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The Ultimate Guide to Walking the South West Coast Path

- What is the South West Coast Path?
- When is the best time of year to walk the SWCP?
- Is there public transport along the route?
- Where should I add an additional day?
- How long does it take to walk the SWCP?
- What is the toughest section of the route?
- What is the easiest section of the route?
- What are the best bits of the South West Coast Path?
- Do I need to pre-book accommodation?
- Do I need to carry my own bags?
- How busy is the SWCP?
- Can I walk it solo?
- How do I reach the start of the walk?
- Is the SWCP well signposted?
- Will I need to take ferries along the route?
- Can I take my dog on the SWCP?
- What footwear should I bring?
- What are the best food and drink spots along the way?
- Will I need a South West Coast Path map and guidebook?
- How can I book a walking holiday on the SWCP?

 

What is the South West Coast Path?
 

The South West Coast Path (SWCP) is England’s longest waymarked long-distance walking trail running for 630 miles (1,014 km) along the stunning coastline of south-west England. Starting in the picturesque coastal town of Minehead in Somerset and running all the way to the bustling harbour town of Poole in Dorset, the SWCP takes in some of the most spectacular scenery across the UK, with quaint fishing villages, wonderful wildlife, and some of the best beaches in England.

With an endless succession of headlands disappearing and reappearing as you traverse the coast, it is no wonder that the SWCP was named one of the world’s most awe-inspiring walks by Lonely Planet. The spectacular vista of blues and greens accompany you as you roam the coast, passing through bustling towns, over dramatic clifftops, through sheltered woodland and sometimes into areas which feel completely disconnected from the world. 

The SWCP is varied, exhilarating, challenging and highly rewarding - are you ready to take on the challenge?

Read on to find out all you need to know about walking the SWCP...

When is the best time of year to walk the SWCP?
 

The coastal scenery is stunning all year round, from stormy seas to sunny beaches, there is certainly a reason to walk in each season. However, if good weather is your priority, we’d recommend walking from March through to September. 

As winter leaves the coast behind, it transforms it into a colourful, spring, wildlife haven. There is an abundance of interesting and unique fauna and flora to spot along the way in spring, including stunning white bluebells.

During the middle of the year, the weather is at its best which comes hand in hand with the popularity of the path and the towns it passes through. With bustling beaches, busy ice cream shops and busy promenades, the summer months are certainly the most popular time to visit the coast - understandably! 

One of the many highlights of the walking the SWCP is the quaint ferry journeys required to cross rivers and estuaries, however, many stop operating by October. So to avoid detours by taxi, we’d recommend walking earlier in the year. 

If you wish to avoid the hustle and bustle of the school holiday season, we’d recommending planning your trip for any month other than August. Due to the stunning weather and the children being free from school, as mentioned, August tends to be the busiest time along the coast which, unfortunately, means there is an accommodation supplement in place across some of our itineraries.

 

Is there public transport along the route?
 

Many of the towns and villages along the SWCP are well connected by public transport and local buses run a fairly regular service along most of the coast, however, this varies greatly from location to location. We would recommend using Traveline South West to plan your journey and we will also include taxi numbers along the route should you ever get stuck! 

 

Where should I add an additional day?
 

Given the considerable number of towns and villages that the SWCP passes through there is a wonderful choice of places to add in a sightseeing or rest day. We’ve highlighted some of our top picks below: 

Port Isaac

Spend a day discovering this charming and picturesque village, possibly one of the most picturesque along the first stretch of the SWCP. Explore the famous nooks of the village used as a setting for the popular TV series Doc Martin or spend some time in the neighbouring village of Port Gaverne, a tiny sleepy hamlet and well worth a visit. But most importantly, indulge yourself at Outlaw’s Fish Restaurant - voted the best restaurant in the UK.

Padstow

Padstow is house to Prideaux Place, a beautiful historic house and a fine example of a 16th-century Elizabethan manor house. You will be able to take a boat trip from the picturesque harbour where you can spot seals, basking sharks, puffins and more - a true wildlife haven.

St Ives

Home to the world-famous Tate Gallery, St Ives makes the perfect sightseeing day (or two). Explore the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden which gives a remarkable insight into one of the 20th century's most important sculptors or learn more about the history of the area at the St Ives Museum. The exhibitions and collections reflect the fishing, railway, tourism and mining that have defined the town.

