Over 7 wintery weeks Frances Mills ran and camped along the South West Coast Path carrying her kit on her back. We caught up with Frances to find out more about her experience.
“National Trails like the South West Coast Path make exploring Britain as easy and accessible as possible and are vital to the upkeep of our coastline.” Frances Mills
I woke early and emerged from my tent to find the ground white with frost. I packed up as faint beams of light breached the horizon and jogged the short distance into Boscastle harbour to watch the sun rise. I brewed my tea and watched over fierce waves that flew white foam, whipped up in a frenzy, flying the harbour’s length to catch in my hair. Frost melting even as my fingers grew numb; the sun was high in the sky by the time I left to run another day along the South West Coast Path.
Walking has been a part of my life since I can remember. Growing up nestled in the Cotswolds, every path out of town led uphill and each mandatory family walk began as a reluctant upward climb. Nowadays, I not only walk, but run up those same hills – entirely voluntarily and further afield with each outing. It is from this repeated exploration of my surrounding hills that the idea of travelling ‘at home’ gained traction.
My first encounter with the South West Coast Path was during a summer cycle around Cornwall. I loved the cycling but wanted to get away from roads and instead traverse the cliffs. I wanted to walk alongside the sea rather than just meeting it at intervals. When I discovered that a footpath travelled directly along beaches and up crags, I knew I wanted to run its full length. The seed was planted and before long I’d decided to use the Path as a springboard to circumnavigating Britain’s entire coastline on foot, carrying my kit on my back, camping and exploring as I went along!
I began in Minehead in early September and ran anti-clockwise, taking the best part of 7 weeks and including a lovely break in St Ives along the way. Averaging around 15 miles a day, 100 miles a week, my style of running can be summed up in one word: Slow! I meandered my way along stopping off at castles and cafes, finding myself happily distracted by every view, frog, pony, puddle, and friendly face, balancing jogging with exploring as I found my pace.
There was such liberty in carrying a tent on my back and having the freedom to run short or long days at will, knowing there were campsites attached to most of the villages I passed through. Setting out I was fairly confident. I was no ‘real’ runner but I could learn as I went, building up stamina over the weeks. I worried about the winter, but I had a sturdy raincoat, layers upon layers to wear underneath and a decent sleeping bag.
One real concern, however imagined, were cows. In Britain, there are no bears to steal your food, spiders to bite you or scorpions that sting. What we do have are cows. Cows which appear out of nowhere to block your path, swing horns in your direction and stare unblinking en masse. Early on, it was not at all unusual for me to make a detour of several miles in order to avoid a densely packed field of them. Now though, with the exception of bulls, I am far more acquainted with their ways and can confidently recommend my preferred method of dealing with threatening cows: First, slow your pace to an amble and present your gait as nonchalant. Second, call individual cows by name, especially those that wander too close. Chat away in a familiar but firm voice, “Daisy, lovely to see you, kindly back off”; “Danielle, you’ve better manners than to get that close”. Nattering away quietly to them all, I now get along nicely with my new lumbering bovine friends!
Detours for cows notwithstanding, I worried about the logistics of this run. Or, rather, I was acutely aware of my lack of pre-trip logistical planning, particularly concerning the path and nearby accommodation. I needn’t of worried, campsites dot the coast close to the path and I was often able to find one near to where I wanted to stop. The most memorable was a quirky family-run campsite called Henry’s, perched right at Lizard Point. Part-campsite part-farm, it had geese, chicken, alpacas, and the largest pig I’ve ever seen! If a storm was around the corner or if I fancied an evening indoors (with shower – luxury!), I was normally able to find a YHA a short bus ride away, or a friendly local happy to help me out. Occasionally hitched hiked to get to a nearby inland village, with kindly drivers stopping – often before I even stuck out a thumb – to ask if my hefty backpack and I needed a lift.
Some mornings, jogging blind into grey wet fog and unenthusiastic about the entire venture, I would find myself, within the hour, running in brilliant sunshine, clouds evaporating to reveal incredible views stretching miles in either direction. Many afternoons I have been muddy, tired, smelly and rained-on, and only an hour later be showered, warm and sipping a cup of tea – or GnT! – in a kind strangers house.
It has been the most incredible journey. Along the way I’ve shared campfire meals, set off fireworks, slept on boats, felt lonely, made friends, battled hail storms and had breathless conversations with strangers lost mostly to the wind. The steady continuity of running and walking everyday has definitely built up my stamina and endurance. I feel healthier and happier when moving through open landscapes. Whether pushing up hills or wandering along flats, I’ve found an easy contentment in jogging this edge of land and sea.
Walking is a very British pastime and running is fast becoming one. National Trails like the South West Coast Path make exploring Britain as easy and accessible as possible and are vital to the upkeep of our coastline. They allow people to discover the beauty and variety of our coast, whether on an afternoon walk or a much longer expedition. All this work to create and maintain our National Trails is so vital to ensuring we can all enjoy our magnificent coastline and any support through volunteering or donating goes a long way towards this!
Frances’ Top Tips for Running the South West Coast Path in Winter:
- Your trainers, 400-500 miles in, will become more holes than shoes. Even good quality trail shoes will be worn down and lose their grip – so be prepared to buy a new pair at some point along the way, or face repeatedly slipping over in muddy conditions.
- Take advantage of the cosy pubs along the way! Many cafes shut during winter, but old-fashioned village pubs stay open year-round. For me, the best thing after a long day’s run has been good food, a proper fire, local ales and nice company. I’d often get chatting to the locals who could offer me invaluable advice about the weather, the best picnic spots and interesting local history!
- With winter’s shorter days, it is easy to find yourself running out of time (no pun intended!). It’s really important to stop short of darkness and make sure you don’t find yourself forced to run along unfamiliar cliffs at night. At the very least, a decent head torch is essential – as I found out when walking back from a pub with a weak beam of light that illuminated nothing and could not locate my tent!
- Don’t worry if you can’t run up every hill. I certainly didn’t. In fact, I practically crawled up some of them and often walked in the afternoons to give my legs a much needed break.
- Look up and listen! Once you are in a jogging rhythm it is easy to stare at your feet and the metre of track in front of them. Occasionally I’d lift my gaze and be surprised by how the landscape had changed in a matter of minutes, annoyed that I’d missed the views! Similarly, while I often listen to audio books, it is so rewarding to run or walk without my headphones in. My new soundtrack became the waves below and the birds above, winds in the grasses and the sound of my footsteps one after the other.
- Go for a sea swim, no matter how brief, even if just once!