It’s twenty years ago this weekend that I set off on one of the greatest adventures of my life, walking the South West Coast Path.
I was 33, Devon chief reporter for the Western Morning News and very lucky that editor Barrie Williams agreed to me doing this as a work role and writing about it every week.
It was a different era and somewhat unusual to undertake a personal challenge of this kind, but Barrie saw the potential for it gaining a following with readers, and supported the aim of raising money for the RNLI and the air ambulances for Devon and Cornwall.
Apart from my dog, I walked mostly on my own. This was before mobile phones were in everyday use, the signal was patchy as masts were still being put up, and it was pre any social media. My husband John had last minute reservations, but I talked him into letting me go, though I did have a knot in my stomach as I set off.
I had no idea what I would write about, but I was sure things would happen, as they do on any journey. Within the first week my dog Tilly had had an accident that meant she couldn’t continue and I had to call on John to deliver our other dog Toby to Barnstaple and take injured Tilly home.
It was the first of regular trips to see me on route, as John would drive down each weekend to whatever point I’d reached, bring me clean clothes and collect my dirty ones. My mum and dad would also meet me at intervals, and a number of Western Morning News readers joined me at various times – most memorably William Smith, of St Ives, who became a regular companion, waving the flag of St Piran as I crossed into Cornwall and accompanying me on the Cremyll ferry as I returned, in William’s words, “to England.”
I have many abiding memories, and people are certainly one of them.
So many kindnesses from the lifeboat crews and supporters who I stayed with, including sleeping in the stations, Western Morning News readers who invited me to their homes, people who gave me meals and lifts to where I was staying overnight, those who sponsored me including some children who emptied their money boxes into mine at Brixham, and everyone who walked with me, family, friends and strangers.
Other memories are of the stunning scenery, the sea a constant companion, with the ever-changing landscape capturing a unique frame of its beauty. With July 1998 turning out to be one of the wettest on record, squelching springs to mind, as does scorching, the last week through Dorset was high 20s hot every day.
Phone boxes! I spent many an hour in those phoning over my copy every Monday to the patient WMN copy-takers, sometimes taking an hour as the features were across two pages each week.
In these days of digital press a button, tell the world in one go, it’s strange to think how important those phone boxes, copy-takers and photographers were to deliver the story.
So much has changed in twenty years. In my own life, not least that my wonderful parents who supported me hugely, have both passed away, and my husband John now requires my daily help to look after him.
I still do a lot of walking, but am more likely to be found running along the coast path these days.
I was in Woolacombe last weekend for the North Devon AONB marathon and it was striking how much more the coast path is appreciated and used – this spectacular natural feature on our south west doorstep offers us much and is there, basically for free, to be enjoyed.
I was running along the path again today, this time closer to home at Otterton, where enterprising farmer Sam Walker at Stantyway Farm has opened up an honesty café, a wonderful peaceful spot for a coffee and piece of cake at just £1.50.
That surely beats some 1998 prices. Life, like the coast path, brings ups and downs in many different aspects, some things change irrevocably in 20 years, others stay the same.
I have miles of marvellous memories from the coast path not just from that 1998 walk, but prior to and since. Throughout our lives – whatever the path throws up – nature is there to nurture us.
The 1998 walk raised £3,200 for the RNLI and the air ambulances of Devon and Cornwall.