Goodbye Cornwall: South West Coast Path – Day 30

Portwrinkle to Plymouth

34,000 steps

Sunny again.

Maybe I should be surprised, but in fact I’ve done the research, and I know that there is less rain on the Atlantic coast of Cornwall at this time of year than in July.

(Mind you, I’ve had holidays in Cornwall in July, and it’s not hard to be dryer than those.)

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George Clooney and Overplanning: South West Coast Path – Day 29

Polperro to Portwrinkle

28,000 steps

Polperro

If you had to design a classic quaint Cornish fishing village – maybe for a Hollywood movie, featuring a world-weary George Clooney rediscovering his soul, surrounded by grizzled old salts mending nets, and falling for a perky divorced barmaid – Polperro would be it.

It has narrow streets, with buildings crammed together at odd angles, and looking like they were assembled from leftover bits of earlier towns. It has a proper working harbour, admirably uncommercialised compared with other Cornish ‘fishing villages’.

But I don’t linger. I never do. The Path awaits. It feels like I might need to come back some other time, to take a proper look at all the places I marched through.

The book promises an easy start, but it doesn’t feel like it at first. A brisk climb out of Polperro and I’m up on the cliffs. I soon reach a fork in the Path. A handwritten sign reads, “Coast Path reopened”, and points to the right. I go that way.

Ten minutes later, I pass a couple with a dog. The man says, “Are you confident you can get through this way now?”

I was until you asked me that. I view the Path ahead with new suspicion, wondering who might want to send unsuspecting walkers down a dead-end, so close to April Fools.

I don’t need to worry. I pass two sections of fencing, now half-cleared. I don’t tumble over an eroded cliff-edge. I never work out why the Path was diverted in the first place.

The morning is sunny again, but with more of a haze, and a stronger breeze than before. But I’m still happily in shorts and tee shirt. The clocks went forward in the night – into British Summer Time – robbing me of an hour’s rest.

I soon reach Looe, with its quirky banjo pier.

A coast path sign points across the river, but there’s no ferry, so I continue on into town to the bridge. I stop for coffee.

Looe

East Looe is probably a couple of notches above West Looe on the Cuteometer. But it’s close, and I make only a superficial investigation.

I continue, climbing out of Looe for an easy walk across a flat headland to Mellendreath, a small beachy cove, which is palpably readying itself for the coming summer season – people sit outside the ugly beach cafe, and walk round in flip-flops. The easier terrain allows my blister to check in with me, to let me know it’s comfortable under the new plaster, and it will be keeping me company during the miles ahead.

Out of Mellendreath, the Path cuts inland through woods, and then onto a road past the Monkey Sanctuary (disappointingly closed for winter – don’t they know it’s now British Summer Time?). I pass a cottage and hear loud music coming from inside. It’s ‘Knights in White Satin’, and for a moment it’s easy to believe I’ve slipped back into the 1970s.

The Path emerges out onto grassy headland.

The further coasts, ahead and behind, have disappeared into the haze, sea and sky merging into a wall of silvery-white.

It’s a long stretch in the morning. Once again, I’ve overplanned it – leaving myself to race along, trying to go a little too fast.

I’ve now done nearly thirty days of the coast path. I really should have learned:  the route can be arduous; it’s more challenging than the gentle downland around London; the path rises and falls frequently; and it’s best taken slowly and enjoyed.

I reach Seaton for lunch, having done two-thirds of the day’s walk in the morning. The consolation is that I am meeting two special old friends.

We have lunch in the busy beach cafe, and then Pete joins me for the afternoon stroll into Portwrinkle, a splendid clifftop walk, with relatively few climbs, but lots of coastal beauty.

Walking with someone else makes this stretch a completely different experience. Especially being accompanied by a dog: she quickly finds a sheep skeleton that I probably would have missed.

It’s also a revelation walking with someone who’s more of a countryman. It turns out the white blossom I couldn’t identify is growing on Blackthorn. Who knew.

It’s a lovely interlude. We say goodbye at Portwrinkle, and I have a weary dinner alone. Feeling like I’ve probably had enough Coast Path.

Again.

For a while.

 

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Wild Garlic and Lots of Steps: South West Coast Path – Day 28

Charlestown to Polperro

34,000 steps

If you are looking down while you are walking it is better to walk uphill – the ground is nearer.

– Gertrude Stein

Under a cloudless sky, with air tasting fresh and smelling of the sea, with me already wearing shorts, I set off on what the guide book promises will be an easy start to the (long) day.

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Charlestown Harbour

Out of Charlestown, the first mile or so takes me past holiday homes and hotels, along a tame headland, to Carlyon Bay.

