Friday 16 November 2012

Coast & Moor Summary

This is the first of the new style trip reports that I shall be doing from now on. Trip reports take forever to do thoroughly, which is fine if you are only doing a couple each year, but now I don't have the time, or will, to spend weeks putting in-depth reports together! Reports will be an overview of the hike with any other relevant information added that I can remember.

Coast and moor is not a recognised route, you will not find any trail markers or guidebooks named as such. It is my own hike that comprises of England's longest National Trail, the 1000km South West Coast Path, and my own 300km route across Exmoor and Dartmoor National Parks. I chose this hike because I wanted something that needed little planning during my transitional year and that, if needed elsewhere, I could end without feeling too bad about it. A National Trail was ideal for my needs with  maps, routes and guidebooks readily available. Accommodation and resupply were also never going to be an issue in such an inhabited and popular area. The moor section was added because I had plenty of time and little experience of Exmoor, and none for Dartmoor. This seemed like the ideal time to change that. 

The South West Coastal Path is a National Trail and that means it's waymarked and has a good maintained path from start to finish. I started my hike from Poole and hiked the coast path the opposite way to the norm. This caused a few navigational headaches as, in some areas, signs only indicated the conventional Minehead to Poole route. Of course coastal navigation is rarely challenging and if I just kept the sea on my left then how could I possibly go wrong? Towns were the biggest problem, along with military ranges, followed by private land. England still has poor public access to the coast and hills. Some of it is privately owned and with no public access, some you have a legal right of access on a public footpath, some has access by agreement with the landowner and some of it can be accessed only on certain days. This creates a bit of a problem on a long continuous hike! Often because of these access issues it meant leaving the coast and heading inland for a number of miles, sometimes on busy roads.

The biggest problem I had was with Lulworth military tank range which was closed to walkers when I arrived. Neither the guidebook or local information boards gave any indication of alternative routes, and while there was a phone number to call for information, there wasn't any phone reception or pay phone to use! What complicated things even further was that some, or all, of the range could be closed but it wasn't clear to me what parts were closed that day. If the range is fully closed then you have a 25km road walk ahead of you, or you could take a bus (not an option I would take). I took a chance that the road that runs through the centre of the range was open, which cut the road walking down to a more tolerable 14km to cover an 11km coastal section. Fortunately it was open, but involved walking along a very busy, and narrow, road without any pavement. On more than one occasion I had to dive into the undergrowth or risk certain death by arrogant and carless drivers. I didn’t take any paper maps for the coast section but had OS 1:50000 maps from Viewranger running on my phone. For the coastal section this was fine but you will need paper backup maps and compass for the moors route which can be tricky to navigate if the weather is bad.

Scenery on the coastal path is world-class and absolutely stunning for most of its 1000km length. I've not seen better coast anywhere in the world but this is not wilderness by any stretch of imagination. As long as I kept looking left all was good but if I looked forward, or right, then I was more likely to see a barbed wire fence or a cows arse than anything resembling wilderness!

There were many sections where clearance between the path and a barbed wire fence, which separates a stunning coastline from bland farmland, is only centimetres. God help you if you slip! Generally though you have a 1-2m corridor to hike down, which is ample. Just keep looking left! I think some of the trail clearance crew might be a little "vertically challenged". There are many fully enclosed tunnels cut through the tall undergrowth, but at 188cm I would have to be almost on my hands and knees to pass through them. Overall though the trail is kept in excellent condition except where the cows have churned it all up.

The best, and most wild, areas are managed by the National Trust who are doing an excellent job of protecting them. Here, just occasionally, you could get the feeling of wilderness, but only very briefly, and if you wore earplugs to drown out the sound of tractors or farm animals! If you are looking for a wilderness hike then you will be disappointed with the South West Coastal Path.

