It’s late. The sun is setting. I’m sitting on a clifftop on the Jurassic Coast with my family. I can hear the clatter of forks against enamel, the slurp of camp-stove noodles, the distant draw of the sea below. Our tent is pitched on a rough patch of long grass, sleeping bags laid out, a bar of chocolate and pack of cards waiting for us. We are tired and dusty after a long day of hiking, when Tommy, my eight-year-old, suddenly says, “Look!”
A lone deer stands on the cliff edge, head lifted, dark eyes on us. Separated from its herd, it looks almost ethereal, the sea washed gold behind it. I wonder what the deer thinks of us – four humans huddled on a remote cliff top, miles from the nearest building or road.
We are wild camping on the South West Coast Path. It is a 630-mile route that starts in Minehead in Somerset and follows the coast of Devon and Cornwall, ending in Poole Harbour in Dorset. Last September, my husband James and I decided we’d like to try and hike the length of it with our two children, Tommy (8) and Darcy (6). Our only goal is to complete it as a family by the time the children have finished secondary school.
Out in the wild, I’ve witnessed something magical happening with my children. They are energised and capable of walking 10 miles a day
Now here’s the thing. If you put my children on a paved street and ask them to walk for a mile, the foot-dragging and whingeing begins. Yet out in the wild, I’ve witnessed something magical happening. They are energised as they search for trail markers, scramble over boulders, squelch through mud, or ascend rope ladders. Suddenly they are capable of walking 10 miles a day carrying their own packs (yet still throw their school bags at me the moment they exit the gates). On the trail, they don’t complain about eating plain noodles from a mug or the rain that lashes down as we walk, because this is an adventure – and they are game.
The deer eventually roams away. The sun sinks into the sea. Stars swim above our heads. We move into our tent and make short work of the chocolate, laughing as we play cards and discover Darcy’s alarmingly strong poker face. I fall asleep that night to the sound of waves, the rustle of sleeping bags and the gentle snores of my family.
When morning comes around, we unzip the tent on to dewy grass, a glittering sea. My hiking boots are damp and I feel stiff from the previous day’s walking. Because of the elevation of the cliff paths, I’m told that by the time we complete the SWCP, we’ll have walked four times the height of Mount Everest. I believe it.
I brew tea – which holds the faint taste of last night’s noodles – and we eat flapjacks for breakfast. While James and I take down the tent, Tommy and Darcy run around playing play tag. Knowing we have a day’s walking ahead, I almost call, “Save your energy!” but there’s no need. They have an abundance of the stuff. It amazes me how they do it, waking each morning completely fresh, like someone hit the reset button.
With packs returned to our shoulders, we set off with no real plan other than walking onwards. I love the freedom that a day on the coast path holds. We don’t know where we’ll stop to eat or swim or rest. We just walk until something catches our fancy or the mood dictates a stop. Some days are full of wonder-struck moments, like stumbling across a cosy, low-ceilinged pub just when we’re ravenous, or rock-jumping into the sea in our underpants. Other days can be drizzly – and that cosy pub has stopped serving.
This morning there are a few squabbles and complaints as we walk – Tommy certain that his sister was handed a bigger biscuit; Darcy lobbing blackberries into her brother’s hood; both pushing and shoving to get ahead on a single-track path. The great thing about disagreements on a trail is, I don’t have to police them. I just pick up my pace and keep a blissful distance between us.
As I walk ahead, I reflect on why I want to be out here, hiking as a family. Mostly, I think it’s because it slows us down and immerses us deeply in nature. We have already spotted a peregrine falcon perched on a rocky ledge, seen a pod of dolphins and a stoat chasing a mouse. Yet, as much as the trail is about being out in the wild, it’s also turned out to be about the people we meet along the way. Like the kind couple who offered to give us a lift back to our van when we were stranded in East Prawle, or the group of teens who asked if we wanted to join their game of beach rounders. The trail offers up space and solitude, while also gifting us meaningful interactions, too.
So far we’ve walked 120 miles of the SWCP. Some of these miles have been done as day hikes, others as multi-day hikes, wild camping along the way. I imagine it’ll take us several years to complete the whole thing. Will the children still want to hike with us when they hit their teens? I couldn’t tell you. What I do know is that during this past year, our happiest times as a family have been out on that trail. That’s enough motivation for me to keep on walking.
All you need to know
How to plan, what to pack – and ways to get your kids onboard
For a one-stop useful resource for planning your hike or searching for accommodation and places to eat, go to southwestcoastpath.org.uk.
How long will it take? Adult hikers typically complete the full trail in 6-8 weeks, although many like to do it in sections over several years.
Where can I stay? There is a range of accommodation options along the trail, from hotels and B&Bs to campsites and YHA hostels. Wild camping is not allowed without the landowner’s permission. However, if you are respectful, pitch your tent late, pack it away early, and leave no trace – then it’ll usually be fine.
What should I pack? An OS map, compass, waterproofs, plenty of snacks and water, sunscreen. If you’re camping, you’ll need a tent, roll mat, sleeping bag, spare clothes, extra water and food.
How do I get my children on board? Don’t chivvy them along – let them stop to look at a butterfly or skim stones or pause on a bench to pick their nose. Make them part of the adventure by showing them how to read a map or searching for the acorn symbol on the trail markers.
Lucy Clarke’s latest novel, The Hike, is published by HarperCollins at £8.99. Buy it for £8.36 at guardianbookshop.com