‘I’m going to walk the South West Coast Path with my new baby while I’m on maternity leave,’ announced my friend. And it was no throwaway comment. Despite giving birth by caesarean section, within weeks said friend was traipsing around Dartmoor with dog and baby in tow. A campervan was purchased. Plans were laid. Then suddenly the nights drew in. The campervan couldn’t be insured. It was almost time for to go back to work. Babies do that to you: snatch time. Not just a few days. Months disappear.
I still believe my friend will achieve her mission. Before or after the 2012 Olympics, it doesn’t matter when. She’ll do it. The entire path – that’s the epic 630-miles between Minehead and Poole – has been divvied up into 53 sections that each take about a day. That’s a lot of days walking with a baby. So we decided to test our legs on the dramatic 10-mile stretch between Hartland Quay and Clovelly in Devon. Knowing the coastline here is punctuated by precipitous cliffs – and having chosen a walk labelled ‘moderate to strenuous’ – we weren’t expecting it to be without its calf-busting climbs, but neither had we anticipated the extra time and weight we’d need to accommodate the 4 month-old and 10-month old (plus a day’s worth of baby supplies) strapped on our backs.
Having faffed around with cars (we left a vehicle at our finish point in Clovelly), car seats, nappies and feeding, we didn’t start walking until 10.30am. Even at this time Hartland Quay was eerie and wild; completely deserted with ferocious waves smashing razor-sharp rocks that rose from clouds of spray. The skies were November-grey. The first hill, steep steps etched into the cliffside, was a sign of things to come. At the least the strong southerly winds were on our side, pushing us on our way.
The first stretch was by the far the hardest. When we stopped for lunch above the lighthouse at Hartland Point my thighs and shoulders were begging me to quit. We could’ve made this our start point due to easy road access to the heliport and lighthouse here, but the scenery we’d experienced was worth every ache. And as we turned onto more verdant pastures heading east towards Clovelly, though the flatter gradient was a mercy, the landscape – even with its Lundy Island views – was no match for the rugged beauty we’d left behind.
As we marched on, excited at the prospect of gaining some distance on more level ground, two fellow ramblers asked where we were headed. ‘Clovelly’, we answered confidently. Though they were well mannered folk the look of concern they shot us didn’t reinforce the confidence we felt. They looked at the babies, fidgeting in their carriers. They looked at us, small, red-faced ladies over-laden with our backpacks. They took our photo. ‘Well, at least there is some slightly easier terrain on this stretch’, was their parting shot.
Despite being less than a third of the distance into our walk, with only 3.5 hours daylight left – this being well into November after all – we pranced on feeling positive about what was ahead. And this tone prevailed for a good couple of hours of cliff-top progress. The views were rewarding, if a bit softer than those we’d experienced in the gloomier morning light. The babies were sleeping contentedly. The conversation was light and optimistic. There were no signs for Clovelly and we didn’t have a map. But we weren’t ambling and we estimated we’d be in Clovelly for a cream tea in daylight.
However the daylight and our energy levels ebbed faster than we’d accounted for. The baby needed feeding. My shoulders were red raw and my back screaming with pain under the weight of my 10 month-old and all his junk. We stopped at Mouthmill Beach – a sublime location for sundown. Waves surged, gently now, over rounded boulders. Fishing boats twinkled between the North Devon coast and Lundy Island. We didn’t feel sublime. We were beginning to feel a little stressed as we wondered how long we’d be walking in the dark for. This wasn’t part of the plan. Yet, this is was what made the day an adventure.
The next hill was enough to break our optimism. Baby Toby started to cry during the long steep climb. At the top we shuffled through dark, leafy woodland where wood pigeons called to each other through the encroaching night. It was magical. Our eyes adjusted to the dark and our composure was regained as we got our breath back. The babies were murmuring with hunger as we stumbled across our end point. Too late for cream tea. Too late to explore historic Clovelly. Too happy, too relieved to care.
Though I revelled in the sense of achievement, another 52 days of this in a row? Now that would be a tough adventure with growing babes in tow. My friend, I salute you on your mission. I will join you on occasion, but my hips and my shoulders will not hold out for another 620 miles!
Distance: 10 miles
Height gained/lost: 708m
Car parks: Clovelly, Hartland Quay, Hartland Point