South West Coast Path 2011 – Debrief

Planning

Although we’ve done a chunk of the pub for the last 3 years, this year’s ultimately turned out to be the hardest to arrange and felt really expensive too. And there are a number of reasons for this.

Firstly as we get further west, travel time to the south west gets longer and also more expensive and this constrains how much walking you can do on the first day – it becomes a balance between getting a cheap fare and having some walking on travel day and so avoiding additional accommodation costs too.

Secondly, the river crossings – of the Dart, Kingsbridge estuary, Avon, Erme and Yealm – imposed constraints on the walks. In particular the Erme, which has no ferry, meant a wade or an 8 mile detour. The main solution to the crossings was to start/end each day at the rivers.

Thirdly, accommodation was surprisingly scarce in places that from their size I’d have expected there to be some. In particular near the Erme. And the Yealm wasn’t that good either – eventually solved by taxi to Plymouth and staying two nights there.

Fourthly, with 3 of the 4 easiest sections behind us, we now are starting to get into the harder walking. Because the days broke down reasonably obviously because of the rivers, it left us with some, on paper, big days. Ultimately, some of this smoothed out due to the accommodation we booked, and additionally, the walk actually turned out to not involve as much ascent as first calculated.

In the end everything worked ok. From a planning perspective, what worked particularly was:

  • Of the 3 travel down options I looked at, going down early on day 1 and having time for a decent length walk, was best.
  • Breaking the crossing of the Erme into two by stopping overnight upstream, given the fact no one wanted to wade.
  • Arranging the return travel to be 1st class – well worth the extra fiver.

Of course there were some things I’d like to have been different, but most of these were conscious decisions or compromises:

  • Travelodge. Only chosen because, charged per room rather than per person, it was the cheapest place to stay in Plymouth. There was no appetite from the others to have more than one room. The main objective of staying here was to bring costs down, but in return I didn’t expect great quality, and in that respect my expectations were fully met!
  • Crossing the Avon. The ferry only runs from 10-11 and 3-4 so we had a forced late start. Mitigated by the fact that breakfast wasn’t available until 9am anyway. There was nowhere else to stay and no way to avoid this.
  • The walk from Mount Batten into Plymouth offers little scenery unless you like industrial landscapes. The only features of interest are the variety of different waymarkers, which look like they’ve been put there because the path planners know that too. A ferry straight across the sound and continuing the path there would not be any loss.
  • What the hell happened to Anquet? At least 2 days were calculated at over 3,000ft of ascent, yet turned out to be half that. In many cases the path went along halfway up a cliff rather than over the top. I can only think that the scale of the 1:50000 map used for this doesn’t lend itself to the level of accuracy needed when walking a route where contours are so close together. All that can be said is that if I’d known I might have tried to do the walk in one less day, and I think that would have been too much. More investigation needed…

Last year when we debriefed in Exeter, we said we’d look at using baggage transfer this year, but in the end we didn’t, and I’m glad as it didn’t really feel like a problem, and our pace didn’t seem much better on the one day we had lighter packs. The main reason we didn’t use it was that it didn’t allow us to save a day by allowing longer daily distances, but I don’t think anyone would have wanted to do more than we actually did.

Weather

We were lucky. I took a chance and left full waterproofs at home, placing my faith in softshell. It worked. It was comfortable to walk in just a base layer and shirt every day, and even in the breeze, it wasn’t cold. We had small patches of drizzle only 3 times, and the only time I put my softshell jacket on was on the last evening in Plymouth. Sunburn was actually our major weather-related issue.

Accommodation

See more detailed reviews for more information about the places we stayed, but I achieved our goal of a sub-£30 per person per night accommodation cost. In summary, I’d say that accommodation was pretty much as expected.

Similarly reviews of the meals we ate.

Gear

It always surprises me that I struggle to squeeze everything in, yet my brother who has an identical rucksack has room to spare. And I have lighterweight gear. In hindsight, I could probably have done without the following:

  • art materials. Only a sketchbook and a tube of pencils but they only got used once.
  • food. Carrying loads of cereal bars and snacks, and I didn’t eat most of it.
  • Kindle, only used on the train journey down.
  • I could have rationalised my clothing further.

On this walk I wore my new North Face Vindicator Mid GTX shoes, and they performed well, although no demands were placed on their waterproofing. They were comfortable for walking distance on hard underfoot terrain.

The walk itself

Finishing in Plymouth, the consensus was that we wouldn’t want to do any more, and I’d say 6 days is the upper limit for a section for us. In the end the distance and ascent felt ok, and nothing like as hard as expected.

After 2 years of grey and gloomy weather, it was good to get some more colourful and better quality views.

Mobile phone signal was patchy to poor for much of the walk.

The stats for the whole walk:

Distance: 113.03km (70.25 miles)
Ascent: 2,440m (8,007ft)
Descent: 2,443m (8,017ft)
Walking time: 28 hrs 16 mins
Average speed: 4.00 km/h (2.49 miles/h)
Average gradient (ascent): 2.16% (range from 1.11% to 3.05%)
Undulation (ascent and descent divided by distance): 4.32%
% of whole walk in this section: about 11%
Total distance so far: 220 miles
% of whole path done now: about 35%
Cost per day*: £48.21
Cost per mile*: £4.12

*cost figure is per person and includes all travel and accommodation costs. Meals are excluded as that varies according to personal taste and beer capacity.

Overall verdict:

After two years of poorer weather which muted the beauty and grandeur of the scenery it was good to get the landscape back and to reaffirm the reasons for doing the walk. Given the challenges in planning, we ended up with good manageable daily walks and made the best of the logistical options we had. I’m hopeful that there’s plenty here to help us plan next year’s walk.

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