Walking England’s South West Coast Path

Introduction -- An American on the South West Coast Path

Likely, many Americans have walked the 630 miles that comprise the South West Coast Path (SWCP).  Logistically, the effort is a bit more difficult if one does not live in the United Kingdom (UK), but certainly achievable with time and motivation.  My decision to embark on the UK’s longest National Trail was made without thought to exactly when this would get done necessarily, but I set an objective to complete the entire distance by the time I was … say 70; a round number and not too distant in the future, yet allowing for plenty of time to fit visits into life.  

The reasons to walk the SWCP are many – the beautiful and changing coastline, the expansive views, the distinctive geology, the flora and fauna, the terrain challenges, the legends of shipwrecks and smugglers, and often, certainly on the SWCP, the remoteness that tells you this is pure nature.   The SWCP is diverse with many remote areas interspersed with more populated areas.  In all cases, the infrastructure to support walkers is complete – helpful way markers, accommodations, luggage transfers, designated places to pitch a tent, tucked in pubs and tea houses a short distance off the path, public transportation and taxis services.  It gets better --- along the SWCP, the weather is often warmer than in other parts of the UK which is notorious for its deserved reputation for mostly wet.  The people are friendly and helpful, they speak English, they like Americans, they like walkers, and as a bonus, the ever present history and gardens along the way.  It is a challenge physically and not to be taken lightly -- walking the entire distance of 630 miles, the total ascent of over 35,000 meters is almost four times the height of Mount Everest. 

Encapsulate all of the above with the claim that the SWCP is a perfect workout with spectacular scenery where the worth and the effort go hand in hand.  To round a corner or reach a peak and there in front of you lies a magnificent 360 degree view of your presence on the earth, is that purity of inspiration.  The SWCP is, unequivocally, one of the very best activities for the entire body, mind, spirit and being. 

This series is from along various legs of the SWCP and not in any chronological order.  It journalizes impressions on the walk, perhaps the wildlife, the challenges, the folks met in passing or resting on the path, small world stories, anecdotes, and reflections of the heritage encountered and observed along the way.   Some walks have stories, or fellow walkers along the way have stories, and some walks have no story.  Some days you could walk 5 miles and not see anyone, and other times, it was “crowded” with cows and dogs and people enjoying the day -- but all the paths have their own unique enchantment, touch all the senses, and leave you with a feeling of being thankful to have been a part of the landscape.

DRIFTING
(September 2016)
SWCP-1 Portreath Battery Hill to St Ives

I arrived on an overnight flight from the USA in the early morning hours and worked my way to St Ives on the Cornwall coast via train from London.  There are times when kinks in the logistics and fatigue seem tedious, but looking forward to the path drives me with determination and anticipation.  St Ives is charming with cobblestone streets, quaint churches and buildings, and a seaside historic appeal.   I arrived in late afternoon, unpacked, showered, and firmed up my plans for where to walk and how to get to and from the walk; to bed by 7:30pm to both catch up with the last 24 hours and to ensure a proper rest for the next day’s walk.

After a blissful 11 hours of sleep and a light but energy full breakfast, I took a taxi to the start of today’s walk.  The driver filled me in on the more famous shipwreck stories and the history of the small village and fishing port of Portreath.   The weather was sunny with clear skies, 9C (48F) in the beginning of the day and 17C (64) by the end of the day – perfect for walking.  The path rating, according to the SWCP Association, is easy to moderate which is why I decided to begin this series in the hope that any impacts from my previous day’s travel such as fatigue from the time change will be manageable.   I am a little unsettled about the route; well, not the route so much as that I will be walking it alone and thereby relying on my abilities to find my way home at the end of the day.  Keep the sea on my right is the plan.

I begin my walk up Battery Hill, a great start to get your circulation going and your legs challenged.  As I approach the peak, I look behind me and see the picturesque inlet and hamlet of Portreath.  There are tales and legends surrounding the many coves, headlands, rocks, islets and flats and hills along the path.  Many are infused with mysteries that offer more intrigue.  If I am aware of them, I take a closer look.  Continuing along the downs cliff top, past names like Ralph’s Cupboard, a collapsed cave home to grey seals, getting named for either smugglers’ treasure or a giant leaving his imprint.  Onward past Hell’s Mouth Cove, Dead Man’s Cove and Smuggler’s Cove which hosted many shipwrecks, continuing past the ponies and wild flowers on Knavocks Headland.  As I approached Godrevy Head the view of Godrevy Lighthouse (inspired Virginia Wolf’s ‘To The Lighthouse’) was stirring against the blue sky.   Toss in a few ancient sites and burial mounds from the Iron Age and my day is full.  Approaching Hayle, there are extensive dunes (area called Towans) where my navigation skills were tested with many failed route selections.  Finally, circling out of the dunes, I skirted the town of Hayle to get around the estuary, passing the medieval St Uny’s Church , through the dunes joining the seaward portion of St Michael’s Way, arriving at St Ives around 6:00pm.  At the walk’s end, as is the case most often, I stopped for an earned half-cider in the Cliffside hotel Pedn-Olva.  Then another 2 miles to the harbor to pick up a bite for dinner and back to my guest house.

