ON TO ENGLAND
Visiting with Penny & Des was a delightful start to our English adventure.
Late May 2017 A New Hiking Venue
We touched down in London Monday morning and by Tuesday evening we were in Minehead, England eagerly greeting Penny and Des, a British couple we met in 2001. They also hosted us in their home and stored our bikes in 2007 for our 3 week trip to Iceland. Like Des said “It’s like we’ve known you forever” even though we haven’t had all that much face-to-face time over the years.
They dropped in for a quick “Hello” while we were preparing dinner in our room Tuesday night and then we spent the next day hiking together in the hills above coastal Minehead. They’d kindly rerouted their holiday week to rendezvous with us at this remote town, with no mining history, the starting point of our scheduled 13 day walk on England’s SW Coast Path.
Bill is forever looking to extend our overseas travels beyond the 90 day limit in most of the EU and England, Brexit or no Brexit, is outside of the specific, troublesome, treaty agreement so he’d searched it for possible hikes. The SW Coast Path is the most southern segment of the 2500 mile National Trail System, which presumably, would afford the best weather in May. He also thought the ocean scenery might be more pleasing to us than the inland routes. So, it was off to England for a couple of weeks as a pre-trip to spending the summer in the Dolomites.The SW Coast Path—A Bit of History
Over the years, we’ve learned that many of our well-worn paths began as trade routes over mountain passes, like Brenner Pass between Austria and Italy, for goods such as salt and amber. But at least this early portion of the SW Coastal Path had its origins in military/defense purposes, like the via ferratas that we love in Italy. The Coastal Path began in an effort to counter smugglers; the via ferratas were 4-season tracks for the opposing Italian and Austrian alpine troops in WWII. Both were financed by the government, not entrepreneurs, like was the case for many of the spectacular trails in the western US's National Parks.
Minehead's historic coastguard quarters were next door to our B&B.
It was in the early 1700’s when the English government imposed heavy duties on imported goods, particularly alcohol, that the robust smuggling industry began. In response, the government established the coastguard service in 1822 along the cliffs and coves, watching for suspicious activity. This foot patrol trod the land, creating part of what became the SW Coast Path.
Suppressing the illegal activity that was valued by the locals meant that rooms weren’t offered by villagers to patrollers so the government was forced to construct coastguard cottages, some that resembled military barracks. The role of coastguard eventually changed from watching for smugglers to protecting the safety of passing ships.On The Track
Day 1 was delightful. It was a warm, sunny day and we were sent off into the rolling hills by long time friends. We met another couple, also beginning their trek, whom we assumed would be ongoing trail mates. We were intrigued by the very steep and tightly spaced hills primarily covered by very short grass and gorse and enjoyed the ample ocean views from the bluffs. We were off to a stellar start.
Day 2 was less to our liking because we spent much of our time in a sultry conifer forest with few views of the coast line. Around noon, we looked down to discover tiny ticks crawling from leaf litter onto our pants and my sandal-clad feet. That night we were in a slight panic as we further inspected our bodies after digging 5 of the little buggers out of our skin—one the diameter of a poppy seed. Boning up on Lyme disease and beginning the futile search to buy our preferred repellent became a near obsession.
Day 3 was on a gorgeous bit of rocky, dramatic coastline south of Lynton that we longed to savor. Unfortunately, we couldn’t linger because of the many miles ahead of us and the fog interfered with capturing the experience in photos. The damp, overcast, breezy morning gave way to rain. Finally, when our water resistant wind pants rated to 25 mph became saturated on a blustery bluff, we stopped to put on our rain pants. As we did, an athletic-looking couple in their 30’s dressed in only shorts and T shirts paused to say “Hello.” And we had been worried about being warm and sheltered enough to eat lunch…
Pretty, but so many miles yet to go.
Each day was different. Day 4 had us trudging through sand and along the edges of sand dunes in drizzly weather at the end of the route. We later learned that the short-cut we took on the shoulder-less road into town spared us from getting lost on a golf course like other walkers following the primary route had done. Day 5 was 14 miles under overcast skies and mostly on a pancake-flat, asphalt, multi-use path. The following day was more asphalt but under sunny skies.
The route became increasingly difficult as we headed generally south. Pushing our way through sometimes shoulder-height vegetation, climbing over 1-2 dozen walls and cattle barricades, and methodically unlatching and latching numerous and varied gate mechanisms slowed our pace to a crawl at times most days. The extremely steep up’s and down’s that were often the equivalent of 20 flights of stairs at a time were also pace-killers.
