South West Coast Path: Lyme Regis to Teignmouth

The world from the train is without people. People have shaped the land but they are not in it. A patchwork of green, yellow and brown. Fields lined with hedges, walls. Tall trees, taller church spires. The gentle rocking of the carriage. The lack of any need to do anything. I have found peace in journeys taken by train. There are people here. At stations, a girl dances to the song playing through her headphones. A couple talk closely, heads together, keeping a secret. The sky is so clear it burns white. I try to read, distracted by the flashes of green as the countryside reflects on the carriage ceiling. I am not yet halfway to the coast. After the train, a bus. Then the weight of the world slips away, replaced by the weight of the next three days.

There are too many people. The beach at Lyme Regis is crowded, on a Thursday. Why aren’t they at work? I walk through, only stopping to apply sunscreen and pull on my hat. I do not intend to burn. I climb up out of town and into the Lyme Undercliff. I am shaded from the sun and protected from the wind. I pass a woman walking the other way, rather than a hello, she tells me she’s bored and is going back. Some of the coastline I have walked is dramatic and demands your attention. The woodland here does not mind. Snake like roots crawl over the fallen rocks. Light scatters. Waves crash on the shore. Streams bubble over rocks. An airplane above roars towards distant lands. I forget I’m in a landslip. Beyond the canopy cliffs of chalk tower over me. Single, still green leaves float the floor. Summer is close to an end. The physical ups and downs are mirrored in my mood. The drifts between everything going well to oh god what am I doing. On day one, it’s manageable but the pack weighs heavy. The path rounds another corner, crests another hill. My business here is simple. Left foot forward, right foot forward. Repeat until failure. The trees break. Across the bay I can see my first destination. The little white tin boxes of coastal holiday homes. Somewhere amongst the sprawl is a spot for my tent. What isn’t visible from this distance is the hill I’m going to have to climb to get there.

I come in hot, sticky with sweat and unwilling to climb the next hill to find the reception. My email confirmation has a pitch number and I walk over to where I see the other tents. I make my first mistake and take my boots off. Rain hasn’t fallen in days. The ground can’t decide if it wants to be solid or a crumble. I don’t carry a mallet. I can feel the pegs pushing back through the soles of my flip flops. I decide it’ll do for the night. Out comes the sleeping mat, I breathe heavily to inflate it. Down it goes, sleeping bag on top. Food, stove, water containers out. Warm clothes and hat to hand. A now empty backpack slid down the side of my bed.

I’m awake before sunrise. Mist hangs in the valleys. A perfect red orb climbs out of the sea. I stretch my legs in the gently breaking dawn. A pastel wash painted across the horizon. Back at my tent I boil water for coffee and breakfast. The man on the next pitch asks me if I’m walking ‘The Path’. We talk for a while about the day we have ahead. The same route in different directions. We talk about tents, about weight. He points out that I still made room for a coffee press. A little bit of luxury is important. We wish each other luck, see you out there. My life is packed back in a single bag. A bag that makes me too big to pass through a kissing gate. Off again, on again. Another gate at the top of the next field. I pass through this time. It must have been the gate. I look back to see how far I’ve come. A finger of coast stretches along the horizon, the Isle of Portland rising at the end. In the other direction, another finger stretches even further. Places I haven’t been to yet, their names unknown to me. Following the line of the coast I see another white shack sprawl; Ladram Bay Holiday Park. I prefer not to see where I’m going. The destination never seems to get any closer, only bigger. The beach below is empty. Lines of breakers tipping over the beach. I can hear the stones being picked up and thrown back down. Waves crashing on pebble beaches sounds like a huge box of Lego being tipped out. The rumble of pieces falling to the floor but also the sound of the box becoming empty, the water rushing back off the beach. I pass my friend from the morning around the halfway mark. Complementing one another on the progress made. We talk more, how far have you come, how far do you have left? When do you think you might finish? This year, or maybe not for another ten.

