The south of England boasts a plethora of unspoilt views. The luscious green of the undulating hills, the shimmer of the sea and the wild flora all make exploring this part of the country something not-to-be-missed and, with the 630-mile stretch of the South West Coast Path guiding you along, you’re sure to have a fantastic time doing so.
Whether you’re a wildlife enthusiast who is looking to catch a glimpse of one of the many bird species flying overhead, a family looking for a great afternoon walk location or someone hoping to uncover a few hidden gems, this is the place for you. Stretching from the shores in Somerset round to Dorset, you’ll be spoilt for choice with walks, path and trails to follow. Find out more in this guide.
The history of the South West Coast Path
Once a working footpath that was used by the coastguard, the South West Coast Path runs along the edge of the jagged cliffs, hugging the coast. Its history is unlike many other paths and trails that you may come across on hiking holidays in the UK, but it also means that you can enjoy some of the most spectacular views of the South West, witnessing the beauty of every cove from the comfort of the path.
The path was patrolled until 1913, with coastguards keeping their eyes peeled for smugglers who would dock their ships in the inlets and bays for free-trading. Stationed at frequent spots along the path, coastguards would be housed along the path to provide constant supervision in a bid to lower the amount of smuggling taking place.
The government-led coastguard scheme worked; despite 50% of the spirit drank in the 18th century thought to have evaded tax, by 1913, smuggled goods were few and far between. Over the next couple of years, the once well-manned coastal path became overgrown, with the conception of new towns and villages along the route taking place. However, 1949 saw the National Park and Access to the Countryside Act creating new legislation to create easier access to the UK’s beauty spots.
Sixteen national trails have now been created across the UK, and the South West Coast Path is the longest. The path is traditionally walked in an anti-clockwise direction from Minehead to Poole and along the way, you’re likely to witness some of the best scenery the country has to offer.
The South West Coast Path Walk
Affording endless miles of brilliant coastal paths, there are plenty of walks for you to try when in the South West. Whether you’re planning on tackling a short stretch or maybe challenging yourself with something slightly longer, there are various routes for you to try, each offering something different.
We spoke to Annabelle from The Flexitarian, who shared what she thinks makes the South West Coast Path so special: "One of the great advantages of the South West Coast Path is that it is very easy to find a stretch of its route to walk in the time available; whether that is a few days or weeks or, for the lucky few, a month or more. My route took me from Bantham to Dartmouth, via Salcombe, over two days, a distance of a little over 30 miles. Google Maps tells me that my route involved roughly 3,500 ft (roughly the height of Snowdon) of ascent and descent.
“I was walking in February, having just spent the children’s half-term holiday at Bigbury-on-Sea, across the causeway from the wonderful Burgh Island. The one note of caution for anyone walking in the winter months is to be aware that many ferry crossings are closed. In my case, I was lucky to receive a lift from Bigbury to Bantham as the River Avon ferry crossing was not running.
“Due to the unseasonably good weather, I was able to enjoy warm sunshine and clear blue skies, adding glorious colour to the spectacular views of sea and coastline. I enjoyed an overnight stay in Salcombe on the way and then from Dartmouth I veered off the South West Coast Path to take the Dart Valley Trail to Totnes, before heading back home to London the next day."
Although there are sections of the path that are suitable for walkers of all abilities, it is important to bear in mind that the elevation changes across the whole route are quite drastic. In fact, for those who decide to tackle the whole 630 miles, it is the equivalent of walking Everest just over 4 times.
Along the way, you’ll get to view incredible vistas that highlight the best of the South West. Sights such as Durdle Door in Dorset, the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in the UK, showcase the dramatic Jurassic Coast whereas the quaint fishing village of Clovelly, complete with steep, cobbled streets, allows you to take a step back in time.
John Kelly from Happy Hiker has tackled the path. He shared this with us: "My favourite area is the South Hams area of South Devon which includes the beautiful sailing town of Salcombe, with sheltered sandy coves and either side of it some fine walking along the rugged coastal footpath.
“To the west, is the famous Burgh Island with its Art Deco hotel accessible across the golden sand at low tide or via a tractor-bus on stilts at high tide. To the east, the land stretches out to Start Point with its lonely lighthouse. Close to that is the atmospheric ruined village of Hallsands, a consequence of dredging the beach for shingle to make concrete for naval dockyards near Plymouth, in the nineteenth century."
What are some of the best sections of the south west coast path?
If you have limited time but are tempted by a walk along the South West Coast Path, why not try one of these walks as recommended by members of Cornwall and Devon LDWA?