But then, the jig was up: “Perpetual downpour” was the cryptic forecast for the next day. We’d watched the expected daytime rain accumulation on the 10 day forecast for this day flutter above and below 1” but the predictions were consistently punctuated by 20-30 mph headwinds. We knew we’d met our match. It was Day 12 of our 13 day walk on England’s SW Coast Path but our event was suddenly over. That was it. Higher winds with less rain didn’t make Day 13 look any better. We'd finished most days around 7 pm and arriving drenched and even later was a dismal thought.
Of course, there were second thoughts. It was only intermittently raining when we left our Port Isaac B&B on the morning of Day 12 and the winds were brief and gentle. We encountered the couple that we’d chatted with at the Minehead trailhead on Day 1 and they were taking the alternate, inland route part way, then finishing from Rock by bus. Bill was chagrinned: he didn’t know about the inland route. The part of me that was still itching to be on the track thought about bolting, though I reigned it in.
Somewhat sheepishly, we waved them on and soothed ourselves with “Next time we’ll know better.” We strolled around the Port Isaac, taking on some of the 30% grades, while waiting for our bus so as to meet our luggage that night. But our bruised egos were vindicated in less than 2 hours when the punishing gusts and intermittent downpours hit and by 5 pm, it was a flash-flood-league torrents of water. Yup, we had indeed made the right decision. Our well equipped but far less hardy trail mates were undoubtedly miserable.
Let Me Count the Ways
Thatched roofs added to the visual charm of our experience.
As so often happens, we’d naively assumed that the handful of through-hikers, an American term often used on the Pacific Coast and Appalachian long-distance routes, were doing what we were doing. We assumed that they were all walking every bit of their designated route, but this couple that we’d encountered at the beginning and end of our trek reminded us of how wrong we were.
The 4 of us started from Minehead at the same time on the same day and we didn’t bump into them again until Day 12 for all of us. We’d walked every bit of the 160 miles to that point and they hadn’t. We learned at Port Isaac that their walk had included daily or near-daily use of taxis and buses. Their plan had been to walk about 10 miles a day though it sounded like it more often was about 7 miles, with 1 day being a mere 1.5 miles. Unlike us, they’d successfully carved out time for sightseeing, photo-taking, and leisurely breaks for the all-important afternoon tea and cake.
By the end, we concluded that only one other couple that we knew of was likely walking all of their route. Half our age and substantially faster and hardier than us, we were quite surprised to see them a second time. They were the ones that had whizzed past us on about Day 3 while we paused to put on rain pants.
I was impressed and horrified at the time that they were carrying on in T-shirts and shorts in the fierce wind and rain and wondered how that was working for them. My question was answered a couple days later when they appeared in our Brauton B&B’s breakfast room. “Not well”: by the time they'd stopped to put on jackets that day, their hands were so numb that they couldn’t manipulate the zippers. Of course, the obvious question was why the #$%^ they hadn’t put their jackets on like we had done when the rain started a couple of hours earlier. Clearly, they weren’t “comfort” travelers like us.
I believe that all other Coast Path walkers we chatted with or observed were using taxis and buses on a daily basis and for most, it was preplanned. Walking from accommodation to accommodation meant that our days were longer than ideal but that was the only way to walk it all and so that’s what we had done. In contrast, several small groups established a base at a single B&B and then used cabs at the beginning and end of each day to complete a different segment of the route.
Soon, Adrian would be off to recruit a hostess for the night.
Solo Traveling But Not
Adrian, a 52 year-old German woman, was hoping to complete the 660 mile route in a little over 4 weeks but was modifying her expectations as she went. On a tight budget, she was horrified to learn that free-camping on the route was illegal, though we spoke with 1 couple who were trying to and saw others with camping gear.
Adrian had walked parts of the El Camino in Spain, but like us, was taken aback by the painfully slow pace demanded by the Coast Trail. She, like us back in the planning stage, didn’t anticipate the estimated 44,000’ of elevation gain in 13 days.
But unlike us, Adrian wasn’t conditioned for the demands of this purportedly most difficult segment of the SW Coast Path National Trail. We could tackle the multiple 20 story wood and dirt staircases with vigor but Adrian ascended slowly with many rest stops. Our extensive hiking and limited indoor conditioning had us well adapted to the high-stepping needed to clamber over the many livestock barriers on which Adrian struggled. We were lean, she was not; we had trekking poles, she didn’t; we were using a luggage service to lighten our load, she was not. We walked part of several days with Adrian; she was maintaining our schedule but with the liberal use of other people's wheels.
