Solo Female Backpacking: Southwest Coast Path

Caught up at work and the day-to-day city life, I jumped at a chance to get back to where I most feel alive: outside. After seeing the short film Being Here, I could not wait to get back to where it is “quiet enough to hear my heart, and what I’m really longing for.”

Unfortunately, both of us could not get the required time off, but that was not going to stop me from going at it alone. I planned a 100 mile backpacking trip along the Southwest Coast Path in Cornwall, from Padstown to Penzance. A distance far enough to feel foreign, but close enough to not break the bank.

Day 1: Padstow to Porthconan

Friday night after work, I boarded on a sleeper train at London Paddington (my favorite way to save money on accommodation), waking up in my destination around 7:30 in the morning. After stepping out into the town, I headed to the coast, and started walking.

I was hoping for a bakery to be open for breakfast, but no such luck at that hour. Ravished,  I stopped on an inviting beach and boiled some water for oatmeal, watching dog walkers with their Chuck-Its in hand.

A full day’s worth of walking later, I arrived to my campsite sunburnt and exhausted (although blisterless), and passed out before the sunset, around 9pm.

Day 2: Porthconan to Holywell

The morning walk included miles of shallow beaches that appear only during low tide. I stopped along one of these golden treasures to have a Jetboiled cup of tea while watching some local surfers dive in bright and early.

It’s rewarding to watch the dedication that reminds me of that I used to have for snowboarding – the early morning alarms, staying so occupied with happiness during the day that you forget to eat, and that feeling of flying along the white crests of snow. Years have passed since I have had such a delightful muse, and I am looking for a new one in the city. If you have any ideas, let me know.

Southwest Coast Path

Mid-afternoon, I passed through Newquay, a rather large town, where I stopped to get some aftersun lotion for yesterday’s burn. A Cornish pasty was next on the list. The last thing I wanted on a sunny afternoon was a buttery pastry full of creamy, mature cheddar and onions, but when in Cornwall, right? After indulging, I continued on.

As the evening set in, a sea mist came over the beaches, cooling everything off slightly and helping camouflage my tent among sand dunes. I fell asleep listening to the ocean’s lullaby.

Day 3: Holywell to Portreath

My longest day, coming in around 20 miles (or 50,000 steps, my Fitbit exclaimed). I almost stopped short, but the prospect of sleeping surrounded by caravans and family vacations convinced me to keep walking.

There were quite a few very steep hills and valleys that involved almost scrambling to reach the top. To keep me going, I would simply just repeat to myself “Right, Left, Right, Left” as I stepped along. There was really nothing else to do other than to continue on (as is the case with life sometimes). It was around today that I decided I would end my adventure in St. Ive’s rather than continue all the way to Penzance.

I finally arrived at Portreath, a high class town that worried me – there’s no way I can pitch a tent in such a beautiful town! After searching, I was rewarded with the perfect patch of grass, far from the path and overlooking a cliffside sunset. I had just enough time to eat dinner, set up camp, and crawl inside to sleep.

Southwest Coast Path

Day 4: Portreath to Gwithian

I woke up with the sunrise, packed up camp before seeing any other walkers (making sure to leave no trace), and headed out nice and early. My early start was accompanied by some wild ponies, bathing in golden sunshine and grazing on the grasses up the path from where I was sleeping. The walk was very easy, involving mostly farmland; it was so easy that I arrived at Gwithian around 11am, where I settled into a local cafe for a cream tea.

What is a cream tea, you may be wondering? A Cornish classic. Beside your pot of tea arrive two soft, warm scones, a pot of jam, and a heaping ramekin of clotted cream. Clotted cream – a decadent dairy somewhere between whipping cream and butter to top your scones and melt in your mouth. A great addition to any morning, afternoon, or evening. If only I could perfect the technique of this delicate masterpiece, my flat would be the most-desired weekend retreat.

After enjoying my cream tea, I set up a seat in the shade of some beachside cliffs and took a dip in the salty water. The freezing sea was refreshing in the sweltering sun, but I could only stay in long enough to wash off my accumulated grime. When it came time to head to the dunes to set up camp, I started feeling ill. To be safe, I paid for a nearby campsite, where I was able to relax to my heart’s content. Although I ended up feeling fine, it was nice to have the convenience of an established campsite with running water.

Day 5: Gwithian to St. Ive’s

After a leisurely morning of sleeping in, the sun was up high, making the last leg of my walk very warm. The path wandered along the road through the town of Hayle (rather  unimpressive), but got significantly better once I arrived at the coast again. The path was enveloped by foliage as it winded up and over steep cliffs, allowing for occasional glimpses of the turquoise and golden beaches below. When I finally arrived in the picture-perfect coastal town of St. Ive’s, I checked into my hostel, showered, and set out to explore the alleyways that weaved around stone buildings.

St. Ives alleyways

Although I wanted to have another cream tea, my body was craving vegetables. Since it was my last night, I treated myself to Porthmeor Beach Cafe, which ended up being the best meal I’ve had in the UK. Seriously, I can’t even begin to describe how incredible this meal was – every element of each dish was prepared to perfection, amazingly complimenting each other in every bite. I would go back to St. Ive’s just to eat here again. Time and time again, I am surprised by how delicious the food is at places that could easily get away with higher prices and lower quality (such as a beachside cafe), as they do in the US.

The morning of my departure, I paid a visit to the local farmer’s market, where I bought some snacks for the train and treats to bring home. The bus station is located up a hill, giving an amazing view of the city, and a great way to bid adieu to my solo trip.

St. Ive's Bay

Not once did I feel unsafe in Cornwall, and the people I met were some of the nicest in this country. In my travels, I met:

  • a cheese connoisseur whose ancestors got hitched to some Mormons and emigrated to Salt Lake City in the 1800s
  • a fellow whose wife used to live on my street in London
  • a family on the train, from just an hour north of my hometown in Utah, on holiday in Cornwall

The more I travel around this big world, the smaller it feels.

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