Alternatively, take a trip on the St Ives Bay Line - one of the most scenic railway journeys in England, and enjoy a drink in the historic Sloop Inn - one of England's oldest pubs dating back to 1312.

Plymouth

Plymouth is a brilliant city to spend time discovering, explore the cobbled streets of Plymouth's famous Barbican Waterfront and Visit the Mayflower Museum and follow the voyage of the Pilgrims to the New World.

Whether you’d like to set sail or sit still, Plymouth has an abundance of options, visit the Plymouth Gin Distillery, one of the oldest working distilleries in England or set sail with Plymouth Boat Trips to explore the incredible coastal line and learn about the history and heritage of the area. Or simply just wander through the many charming galleries and shops in the city. 

Salcombe

Salcombe is a bustling little town where you will be able to browse the beautiful boutique shops lining the high street, learn about the maritime history of Salcombe at the Salcombe Maritime Museum or Sample multi-award-winning gin cocktails at the legendary Salcombe Distilling Company. If you wish for something a little more adventurous, explore clear blue waters by boat, kayak or paddleboard.

 

How long does it take to walk the SWCP?
 

Like with any long-distance walk, this depends greatly on personal preference and fitness levels. Based on our itineraries it will take anywhere between 48 - 64 days to cover the whole of the SWCP. Depending on whether you wish to walk the path in record time or take in extra days as you go, we have an itinerary for you. 

If you don’t have 9 weeks to spare, we offer bite-sized chunks across the whole SWCP.

Read on to find out which section is for you… 

What is the toughest section of the route?
 

It has been said that walking the whole SWCP is the same as climbing Mount Everest 4 times, so it’s little wonder that there are some really tough sections. Each section along the path certainly has some tough ascents to tackle, and equally tough descents. We suggest that the first consistently tough section of the SWCP is between Minehead and Westward Ho!

There is a section called the ‘Rugged Coast Path’ which leaves little to be said about how tough it is. Taking this path will add an additional hour to the estimated walking time for the day due to the undulating and tough nature of the path. 

Equally tough is the section between St Ives and Zennor, this is a relatively short section but it is also one of the most challenging sections of the Path due to the rocky and sometimes boggy ground, and several steep ascents and descents between the headlands.

However tough, each section is equally rewarding with some of the most spectacular coastal views in the country, along with a feeling of remoteness unlike any other part of the coast path and as they say ‘the best views come after the hardest climb’.

 

What is the easiest section of the route?
 

Whilst all of the sections include a lot of steeps ascents and descents, we suggest that the easiest section of the trail is between Plymouth and Exmouth. This stretch covers sections with much flatter terrain as it passes through many seaside towns and their bustling promenades, along seawalls and through low-level woodlands.

Despite it being the easier section, the stretch between Plymouth and Exmouth certainly doesn’t cut any corners in terms of spectacular scenery. From Plymouth the path traverses South Devon's beautiful coastline, taking in the secluded beach-fringed landscape and historic towns of Salcombe, Dartmouth, Brixham and Paignton. 

The scenery is a continual contrast, from high cliffs and sheltered woodland to bustling promenades and tiny harbours whichever section you choose. 

 

What are the best bits of the South West Coast Path?
 

The sheer variety of the whole of the SWCP makes it extremely hard to select the best sections because almost all of it is spectacular. Can we choose the whole SWCP as the best bit?! 

However, if we have to choose - one of the most spectacular sections is between Exmouth and Poole, this is the beginning of the breath-taking Jurassic Coast Walk, England’s first UNESCO designated natural World Heritage Site. As you traverse the coast towards Poole the scenery becomes more rugged and impressive as you go.

The red sandstone cliffs over 250 million years old, the lush green woodland around Axmouth, and the stunning white chalk cliffs, all make this section one of our top picks. It packs in such a large variety of scenery and terrain you may find yourself in a sense of awe the whole way. You will also pass Durdle Door, a natural limestone archway - one of the most famous landmarks on the south coast of England.