Adrian’s English was excellent and we quizzed her to understand how her solo traveler strategy contrasted with our through-hiker mentality. One day was especially revealing. Bill had booked all of our accommodations so there’d never be chaos at the end of our long days; Adrian had not. We arrived at Hartland Quay, a geologically stunning bit of coast line with a single hotel being the only building for several miles. We checked in; Adrian inquired about the price. Too expensive for her, she pressed the clerk for local alternatives. Kindly, the clerk confirmed that a budget-priced B&B had a room available but it was 3 miles away and uphill. Adrian was depleted and had 2 layers of blisters on one heel and a single layer on the other.
Adrian accepted the offer from a German tourist to give her a lift to the B&B, though we didn’t hear how that came about. No dinner was available near her lodging, so she enlisted my help to navigate around the uninviting bar menu at our establishment. I suggested asking the server to combine parts of 2 menu items to make a more substantial meal, which the kitchen accommodated. When we saw Adrian 2 days later during our picnic, she was back on our route. The up-the-hill B&B hostess had allowed Adrian to spend the tough, showery hike day indoors with her (which is rare) and then the hostess drove her to our destination town that afternoon while we walked.
Hartland Quay: Stunning geology & rare access to the ocean waters on the path.
We hadn’t started out together from Bude the next morning, but Adrain caught up and accompanied us for several miles. When we arrived at the next village with scant lodging, Adrain wisely called it a day. While we were on a distant bench adjusting our clothes for the final 5 mile push up and down endless slopes, we saw Adrain still chatting with a woman seated on a cafe patio. Our best guess was that the woman was going to take Adrian in for the night or drive her to a less expensive place. Indeed, there were many ways to travel this path.
Adrain was masterful at maximizing her resources. On our first day together, we’d stopped for our picnic and Adrain carried on. Flummoxed by her map reading difficulties, she’d turned around, no doubt realizing that she would encounter us. She happily ‘hopped on’ as Bill confidently deciphered the route with his better navigation tool. We also learned that on several occasions when we’d been on the trail at the same time but apart, she’d emailed or called her father or a friend for help in scouting accommodations for the night or confirming her location with GPS. Adrain was a solo traveler who was very skilled at not spending much time alone.The Ups
A Rare Send-Off
Bill’s SW Coast Path walk was a great adventure. The start was especially sweet because we were sent-off by Penny and Des, a couple we’d met in a French campground on a rainy day in 2001 and stayed with in 2007. We enjoyed the fun and comfort of being with old friends while we explored the trails around Minehead the day before we began the big walk and waving good-bye at the trailhead.
"Up & Overs" on the cow stiles added to everyone's fatigue on the route.
Day After Day Endurance
As planned, we did little sightseeing, with the journey being conceived as an athletic event and further inspired by Coachella Valley Hiking Club members last winter who spoke of their long-distance treks on the El Camino in Spain and England’s National Trails. We’d biked in England before and were satisfied with our prior immersion in the culture and the sightseeing. We did of course enjoy the traditional cottages, thatched roofs, and other charming sights along the way.
I would have enjoyed having another hour each day to stroll our host village streets and duck into recommended pubs and local museums for a bit more history, but there wasn’t time for that: we had a fixed itinerary with high output days. In the end, we did about 160 miles which included our first 100 mile week.
We were exceptionally pleased that our bodies did well with the stresses of day-after-day big outputs of 10 to 20 miles. That was an aspect of hiking stress we hadn’t really challenged ourselves with and we both viewed this event as an opportunity to round-out our abilities.
I did suffer from one ‘injury’ which was triggered by too many miles on the dreaded flat, asphalt, multi-use paths with a banked edge. Dodging mobs of cheery but amateurish bike riders on a bank holiday weekend had me placing my vulnerable left foot on tilt hour after hour. We always consider walking on flat terrain the most dangerous for triggering an overuse injury because every step is the same. Pain ensued that night but Bill deftly identified the sinewy, tantrumming calf muscle and used trigger point massage technics to release the multiple knots that had developed—I was good to go the next morning.
In the Market
Refrigerated and compactly packaged cooked chicken breast slices were an unexpected problem-solver for our meals—a relief from tuna, our overseas, go-to food. Neatly wrapped in flat trays and offered by all of the national retailers, the chicken was a domestic product with a minimum of additives that had consistently pleasant texture and flavor. We’d grab a tray to eat out of the package at lunch that day, perhaps topped with a bit of Brie, or torn and tossed on our green salad at night. It was more palatable than chicken I’d been served in some of Portland’s better restaurants.