- “Boscastle westwards to New Polzeath has lovely villages, coves and amazing cliffs. Seals frequent the sea around The Rumps headland.” - Linda McCarthy
- “The section of the path I enjoy walking the most is Clovelly to Hartland point. Through woodlands to begin with, then progressing along the high rugged cliffs to Hartland Point.” - Barry Olver
- “This is not the most strenuous section but is still rugged with great views. You’ll pass two coastguard lookouts, one shipwreck remains, a prehistoric clifftop castle, various burial mounds and a rock arch, plus seals and wildlife, with a delightful tea shop in Porthgwarra to finish. 6 unhurried glorious miles.” - Annette Merchant
- "Walk through history from Berry Head's Napoleonic Fort, past old Coastguard Cottages at Man Sands, skirt Collaton Fishacre's musical charm to WW2 defences at Froward Point.” - Richard Manson
- "From Osmington Mills take inland SWCP ridge to Portesham. Magnificent views of Chesil Beach. Down into Abbotsbury with its Swannery, charming unspoilt village, pub and facilities". - Jenny Mills
- Angie from Creative Effects is also a member of the LDWA for Cornwall and Devon. She shared a few of her favourite routes with us for walkers to try:
- “Lynmouth to Valley of Rocks - beautiful section along the coast with majestic rock formations and goat sightings if lucky.
- “Woody Bay to Hunters Inn - choice of two paths and a great pub at Hunters Inn if peckish or need refreshments. If time allows, walk down to Heddon’s Mouth, lovely along the river which leads out to sea.
- “Hunters Inn to Combe Martin - Fabulous scenery and although steady climbs well worth the effort. Great Hangman the highest point of the whole of the South West Coast Path.
- “Combe Martin to Ilfracombe - beautiful hidden beaches and coves before reaching a small harbour. Very picturesque.
- “Ilfracombe to Lee Bay - lovely walking over the tors and down to Lee Bay.
- “Lee Bay to Morte Point - past lighthouse and may see seals, fabulous beach for lunch and Morte points rock formation is something else. Wonderful scenery.
- “Morte point to Woolacombe - beautiful beaches snuggled into coves and then the immense Woolacombe beach. The path takes you up through the dunes or stay on the beach to Putsborough.
- “Putsborough to Croyde - climb out of the beach and follow the coast around to Baggy Point. Might see seals. Choice of two paths at Baggy Point leading you down into Croyde where you can traverse the rocks and cross the beach towards Saunton Sands.
- “Croyde to Saunton - on leaving the beach the path follows the striated rocks, usually collecting the sea foam that wisps up in the air, then cross the road to wind around on a narrow path to emerge back to cross the road and walk down beside the well-known Saunton Sands hotel (where you can stop for refreshments or down into the beach cafe) or carry on the narrow path and emerge to cross the road to a path that leads you along the side of Braunton Burrows. AONB.
- “Braunton Burrows to Barnstaple - this section takes you alongside a beach, marshes, small harbour and then onto a repurposed disused railway line. Plenty of birdlife and a couple of nice refreshment stops.
- “Barnstaple to Bideford - all along a repurposed disused railway line with birdlife and if tide right gig boats and fishermen. Fremington Quay has a railway museum and refreshments. Instow has a lovely beach looking over to Appledore and Crow Point. Walking along towards Bideford Bay.
- “Bideford to Appledore - Bideford still has an active Quay and beautiful pathway to Appledore passing through wooded areas, across marshland and around the boatyard. Appledore is a beautiful fishing village, well worth investigating.
- “Appledore to Westward Ho! - leaving Appledore you have a high/low tide choice of paths and a beautiful walk around Northam burrows coastline where you can either stay up on path or clamber over the rocks onto the mile-long beach. Windsurfers, surfers and dogs to watch before reaching the main part of Westward Ho! where there’s plenty to see, do and get refreshments.
- “Westward Ho! to Clovelly - beautiful coast with epic views and coastline. Rocky beaches and rolling fields with wooded areas and walk through a Hobby Drive. Choose to either carry on through Clovelly or stop and wander down through the cobbled street to the harbour.
- “Clovelly to Hartland Quay - beautiful coast and countryside with ‘Angels wings’ seated area. Staggering coastline with dramatic rock formations.
- “Hartland Quay to Bude - Spekes Mills waterfall with rock formation just lovely to see. Rolling hills and small beaches which some seem impossible to reach. Fabulous section. Sea pool and beach at Bude.
- “Bude to Boscastle - some lovely beaches (Widemouth Bay, Crackington Haven) with stunning undulating countryside. Best of both worlds.” - Angie