We didn’t set out to walk the entire South West Coastal Path. Originally it was a one-off holiday - a chance for two mums to have a break from their families for the first time in more than a decade. My idea was that we would collapse on a beach; Catherine suggested it would be nice to stretch our legs – to do the kind of walking that we hadn't been able to do since becoming mothers.
Through a process of elimination and narrowing down which bits of the beautiful English countryside we would most like to explore, we decided to walk the second stretch of the South West Coastal Path, from Westward Ho to Rock. It was only going to be a one-off, but we loved it so much – and felt so energised by our week blowing the cobwebs away – that we resolved to make it an annual event.
The logistics have got easier: the children are older so we no longer have to micromanage for our absences. The walking has got slightly harder: there are aches and twinges that we didn't have seven years ago; Catherine is not sure how long her knees will allow her to continue arduous walking, and I am battling with the remains of an ankle injury that has plagued me for 18 months. But we have done 450 of the 630 miles, and are determined to finish the rest. So this is my final challenge before #50challenges: the penultimate section of the South West Coastal Path – 93 miles in 6.5 days from Seaton in Devon to the end of the path at Poole in Dorset. Yes - the end of the path. This should really be the end of the walk for us, but as we started on Week 2 of the eight-week walk, next year we have to go back and finish the first section. That will be one of my first year's challenges in my decade of #50Challenges. But, for now, I am still 49 and counting this as my final warm-up before I launch #50Challenges on the 5 November, the day after my 50th birthday.
At 9.30 we meet at the train station for our annual pilgrimage, stuffed rucksacks on backs. For the first two years we took extra baggage, which we had transported to our next accommodation, but we soon calculated that if we only took what we really needed we could carry everything ourselves. We have it down to a fine art – miniatures of everything, bare essentials only.
The plan is to arrive at Seaton by 3pm and walk the 7 miles to Lyme Regis, partly because we are trying to cram 7 days' walking into 6 and partly because neither of us have been to Lyme Regis for years and would like to explore it, rather than simply stomping through it.
It's a good plan – that is utterly scuppered by GWR. Signalling failures, broken down trains and crews in the wrong places mean both the 11.20 and the 12.20 to Axminster are cancelled. Eventually, we are advised to get the first available train to Basingstoke and hope for a connection to Axminster. We arrive in Axminster two hours later than scheduled, with no bus connection available to Seaton. 10 phone calls to local taxi firms later and we finally get to the start of the walk in Seaton at 5.15pm. It will be dark by 8.30pm and we have 7 miles to walk with sizeable packs on our backs.
We have learnt over the previous 6 years that – no matter what the terrain of the coastal path – we average 2 miles an hour over the course of a day. Even if we get a good stretch where we can pick the pace up, it will be balanced by an arduous section, so 2 miles is our rule of thumb. We know we have to keep up a good pace if we are to arrive in Lyme Regis before it is dark.
The route is unlike any other section of the path that we have been on so far; apart from a field at the beginning which yields views of sea and sky, we follow a track through lush woodland, full of saturated ferns and twisted tree roots which, together with the recent heavy rains, make the path difficult to negotiate. There is much slipping and sliding – and one tumble – especially as it becomes increasingly gloomy under the trees in the failing light. We are relieved when the track finally opens out and we see Lyme Regis, with its famous Cobb, spreading out below, street lights already dancing on the water under the darkening skies. We weave our way down through public gardens to find The Cobb Arms, our home for the night, in prime location. We arrive at 8.20; they stop serving food at 8.30. We have made it – just.
By the time we arrive at the end of the Coastal Path at South Haven Point 7 days later, we are saturated, with sand stuck to our clothes and skin. But we have made it: 93 miles in 6.5 days of walking. And we are only a ferry ride and a bus journey from a hot shower and a cup of tea.
And that is the end of my final challenge before launching #50challenges on 5th November. The week away has enabled me to get in practise for the final section of the South West Coastal Path, which we will undertake next September as one of the challenges that I will complete in my first year of my decade of completing 50 challenges; challenges that will be a balance between hard - such as the South West Coastal Path - mentally enriching and physically stimulating, as well as challenges that simply take me out of my comfort zone.
The week has also given me time to think about #50challenges, and how we promote it to help inspire, support and celebrate other people facing this milestone, so they can get the most of their mid life and Do More, Achieve More, Be More.