At times the path can be very busy but you will not meet many, or any, thruhikers on the coastal path. I never met any going the full distance! The only other hikers I met that were camping were a lovely young German couple who were talking a year-out to hike around Europe. They were only doing a few hundred kilometres of the trail before moving over to France, and better weather, for the winter. Everybody else on the coastal path was either dog walkers, day hikers or section hikers. Section hiking using B&B’s over many years is the way most seem to do the path. As you might expect on a busy trail, while it has a good path for most of its length, it gets churned up quickly and is very boggy after heavy rain. I was often sinking up to my ankles in a mixture of mud and cow poo!

Accommodation options are numerous. Wild camping is illegal in England and you are expected to use commercial campsites, B&B’s or ask the land owners permission before camping. Commercial sites around the bigger towns will not take hikers that don’t pre-book. Even the ones that will sometimes only take couples! And, expect to pay up to £25 for a pitch on the larger sites! As a solo hiker your options with commercial sites are more limited. Outside of the towns the smaller commercial campsites are more accepting. B&B’s are a good option and often not much more expensive than some campsites, and they include breakfast in the price. Expect to pay £25-75 depending on the area and time of year. I took a chance and wild camped most nights and had no problems. I pitched at dusk and was gone by first light which was easy given the time of year I was hiking. In summer that would mean some very long hiking days. The only other people I met who tried to wild camp had a run-in with the landowner and were give 10 minutes to pack up and leave, or else! I never asked permission to camp which just isn’t a practical option. Finding suitable pitches was never a problem. Only once did I camp in a field, the rest of the time I was able to find good spots on the "wild" side of the fence.

he hike is blessed, or cursed, with temptations. Café’s, takeaways, ice-cream parloursrestaurants are everywhere! Even in October when a lot of the smaller beach café’s had closed for the season I was still able to have at least one good meal/day, but often two, and normally one or more cake and ice-cream stops. My stove was barely used, which would explain how one 100g gas cartridge lasted the entire 1000km coastal section! The problem is that everything is VERY expensive on the coast. £1.20 for a 500ml bottle of water that was £0.39 in the supermarket. Fish & chips from the takeaways could be up to £8. Sit down often more. If you want to do this hike on the cheap then its certainly possible by wild camping and using the supermarkets but you had better have stronger willpower than me!

Early on you have to decide it using ferries (£4-5) or busses to cross/go around estuaries is acceptable to you. Bear in mind that some of the estuaries can take a full day or more to walk around, and quite likely that will be a road walk. I decided that ferries were acceptable, and in-keeping, with a coastal hike but that busses were not.

As it was late in the season not all the ferries were still operating, so I had 3 longish walks around estuaries, and 2 that could/needed wading . Both wades are mentioned in the guidebook and are less than knee deep at low tide. I carried a tide predicting app on my phone to help with judging when to arrive at the crossings and found it really useful, not only with the wades, but also with some of the ferries that only operate an hour or 2 either side of high tide.

The coastal path ends in Minehead which was where I took my one and only day off. I was able to pick up proper maps here for the next section and with bad weather forecast I'm glad I did. Since my last vist here, in 2000, the official start/finish now has this wonderful sculpture which is much lager than it looks in the photo.

From Minehead my route passes though Exmoor on the Two Moors Way. Once on the Two Moors Way you follow it all the way down to Dartmoor before leaving it for a more interesting, and challenging, route. Unfortunately I saw little of Exmoor because of fog and heavy rain. 

Next came the only really dull section of the hike. This was the Two Moors Way between Exmoor and Dartmoor. I can't think of anything good to say about it! Dull, dull, dull... farmland, mud and cow poo! Luckily the weather and scenery picked up for Dartmoor. The route finishes in Ivybridge which has a train station, acceptable hotel and many shops/places to eat.

The hike took 34 days, with 1 day off, hiking around 40km/day. I found 40km/day just possible given the limited daylight hours. In summer I would have expected to have covered a little more. The route is challenging with many ups and downs (33000m apx) but they are all quite short. If you are used to mountains then there is not much to worry about here.

The route with photo's can be found on Social Hiking
High quality photo's can be found on flickr