  • 18 official SWCP miles and another 2 to 3 miles off-piste searching for missing or missed way markers and another 2 to return to my Guest House located on the hill above the village center and harbor.
  • Feet so-so.  Back not so very so-so (lighten the pack for future walks) and mental state ran the roller coaster from heel to toe.
  • Stunning views the first 13 miles - dogs galore - and none went over the cliffs thankfully, as I also managed to stay on the path, so all in all a very nice day.

Walking In England - The Pub Effect

Great Circle Route’s 2018 trips exploring the English countryside will soon be underway.  We are always excited at the prospect of settling in to our walks in this beautiful, vibrant, historically iconic land of lush scenery, gardens and unspoiled footpaths.   Equally appealing is the expectation that along our walks, we will enjoy our rest and lunch breaks at the ever-present English Public House. 

England’s pubs are the embodiment of English heritage.  Over hundreds of years, pubs have served as the hub of the community - where the locals gather to socialize, relax, and engage with their fellow residents; hence, when you visit a pub, you gain a sense into the local and regional culture and traditions of the community they serve.  Naturally, they have evolved over the many years in conjunction with societal changes.  Where they once were the meeting place to discuss all matters of community interest while serving hearty food and drink; now the current pub menu and activities have adopted a more expansive, inclusive and family friendly atmosphere. 

There is always a pub tucked away along our walking routes where we take our lunch breaks.   Their drink menus are known for their varied selection of teas, coffees, bitters (beer), lagers, and ciders.  Lunches are classic pub foods with one of my favorites being their tasty and rejuvenating soups.  Just as the English are masters of all things tea and cider, they have perfected the pureed soup.  Add a specialty sprig to give it a locality flavor, complemented with a lovely loaf of crusty bread, and you are now ready for another 6 miles!

Cauliflower & Cumin Soup

Ingredients

1 cauliflower head
1 medium onion
1 cup chopped carrots
Butter (a knob or two tablespoons)
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 ½ teaspoons ground coriander
½ teaspoon ground cumin
Water to cover

Salt & Pepper
Vegetable or Chicken Bouillon stock (2-4)

Chop the onion roughly and break the cauliflower into florets.  Melt the butter in a large heavy-based pan over a low heat and add the onion, carrots and cauliflower, allowing them to soften for a minute or two.  Add the turmeric, ground coriander and cumin and stir, cooking for a further minute or two.  Add water and stock to just cover the ingredients, bring to a boil and reduced to simmer for 40 minutes.  Blitz with a stick blender or food processor, add salt and pepper to taste, and serve with crusty bread.

 

Walking in Magical Mallorca

Message in a Block
April 10, 2017

Great Circle Route, Port de Soller Beach, Mallorca

As our taxi arrived near to our hotel’s entrance in Port de Soller, the late afternoon sun was low on the horizon.  Hotel Marina where we will be staying for the next seven nights is located on the beachfront pedestrian promenade.  With our suitcases in tow, we walked the 50 feet towards the hotel’s entrance, and as we walked, the atmosphere greeting us was of dusk closing in, wispy clouds with blue skies peeking through, a balmy breeze, and a quiet that characterizes that time of day when visitors and residents are winding down.  We took in the sights of the beach and harbor, the boats moored in the distance, the lighthouses that frame the harbor’s entrance, and the calm Mediterranean waters lapping on the sandy beach.  I turned towards our guests, just as I heard in a whispered incredulous voice, “it is magical.”

Mallorca is a wonderful place to visit whether you want to walk, cycle, explore the countryside or relax on the beach.  It is the essence of the splendor of the Mediterranean region and for walkers, it offers a perfect walking culture in a perfect setting.  The Tramuntana Mountains where we walk are host to many trails including long distance and village to village footpaths.  Mallorca’s climate allows for seasons but not as harsh as colder climates with the spring and autumn months offering the perfect temperatures for walking.  It isn’t too hot or too cold and the natural beauty of the island’s offerings are at their peak.  The trails are well marked and maintained and Mallorcans welcome walkers with open arms.

Great Circle Route, Pilgrim Steps, Mallorca

Our walking week in early April was perfect – 60s and 70s with mostly sunshine.  The paths were in good shape and not crowded.  Our walking group was united in their enthusiasm!  This isn’t unusual but sometimes there are walkers at different levels or expectations and it is our job to ensure all guests are satisfied.  This group made that very easy!  Our lunches were packed and eaten along the trail and every day we stopped in a village or mountain top café’ for a refreshment and often a slice of Mallorca’s famous Gato d’ametlla, a delicate cake made from the native almond.

