Thursday, May 05, 2011

Pondering Packing

Hikes like the H2H are actually much easier from the packing
perspective: you take as little as you possibly can because it is all
going to be on your back every day. Using a luggage service like we
are doing on the SWCP introduces too many options into the
calculation. I find myself looking into my gear cupboard and thinking
things like "Well, I could take those gaiters and wear them on those
days when long pants would be too warm but the paths are overgrown
with brambles and nettles." Or Lidia says "You could take three nice
shirts with you, oh, and a couple of pairs of long pants for
restaurants as well." and little does it avail me to say that I don't
have room in my bag because she of course does in hers. And then
there are the books and games... how many times have I taken too much
of both with me on normal vacations? Well, I'm about to do it again.
No, there's a lot to be said for iron-clad constraints... and today
I'm missing them.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

The South West Coast Path

For those who don't know the long distance trail we are going to be hiking, here's a short summary.
The longest hike in England, the SWCP starts in Minehead, Somerset, goes all the way around the Devon and Cornwall coasts, and finishes, over a thousand kilometers and 35,000m of ascent and descent later, near Poole, Dorset… just a few miles from where I used to spend my childhood summer holidays at my grandparents' house.

Along the way, it passes through five Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, seventeen Heritage Coasts, a National Park, two World Heritage Sites, a UNESCO Geopark and Britain's first UNESCO Biosphere reserve.  We'll only be doing the northern half of it in 2011… but both coasts are equally stunning.

The SWCP is, first and always, a coast walk… only very rarely out of sight of the sea… and what a varied and beautiful coast it is!  From rocky headlands to sheltered coves, from towering cliffs (the tallest in England – almost 250m – are found along the path) to deep-cut river valleys and wide estuaries (17 large ones with ferries, and innumerable smaller ones crossed by bridge or waded), from long sandy beaches and extensive sand-dune systems to shimmering rock-pools, from moors to woods to marshes to farmlands, from bustling towns such as Padstow and St. Ives to tiny fishing villages such as Clovelly and Boscastle, the coast is astoundingly varied and continually changing.

And then there's the history and culture.  Southwest Britain has been inhabited since the Stone Age and every people and culture seems to have left remains.  There are Neolithic standing stones;  Bronze and Iron Age hill-forts; Roman roads;  Celtic and Saxon and Norman and Tudor and later castles and manors and churches;  farmhouses, inns, and town-halls from the early Middle Ages onwards;  harbours and lighthouses and other structures dedicated to shipping and fishing;  mines and mining relics from pre-history to the present day;  steam trains, water-powered funiculars, canals and locks, and other creations of the Victorian Industrial Age;  and many beautiful gardens and arboretums.  Yes, there's plenty to see along the way.

And let us not forget the pleasures of daily life.  From ancient inns with log fires, to friendly B&B's with full English breakfasts, to cream teas with home-made scones, strawberry jam, and local clotted cream, to Cornish pasties and fish and chip shops, and the many fine restaurants that have made the British gastronomic wasteland an unlamented thing of the past, the needs of the flesh will not be ignored!

However, since I've only been to the area once, and that in 1992, perhaps you might like to read a few independent assessments?  Here's what some other people have said about hiking the SWCP (copied from the official website of the path -- -- which is very well-done and which I strongly recommend you browse through):

o When the readers of Country Walking magazine, Britain's biggest-selling walking magazine, were invited to vote for Britain's Greatest Walk, the South West Coast Path was a clear winner, with their reporter, Jenny Walters describing the path as "630 miles of unparalleled gorgeousness".

o Travel writers and photographers Clare Jones and Steve Watkins picked just 30 classic walking routes for their book, Unforgettable Walks to Take Before You Die published by the BBC.  They spent nine months traveling to 24 countries on 5 continents to find the world's most inspiring, spectacular and beautiful trails (but despite this inexplicably left out the H2H).  Their book ranks the South West Coast Path alongside experiences such as New Zealand's Routeburn Track, and hiking the Inca Trail in Peru.  When asked why they had included the Coast Path, Steve enthused:  "Throughout a whole year of walking around the world, I was hard pressed to find anywhere that matched the natural drama and stunningly beautiful light along the South West Coast Path.  You can't beat it for the sheer diversity of landscapes and the chance to experience some truly wild and beautiful coastal scenery."

o Drawing on the knowledge, passion and miles traveled by Lonely Planet's staff and authors, Best in Travel 2009 highlights the best places to go and things to do around the world and includes the South West Coast Path as one of their world's best walks.  "Along its route, you'll find Mediterranean-turquoise bays, historic ruined tin mines, a rock-hewn abbey on its own island, surf beaches, deserted beaches, grey seals and basking sharks, and the best Cornish pasties in the land."  Sarah Baxter who wrote the chapter has spent the past six year's writing, trekking and travelling the world for Wanderlust magazine, where she is currently deputy editor.  She's fond of water in all its forms, having snorkeled with killer whales in Arctic Norway, floated among glow worms in New Zealand's caves and touched the snows of Kilimanjaro.  But, she reckons, "nothing beats standing on a cliff, pasty in hand after hiking a chunk of the South West Coast Path."

Can it really be that good?  Stay tuned....

Monday, May 02, 2011

Well-wishers... or "How can I help?"

Our very good friend Christine, who will be hiking with us for the
first week, has had some blister issues while training and asked,
perhaps because she has been spending a lot of time in Ireland
recently, if there are any saints for the footsore. After many seconds
of research, I came up with the following list of saints for whom, if
you are so inclined, you could light candles to help us along our way:

o Saint Christopher -- patron saint of travellers. A 2.3m tall
Canaanite, martyred in the 3rd Century, he provided a one-man river-
crossing service (he carried travellers across on his back). Also
patron saint of bachelors, transportation, gardeners, and storms, and
his name is invoked epilepsy and toothache.

o Saint Petronilla -- patron saint of mountain travellers. French,
1st Century, said to have been the daughter of the well-travelled
Saint Peter. Also patron saint of French dauphins, and the treaties
between Popes and Frankish emperors, and for good measure her name is
invoked against fever.

o Saint Bernard of Menthon -- patron saint of Alpinists, mountain
climbers, mountaineers, skiers, mountain travellers, and the Alps in
general. Born in Savoy in 923, died 1008 (long life no doubt due to
lots of mountain hiking). He established hospices at the passes that
later came to bear his name (the Great and Little St. Bernard) from
which monks accompanied by specially bred dogs sortied to find and aid
travellers caught in storms.

...or perhaps most appositely (given the proximity of Cavaillon to our
village of Eygalières in Provence):

o Saint Veran of Cavaillon, about whom it is written: "Ordained in
540. Hermit in Vaucluse, France. Pilgrim to Rome, Italy. Bishop of
Cavaillon, France in 568. Godfather of King Theodoric II. His
miracles, which included freeing a captive dragon and miraculously
healing the foot of a nobleman, which had withered after the nobleman
had kicked Verano for not delaying Mass as requested, are mentioned by
Saint Gregory of Tours."