England National Trails Walking

England Coast Path: Devon and Cornwall (Teignmouth to St. Ives)

I estimate I have walked 750-miles from Cromer over 38-days, which is 20-miles/day on average. In theory, the England Coast Path will be 2,750-miles when completed, but I suspect the distance is much shorter if you use public ferries to cross estuaries and keep your route to the coast. The ferries across the rivers of southern Devon are running again, and I start with the prettiest so far – from Teignmouth quay to Shaldon.

Prettiest ferry on the ECP? At Teignmouth

I have learnt quickly that the word ‘combe’ means calf-busting climbs ahead. You ascend 100m for a quick level 10m breather and take in the view, before descending again to the shoreline to kick a few pebbles. This repeats, even though the illusion of a level walk ahead is shattered as you see the land vanish. Maidencombe, Watcombe, Oddicombe, Babbacombe come and go, turning my freshly laundered clothing into the tell-tale smell of a long-distance walker. I find the cheapest accommodation in Torquay and set off early to enjoy a peaceful walk to Brixham. Every bay has early morning swimming groups with thermos flasks and dryrobes and neoprene gloves and booties – this is the new national pastime of England.

I cross the River Dart to camp at Stoke Fleming, delayed by many opportunities to stop and talk to other coastal walkers heading to Dorset. One retired Army officer spends half an hour talking about the wartime tragedy of Slapton Sands, he actually met the American soldiers confined to barracks to prevent news of the calamity from spreading before D-day. The next day I walk those sands and stop for a moment at the tank memorial at Torcross to read the names of those that died. It is a long list.

Slapton Sands

The walking is easier to Salcombe, via Start Point. The full vista of the sea opens out and I can ease into a good pace and watch the small birds flitter in and out of the gorse bushes. Yellowhammers, stonechats, warblers and pipits are too fast to get a closer look through a new monocular I have bought for that purpose, but I can stop and observe the great northern divers in the bays. As I leave Salcombe, there is no wind and the only sound I can hear is the haunting coo’ing and calling of these beautiful birds. This is a wonderful section of the coast path and it is a real joy to take an easy pace to Bantham and catch the ferry to Bigbury-on-Sea at low tide. The estuary could just about be waded in these exceptional conditions of spring low tide and very low rainfall, but the conversation with the ferryman and rest on the opposite shoreline is the sensible option. I can watch the egrets and whimbrel feed, before climbing to an excellent campsite for a £9 night and the best coffee and hot croissant from a pop-up barista stall in the morning. The only other option was to stay in the Burgh Island Hotel, £488/night (minimum stay 2-nights) according to an internet search. I think my stay was as pleasurable: a conversation with fellow campers, the view of the island, and the excellent breakfast.

Sailing race and no wind

My timing to cross the River Erme is perfect, the ferryman suggested 2-hours before low tide, so I have no hesitation to remove my boots and wade across. The water reaches my nether parts and walking poles aid the crossing. The cold refreshing water cools my legs and I am tempted to stand a while and have a conversation with another walker on the opposite bank. I splash through the remaining ponds and put on my boots to continue the walk. The path is closed ahead, so an inland diversion is needed before rejoining the coast path to Newton Ferrers and another ferry to Wembury. It is another 5-miles or so to Hooe for a very reasonable bed for the night and too much takeaway food to finish.

Plymouth Tinside Pool

I am surprised to see the Mount Batten ferry is fully electric to Plymouth, unlike the Cremyll ferry that deposits me in Edgcumbe Country Park for a lazy walk to Kingsand/Cawsand through the national collection of camellias, just coming into bloom. I am in Cornwall now and it feels appropriate to sample my first pastie overlooking the vast Whitsand Bay before Portwrinkle. The firing range is open to walkers and the route is easy going to Seaton and finally Millendreath and campsite where I meet 2 coastal walkers, who have met and walked together for a few weeks. It is great to have conversations and share path news to plan my next stop in Par the next day, after another crossing at Fowey, busy with tourists, and the walk around the dominant navigation mark at Gribbin Head.

Approaching Boswinger

I could have taken a ferry from Fowey to Mevagissey to avoid the industry of St. Austell and an irritating path closure at Charlestown, but the path eventually brings me to the hostel at Boswinger, with a few more walkers and cyclists for company. The YHA is taking bookings for private rooms but has yet to open its shared dormitories, unlike the independent hostels which have mixed shared dormitories open for a few months now. Sometimes I think the YHA is losing the plot with overzealous rules and regulations versus the open style and welcome of the diverse independent hostels.