 

Great Circle Route, Orange Juice Stand, Mallorca

What we see along the trails:   The Island is rich in bird and animal life, and a landscape that cultivates the diverse vegetation indigenous to the Mediterranean.  We usually see donkeys and goats, an abundance of wildflowers, flowering trees and shrubs, almond and olive trees with some olive trees over a thousand years old, and the ever present orange and lemon groves in the Soller Valley.  There are the quaint stone villages surrounded by the terraced hillsides; there are structures that host history and some mystery; the pilgrim steps; the ice pits high up in the mountains; the Village of Valldemossa famous for past visitors; and, the spectacular scenery which caps off the experience whether you are walking through lush valleys, along mountainside coastal trails, or high up on the mountain ridges.

Great Circle Route, Mallorca

On our first day as we approached the Village of Fornalutx, we walked by a church unique in its construction and a reminder of Antoni Gaudi’s work.  It was locked but we all took a peek in the windows.  It was a small church with just bench seats along the side walls.  One guest offered that the church seating along the walls may be related to the medieval idiom “Weakest go to the wall.”  And from this expression may have evolved the more common phrase today“… to have one’s back to the wall.”  While this church is likely not from medieval times, it peaks our interest and becomes part of our trail swag.




 

 

Our second day of walking took us to Deia where the guide, unbeknownst to the group, found the way to where a pivotal scene of the television series Night Manager was filmed.  For those who had seen the episode, they were thrilled to retrace the action and the others were able to enjoy the beautiful scenery of the café in a rocky and protected cove.  The café was in the middle of what looked to be a massive renovation, presumably due to the throngs of onlookers the series was drawing so they were adding a bit of seating and additional toilet facilities.  The setting is stunning and the rocky caverns intriguing and inviting.   

Great Circle Route, Deia Filming Location for Night Manager, Mallorca

 
 
 
 

Group, Social or Otherwise:   Guests can be as engaged as they desire.  I have experienced the full range and it all works.  Some people come to be on their own but to have the logistics taken care of for them.  Others come to engage, not just in the country, but in the comradery of sharing interests.  It is always and never surprising how much people might share – we usually learn so much from hearing others’ stories and occasionally, we end up with friendships that last a lifetime.  T

 

Great Circle Route partners with professional and experienced guides and tour managers to offer Americans the opportunity to see the beauty along the trail that is the Island of Mallorca.  The majority of Americans have not yet discovered Mallorca, but when they do visit, they are very pleasantly surprised by all it offers in scenery, history, culture, cuisine and the Mallorcan people who are welcoming and genuine.  I have been encouraged by the residents to bring more Americans to their lovely Island!

Finding Belas Knap

GreatCircleRoute_PCalise-BelasKnap_Sign2.jpg

My husband Rob and I arrived in Winchcombe hoping to find two things: the ancient well of St. Kenelm and the Neolithic long barrow called Belas Knap. We had exactly twenty-four hours to do so--and to see the gardens and chapel of Sudeley Castle (Katherine Parr’s final resting place) and St. Peter’s Church, which boasts some of the most flamboyant gargoyles ever made (just ask Lewis Carroll)--before catching a bus to Canterbury.  

Winchcombe itself sits in the Cotswold Valley and traces of its Anglo-Saxon past remain, including bits of Winchcombe Abbey, which contained the remains of members of the royal house of Mercia and was demolished by Henry VIII’s command.  It’s a little town with typical English cottages (complete with thatched roofs) and several inns.  But then there’s the gem of St. Peter’s, the little castle, Belas Knap, the ruins of Hailes Abbey—and Kenelm’s Well.

 St Peter's Gargoyles

St Peter's Gargoyles

St. Kenelm’s Well is really a spring that miraculously burst from the ground where the child-saint’s body had lain on its journey to his tomb.  It lay somewhere on the boundaries of Sudeley Castle, but we didn’t have an exact location.  An old man keeping watch at St. Peter’s promised to take us there in his car—if only we’d guard the church while he picked up his dry cleaning.  It sounded like a good deal to us, but after a terrifying short ride, it was clear that even the locals had no idea.

 Sudeley Castle's Tithe-barn

Sudeley Castle's Tithe-barn

That left us Belas Knap.  We had no map or any real directions to help us locate the site.  Instead, Rob and I set off from the town center with only the English Heritage signs leading us up and up through the countryside.  We climbed through someone’s fields, past some unimpressed sheep suffocating in their unshorn wool.  As an American, I felt immensely uncomfortable “trespassing” on private farmland—something that could very well get you shot in the U.S.  The ominous chomping of the sheep seemed to confirm my discomfort.  We didn’t realize that trampers’ rights were paramount on the walking routes of England.