2019-03-30 09.09.07I pass a coastwatch tower, inside which I notice a watcher faithfully watching the sea, despite it being like a sun-dappled sheet of frosted glass, and as dangerous in appearance as a rice pudding.

There is however a solitary sailboat off the coast, so I guess someone should keep an eye on it. 2019-03-30 09.24.04-2

The Path here is too domesticated and tame for my taste. Well short of past wild glories. I spend too long skirting a golf course.

Then the china clay works at Par loom into view and the Path veers inland, taking another precipitous plunge below former standards.

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There’s a long walk between the railway line and the clay works, hemmed in by mesh fences on both sides. This is followed by a tedious road walk through Par.

It’s not coastal. It’s not even a path. The walking is – I admit – far from strenuous, which I’m not against in principle. But there’s surely a balance to be struck. I tramp through a ghost town of a caravan park, and down the east side of Par Sands to pick up the Path again. This is more like it.

There’s even a swan in the sea. Not something you see every day. 2019-03-30 10.52.37-2

After half an hour’s gentle stroll, I make a steep descent into Polkerris, which has an impressive curved harbour wall, and a pub on the beach. A good place to while away an afternoon. Or a week.

Distracted, I lose my way, and what I think is a short steep track up to the Path turns out to be a long steep road up to another road. I follow this road parallel to the coast, and pick up some footpath signs, turning inland through a smelly farmyard and across a defective footbridge.

Suddenly, I’m on a different Path – the Saints’ Way, which goes inland to Fowey. What I hate above all is having to retrace my steps, so I go with it, hiking a couple of miles of uneventful field paths to reach the outskirts of Fowey, where a banal stretch of road walking takes me down a sequence of hills, past an eccentric bus shelter, and into the riverside town.

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Fowey Bus Shelter

I’d liked to linger, but the Polruan Ferry is in, and I walk straight on board.

The ferry ride is too brief, serving up delicious views of the estuary.

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Fowey from the ferry

In Polruan, I have lunch in the harbourside Lugger Inn, before heading off again. The guide book has promised me that the cliff path from Polruan to Polperro is “quite difficult”, with “lots of ascents and descents”, and obviously I can’t wait to get at it.

After  a long climb up what must be Cornwall’s steepest high street, I leave Polruan and quickly settle into the afternoon’s rhythm.

2019-03-30 16.13.33Sure enough, the Path climbs and descends a succession of coastal headlands, hugging the cliff edge. None of the ascents is as dramatic as the peaks scaled earlier, in north Cornwall, for example. But there’s a lot of them, and they don’t let up all afternoon.

After an hour, I stop for a drink and a foot-check. A blister has checked in on one toe. I apply a plaster and move on.

Call me a philistine, but there’s a saturation point with all this natural beauty. Halfway through this trip on the Path, and I’m becoming immune to it.

Another heartbreakingly beautiful scene of coastal cliffs above a sapphire sea? Okay.

Yet another hidden cove with empty, sun-kissed sand, washed by crystalline waves?

Shrug.

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I get to musing once again about my ignorance of nature. What are those purple flowers with five petals? What do you call that white blossom growing all over the prickly hedgerows?

And then there are the birds. What’s that bird that chirps like a CD sticking in the player? Or the one with the slippery, fluid song – like a guitar solo on an early Steely Dan album?

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I know I’ve thought about this before, my lack of knowledge of the natural world. And – in the six months since I was last on the Path – I suppose I could have done some research. But I’ve been busy, all right?

I guess I’ll never know. Does that matter?

It’s a long six miles to Polperro. Two hours out of Polruan, I persuade myself it must be only an hour to Polperro. I make the rookie error of starting to anticipate what I’ll do when I get there: boots off; cup of tea; maybe a beer; shower and clean clothes.

Then I see a sign suggesting I’m barely half way. I struggle on.

I should have known what the afternoon would be like from the description in the guide book. Here’s a sample:

“Climb steeply…Climb almost 120 steps…then walk down 60 steps on a slope of gorse. Cross a footbridge over a stream, then climb 170 steps on another slope of gorse. Walk over the top…a descent uses 160 steps, then the path continues along the rugged coast…”

2019-03-30 16.37.54At last, at long bloody last, the Path has mercy, and plunges into bushes, on a stretch lined with pungent wild garlic.

And, as I round yet another headland, Polperro springs out from wherever it’s been hiding and is finally there at my feet.

