Grit, adventure and determined joy, with SWCP thru-hiker Gail Muller
By Gail Muller
The South West Coast Path wends its way around four coastal counties on a rollercoaster of cliffs and coves. It provides not only views, but a source of healing and health to many of us who have the privilege of accessing it...
You don’t even need to be there to be touched by this special trail, as often just browsing images and descriptions of the path can lift spirits.
So, it’s no surprise then that on World Health Day we celebrated this wonderful trail and the communities that look after it, as new results of a recent study have concretely proven that all the benefits people feel from the path are real and continue to be fantastic for us.
I grew up next to the SWCP in Falmouth, Cornwall and I live here still. A walk along the trail near my home has been part of a regular routine for most of my life without even thinking about it. Whether it’s a quick stroll to see a friend, a run before work or a longer hike when I want to challenge myself, the trail always welcomes me in, and I never regret the effort. The outdoors is good for us all, but the magical combination of being in the elements with the sea keeping you company along one side is an extraspecial gift. Further studies have shown that being in blue spaces in coastal environments are hugely beneficial for happiness, so our beautiful SWCP provides a double dose of the good stuff with its green and blue spaces combined.
The South West Coast Path has been in my life for as long as I can remember; hoisted aloft my father’s shoulders as we walked as a family on sunny days, ducking branches and giggling at rabbits on the path. It’s always been my place of refuge away from the stresses and strains of life, but when I was struck down with mysterious pain through my body in my early twenties, it was a place to seek respite and solace for both my mind and body. As my pain turned chronic and with little answers from doctors at the time, my mobility gradually lessened, and I could only shuffle short stretches or be driven to path lookout points by family or friends. In these dark times it was the path and the sea I returned to. It soothed me, gave me strength and put my issues into perspective amidst the roiling seas and the trail that showed the passage of seasons. The visible change in nature reassured me that nothing is permanent, and that every tricky path and slippery climb will be rewarded with a view and an easier walk on the other side.
Many years later, and after an odyssey to find a resolution for my chronic pain, I found healing success overseas with some physical specialists. I was able to rebuild my physical strength and stamina over time and eventually hiked the Appalachian Trail (Southbound) in the USA in 2019. This was over 2,000 miles of walking in 5-6 months, and I was amazed at the mental and physical benefits it brought to my life both on trail and when I returned. Simply walking had become literally life-changing. After returning home from America, it became very clear to me that I wanted to get back onto the trail of my childhood, the South West Coast Path, and explore it from start to finish. So, between lockdowns in 2020
I set about to start SWCP from Minehead and walk all the way around to Poole Harbour in Dorset. 630 miles of sea and coastal trail.
I had first attempted my Thru-hike of the SWCP in late February 2020, only to be stymied by days of storms, mudslides and gale-force winds that threatened serious injury if I didn’t take them seriously and step away from the trail. I was disappointed but had learned to respect the elements and listen to their warnings. So, I waited for a better window and set out in late July 2020 with my pack on my back and the sun on my face – a much more palatable prospect!
My mileage was reasonably high from the start. Although I was contending with some pain and injury from my recent Appalachian Trail thru-hike, my body remembered the cadence of distance walking and was delighted to be back doing it. Under dappled pathways with glimpses of green through blue, I felt a surge of joy again. The undeniable rightness of being in nature and washed over by the slow, inexorable growth and healing of outdoor spaces. And it’s not only the path itself that heals and brings happiness but also the people it draws to itself. Walking outdoors seems to bring out the best in folks, and it’s rare to not see a smile or a friendly ‘hello!’ when passing strangers on the trail. The warmth of community is plain to see, as people stop and chat at stiles and by benches. Walkers are always happy to share their experiences, wildlife sightings and generally commune over how darn good they’re feeling, even if their feet and backs ache from time to time from the undulating terrain and cliff climbs.
Walking the trail, especially in the summer months, needs some preparation.
Accommodation is plentiful but does get booked quickly so it’s well worth phoning ahead. I didn’t wild camp on my trip because it isn’t legally allowed. Many do however, and in previous years it’s been possible to stealth camp following strict Leave No Trace principles and be gone early enough to not bother anyone. However last year (and this) with the surge of visitors to the trail, I didn’t want to add to the increasing problem of people who camp without understanding how to keep the trail healthy and pristine. Instead, I called ahead to campsites and explained I was a ‘walk in’. They always seemed to keep some spaces free for walkers, and even in the height of summer, I was never turned away. Occasionally I even splurged on a B&B which was very welcome after a week or two of tent-life! Resupplying with food was simple and easy. I kept some freeze-dried meals for emergencies stashed in my bag, but most villages and towns had small shops or supermarkets to find food-to-go, or cafes where you could sit outside and eat. Water could prove harder to access due to covid worries, but there were often outside taps that shops were happy to point me to, and public toilets with sinks where water bottles could be filled.
Walking the SWCP wasn’t always easy, and I didn’t expect it to be. For every gentle hill and beautiful lookout, there was a scramble or mud and steep steps. These were never wholly unwelcome, though, as there is nothing quite like the taste of tea and scones after a long exhausting climb, or the feel of a hot bath at the end of a 15-mile day of rain and sea mist. I may have had some blisters from my shoes and pack rub from the straps on my shoulders, but my body was very capable of hiking the path – even in the face of so many years of chronic pain and limited movement. It’s really just walking, and if you can put one foot in front of another, even for a short time, then you can hike the South West Coast Path. It doesn’t matter how long a walk takes you; you’ll still receive the benefits!
Every physical ache and pain was worth the experience and nothing was so bad that it made me want to quit. The trail is kind, with friendly villages and towns scattered along where you can rest awhile. A long walk takes as long as it takes, and to me, it’s never about the miles covered and the finish line, but much more about the journey itself and the experience it gives you if you let it. It’s not reductive to say that hiking the South West Coast Path made me happy; it’s plainly true. Whether it’s a multi-day hike, a Thru or a stroll, time on the path energises and strengthens me, and I am not alone.
Just as you might examine the trail as you plan your days and look at your maps, the trail examines you back. It will expose your strengths and weaknesses, gently giving you things to be proud of and things to work on in equal balance. You cannot help but be proud of a long hike on the SWCP, but also of shorter excursions that bring happiness no matter how long you walk. I would advise anyone who dreams of hiking the SWCP to make time in their diaries to do it. Perhaps pick a stretch for a trial day-hike before committing to longer distances, but once you do a little, I think you’ll be back for more. Make sure you revisit the Countryside Code and keep the farmers and their livestock in mind, and you’ll be set for a lovely trip. Slide on those good shoes, socks and shoulder a well-packed bag, and set off for some guaranteed smiles and miles.
You can find more about me and SWCP hikes, as well as advice and information about gear and packing at: www.gailmuller.com instagram.com/thegailmuller facebook.com/thegailmuller or join my welcoming outdoors community at: facebook.com/groups/unlostoutdoors