Pretty soon we were high over the town, looking down on those cottages and their thatched roofs and even on the spire of St. Peter’s.  We could see the valley spread out below us: the simmering sheep in their green fields, the gardens of Sudeley Castle with the ruins of its roofless medieval tithe-barn, filled, for some reason, with translucent white balloons.

But we still hadn’t found the barrow—and the clock was ticking.  With one bare hour before we had to catch our bus, we pressed on through a forest dappled in summer sunlight and emerged into an open field that slanted ever upwards like the path before it. There was a sign with an arrow on the fencepost in front of us: “Belas Knap.”  But a few yards beyond that arrow was another sign for the barrow with another arrow—pointing in the opposite direction.

We were sweaty and crestfallen and just a bit mystified.  Was the field itself the barrow?  Neither Rob nor I had ever seen a burial mound. For all we knew, this could be it. Grass. Fenceposts.  A great joke on the part of the English Heritage fellows.  I cursed our bad luck.  But just then, Rob called from a few yards ahead of me.  He’d found the Cotswold Way Trail and there—right in front of us—was a BARROW. There was no mistaking it for a grassy field.

I felt a bit idiotic, but I let it pass.  The structure was magnificent. There was a false entrance and side chambers, artfully bricked in with limestone.  Empty votive candles, placed by modern devotees, littered the side chambers.  It was a quiet and sacred space. To crouch down in those chambers and know that just beyond, encased in the dirt behind me, was the portal to another civilization, filled me with awe and silence and a little bit of dread.

This reverence didn’t stop us from climbing the mound to get a panoramic view of the Cotswold Way stretching before us.  It kindled in my heart a great desire to return and make my way down the entire path, all 102 miles of it.

In the end, we made the bus to Canterbury.  We had to pelt down hills, past perplexed sheep and through the village like our heels were on fire.  We never found Kenelm’s Well, and had to forego seeing the ruins of nearby Hailes Abbey.  This is the traveler’s conundrum: so much to see, so little time. But with good luck, I intend to fulfill my promise to return, GPS coordinates in hand, to experience the rest.

Found Belas Knap Barrow, Cotswold, England

Belas Knap Barrow, Cotswold England

Medieval Scholar & the Author of "Finding Belas Knap"

Bom Dia Algarve -- A Sampling

The Algarve Region of Portugal has been high on my list of itineraries.  Hence my delight that our UK walking partner introduced a program in the Algarve a few years ago and we at Great Circle Route added it in 2015.  It has proven to be a fabulous holiday setting -- the walking is excellent for every fitness level -- easy to moderate and thoroughly enjoyable due to the friendly terrain, the abundance and variety of interesting native trees and plants, the lessening of the crowds during the early spring and autumn periods, the stunning geological formations along the coast, the lush mountains, friendly people and great food!  At times it felt surreal to be looking out at the beautiful cliffs and the expansive sandy beaches and the Atlantic Ocean - and not wanting it to end ever!

And if that wasn't enough, our group was great too!  We may not have seen eye to eye on everything in life but that added to the banter dynamics and camaraderie.  Though we did agree without a doubt -- that this beautiful land left us invigorated and definitely wanting to return.

A few fun cusine traditions -- starters of local dishes including olives, goat cheese, sardine pate and bread.  Portuguese bread is similar to Italian but a bit thicker and moister with a harder crust like French bread.  Their wines are mild and pleasant - not overbearing at all and they complement the traditional fish that is always fresh and cooked to perfection.  During one of our lunch stops near Rogil we stopped at Museu da Batata Doce (translated as the Sweet Potato Museum).  There you could order sweet potatoes in any variation - crisps, bread, sweets, and soups!

A very enjoyable holiday!

 

 

 

 

Great Circle Route Algarve Holiday The Group Ham

Great Circle Route, Algarve Holiday, Our newest member

Great Circle Route Algarve Holiday - Menhir Fun

Walking vs Hiking

The meaning of the terms walking and hiking differ depending on what continent you are on.  In the USA, hiking often refers to a more strenuous form of walking further defined by the terrain, the ascent and the distance.  In the United Kingdom, walking is synonymous with hiking, and as in the USA, the levels of difficulty are defined to give the participant an idea of what to expect.  There isn't a hard fast rule for defining the different levels but there are general guidelines and all involve measuring the terrain, the ascent and the distance. 

This explanation is to give you an understanding of what Great Circle Route means when we talk about our walking holidays.  We hike in the USA and we walk in most of the rest of the world --- and it means the same!  We also have strolling options which means the same in all parts of the world.  Strolling is at a much slower pace and we usually cover less distance while spending more time visiting a garden or historic site.

No matter where you are, if you are hiking or walking, there is a sense of your surroundings -- forest, coast, mountain, meadow, village, city, river bank -- and always a sense of accomplishment!

 

Dolomites, Italy

Mallorca, Spain