With so many more incredible sections to choose from, we’ve opted for a section along the Cornish Coastal Path as another of our favourite sections. The rugged southwestern tip of England is home to some of the most spectacular scenery, dramatic cliffs and azure waters. What lies between is a hugely inspiring and unspoilt coastline full of wildlife and history. What lies between Westward Ho! and Padstow is a hugely inspiring and unspoilt coastline full of wildlife, history and pure peace and tranquillity. 

 

Do I need to pre-book accommodation?
 

Accommodation on the SWCP can be limited in some of the less populated locations with only 1 or 2 B&Bs available, so we highly recommend booking well in advance to avoid missing out. 

We would be more than happy to assist with the arrangements for your SWCP adventure. We have carefully selected accommodation for the duration of the walk - from small quaint B&Bs to larger busting hotels, there is something for everyone. 

All of the accommodation that we reserve has been personally selected by our expert team to ensure it meets our exacting standards. We regularly review our extensive database of accommodation providers along the SWCP and we always try to prioritise accommodation as close to the walking trail as possible.

 

Do I need to carry my own bags?
 

Fortunately not! If you are walking between March - October, you can have your bag transported for you between overnight locations. This wonderful service is included in your Absolute Escapes package, or can be organised independently through Luggage Transfers Ltd.

However you plan to walk, it is a blessing to be relieved of your overnight rucksack, leaving you light and free to enjoy the path.

How busy is the SWCP?
 

With the ever-changing stunning scenery, an abundance of wildlife and incredible views it is no wonder that the SWCP can get very busy during the summer months. As the path comes into towns and villages it can get busy with day walkers which is certainly a contrast to the solitude felt during some stretches. 

As a whole, the SWCP is certainly a very popular walk, especially in the summer months. To avoid disappointment, we always recommend booking early. 

 

Can I walk it solo?
 

Yes, the SWCP can be undertaken by solo walkers. You’ll soon find though that you will often bump into others walking the path, all willing to stop for a chat, all with different motivations for being out on the path and stories behind their walk. 

 

How do I reach the start of the walk?
 

One of the most wonderful things about the SWCP is that you can really start and finish at almost any point along the path depending on your preferences. 

As many of the towns and villages along the path are well connected by public transport and local buses run a fairly regular service along most of the coast, you will be able to reach your preferred starting point relatively easily. 

With each SWCP walking holiday package from Absolute Escapes, we will include a comprehensive Information Pack which, depending on your starting place, will include detailed instructions on how to reach your first night's accommodation, alongside this information we would recommend using Traveline.com to plan your journey.

 

Is the SWCP well signposted?
 

Yes, the SWCP is England’s longest waymarked long-distance walk. As you traverse the coast you will pass hundreds of waymarkers with little acorns on them leading the way. The white acorn is the symbol used by all national trails. 

The path is very well signposted, and should you ever feel lost remember to always keep the coast on your right-hand side (only if you’re walking West to East, of course!). 

 

Will I need to take ferries along the route?
 

As you walk the South West Coast Path, you are most definitely going to have to take a ferry or two when the path meets rivers and estuaries. From tiny little boats that could barely fit more than 3 people to larger passenger ferries, it is always a great feeling being on the water. 

In the event that you wish to walk out of season when the ferries have stopped running, we would be more than happy to arrange a taxi transfer around any particular crossing. This would be included in your package, and organise by Absolute Escapes

 

Can I take my dog on the SWCP?
 

Yes - dogs are permitted along the whole of the path as long as you keep clear of the livestock which you will most certainly come across en-route. 

Unfortunately, Absolute Escapes aren't currently able to accept bookings for dogs on the SWCP due to a lack of suitable dog-friendly accommodation. We do offer many other walking trails where you can happily bring your dog along - check out our blog on Britain's Best Dog-Friendly Walking Trails for the full list. 

What footwear should I bring?
 

The majority of the path follows well-maintained paths, tracks and along beaches, however, there are definitely sections that are more rough and rocky and prone to becoming boggy and wet underfoot. For this reason, we’d recommend you bring a pair of comfortable, waterproof, well worn-in walking boots.

If you need some inspiration, you may wish you might be interested in reading our blog post Look Good, Do Good: Best Eco-Friendly Hiking Gear.

 

What are the best food and drink spots along the way?
 

