Portland Bill, near Weymouth
And so you come to the final leg of the South-West Coast Path. Two legs and over 400 miles done, you still have over 200 before you can finally say that we’ve completed England’s longest national trail.
But even reaching this point has come at a cost. Because after so long living in the landscape, you’ve started to look like the landscape. The stubble on your chin as coarse and spiky as the grasses of Braunton Burrows; your hair as unkempt and bedraggled as the seaweed on the rocks near Clovelly. Even your complexion has become as wind-blasted and sun-scorched as the sands of Woolacombe Bay. While your buttocks are now as firm and unyielding as the granite outcrops off Land’s End.
Your social skills have suffered. At the start of this trail you greeted every fellow trekker with a cheery ‘Morning’, before pausing, no doubt, to boast of the adventure on which you were embarking .
But they were the smiles before the miles. Now, all other people on the path are viewed as mere impediments, delaying your date with destiny, and if you acknowledge them at all it will be with a quick nod of the head and a gruff, grunted ‘hi’. But it matters not. Given the way you look now, those passers-by are probably just relieved that you didn’t mug them.
Manage to get to the end of this last stage, of course, and our bejewelled and sceptred isle will throw its hands in the air, get on its knees and bow before you. It has thrown its mightiest trail, its most uncompromising landscape and its toughest challenge at you – and you won.
But in order to get to that point, you have to do a bit of walking first…
So how does this third and final leg of the South-West Coast Path compare with the previous two? It was a question I was asked several times when writing the guide – and it’s one I find really tricky to answer. Each of the three legs is so different from the others, despite the fact that they are all coastal paths that adjoin each other and are set in the same corner of the UK. It’s like comparing football and roast chicken. I like both, but I’d have trouble opting for one over the other because they’re so different.
If you threatened to set fire to my trekking boots unless I declared a preference, I’d probably opt for Cornwall over the other two. Just. The beautiful turquoise seas and gorgeous little villages give it the edge, I think, though it may just be that I had lovely weather the last time I walked around Cornwall.
What is almost definitely true is that I probably judge this last leg less fairly than I should. By the time Joel and I had got to Plymouth, at the start of this third leg, we were getting pretty tired and slightly jaded after walking around the other two legs of the South-West Coast Path. So this last leg became something to get to the end of, rather than something to simply enjoy.
In other words, to our mind the final destination (ie the finishing point) became almost as important as the journey itself, which is not how it should be.
Still, I do think this last leg is slightly better than the first one, ie the one that runs through Exmoor and North Devon. There’s more variety on this last leg; more of interest; more to see.
It also contains, in my humble opinion, one bit of absolutely exquisite walking. The stage between Lulworth Cove and Swanage through the Isle of Purbeck had me spellbound. Maybe it was because we were approaching the finish of our South-West Coast Path odyssey. Maybe it was the ruined tanks and other military hardware that lay by the trail, or the Iron-Age Fort that lies under the soil overlooking the coast (a fort upon which the Romans, in turn, built their own military installation). Or maybe it was the fossilised forest at the very start of this stage. Whatever it was, the stretch eastwards from Lulworth Cove through the military range, round Kimmeridge Bay and onto Swanage, was, I think, my absolute favourite part of the entire 630-mile trail.
Other thrills? Well the tourist brochures bang on about this being the Jurassic Coast and while there aren’t exactly stegosauruses (stegasauri?) hiding behind every tree, nor pterodactyls on the wing above us, you are more likely to find evidence of our planet’s prehistoric past here than almost anywhere else in the country.
The South Coast’s highest point, Golden Cap in Dorset (191m/627ft asl), must also be conquered along the way. To be honest, the climb seems no more strenuous than the hundreds we had already done thus far on the South-West Coast Path; and while it may be the highest point on the South Coast, it’s not actually the highest point on the trail – that honour goes to the Great Hangman in North Devon, which at 318m (1043ft) is over 100m taller than Golden Cap.
So while it may lack the wilderness quality of Exmoor and the sheer comeliness of Cornwall, there can be no arguing that there are enough treats and treasures along the way to justify its inclusion on the South-West Coast Path – and a worthy finale to it.
But the question remains: can you honestly say that you’ve walked the South-West Coast Path, when the person who gets to the end of the trail is so very different from the person who, 630 miles earlier, started it?