The South West Coast Path is one of Britain's National Trails and, weighing in at a mighty 1,015km (or 630 miles), is its longest. It covers the whole coastline between Minehead in Somerset and Poole in Dorset, and can be tackled as a series of day walks or all in one go. The Entries in this series are suitable for either type of walker. All routes are described in the traditional anti-clockwise direction of travel.
As on much of the coast path, wheelchair users and those with pushchairs and prams will find the going difficult away from the more accessible beaches, mainly due to the steep hills - in fact, the SW Coast Path has ascents totalling more than three times the height of Everest! Sections of the coast path can be remote and difficult, and walkers should make sure they have taken sensible precautions in case of an emergency:
Let someone know where you are going, and when you expect to be back - and don't forget to contact them on your return to let them know you are safe!
In The Beginning
The first day's walk has everything you'd expect from the coast path. Stunning views, quiet woodland, good way-markers, a picturesque village and a great sense of remoteness. All that is missing, thankfully, are the steep rises and descents you might think of in association with the coast path.
All of this makes this walk not just a great introduction to the coast path, but also a fairly painless way of getting a feel for its qualities. The length of just under ten miles makes it ideal for a day walk for less committed walkers, too. There are regular buses back to Minehead from Porlock, and there are two choices for circular walks back to the start. There is the 'Alternative Rugged Coast Path', which takes in some of the best parts before dropping downhill to follow a seashore route back to Minehead harbour. This path also continues as an alternative path for most of the route, but is not described in detail here. The other circular walk, if you're not feeling too strenuous, completes an easy four mile route, turning back from a hillside near Bratton Ball. Walkers planning the whole route should think of this as almost a training day; a fairly easy walk to get yourself into rhythm and fine-tune your kit. You could push on and make it to Lynmouth in a long, 30-mile day, but unless you're already extremely fit and a veritable walking machine, it's probably not worth the risk of injury.
All in all, this is a highly recommendable walk. Whether you're at the start of a 630-mile odyssey or just after a long stroll, you'll find this a superb walk with plenty to engage you along the way. If you're in the area - don't miss it.
Note that although this is not a long walk by coast path standards, there is nowhere to get any water or food along the route, so be prepared to take everything you need for a day out.
Ordnance Survey Landranger map 181 covers the whole route at 1:50,000 scale.
Located at the western end of Minehead's promenade, the official start of the South West Coast Path is at an eight-feet-high bronze monument installed in 2001. Savour the moment; this is by far the closest you'll be to the sea all day! Featuring an enormous pair of hands holding a similarly giant-sized map, it was designed by a local art student, Sarah Ward, and is a suitably imaginative structure to set you on your way. On the ground, the words 'West Somerset Coast Path' beside an arrow pointing east seem almost an impertinence, like a small child tugging at your trousers, trying to drag you away from the real goodies. Moreover, it seems strange that the 25 miles of West Somerset coast haven't been added on to the main route. Forget these trifles; take a moment to reflect at the monument, and follow the red tarmac to the road, cross over and start up the hill. Whether these are the first steps of a 630-mile journey or part of a day walk, these are spine-tingling moments to savour. You feel like you're starting on something big.
The path zigzags gently up the wooded hill, the quick gain in height only given away by the rapidly improving views back over Minehead. It has to be said that these first views are compromised somewhat by the glorified tent, funfair and rows of chalets in the holiday park at the far end of the promenade. Still, you soon leave those behind, coming out onto a tarmacked road and turning right onto a 'no through road'. Believe it or not, the most difficult climb of the day is at an end. The often-muddy track is wide and pleasant, making its way through superbly quiet woods full of bird and mammal life, and although the views are unexceptional (you're getting further from the coast all the time) it is a wonderful part of the walk. You pass an Exmoor National Park marker, and after this the trees begin to thin out a little, offering good views of the coast, before they recede entirely. Suddenly you're treated to views ahead of Greenaleigh Point; to your right are the small islands of Steep and Flat Holm, and across the Bristol Channel is South Wales, clearly seen in all but the worst visibility. The path turns steeply but briefly inland and comes out at a path crossroads and bench below the hill of Bratton Ball, a good place to stop for a coffee.
Walkers wishing to make a circular route here could descend the hill along the 'Alternative Rugged Coast Path' or turn left to follow a track marked 'Minehead Harbour'. Unless you're concerned about the one steep descent, though, you'd be missing out if you didn't carry on. The path undulates gently through classic Exmoor countryside, a little way from the coast, passing through gorse and grassy hillsides. Ignore a second sign for the rugged version of the path, bearing left at this signpost. If you have time, turn left when you hit the paved road for a ¼ mile diversion to great views below Selworthy Beacon; however the views along the main route are almost as good. From the main route, suddenly the thin spit of shingle that makes up Porlock beach comes into view. Until a storm in 1996 broke through it, this 8,000-year-old ridge separated a freshwater march from the sea, but the gap created by the pounding waves is now breached every tide. The lowland areas behind the ridge have become saltwater marsh, and Porlock Bay itself has become a haven for many rare birds. The path reaches a junction, and you should ignore the path for Lynch; instead heading straight on, with care, down a steep slope. Scree and small rocks make this a little treacherous, especially if you're not wearing good footwear, so take great care. This steep descent leads to a grassy path, where you can make another diversion for a few hundred metres to the right to Hurlstone Point, a rocky outcrop with more superb views.
Turn left and turn onto a track, which crosses a bridge into the neat village of Bossington. Like much of the land around, most of the village is part of the Holnicote Estate, owned by the National Trust. There are 240km of walks on the large 5,026-hectare estate, and if you're staying in the area and have time to spare you may wish to explore further. To Porlock village, you have about 1½ miles of paved roads to navigate; a largely unspectacular road-scape of suburban houses with impenetrable high fences; it feels like a long walk to the village itself. A final short roadside walk leads you into the attractive if unremarkable village, where the Royal Oak pub is a fine bet for good local beers and food.
Getting There and Back
From Junction 25 on the M5, take the A358 for Minehead - you can't miss the signposts. While National Express buses services run regularly to the town, the railway situation is more complicated. You'll need to catch a train to Taunton, then a bus to Bishop's Lydeard, and finally the West Somerset railway to Minehead. If you can work out the timings, this is probably the most pleasant way to get to Minehead!
There is plenty of accommodation in the town, but it may be worth ringing ahead at peak times. There are a few B&Bs in Porlock and a mile onwards at Porlock Weir, as well as a campsite, but if you need to return to Minehead at the end of the route, the regular Exmoor Coastlink bus service runs every hour or so during the day.