The goal of this adventure was a simple one; get off the train at Plymouth, and walk to the Cornwall-Devon border. The 300 miles in between would represent the entire length of the Cornish Coastal Path.
The plan was to hike to Falmouth, pick up a surfboard, and continue the journey with board in tow and surf whenever possible. It is a simple concept that proved to be far more strenuous in actuality.
The first four days were a breeze, hiking nearly 20 miles a day in good weather along some of the most beautiful coastline in the country. Even the first few miles were a dream. Stepping off the ferry into Mount Edgecumbe Country Park is a far cry from the suburban sprawl of Plymouth. Tall, ancient trees line beautifully manicured gardens and the further away from the ferry you get, the quieter and more remote the path becomes.
It was May 7th, my 25th birthday, and the late spring sunshine was warm and seemingly giving everything life. The views were stunning, especially around Rame Head in the late afternoon light, and I made camp in the lee of a small boulder atop a cliff just past Whitsand Bay.
The next few days were spent dropping in and out of the quintessential Cornish fishing villages that define the south coast. Polperro, Mevagissey, and Portloe were a few highlights, but the coastline in between was really the where the most amazing experiences were. The nights were still surprisingly cold, but the days were warm and dry and it made exploring the cliffs and coves all the more enjoyable.
I kept good pace to Falmouth, where I laid up for a few days to avoid some weather and refine my kit before setting off with my surfboard. The first day leaving Falmouth was brutal. It was dark, grey, with consistent rain and a brisk south-westerly wind. I camped that night under some trees near Helford Passage. It was cold, everything was wet, and although my tarp was giving me some shelter, the eerie distant noise of seaward foghorns and the gentle patter of rain meant I got little sleep.
The weather improved over the next few days, and as I passed through Coverack and down towards Lizard Point conditions were good. My physical state was not. The weight of the load and the uneven balance that comes with supporting a surfboard had given some serious strain to my back, and by the time I reached the most southerly point in England, something had to give.
My outlook on the journey had changed. I realised that the surf sessions were so few and far between that realistically I needed to make sure I was in the right place at the right time, not chancing it by hiking the length of the path and hoping to find the right conditions. I was over a third of the way through the journey and I had surfed once. Something had to change.
From Lizard Point on my focus was more on the surfing than on the strenuous point-to-point hiking. I carried on racking up the miles, still covering every inch of the coastal path, but instead I based myself in a single location and opted to complete day hikes based around a central point. This meant I could cover more miles in a day, and time my surfing to coincide with the best swells and wind conditions. It began to pay off, and as my back recovered under a light pack weight I found the whole experience far more fulfilling and enjoyable. It was at Sennen Cove where I really felt I had found what I was looking for.
I had been racking up the miles in the knowledge that a swell was on its way, and having met a local surf instructor the night before the swell arrived, I received a tip-off that there was a perfect sand bank that would work early the following morning. I hitched a lift back first thing, and after waiting for the tide to change I paddled into one of the best surf sessions I have ever had. The line-up was practically empty with perfect waves rolling through until my arms could paddle no more. It was one of those cliché moments when you realise why you do these things. All the hard work, all the pain, all the crappy weather and over 150 miles of walking for that one surf session. It was perfect.
From then on the coast became increasingly familiar as I started to pass my regular surf haunts. Unfortunately for a large part of the north coast the conditions did not play ball. Spring storms repeatedly hit the coastline one after another rendering all but the most sheltered beaches unsurfable. It was not ideal walking conditions either, with 50mph winds leaving the higher stretches of the coastal path exposed and dangerous.
Conditions were at their worst when I was staying in the hostel above Perranporth beach. My parents were visiting, but opted for the sensible option of cafes and pubs rather than windblown beaches and slippery rocky paths. I had to keep up with my miles however, and after a sleepless night in the hostel as it buffeted and breathed in the wind, I was planning on completing the section of path between Perranporth and Newquay. It wasn’t a long section, but was exposed and would be physically demanding given the conditions.
