In April 2019 we hiked for a week along part of the 630 mile long South West Coast Path in England. The path itself takes a huge loop round the south west tip of England from Minehead to Bournemouth through Devon, Cornwall and Dorset. We walked a section from Bude to St Ives on the west coast of Cornwall.
We have visited Cornwall a number of times on rock climbing trips. Sea cliffs like Bosigran and Chair Ladder near Lands End have provided us with some of the best climbing anywhere on golden granite with Atlantic rollers crashing into the shore for atmosphere. In between the climbing days we have also walked along the coast path and thoroughly enjoyed these too.
I was also encouraged to see that the incredibly well travelled hikers, Amy and James from California, had included the coastal path in their top 10.
Summary We had a great hike. The trail follows the coast closely, mostly along the top of steep cliffs at the margins of farmlands. The quality of the trail is excellent and the scenery is tremendous with huge waves, cliffs, wide beaches, and grassy rolling fields. The coastal towns and villages are a standout too and hiking through was a pleasure adding variety to the wilder cliff top scenery. It was the Easter holidays and there was a lot of people out hiking near to the towns and surf beaches, but away from these it was quiet, particularly in the mornings and evenings.
We hope to return for more of the south west coast path! Stop press we did in 2020- see our blog here.
Resources We had a Cicerone guidebook. This was another reliable and recommended Cicerone guide which comes in printed and ebook formats providing trail descriptions, background info and strip maps. I also had OS maps for Cornwall on my android phone using the trusted Viewranger app. The trail is well marked and pretty clear most of the way, so there was a lot less need to consult the maps for navigation than we are normally used to.
We camped along the way. Although wild camping is technically not allowed, we were able to camp stealthily out of sight from the trail away from the villages. There are some fantastic wild cliff spots to be had if willing to search away from the trail, but there could be times when tent spots are limited, so a little planning ahead each day paid dividends. We didn’t see too many attractive commercial campsites on our hike (other than the recommended Hellesveor at St Ives) as most were holiday village style fixed caravans which don’t appeal to us (example here).
As the trail passed through towns every day, we took all our water from taps without any need for treatment which was nice. There are also lots of streams but it was simpler and safer to collect clean water from the towns. The towns also meant that we didn’t have to carry much food with us at all. The trail also passes an abundance of great cafes on the way with tempting cakes and Cornish Pasties!
Day 1 Bude to Dizzard We made it to Bude on the west coast of Cornwall by about 3.30pm after taking buses and trains from Bristol Airport. We picked up water and some veggie pasties and headed south on the trail away from the bustling town, busy with the start of the easter holidays.
We soon settled into hiking on a good cliff top trail looking down to the sea with fins of rock projected out from the shore into the water. There was a fair bit of up and down before we arrived at the lovely National Trust oak woodland of Dizzard. Just beyond we found a place to camp off trail and sheltered from the strong easterly breeze that we were to experience for most of the week.
Day 2 Dizzard to South of Tintagel The trail dips down to sea level often to cross bays and harbours and we are getting used to the steep dirt steps that take a direct line up and down the slopes.
Our first harbour is Crackington Haven and we dive inside a cafe here to escape the cold easterly wind and devour some cakes.
More roller coaster cliff top meandering to Boscastle for late lunch (another harbour town and one which flooded in 2004). There are quite a few tourists here at this picturesque cove and with attractions including the Museum of Witchcraft.
We continue south with some great wild coastal scenery to Tintagel, with its popular castle, where we stop for a drink, to take on water for overnight and to buy some more pasties for dinner. Take an old (possibly mining) path down from the cliff top to find a superb tiny spot to pitch the tent overlooking the broiling sea.
Day 3 South of Tintagel to Padstow The sun came out today lifting the temperature from the previous hazy days. Saw plenty of birdlife including fulmars, guillemots, ravens and peregrine falcon feeding a chick. Passed through pretty Port Isaac which was mobbed with tourists- seemingly a TV series Doc Martin was filmed here which explains the tourist numbers!
We crossed sandflats at the mouth of a huge estuary to get to a ferry crossing to the larger town of Padstow where we chickened out and went for the comfort of a B&B for the night!
Day 4 Padstow to Porthcothan Moist but warm morning as we hike out on the south shore of the estuary over flat trails and beaches. We traversed out to two peninsulas today- Stepper Point and Trevose Head. Along the way we passed a few cool huge vertical holes in the cliffs with the sea breaking down below. There were also a number of pleasant beaches between the rocks; Butterhole, Trevone and Harlyn- where we stopped to eat our now nearly obligatory Cornish Pastie! This one a rare ‘Mediterranean veggie’ flavour carried out from Padstow.
The next beach at Polventon had remarkably clean sands backed by green blue water. At the far end there is a RNLI lifeboat station with a massive ramp system for the boats to slide into the water.
After Trevose lighthouse the skies darkened and we were pounded with rain for the rest of the afternoon before taking refuge in the lovely cafe/shop in Porthcothan.
Day 5 Porthcothan to Newquay to Ligger point The rain thankfully stopped in the morning as we returned to the cliff top walking along to Bedruthan. We descended steps here to the sea with the waves broiling in against the cliffs. As we neared the large town of Newquay it got busier and we passed many surfers braving the cold air and even colder sea temperature!
Bustling Newquay provided all facilities so we did some quick shopping and sat on the grass in a park eating our pasties in the sun. On the way out of town we hiked right through the dry sandy harbour at low tide. We pushed on to The Gannel south of town, this is a large estuary best crossed by a causeway exposed at low tide. Onwards a good trail took us out of suburban Newquay and past a series of rocky beaches to look for a campsite. Unfortunately into the evening we found ourselves passing a large MOD area near Ligger Point and we hiked on quickly to find a tiny site on a grassy ridge leading from the clifftop down to the sea.
Day 6 Ligger Point to south of Portreath Sun today and more lovely surf beaches, cliff tops and the odd town. We stopped for early morning warming coffee in Perranporth. We passed Cligga Head with its granite quarry- a bit of a landmark for us being the first granite we had seen on the hike and reminding us of the great climbing further south on granite cliffs.
Not far on we were distracted by the irresistible cozy cafe in Trevaunance and sat outside in the garden with cakes and tea. Mining was the theme of the day culminating with the stark outline of the chimney at Wheal Coates. This is a popular spot and there were more people out on the trails than previously.
At Portreath we had great pizza for dinner outside the Portreath Arms and collected overnight water before hiking on into the evening to camp.
Day 7 To St Ives A gentle start today along good flatish trails out to the lighthouse at prominent Godrevy Point. Near here we looked straight down onto a crowd of grey seals basking on a lovely sandy beach. From the point we could see St Ives ahead at the far end of a huge wide cove of sandy beaches. The hiking there was deceptively long though as we had to circumnavigate the estuary at the town of Hayle. Hiking through town did give us the advantage of picking up a Subway sub for lunch- superb! Today was scenic, but away from the wilds as the trail mostly passed through populated areas.
St Ives is a touristy but loveable town and we all but finished our hike through the harbour at low tide and onto the high street shopping areas.
Some recommended related reading
Jamaica Inn Daphne du Maurier– classic fiction set in Cornwall
The Salt Path Raynor Winn– trail walking account with a difference