The South West Coast Path starts on the northern ridges of Exmoor National Park, follows the coastline, past the park, westward to Land’s End. Then it the turns right around with the coast and moves east along England’s southern seas, through Cornwall, Devon and Dorset. When the sky is absolutely clear (which is rare here even in early summer) you can look right across the Bristol Channel from the north of Devon to the southern coast of Wales, 30 miles away. We’ll be doing 500 to a thousand metre climbs up and down most days.
On day three, little west of Lynton, we had stopped to catch our breath and admire the vast expanse of the sea when a local greeted us. We were very lucky to get a day so bright he said. ‘I walk ‘ere most everyday. First time for me to see Wales’. ‘Whales? Where?’ says my walking buddy (WB) excitedly. He is having a little trouble with local lingo. ‘W(h)ales? NOO, they doon cum doon soo far in’, says the confused man. By now WB has tuned in. ‘O, yes, of course, Wales’, he recovers. The following day, though, we do see seals swimming around rocks some hundred meters below us. ‘Well he could have seen whales’ WB insists. Nope. If there was any chance of whale sightings the tourist brochures would have alerted us.
Mostly when we meet other walkers (dozens on some days) we gush about the wonders of the coastal cliffs plunging into the sea, its rugged beauty and the giddying sensation of walking on the edge when the land falls away from the path, sudden and precipitous. At other times, the path is barely the width of your hiking boots and overgrown. If the light is poor, you see little beyond the next step. But the micro scenery surrounding each human step is teeming with life. Tiny caramel coloured mushrooms, or massive toadstools larger than the width of the path, emerald coloured beetles, tiny wild flowers and holes of different sizes all over the ground, hinting at the network of burrows under the silty soil. Elsewhere, when the path is wide and gentle through the meadow, the hills are rounded, the clouds billowy, cattle and sheep grazing, you realise that this land and sea, in fact, have long been domesticated. These dells and slopes are planted with the white daisies and pinky-purple bell heather flowers from the English fairy tale books of my childhood. You can believe in pixies in these wild gardens.
Exmoor National Park is criss-crossed with walking trails. More famous authors than you can count have lived or visited somewhere around here at some time and written about its pubs and paths and combes and coves. Every bit of this coast has been well-trodden, mapped and inscribed. Some of the realities of this landscape have followed fiction: the Tarka trail has been laid along the life cycle of an otter called Tarka , from a 1920s children’s novel by naturalist and author Henry Williamson. The Tarka Trail, merges with the South West Coast Path as the latter moves inland down River Taw. We will walk in the fictional Otter’s footsteps and waterways for 3 days.
And every Dick and his dog is walking here – really they are. Day hike with anywhere between one to four dogs seems to be the de rigueur in this part of England. Most people on the trail can tell you every turn on a twenty kilometre radius from wherever you run into them. But few have ventured too much further. There is a small handful who are doing a few days at a time and plan to do the whole coast path over several years. So far, we have met just one walker who is trying, like us, to hike the whole thousand kilometre path in one go.
Near the coastal holiday villages (and we get to one of these for most nights) we encounter keen walkers, daily ramblers, families of picnickers, and groups of friends, young and old, all walking. But even here, the idea of walking right around the top and bottom of Devon, Cornwall and Dorset, tends to produce a ‘Wow, you are crazy’ or some variant thereof, although a small number do confess to harbouring a dream of some day walking the whole trail.
Still, despite the people and the books and the organised road signs, for the post colonial Indian (eg. Me), used to London and other big cities of England, this feels like a road less travelled. I am used to being the only Indian on long walks in Europe. But this trail and its surrounds seem determinedly mono-cultural: white, English. So far on the walk we have met just half-an-Indian – yes just half, mum English, dad Indian and absent. And there is a Sri Lankan selling curry from a van on a beautifully sheltered beach in the very popular surfing village, Woolacombe.
I can’t help wondering: has any Indian walked the South West Coast Path? You have seen the Empire Strikes Back (movie 1980). You may even have read the Empire Writes Back (book about post-colonial literature, 2000-ish). Now for the Empire Walks Back?