As a designated National Trail, which represent the finest walking routes in Britain, the South West Coast Path is the longest and most popular walk in the country and is considered among the World’s Great Hikes. With two World Heritage Sites, Five Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and one National Park, it’s a journey along one of the most diverse coastal landscapes in the world where no two days walking it are ever the same.
At 630 miles it is the longest of the country’s National Trails and follows the coastline of England’s South West Peninsula. Starting at Minehead on Somerset’s coast it runs along the Bristol Channel coastline of Exmoor, continuing along the coast of North Devon into Cornwall. It follows the entire coastline of Cornwall, first along its north coast then round Land’s End and along the South Cornwall coast, across the mouth of the River Tamar and so into Devon. After running along the south coast of Devon it then follows the Dorset coastline before finally ending at Poole Harbour.
Most of the country’s National Trails originated either in ideas linking outstandingly scenic areas (eg the Pennine Way or the Cleveland Way), or in ancient trackways (eg the Ridgeway or the North Downs Way). The South West Coast Path is unusual in that it is based on a route which was in use as a working footpath until comparatively modern times.
Coastguards used to patrol the whole coastline of the South West Peninsula on foot, every day, in the course of their duties, initially primarily of Revenue protection against smuggling but later also in pursuit of maritime safety. This coastguard work continued until 1856 and was continued by the Admiralty until 1913.
It was the essence of their job that the coastguards literally had to see into every cove and inlet on the coast. This meant that their well-beaten path, often punctuated with stone stiles, had to hug the cliff top, so providing the splendidly scenic views the Coast Path enjoys today. Not only the coastguards but their children going to and from school, their wives walking between one fishing hamlet and the next, all used these coastal paths, building up a considerable body of usage. Over its length it now offers views, unparalleled for their extent and scenic quality, which have come about simply from this working origin.
As well as the views, the modern walker will also encounter the coastguards’ old stone stiles and walls in many places. Also, in order to help in their work, and so that personnel could be easily accessible in the days when roads were poor, a series of coastguard cottages was erected at convenient locations, and most of these distinctive rows of cottages still stand along the path. Today they are usually converted to other uses, but they remain to provide the walker of how the path came about.
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