It was a slow morning waiting for the worst of the conditions to pass, but by 11am I was on foot across the vast sands of Perranporth and Penhale. It was sadistically fun. The wind was pounding the back of my jacket with horizontal rain and everything was soaked. Sand was being whipped airborne and found its was into every crevice. Despite this seemingly unpleasant experience, the beach was empty and I felt like I had the entire county to myself. Nothing could be heard over the sound of the wind and Cornwall was really showing how wild it could be. It was fantastic!
That is until I got to Holywell Bay. I hadn’t had contact with my parents whom I was meeting in Newquay, but when I reached for my phone I found it completely unresponsive. It was wet; the rain had got through. The afternoon was already well in progress and I needed to find a way of getting through to them. My problem was crossing Crantock beach. I was unsure of the tides and how to get across the river without diverting inland and as such I opted to cut my day short at Holywell. The rain was still pounding down, although the wind had lessened in strength, and I hiked inland in an attempt to find somewhere to make a call. I reached Cubert, a small village a mile or so from the coast. Luckily a local bakery and café was open and I was warmly taken in by the owner who let me dry off, filled me with pasties and cake and ensured I could contact my parents who by this time were getting concerned. The conditions that day were worse than I anticipated, and it was by far the poorest conditions I had ever walked in. At least this was now an adventure!
Those few days were the last of the poor weather, and the final few days towards the end of my journey were far more relaxed and enjoyable. Some friends from home joined me for a couple of days of surfing and hiking in the sun, exploiting both the good swell conditions and fair weather. We were staying at Tintagel, surfing some hidden spots in the cliffs up there and utilising the availability of a car to travel around the coast to some spots I really wanted them to see. The beauty of this adventure was in the detail. By its very nature I would see every single meter of the Cornish coastline and to me that was a special experience. I could talk story with anyone on the path and learn about my journey ahead; I could advise and profuse about my journey and guide people on some special and hidden gems; I now knew a surf sport for every swell size and direction, and what wind conditions were required for them to work. I loved that final week, and it reminded me of all of the amazing places I had seen along the way.
In fact, that final stretch of coast from Port Isaac to the Devon border is some of the most beautiful of the entire route. It is wild and rugged, physically demanding but rewarding in equal measure. The weather was stable and dry, and as it was now early June the path was becoming increasingly busy with hikers and tourists. I had been on the path for nearly 6 weeks, walking and surfing my way along one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world. It had allowed me into its world, shown me its secrets, and reminded me that nature is still the dominant force when it comes to these kinds of journeys.
Physically my body had changed. I was leaner, stronger, and more resilient but by no means is this an inaccessible adventure. If you go at your own pace, hiking the coastal path is accessible to anyone. There are tough sections but also easy sections, and although the constant rise and fall of the coastline can be agonising both physically and mentally, the rewards massively outweigh the effort.
As I sat by the border post it felt as though it wasn’t a real achievement. It wasn’t tangible that for six weeks I had been working towards that final step. Indeed the walking had just become routine. Every day was different, every new cove or headland a new place to explore. For me it wasn’t the end of a challenge because it was the journey itself that I was after. The goal was never to complete the 300 miles, it was to see everything in between, and as such the final mile was just as important as the first.
And just like that, I walked that final mile. That was the journey complete and the adventure over, but I like to think that it had only opened new doors. I know had countless places to revisit, with or without a surfboard. I had an unlimited supply of day trips, weekend hikes or longer adventures I could go on again. For me, the beauty of the path is that it leaves you wanting more. Everyone has their secret spots, their favourite viewpoints or perfect beaches, so strap on your boots, head to the southwest coast and go and find yours!
This adventure was sponsored by a number of brands, without whom I would not have been able to complete the journey. My thanks go to:
This journey was also in support of Surfers Against Sewage, so get involved and help keep out coastline sustainable and healthy!