English Breakfast To The Rescue
A little in-room-breakfast entertainment at Clovelly.
On our last trip through England 10 years ago, we scrupulously avoided “Full English Breakfasts” and were especially appalled by the notion of fried bread. This time however, with more pounds melting off of our bodies than was welcome, we embraced the high fat meal. In that interval, we’d flipped from low fat to high fat dining, so Full English Breakfasts (minus the carbs) were a perfect fit with our ketogenic regime.
The sausage, bacon, and eggs that I never eat, for various reasons, became a major part of our second breakfast for the day, as were the always offered grilled tomatoes and sautéed mushrooms. We skipped the abundant toast, Heinz baked beans, and occasional fried bread. That meal usually came 2-3 hours after our early-riser, standard keto breakfast in our room of a 1/4 lb of cheese, half an avocado, a few walnuts, and a small bit of tomato and fruit.
We also added about 30% more calories to our lunch menu and split the meal between 2 seatings to spare our increasingly scarce body fat from being mobilized. We’re still puzzled by the abrupt weight loss that began incrementally and intentionally in November. Mine went from an intended loss of 3-5 pounds, then plummeted another 5 lbs by May, and seemingly was still tanking. Bill’s smallest pants began sliding off of his hips without releasing the snap at the waist early in our trip. “Unexplained weight loss” is always a red flag for diseases like cancer but our increased output seemed a more likely explanation. We were more worried about needing to resort to suspenders than a medical problem.
Bill pre-booked with a luggage transfer service, which made this event possible for us. Our 50 lb bags stuffed with specialty items for our 4 month trip were flawlessly picked-up each morning after 9 am and deposited at our next accommodation by 5 that night. We brought our own hand scale to weight our bags each morning—we were right at their limit so there was often some shuffling of gear between the 2 bags. During one 2 night stretch with no markets on our route, we paid a nominal charge for a third bag, a small duffle we filled with our needed groceries.
Our almost daily aggravations on the trails were the overgrown, narrow segments of track laced wth stinging nettles and occasionally with spiked shrubs. I'd much rather walk briskly than battle my way through overgrowth, which only challenges my frustration tolerance and not my CV capacity or strength. We both dreaded those tedious, long stretches through the ‘narrows,’ especially at the end of the day when we were motivated for a sprint to the finish line.
Our major complaint indoors after Bill intentionally bought-up on all of our lodging, was having insufficient hot water for well-deserved showers about a fourth of our nights.
Two of our 5 ticks; the big one kept crawling away.
Like when spending long days doing anything, we would loved to have had a helper to tend to our chores after 8-10 hours out on the path. The evenings were incredibly compressed with needing to shop for food, doing food preparation, hand wash clothes, bathe, and tend to the other details of daily living. Yes, a little too much time pressure, a little too much like a job.
And then there were the TICKS! I positively hate being fed-upon by critters, whether it be leeches, fleas, mosquitoes, biting fly-like things, or ticks and there they were burrowed, in our skin on Day 2. Bill had 3 ticks on his legs, I had 2. Both of mine became infected, though 1 bite slowly responded to the prescription strength topical erythromycin we always carry. The second required obtaining oral antibiotics at the end of our trip in Newquay when we could readily access the health care service. The tissue damage from the infection was still evident on my calf a month later. And the low risk of having contracted Lyme disease will be in the backs of our minds in the coming months.
To our horror, English suppliers had stopped bringing the best repellent ingredient, picaridin or icaridin, into the country and our only repellent option was DEET, which we do not use. Daily head-to-toe tick inspections became a part of our nightly routine, as did tucking our long pants into socks. Much to the distress of my feet, I had to abandon my sock-incompatible sandals for the remainder of our trek and wear shoes. Safely squatting to pee also became problematic for me, but more about that in our piece on ticks.Do It Again?
Yes, we are likely to do another segment of England’s National Trails system next spring, perhaps starting from where our trip ended in Newquay and continuing on. We knew from our past travels that England’s terrain wasn’t the mountainous landscape we preferred, but the system did offer daily long distance walking opportunities and those are surprisingly difficult to find: by May it is already too hot to be in the US SW but it is still too snowy to be at higher elevations. We’ll definitely use the luggage service again though Bill might have a booking company make all of the accommodation reservations for us. And we’d target daily walking with slightly less mileage to give us some welcome down time.