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Short Cuts and Roller Coasters: South West Coast Path – Day 27

Portloe to Charlestown

38,000 steps

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Leaving Portloe

I wake up acutely conscious that I have too far to go today. I’m the only guest at the Ship Inn, and Landlord Mark chats to me while I polish off his fried eggs on toast.

He helpfully tells me the first part of my walk is the hardest. When I confess that I might be tempted to cut a few corners, he mentions how hazy the morning is: maybe the view from Dodman Point won’t be worth the effort today.

2019-03-29 08.44.42When I set out, I discover that my rucksack has grown heavier in the night. How can that happen?

The morning starts cooler, with a full cover of low cloud, as Landlord Mark has observed. But a couple of steep, stepped climbs early on warm me up. There’s a stronger smell of wild garlic than yesterday.

 

2019-03-29 08.48.15We’re back on classic Coast Path: a narrow, dirt track along undulating clifftop, fringed with grass and low gorse. The sound of waves on rocks comes from below, birds sing in bushes above. The sky is featureless, and far ahead along the coast Dodman Point is lost in mist. I think about Landlord Mark’s words.

After an hour, I descend into Portholland. It’s another in the endless succession of pretty Cornish villages: this one however has the distinction of being featured in a Tim Burton movie – Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016). I didn’t see it, but tried to read the book without success.

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After Portholland, the walking gets easier. At one point, I come to a road and lose track of the Path. A middle-aged woman is standing next to a car, gazing out to sea. A man is in the nearby field, doing the same.

“Does the coast path go along the road here?” I ask hopefully.

“I have no idea,” she says. “We’re looking for the Castle gardens.” I walk on. I don’t think they’ll find them out at sea.

I descend by road into Porthluney, stopping at Caerhays Castle. From here, I can head south, following the Path, to go round (and up) Dodman Point. Or I can go east, cutting across the headland. Saving a couple of miles.

Dodman Point is blanketed in low cloud. There will be no views to be had once I’ve climbed it. I take the opportunity to play the Get Out Of Jail Free card that Landlord Mark gave me at breakfast: I head inland. (And if Neil is reading this – tutting about short cuts – I don’t care. Okay?)

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Caerhays Castle

I’m quickly immersed in a gentler landscape, similar to the rolling downland I’m used to in south east England: unflashy, workmanlike paths across fields and along unmetalled roads; ancient, stone-stepped Cornish stiles.

2019-03-29 10.45.08It’s much quieter away in these narrow valleys smudged with haze – no sound of waves, just the liquid chime of birdsong. I make my way eventually down the side of a broad, tree-filled valley, and along its foot to the coast at Portmellon.

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Mevagissey Harbour

Along the road, and an outcrop of whitewashed, picture-windowed holiday homes tells me I’m on the edge of Mevagissey. It’s an attractive and popular fishing village, arranged tightly around a double harbour. There are working boats, but these days it’s unashamedly touristy: sea-shell and knick-knack shops;  Dead Eye Jack’s Emporium of Tat; pasties and fudge.

2019-03-29 12.33.56I eat a pastie for lunch beside the harbour, watched by this greedy-looking gull.

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The Afternoon’s Agenda

2019-03-29 12.49.28My guide book says that the terrain after Mevagissey is like a “roller coaster”. I confess, I’ve been on roller coaster rides that were more fun. And which ended a lot quicker.

I don’t think many people would queue 45 minutes at Disneyland for a couple of hours of lung-bursting, sweat-inducing climbs and descents, observed only by sheep and seagulls.

 

Let a man walk ten miles steadily on a hot summer’s day along a dusty English road, and he will soon discover why beer was invented.

– G K Chesterton

I’ve noticed that my impression of places along the Path depends on the time of day I reach them. In the morning,  everything’s pin-fresh and needle-sharp. I walk briskly, stop frequently to take photos and make notes. In the afternoons, there’s a slower, wearier rhythm. I fall into a heads-down plod, and the beauty sometimes passes me by. Another stunning coastal view? Sigh.

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Today, I trudge on through the afternoon, traversing rather too many steep, stepped climbs and descents into and out of a succession of irritatingly attractive coves and inlets. The day has become much warmer, putting me in tee shirt and sunglasses.

I also bought some sunscreen in Mevagissey (begrudgingly, adding 200g to the weight of my pack).

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Charlestown Harbour

At last, I reach Charlestown. There is a harbour with interesting sailing ships, and a shipwreck heritage centre. The harbour was built to export copper from local mines, and later china clay from the large quarries inland.

Nowadays there is beer. And food. And a shower.

 

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Remembering Overend: South West Coast Path – Day 26

Falmouth to Portloe

34,000 steps

Here we go again.

