Raynor Winn’s novel, The Salt Path, shone the spotlight on the South West Coast Path. Raynor, and her husband, Moth, began their epic journey in Minehead, the official start of the route. However, there is also a path which winds its way east. The West Somerset Coast Path, part of the England Coast Path, runs from Minehead to Brean Down, a total of 58 miles, taking in beaches, clifftops, coastal towns, and SSSI (Sites of Special Scientific Interest).
The thing with coastal paths is, unless you’re planning on doing a Raynor Winn, they tend to be ‘there and back’ again walking routes. That isn’t necessarily a negative. With coastal walks, you can walk as little or as far as you like and still be guaranteed great sea views.
For example, take the short route from Watchet to St Audries Bay. We set off from Watchet harbour, whose honeycombed wall has the appearance of stone nets draped over the sea defences. The town’s pretty promenade oozes atmosphere and history; from Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner and the master of sea shanties, Yankee Jack, gazing out to sea, to a mural depicting Vikings raiding the town’s Saxon Mint.
One of my favourite stretches is right at the very start of the path, just as it leaves the town to run parallel to the West Somerset Railway, climbing to the Coastguard lookout tower before dropping into a dip alongside the railway line. It’s pure The Railway Children.
You might think following coastal paths would be easy, but it’s not always the case. There are a couple of factors which can make them tricky to navigate. For a start, they don’t always hug the coast. Erosion can bite chunks out of the land. But nature isn’t always to blame. Caravan parks can also act as blockades, forcing walkers to veer inland to skirt them. I resent them any time this happens, wishing Britain had a similar initiative to Spain’s Ley de Costas, an environmental law created to protect coastlines. In theory, following coastlines is a straightforward process. On this route, keep the sea on your left and the cliffs to your right. But often theory and reality don’t connect, especially when, as in this case, knowing when to leave the beach isn’t always clear. The waymarking goes a bit missing in parts, so a sharp eye is required to look out for signs where to pick up the path again, especially after crossing Doniford Beach. We expected the path to leave the coast at the Haven Doniford Bay Holiday Camp rather than just under 500m before it.
Another factor which adds a challenge to the West Somerset Coast Path is beach walking can make a route less accessible. Pebble and boulder-strewn ones can be awkward to walk across. It’s a shame as Doniford is fascinating, consisting of muddy sand, sea pools, and an impressive array of rock formations. Some create smooth walkways across the anarchic terrain, a welcome relief from the more uneven and slippery sections. Others are so symmetrical, they could easily have been carved by human hands, while some jagged formations resemble reptilian dinosaurs rising from the ocean. It’s a popular spot with fossil hunters, although not a lot of hunting is required. We saw our first ammonite within moments of stepping onto Doniford. An additional thing to look out for is the tide puts the route out of bounds at certain times of the day.
The reason we chose St Audries Bay as the point to turn back was because of its waterfall. At the end of summer, the cascade might not have been as impressive as during wetter times of the year, but it was still a surprise. There’s something primeval about the way the water drips and cascades down the moss-covered cliff face. It’s an appropriate feature in a Jurassic landscape.
It’s a great spot for munching a sandwich while contemplating this wild and ancient littoral before heading back to Watchet.