As the path skirts the sea, it is little wonder that there is an abundance of incredible seafood to be had. Mussels, lobster, cod, sea bass, crab - the SWCP has it all. 

Many of the restaurants along the coast change their menu daily depending on what was freshly caught that morning. Everywhere you go, there will undoubtedly be fresh fish and chips on the menu, which we always highly recommend! 

With such a wealth of incredible places to eat, we’ve picked out some of our favourite places along the coast: 

The Seafood Restaurant - Rick Stein, Padstow 

Opened in 1975, Rick Steins Seafood Restaurant has quite rightly gained an international reputation for incredible, locally caught seafood. The restaurant itself has an informal, relaxed atmosphere and the menu changes daily based on the catch of the day. Head chef Stephane Delourme and his team create simple seafood dishes with classic flavours using Rick’s recipes. It even boasts a seafood bar in the middle of the restaurant where you can sit and watch chefs creating platters of oysters, langoustines, sushi and sashimi - this is definitely a special experience. 

Nathan Outlaw, Port Isaac

Whilst in Port Isaac, you have the opportunity to eat in one of the finest dining options in the UK, Michelin-starred Restaurant Nathan Outlaw which specialises in seafood caught off the Cornish coast. It was crowned Britain’s best restaurant in 2019 by The Good Food Guide, receiving a perfect score of 10! They serve the freshest fish dishes in a new and unique way using all local produce. Alongside the incredible food, there are stunning views out to the coastline. 

Sloop Inn, St Ives

The Sloop Inn is the oldest public house in St Ives and one of the oldest in Cornwall. It dates back to 1312 and has been popular ever since. The inn is situated right on the harbour front with the sea almost in touching distance. It is the perfect spot to grab a very well deserved drink whilst basking in the Cornish sunshine. 

Gurnard’s Head, Zennor

The cosy Gurnard’s Head is a haven of tranquillity, affirmed by the author D.H. Lawrence who lived nearby for a time and described the area as being “the most beautiful place, lovelier even than the Mediterranean”. The Gurnard’s Head is a former coaching inn that dates back to the 1800s and ‘momentarily returns you to a slow place of life’. With a focus on a relaxed environment, food and drinks can be enjoyed either in the bar or in the spectacular beer garden and should the weather not be on your side, there is a cosy open fire inside, either way it is a lovely, recharging experience. 

The Lobster Pod Bistro, Hope Cove

A unique option along the coast is the Lobster Pod Bistro which is situated overlooking the harbour and beach in Hope Cove, serving freshly caught seafood. It boasts both indoor and outdoor seating with the outdoor seating comprising of heated enclosed ‘pods’. The pods have room for 8-10 people and include Bluetooth speakers, a phone to call for more drinks and most importantly, incredible views across Bigbury Bay. It is certainly a quirky dining experience and one we highly recommend. 

TJ's Restaurant, Paignton

An almost hidden gem in Paignton is TJ’s Restaurant. Tucked away above the harbour, TJ’s boasts spectacular views across the harbour. With its outside terrace, you can enjoy this stunning view for the duration of your meal. They serve fresh, made to order, fresh fish from Brixham Market and high-quality succulent meats. The menu is extensive and is sure to have something for everyone.

 

Will I need a South West Coast Path map and guidebook?
 

Whilst the SWCP is very well way-marked, it is always a good idea to carry a map and a guidebook with you. Whichever section or combination you choose to walk, we can provide a map and a guidebook which will be included in your personalised information pack. 

The guidebooks are also a great source of interesting facts about the surrounding areas which will help you to really immersive yourself in a location. 

 

How can I book a walking holiday on the SWCP?
 

We know the SWCP inside-out, and we'd be delighted to arrange an unforgettable, self-guided walking holiday for you. You can browse the SWCP section of our website which contains more information, including our suggested itineraries

Once you've decided which itinerary you'd like to walk, send us an enquiry and we'll do the rest - leaving you free to simply turn up and enjoy England’s best long-distance walks.

If you have any questions about the trail which we haven't covered above, please don't hesitate to get in touch. You can call our knowledgeable team on +44 (0)131 610 1210 or email enquiries@absoluteescapes.com.

Fern Urquhart

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