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Top places to visit on the South West Coast Path in Winter from a trail runner!

Frances Mills is a trail runner and tour guide for Active England Tours, she has spent the past three winters running around the 2,700 miles of England’s Coast. This blog highlights some of Frances’ favourite places to visit along the South West Coast Path, including some great personal tales and also her top tips for winter travel in Cornwall.

What to expect as a runner on the South West Coast Path

My first diary entry from this multi-year journey began..

“Only a few miles in and my back aches. My soles hurt as if I’ve been punching them”, and ended, “Now that I’ve sat down though – with a camping mug of hot tea and the sun still shining on my face - I can’t help but feel I’m on the right track”. 

Several pairs of muddy trainers and 2700 miles later, the enormity of England’s coastline and the general friendliness of the locals that live on the edges of our island still amazes and inspires me. 

Muddy shoes on the South West Coast Path
Trail running shoes are essential for the South West Coast Path! The miles take their toll - be ready for mud!

Before setting out, my questions for running on the coast were:

How would I cope with weeks on end of solo journeying? Would I see anyone alone on those cliff-tops? Would I find enough shops to buy food and fill up water? Would my legs carry me? Would people talk to me, the muddy girl with a tent on her back?

I chose to run during the winter months mostly to encourage more people to get outside and explore the edges of our wonderful Island throughout all the seasons, something that has become particularly relevant this year during the Covid-19 pandemic; with foreign travel becoming ever more elusive in 2020. Travelling out of season, I suspected not many people would be out on the trails for me to chat to - or give that breathless nod which seems somehow to encompass a warning of the steepness of hills to come as you jog past each other. 

I need not have worried! Runners, walkers and campers have joined me along the way, enjoying my slow routine of run, tea, run, pub, sleep! Keep the sea to my right and keep moving forward: across fields, over styles, around castles, along beaches and up cliffs. With Covid over every horizon, people are still just as keen to talk, though from a healthy distance of two meters (after all there’s an awful lot of space out there on the beaches and coastal paths!). I’ve never once felt crowded in. 

Top places to visit on the South West Coast Path in Winter from a trail runner! Top places to visit on the South West Coast Path in Winter from a trail runner!
Top places to visit on the South West Coast Path in Winter from a trail runner!

Frances' Favourite places to visit on the South West Coast Path

See below for Frances’ Top Winter Destinations along the South West Coast Path

1. Tintagel, the Castle,  Island and surrounding cliffs

Having woken early, packed up my tent and followed a winding path around the cliffs towards Tintagel Castle. I was buzzing with excitement at discovering the home of Uther Pendragon, the birthplace of his son, the legendary King Arthur and the cave of his famous wizarding companion Merlin. It was as magical as I had hoped. Connected to the mainland only by a bridge, the ruins of a castle perch upon this island mound and feel quite other-worldly. To add to this sense of the bizarre, just along the coast I came across what I can only describe as an ‘upwards-backwards’ waterfall. It was a breezy day to say the least and I stood stunned – and soaked - as the wind picked up and water rose upwards giving flight to a small stream, which now defied gravity and headed skyward and into faces of surprised lone joggers.

You must pre-book to visit Tintagel and arrive at the start of your entry slot. It is best to go for an earlier slot to avoid the crowds. Over Winter Tintagel operates reduced opening hours, reopening on the 3rd December, Wed- Sun from 10.00-16.00.

2. Boscastle 

The day after my Tintagel explorations, I visited the beautiful coastal village of Boscastle. Devastated by floods in 2004 the entire village and harbour has been rebuilt through community effort and is perhaps the most scenic coastal village in Cornwall – I may be biased because of its quirky but fascinating Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, and my luck at bumping into a friendly local who ran an art gallery on the harbour edge, who refilled my water bottle and gave me a free postcard painted by his wife! 

3. Port Gaverne 

Port Isaac’s little sister, Port Gaverne’s tiny cove is just around the corner and separated by only a short 500m walk. It’s sheltered cove is the perfect place for a dip in the sea for those brave enough, and has one of my favourite hotels for a great evening meal or a drink with a view over the coast, the Port Gaverne Hotel. It’s less touristy and busy than Port Isaac, made famous from the Doc Martin tv show, but is close enough that it is a short stroll to the village for a good look around or a meal out to dine on the local fresh caught fish!

4. Croyde Bay and Village

After school, well into November and December, I watched as kids rushed out of school… and straight into the sea; in their wetsuits, ofcourse! I was amazed and excited to see so many people enjoying the sea, still warm in the late autumn and early winters. I have to admit I watched all of this from a pub, safe and indoors, out of the elements and sipping a nice beer after a good day’s run to get there. This pub, The Thatch, is probably one of the prettiest pubs I’ve found on the South West Coast Pathy and one I’ll always remember for its friendly and welcoming atmosphere, even if I did bring a little sand and mud in with me! A walk around Baggy Point should also be on your list, perhaps before a nice relaxing evening indoors.

5. Lynton and Lynmouth

Perhaps it's because I spent so much time on my feet and climbing up hills, but the prospect of getting a lift up the cliff between these two towns was one I was beyond excited for. I arrived into Lynmouth just before dark to stay in a cosy pub with a roaring fire, a fresh local pint, fish and chips and a friendly landlord. It wasn’t until the next day when I was halfway up the clifftop train linking the two villages, that an aerial view showed off the charm of this small village, its pretty harbour and cottage rows.
The Lynton and Lynmouth Cliff Railway is the world’s highest and steepest completely water powered railway, a must visit attraction if you’re on the North Devon coast, and great whatever the weather!

Top places to visit on the South West Coast Path in Winter from a trail runner!
Top places to visit on the South West Coast Path in Winter from a trail runner! Top places to visit on the South West Coast Path in Winter from a trail runner!

Frances’ top tips for winter travel in Cornwall 

If you’re planning a trip to Cornwall in the winter here are a few top tips on things to do, or to check before you visit.  

1. Check the ferries. I made the mistake several times of assuming the ferries ran through the winter, only to find a sign reading ‘open in March’. Without a car, this left me with the option of waiting several months or jogging an extra 10 miles along the estuary to the nearest bridge or crossing!

2. Be careful near the cliffs and along cliff-top trails. The winds can whip up in an instant and become quite dangerous. For those like me looking to go longer distances and be out all day, it might be worth carrying with you a tracker/device. I had a SPOT GPS satellite tracker with an emergency call function.

3. Pubs are your friend. Whether in the mood for a beer or a cranberry juice, I love discovering tucked away pubs along the coast. In winter you’re sure to meet friendly locals as you tuck into some freshly-caught local delicacy in the evening, often next to a roaring fire!

4. Layers. If you’re walking and running you might actually get nice and warm while you’re moving, but if the wind picks up or you slow down, it’s vital to have an extra layer with you to put on.

5. Tea! I never go on these adventures without a flask of tea. Perhaps it’s the English in me, but whether I’m sitting on a sunny day staring out at the waves, or walking on a cold snowy path watching the steam rise from my flask, there is nothing better than tea to warm you , cheer you up and keep you going.

Watch the video below, see the South West Coast Path and more from Frances' perspective in this great video!

Frances documents her coastal journey on her Instagram account, and works as a tour guide for Active England Tours. Be sure to follow her on Instagram here: @frances.mills