bay where, in the early 1970s, my teaching colleague, John, used to hire Wringapeak House from wealthy socialists for a knock-down rental. We had some wonderful house parties there, just on the cusp before the economic realities and domestic responsibilities of the 1970s kicked in, – African travels, Winnicott, Fromm and Laing, differentiating the birdsong in shivery woods, word games and charades, and skinny dipping in a winter sea.
Then in September 1988, arriving at Bideford docks at 1.30 in the morning with Derek and Martin from Buxton Climbing Club. Mats and sleeping bags straight on to the pavement behind the containers and feet from a drop into the black harbour water. Up stretching in the cold morning light at 6.30, wondering wherever we might find a breakfast before the ferry to Lundy.
The next place that I have had any contact with is Tintagel, a brief hitch-hiking stop in 1967. Black, fissured clumps of dripping land. I promised myself more contact with the geo-Celtic mysteries of this place, but it’s been a long time coming.
Only the briefest of visits to St Ives once, barely stepping out of the car, but in 1962 or ‘63 that town’s council made a decision that threw a lever in my life. Worried about the bohemian drift into their town, well beyond the tourist-friendly quota of legitimate artists, crack-down and clean-up operations pushed the migrants back out onto the road. Many ended up in Weymouth, repatriated back to the mainland after being refused landing rights in the Channel Islands.
Washing up in a seaside hotel in the summer of 1964, I fell among some of these characters, abandoned my sixth form friends with their bars and discos, and entered headlong into an intense bout of guided and tutored reading. From a standing start as an O-level failure, I journeyed that summer through Orwell and Huxley, on to Shaw, Thoreau, Joyce and Ibsen, deeply grateful to St Ives’ refugees.
Then it’s the golden cliffs around Lands End, first tumbling into this landscape as the sun was coming up after a twelve-hour overnight minibus trip from London, before the motorways, at Whitsun 1967 with the college climbing club. Friends scattered still asleep among the dunes of Whitesands Bay as the late morning sun stirred our blood and pulses. Tar on our feet from the sands, six months after the wreck of the Torrey Canyon.
Following Andy Handford up Dexter, at full stretch, fearing to breathe and fall out of balance, fingers scratching up the final fractions of an inch, reaching for a feint impression and a purchase. Coming back in 1987 with Derek, feeling bold and focused, tiptoeing out and staying in control beneath the mighty cathedral roof of Diocese. Returning many times through the decades, in different phases and stages of life, with most of my main climbing partners, remembering the earliest adventures when hearts were as big as the cliffs and the seascapes.
Porthcurno in the first breaths of Spring, a number of times with my sons at various times in their growing. Hope and potential in the winds, hot sun in bursts, sheltering in the crevices. Mousehole where Handford escaped London one summer to work in a boatyard, sleeping at nights in or under the boats. The Lizard Peninsula – I have never visited but many I know have had holidays there and speak of the area with affection.
Hitchhiking into Falmouth at Easter-time in 1967, more than half-believing I’d made it all the way across America from the Village to the City Lights bookshop. Going into a chip shop as the late afternoon began to turn dark and cold and asking the girl behind the counter if she knew of ‘anywhere to crash’. She said her sister was at the Art College, that she had a flat, to meet her at 7.30 after work in the café around the corner. Generous and innocent times, when for a tiny moment it might just be that all you needed to know about life really was there on a Donovan record.
Rattling on the train, hugging the base of the cliffs right above the sea around the coast of south Devon, travelling with Gerv to do work in Cornwall in the late 1990s. Model railway scenery. The cut and thrust and creativity, – planning, writing and presenting, synchronised and thinking fast on our feet.
Paignton and Torquay, – family holidays there around the ages of nine and fourteen, our only travels westward. Wonderful freedom on the first, doing anything you fancied, and then on the second the adolescent restlessness that presaged the end of our family holidays for me.
Lyme Regis, the first place beyond the westward sweep of my imagination as a child, a far boundary, and then West Bay, with a friendly nod towards Bridport, where school day friends Roger, Val and Ivan have kept a welcome for me for more than thirty-five years. Putting out the strong roots and laterals of family, community and continuity into shiftless times, they have helped bind firmly together my past and present.
Finally towards Abbotsbury, the Fleet and Chesil Beach, listening for John Trenchard and Elzevir Block trying to land their ship in a storm in Moonfleet: ‘There was a deafening noise as we came near the shore, the shrieking of the wind in the rigging, the crash of the combing sea, and overall the awful grinding roar of the under-tow sucking down the pebbles’.
I remember standing there as a child at the Portland end of the beach, holding my father’s hand on a Sunday afternoon in winter, sickened but excited by the terrifying noise and rumble of the sea pulling back into itself the pebbled slope we were standing upon. Wanting to get back safe beyond the lee of the top of the bank, wanting to stay hanging on tight to my Dad, and wanting to take a step or two forwards to sneer and tempt the sea’s malevolent might.
Perhaps a trip up to the Westham Estate for a quick look at our old house, my childhood home for eighteen years, to round it off?
It would be far too self-aggrandising to bring my own plaque – no place for it anyway among the porches and satellite dishes that have flourished since Mrs T sold off the homesteads.
A quiet dinner somewhere on the harbour, perhaps, instead. And a raised glass or two.
Are you coming with me?