More than half a year since I last set foot on the Path, I’m heading back to the south west. Will the Path have me back? Will we be able to pick up our old relationship?

The Night Riviera sleeper train is definitely the way to travel to Cornwall. I turn up at Paddington station at around quarter to eleven. I find my cabin, ditch my bag and go for a cheeky glass of wine in the bar. I then turn in for a fitful night’s sleep in the narrow bunk, until I lift the blind on the window and – like magic – I’m in Cornwall. At first, thick mist fills a narrow valley, but this fades within minutes, with the early sun laying shadows across a steep frosty hillside, and colouring cottage rooftops with honey.

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Go The Long Way: South West Coast Path – Day 25

Potthallow to Falmouth

35,000 steps

“In the morning a man walks with his whole body; in the evening, only with his legs.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Porthallow in the morning is a symphony of grey beach and grey sky.

And there’s a strange apparition on the shingle.

But I’m up and away and heading for the vivid green uplands I can see from the seashore.

I leave by some concrete steps, passing John’s weather forecast.

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Meteorology in Porthallow

The stone is dry and it is indeed not raining! Impressive.

I soon discover that the Path has some surprises in store for me today. Some wag has moved the sign for the Coast Path, sending me immediately inland on a pointless hike along the road.

When I realise the mistake, I’m reluctant to turn back. It’s always unwelcome to retrace your steps. I’ve just climbed a hill. I’m tempted instead to press on and work my way back to the Path further along.

I should heed Philip Marsden’s advice, when he wanders into a bog in Cornwall:

“The logic is always to go on – hopping boldly from tussock to tussock, even as the tussocks grow further apart, as they quiver at your footfall. It is a logic that should be firmly resisted: Retrace your steps! Go the long way!

I fail to resist the logic, and I spend half an hour tramping through cow fields, climbing fences, doubling back and consulting the map with increasing desperation.

2018-08-30 09.40.23Eventually, more by luck than craft, I find myself on a hill above Gillan Creek and scramble down a steep slope, through bushes and nettles, to emerge back on the treacherous Path. At this point it is a narrow dirt track between hedges, overlooking a bucolic inlet.

Within 300 yards, another lapsed cliff sends me on yet another detour a mile inland. (Incidentally, this is the 5th or 6th such detour on this trip alone. I’d better hurry up and complete the coast path, while it’s still there.)

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I love these old road signs

Having trekked inland, I now face another dilemma: it’s a mile back out to the mouth of Gillan Creek. But there is no guarantee that the tide will be low enough to cross the Creek on its stepping stones. If the tide is too high, I’ll need to schlep back the same way to where I am now. The alternative is to plot an inland route to Helford.

I take the easy option. So far, in about ninety minutes’ walking, I’ve been on the actual Path for maybe three minutes.

I walk along the road to the pretty village of Manaccan, which has a church, thatched cottages and a beguiling pub (for which I am sadly too early).

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Manaccan

I then continue on a path through a cornfield and then woodland, to the equally pretty hamlet of Helford.

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I don’t know why, but I just love paths through cornfields

Helford sits at the mouth of a small creek at the side of the Helford estuary. This is packed with sailing boats, and looks glorious this morning.

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2018-08-30 11.22.56At a small jetty, I have to open a brightly-coloured wooden board to summon the ferry, which duly appears from the other side of the river, and carries me across.2018-08-30 11.22.28

I’m still too early for lunch, so I limit myself to a coffee and pastry in the popular, busy and extremely welcoming Ferryboat Inn.

It’s a lovely spot, where I could happily spend longer: a tranquil expanse of calm river, fringed with wooded hills. But plenty of people messing about in boats, kids in bright life jackets, people paddling kayaks.

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I head off, through fields and gorse, with low trees between me and the river. I pass Trebah and Glendurgan gardens, both of which I have visited with the garden-loving Boss, on family holidays.

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Durgan Beach, near Glendurgan Gardens

I soon reach Toll Head, a high ridge which shelters the bay, no doubt contributing to the sub-tropical conditions that help the gardens flourish.

I love this area. When I have visited in the past it has always stuck in my mind, and I once used it in a science fiction story – Once There Was a Way.

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2018-08-30 13.16.23Through a heavily-wooded glade on slopes above the sea, and out onto easy grassed slopes approaching Rosemullion Head.

The sea is very calm, like the surface of a village pond.

A lonely sailing boat off the coast looks impossibly romantic.

Now that I’m back on the Path, and making good progress, I regain my Zen. Offered the choice of a short path across the headland, or a longer route around it, I opt for the scenic route around.

