24 Apr 24

9 reasons to walk the South West Coast Path

Sam McCrow United Kingdom

The 1015km (630 mile) South West Coast Path is the UK’s best loved and most popular long-distance walk. It is a route bursting with geological wonders, exceptional coastal views, picturesque fishing villages and a rich industrial history. The Path regularly features in lists of the world’s best walks.

Officially beginning in Minehead in Somerset, it winds its way along the coasts of Devon and Cornwall to Poole Harbour in Dorset. Walking the trail in its entirety is a colossal task, so we focus on some of the best sections through Cornwall – a stunning outstretched limb of land that has the most dramatic, breathtaking and historically significant coastline in all of England.

Here’s what to expect.

1. Seafood shacks, traditional pubs, fine dining restaurants and cosy tearooms

Freshly caught seafood takes centre stage along the South West Coast Path, and with good reason – you’ll find an abundance of succulent local lobster, crab and oysters. In Padstow you can visit renowned establishments like Rick Stein’s Seafood Restaurant or Paul Ainsworth at No. 6 for a culinary experience that highlights the finest local catches.

Award-winning Cornish pasties make a portable and delicious snack for your journey, while cosy tea rooms offer the quintessential Cornish delight – scones, cream and jam.

There are countless ‘Ship Inns’ and ‘Kings Arms’ where you can grab a hearty feed and taste the local gin made from the sloe berries you’ll see along the trail.

Ice cream parlours offer a tempting selection of home-made creations including velvety clotted cream – a signature flavour of the region – and the satisfyingly boozy and fruity combination of rum and raisin.

2. Ancient origins and pilgrim history

The coastal areas of the South West have been inhabited for thousands of years. Prehistoric communities used the coastline for fishing, trade and transportation. Evidence of their presence, such as cliff-edge forts and burial mounds, can still be seen.

During the medieval period, pilgrimage routes became popular; some sections of the South West Coast Path trace the paths taken by pilgrims. One notable route is St Michael’s Way, which connects Lelant near St Ives to Marazion near Penzance, and served as a shorter route to the important pilgrimage site of St Michael’s Mount.

Long before it was used by ramblers, the South West Coast Path was frequented by coastguards on the lookout for smugglers who took advantage of remote beaches and hidden coves to store their contraband goods.

The idea of a continuous footpath around the coast of England was proposed in the 1930s. The South West Coast Path was officially established in 1978 and continues to attracts walkers from around the world.

3. Postcard-perfect fishing villages

Along the coast of Cornwall you’ll find a string of captivating fishing villages, rich in maritime history, including Looe, Fowey, Padstow, St Ives and Mousehole. Their charming narrow streets, colourful boats bobbing in the harbour, art studios, waterfront pubs, stunning beaches and outstanding restaurants create a vibrant atmosphere and nostalgic ambience.

4. Theatrical ocean and and evocative landscapes

Wild coastlines, lush green fields, flowering moors, hidden coves and wind-blown surf beaches – this path is a superb hiking destination that will have you engaged all the way. It’s an adventurous route with hilly terrain. While challenging at times, it gives you amazing vantage points to witness the theatrical ocean and breathtaking coastline.

Tread a path amongst bright purple heather that sprawls across the ground above aquamarine smugglers’ coves to long stretches of beach and discover ghostly remains of a once-booming mining industry that loom out from the rugged landscape where lighthouses warned seamen of treacherous waters.

Travel from bustling tourist beach towns like Padstow and St Ives to the remote and wild stretches of coast towards Land’s End.

5. Industrial heritage

All along this ancient route you will discover reminders of its prosperous industrial heritage of mining, fishing, quarrying and boat building. There are six areas adjacent to the Path that have been designated part of the Cornish Mining World Heritage Site. The beam engine houses perched on rugged cliffs have become an iconic image of the Path. These imposing structures, with their tall chimneys and weathered walls, are tangible remnants of Cornwall’s industrial prowess; important relics of a landscape shaped by hard-rock mining for metals during the 18th and 19th centuries.

6. Literary connections

For centuries, artists, novelists and poets alike have been drawn to the dramatic and beautiful Cornish landscape. Virginia Woolf admitted to being “incredibly and incurably romantic about Cornwall”. Her novel To the Lighthouse took as its inspiration the view from Talland House in St Ives, where she holidayed as a child. Poldark, the acclaimed romantic period drama set in Cornwall’s rugged 18th-century mining landscape, was adapted from Winston Graham’s novels and features memorable picturesque horseback gallops through green fields. Daphne du Maurier (Jamaica Inn) and Rosamunde Pilcher (The Shell Seekers) also all found inspiration in Cornwall. (The TV series Doc Martin was set in the fictional village of Portwenn, which is portrayed by the real-life village of Port Isaac.)

7. A living language!

Although English is the main language spoken in Cornwall, there are still a number of locals who are keeping the old language alive. The Cornish language (Kernewek) has its roots in Brittonic Celtic language and dates back to pre-Roman times. It is closely related to Welsh and Breton and has its own grammar and colloquialisms. Like many small languages, Cornish receded quickly between the 17th and 19th centuries under pressure from English, which was the tongue of power and of commerce. Signs and place names in Cornwall often include both English and Cornish versions, reflecting the cultural significance and ongoing efforts to revive the language. Cornish is supported and spoken by those born and bred in Cornwall and also by many who have adopted Cornwall as their home.

8. Wildlife encounters

The South West Coast Path is teeming with diverse and often overlooked wildlife. While enjoying the coastal views, keep an eye out for seals, dolphins and even basking sharks swimming in the waters below. The Path is also home to a wide variety of bird species, including comical puffins, graceful gannets and majestic peregrine falcons – one of the UK’s fastest birds of prey. The coastal habitats along the path provide a haven for butterflies and insects. Keep an eye out for common blue, orange-tip and red admiral butterflies as well as dragonflies and bees buzzing around the wildflowers. Away from the coastline, in the more wooded sections of the Path, you may encounter deer.

9. The Minack Theatre

This unique and enchanting open-air theatre is an iconic cultural landmark located on the Cornish cliffs above the turquoise waters of Porthcurno Bay. The natural amphitheatre, surrounded by rugged granite cliffs and dotted with subtropical gardens, creates a truly magical and atmospheric setting. The theatre was the vision and creation of Rowena Cade. The first performance was Shakespeare’s The Tempest in 1932. The theatre has been captivating audiences since then and hosts a wide range of professional and amateur productions, including plays, musicals, opera, dance and concerts from May to September each year attracting talented actors and performers from all over the world.

NEED TO KNOW
  • Best time to go: Late April to June and September to October.
  • Difficulty: Moderate to challenging. Strenuous hiking, best suited to active walkers.
  • Duration: We offer a variety of pack-free walking trips from 8 to 22 days, with daily luggage transfers. Talk to our destination specialists to find an itinerary that best suits you.
  • Hospitality: Stay in well-located, comfortable B&Bs and guest houses and enjoy full English breakfasts to fuel your walking adventures.
VIEW OUR WALKS

We offer exceptional itineraries on the South West Coast Path, The Saints’ Way and Saint Michael’s Way.

Samantha McCrow

Written By

Samantha McCrow

Sam is an seasoned hiker and travel writer with 20+ years experience as a content and marketing specialist. She started out as a commissioning editor for Lonely Planet guidebooks and now regularly shares stories and insights about the world's most iconic and rewarding hiking trails.

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