A completely naked man appears. He carries a hat in his hand. I don’t know where to look. I regret not looking at his feet to see whether he was wearing shoes. I see no other naked people. I don’t know if he came from a nudist beach or if that’s how he lives his life. I keep walking. The Path drops into Sidmouth. A flat plain with cliffs rising steeply either side. I stop for a while at the end of the beach, building myself up for the day’s final push. On the last climb I run out of water. I still have 4km to go. I can feel panic closing in. Blackberries line the path. I reach out for the larger berries and snack on Nature’s candy. Savouring the burst of liquid in my mouth. I walk past High Peak, declining the offer to go higher. I am ready to stop. I descend into Ladram Bay Holiday Park. A small town with a bar, restaurant, shop, take away, beachside cafe and any other completely unnecessary facility you might think you need but don’t. The woman on reception informs me there’s a laundrette on site and where I can find it. I ask her, can you smell me from there? She claims not to. A man in a golf-cart offers me a lift up to my spot. I’m tucked away on the lowest rung of the tent pitches. The sea view visible only if I jump. Once set for the night, I head down to the shop and buy a can of Fanta, a snickers and a family size packet of Fruit Pastilles. If the facilities are there, you might as well use them right? I walk along the beach alone, enjoying what I have declared to be emergency rations. I look back along the rolling coastline to where I started. I congratulate myself on what is my biggest day. My feet are sore, my legs are tired but I am not in pain. I walk around the mega camping complex that has ruined an otherwise beautiful part of the coast. I return to my tent to find one further up the ladder torn in half. The wind has picked up. The obscured sea view suddenly seems of more value. Through the night I wake to hear the wind nipping at the roof. The poles sway but nothing strains, there are no breaks. I listen to the roaring through the trees and beneath it the deeper rumble of waves pounding away at the shore.

I wake up to clouds, for the first time in two days. A change is coming. The wind remains fierce. I convince myself each day is getting easier as my pack gets lighter. Losing food at each stop. Draining water throughout the day. I pull the bag around on to my back. My body flinches, then settles. This is becoming the expectation. I walk out before the holiday park wakes up. I make quick work of the steady climb towards Budleigh Salterton, dismayed to find I can’t cross the river but have to track inland to find a bridge. Along the beach I walk, looking up at another hill. I’m sure this must be the last one. Two meter tall waves rise just off shore. I had intentions to swim. The beach looks like a good place to drown today. The sea is red with what I assume is clay and probably not blood. The crossbow silhouette of a falcon hunting in the cliffs below. Always a kestrel, never a peregrine. Cracks along the edge of the path mark where the next fall will start. The cliffs are showing their weakness. I pass a sign that has Exmouth four miles away. I’m making good time. There’s a ferry to catch, maybe I can make the next one. I count the miles down on each sign until I reach four again. That can’t be right? It must be a trick. Something to make me give up. To stop, at another holiday park. Maybe I pushed too hard. Too eager to get there. There’s nothing I can do but keep on walking. There are people sat in their cars along the front. Safe, protected and completely removed. There are people on the beach too. A lone surfer riding the waves in the shallows and a flock of windsurfers billowing in the estuary. The distance disappears quickly on the promenade. Smooth flat tarmac. I arrive at the marina at the same time as the ferry. Five pounds, cash only. There’s not much of a queue, a family with bikes and a few couples. I watch the weather. Clouds heavy with rain sit over west-Devon, behind me the skies stay blue. Maybe Exmouth would have been a good place to stop. The boat pulls into Starcross and I start marching. The temperature has dropped. The first sign of rain hits my glasses. Out come the rain jackets, one for me and one for the pack. For the first time I step off The Path, heading to Cofton to spend another night in another mega holiday complex. As I arrive into the village, I realise the village doesn’t exist any more. The church, the pub, and the store have been consumed by the holiday park. I’m sent to the furthest field, a sign on arrival advises me no camping after the 31st of August. I’m late, but I’m not going back to double check. After all, it’s only one night. Rain comes and goes, dog walkers too. Some of them stop to chat, mostly to apologise for their dogs coming over to say hello.

I wake up in the morning desperate for the loo. The rain is falling hard and I don’t want to get up. The worst thing about camping is having to get dressed to go to the toilet, but it means I’m up. The deadlines are tighter today. I pack my bed away before making breakfast during a break in the rain. The water falls again as I’m packing the rest of my gear. I realise I’ve made another mistake. I don’t need to keep the tent door open while I’m packing. I can just get in the tent. I try to palm it off as fatigue but it was probably stupidity. The tent is wet regardless, but I’m finished. I pull on my waterproof trousers for what might be only the second time ever and hit the road. It’s literally the road, walking back to Cockwood and into Dawlish. I finally cross the railway line and climb onto the seawall. The signs all warn of the danger in bad weather. I decide it isn’t bad enough and continue. The waves kick up spray, the rain continues to pour. I can feel water seeping through. Within half an hour the rain has stopped. I’m dry again, warming up. I think about stopping at the next train station. It would be easy. Too easy. I check the train times, telling myself I can do it. Teignmouth or bust. One more hill, one more stretch of faded seaside glamour. I slump into a bench at the train station. I steal a seat away from everyone on the ride into Exeter. When I go to get off I find my legs have seized. The unnatural sitting position having done me no favours. I stand for the rest of the ride home. Wet gear gets hung out. The weight of reality pushes back down. The line I’ve drawn on the mental map of the South West coast is a little longer. Things I never thought I would do are adding up. I start to look at the map, how to get where, where to stay once I’m there. The end coming a little bit closer.

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