But somehow, on the far side, the devious Path gives me the slip again, and I find myself on an imposter footpath that takes me inland. I encounter a road, and consult the map, to find I’m half a mile off-track.

It’s a coast path. How hard can it be to stay on it? I should only need to keep the sea on my right.

Along more roads, arriving at last in Maenporth, where I eat lunch on the beach, among chilly holidaymakers enjoying a palpably end of summer day at the beach under a sky of slate.

I have again done the bulk of the day’s miles before lunch, and afterwards it’s easy walking as I approach Falmouth.

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At Swanpool Beach, I pass some beach huts that have seen better days.

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I arrive in Falmouth late in the afternoon. I’m tired from my four days of walking. So, of course, I’m thrilled with one feature of the town.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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But more pleased with the discovery of the establishment called Beerwolf Books.

It’s a bookshop.

And a pub.

We need one of these in Lewisham.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Halfway to Zen: South West Coast Path – Day 24

Ruan Minor to Porthallow

31,000 steps

“I have never thought so much, existed so much, lived so much, been so much myself, if I may venture to use the phrase, as in the journeys which I have made alone and on foot…” Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Les Confessions, 1782

I’m up early and away, fuelled by muesli, fried eggs and coffee. It’s been raining, but that stops just as I set out.

I walk into Cadgwith Cove. It’s a quaint fishing village, tightly packed with thatched cottages, lobster pots piled high.

I climb out the far side, onto gorsey cliffs under a cloudy sky, with small patches of pale blue struggling to break through. There’s a refreshing cool breeze. I can feel my blister, but it isn’t too painful.

As well as cattle, there are horses on the cliffs, eating heather.

At Poltresco, I descend through woods to cross an attractive wooden footbridge, amid abandoned cottages.

 

 

 

The Path to Coverack switchbacks a bit, as it follows the corrugated coastline. But it is not as severe as Penwith or north Cornwall.

There are some pleasing patches of vegetation, reflecting the late summer season, and the milder climate on this southern side of the peninsula.

 

After a strenuous climb up to Beagles Point, there is view clear back to the Lizard Point.

I get irritated with my guide book. It has Ordnance Survey maps, but they are shrunk to fit the small pages. Although I know this, I repeatedly underestimate distances, and get frustrated when it takes too long to get to my next destination.

I stop for a foot inspection. The blisters are multiplying, jumping to other toes. I apply plasters. A fellow walker, coming the other way, stops for a chat. It’s his first time in Cornwall. He’s sceptical about the chances of reaching Lizard Point. I say, “That’s it there.” But if his guide book is like mine, he’ll have no way of knowing how long it will take.

Approaching Coverack, I get too smart. My map shows tantalising inland field paths, offering a flatter and more direct route into the town than the interminably fiddly coast Path. Inevitably, I get lost and end up scrambling across fields to find a road.

Lunch in Coverack cheers me up – pizza and coffee at Archie’s Loft cafe, overlooking the harbour.

When I resume walking after lunch, refreshed and rested, frustration with my guide book, and all other agitation, falls away. Perhaps it takes a few days out of London to relax. I accept that I will reach the end of the day’s walk when I have walked enough steps to cover the distance, and that number will not be affected by worrying. I should just plod on and enjoy the walk. It is, after all, a privilege to be in such a glorious place.

It strikes me that walking is like writing. When you’re writing a novel, each sentence and paragraph can feel a struggle. If it is so hard to fill a page, how on Earth can you complete eighty- or ninety-thousand? Walking the Path, it feels too far even to the next headland, let alone think about completing the 630 miles.

Yet, in both cases, the thing to do is stop stressing about how far away the end-point is: just focus on the next step; the next paragraph; the view from the next peak. Forget how far away the end of the book is, and immerse yourself in the scene you’re writing now and make that as good as it can be.

If you plug away, there comes a time when the day’s walk is over, the chapter is finished, the first draft is completed. 630 miles is made up of thousands of individual steps, and each can only be taken separately. A novel is thousands of words, which you write one at a time.

I keep this new philosophy of mindful walking with me as the Path winds round an unattractive headland dominated by a disused quarry. And heads inland from the grey and uninteresting Godrevy Beach, to approach Porthallow By an inland road route.

And the Path rewards me for my new-found level of Zen. I trudge into Porthallow and there by the beach car park is a sturdy monument marking the halfway point of the South West Coast Path. And the Five Pilchards Inn is close by, for the modest celebration.

Over dinner in the Five Pilchards, I reflect on my 24 days on the Coast Path since I set out from Minehead (see 11 April 2016). At this rate, I may reach Poole some time in 2021.

One day – one step, one page – at a time!

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