I loved being active outdoors, then in 1996 at age 38 I developed ME / Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, became bed-bound and getting to the bathroom was harder than any mountain I’d climbed; my focus became finding a way to improve my condition.
Fast forward to 2018, I turned 60, had just completed a counselling degree and wanted to pause and reflect. I decided to undertake a pilgrimage and the long-held desire to walk the South West Coast Path arose. Could I do it after over 20 years of not being able to engage in such activities?
After taking a short course in Nordic Walking – a revelation in how it improved walking efficiency – I set out from Minehead in May 2018, it was a real step into the unknown as I didn’t know how my body would react. I decided to camp as I couldn’t afford B&B’s and it was what I had loved to do. There’s something satisfying about carrying everything you need to survive, getting up early, walking whilst the world is quiet before anyone else is about and when the light has a special quality.
The name ‘Coast Path’ conjures up strolls along beaches and whilst there is some of that (great to do barefoot) a lot of the route is challenging and not for the faint hearted. I had to learn how to walk ‘my’ walk, to go at the pace my body and health condition dictated and not be influenced by others I met going faster than me. I reminded myself that I was on a pilgrimage, not a route march, and this included having time to stop, stare and reflect. By talking to others I met ‘en route’ – these encounters were one of the joys of the walk – I learned that there isn’t a ‘right’ way to walk the path apart from what’s appropriate for each person and their circumstances.
I got to Falmouth before an ankle problem halted my progress, there was disappointment at not being able to complete the whole route but also a huge sense of achievement at having walked over 300 miles given my health condition. The weather was generally glorious and I reconnected with parts of me that had been dormant for over 20 yrs. One special memory was being on a headland watching the sun set and the moon rise simultaneously – I stretched out my arms and it was as if I was holding the sun and moon in my palms – wonderful; these were the moments that money can’t buy. The walk also delivered in terms of a pilgrimage with me gaining new insights, however this still left ‘unfinished business’ with the path.
June 2019 saw me back at Falmouth with the aim to complete the route, this year with a lighter pack weight and able to apply the experience of last year, which included ‘rest days’ before I ran out of energy. Everything was different, especially the weather which was cool, wet and windy, this didn’t encourage lingering and I wore my waterproof virtually every day! However I still had ‘magical moments’, one being at Old Harry Rocks early in the morning, alone, and experiencing a moment as if the world went quiet and stopped – it felt like the walk was giving me a gift. I managed to complete the South West Coast Path and this has given me a real sense of achievement, a new confidence in myself and what I’m capable of as I’ve done something, which even a few years ago I thought I’d never be able to do again.
For more details about my personal journey, insights, ‘magical moments’ and pictures visit my blog of the walk
Nordic Walking and footwear
I ‘Nordic Walked’ the whole route and in the 2 years I only saw one other person (out for a day walk) Nordic walking – we stopped and talked about the advantages of these over standard walking poles. Watching people with the latter I saw them being used mainly for support over difficult ground whereas with Nordic walking you are engaging upper body muscles and using the poles more like ski-sticks, propelling yourself forward; consequently you can get up quite a speed on the flatter sections whilst putting less strain on the knees. I wouldn’t want to walk without them. For more information visit the Nordic Walking UK website.
I also wore minimalist shoes as I’d been experimenting with barefoot walking the last few years as a way to improve my health. I loved them, less weight on the legs and the body is free to adapt naturally to the ground beneath; I felt sorry for those trapped in big, heavy boots, especially on hot days.