I stay in Falmouth in the cheapest place I can find after taking two ferries from the Roseland Peninsula to the town. My legs are adjusting to the conditions and I am making good progress through the Cornish ports and seaside hamlets. Falmouth needs a day to explore, but I have no time to visit the Maritime Museum as I make the usual early start to Helford and the last ferry crossing for a while. At St Anthony-in-Meneage, I am looking forward to a quick crossing of Gillan Creek, which according to the guide books, is easily crossed over stepping stones for up to 3-hours on either side of low tide. In reality, it is a deep, stone-lined, feet shredding crossing more challenging than the River Erme. I receive a round of applause as I complete it, but in hindsight, I should have walked the extra few miles and kept my boots dry. The weather is getting warm and the paths are dry so the boots recover as I reach Coverack YHA. The chippy in the old boathouse serves the finest fishcakes I have ever tasted.

Helford Ferry

I meet up with 3 walkers (and a spaniel) walking in my direction on a section of the SWCP and spend time with them walking and talking to The Lizard This is a section to savour, with Choughs, Seals, Kestrels and lots of interesting and unusual birds. As I make my way to Henry’s campsite (a real gem) I spend a few moments observing a Golden Oriole, a rare visitor. It is stunningly bright yellow and belongs to another continent (as does Henry’s fantastic garden campsite). I wish I could say the same about Porthleven, with a site only bookable by the internet, which is marked as full but is an empty field. I walk on to Praa Sands, with its surfers’ vibe and camp higher inland. I have been walking ahead of schedule and can relax and stock up in Penzance YHA, full of Duke of Edinburgh (DoE) kids from the Isles of Scilly, fresh off the ferry.

Lizard style

I am close to ‘Turning Right at Land’s End’ – the title of John Merrell’s book about walking the coast of Britain in the 1970s. He is a pioneer of ultra long-distance walking having covered some 200,000-miles in his lifetime – a mind-boggling distance. The walk from Penzance is tough and overgrown in places, but the campsite at Treen is a great stop along this remote and rugged stretch. The geology is changing to granite, a cuboid like pink stone that is more like southern Africa than the UK when the sunlight catches the azure transparent sea and the Atlantic swells turn from lumbering giant rhythms into huge crashing white foam.

Land’s End is approaching. Longships lighthouse.

I reach Land’s End (try Gwennap Head as an alternative for Lands End is neither the most southerly, westerly or south-westerly point of the British mainland), and have the customary photo taken. I estimate over 1,000-miles walked from Cromer. The thrill of the achievement is dampened as I enter a cafe that only takes orders via a smartphone app, which needs internet access with no mobile signal and requires personal details to sign up for their WiFi, as bored looking staff stand idle having had their job automated – this is progress?

Obligatory photo

My intent now is to walk to Pendeen Watch and camp, but the campsite is a bit grim and offers little protection from the strengthening winds. I walk on to Morvah, but the advertised campsite is a pop-up site now closed post-pandemic when demand for staycations rocketed. I try to catch the coast bus back to St Just, but a notice on the sign announces it is not running on the very day I want to use it! My luck is down, so I stick out my thumb and the first car stops to give me a lift to a great site at Botallack. The bus returns me to Morvah for a final 13-mile walk into St. Ives, in heavy rain at first, and then glorious sunshine. I meet an unexpected number of coastal walkers and spend at least an hour chatting. The hostel at St. Ives is quirky and great, an oasis in an increasing tourist Disneyland. The gulls and pigeons are real pests and kind of run the place.

St Ives

In planning my next stop, I make a decision to return home. I have too much paperwork to deal with and some work to be done. I will return when I can to reach Aust this year, and perhaps further north to Gretna.

You can read more about my earlier journey along the South West Coast Path, in my book, Tales from the Big Trails. This journey finished in 15-years ago in 2007. Walking in the opposite direction and with the passage of time has made this quite a new experience and reminded me just how good this coastal walking can be.

Tales from the Big Trails, in print on 2nd September 2021, available now for pre-order from Vertebrate Publishing. Featuring all 15 National Trails in England and Wales, and the 4 designated long-distance Scotland’s Great Trails. This is the story of the people I meet, the landscapes and coastal scenery and the sheer joy of walking these iconic long-distance routes in the UK. Click on a link below for a copy.

Tales from the Big Trails – Vertebrate Publishing

Tales from the Big Trails – Amazon

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