A Hymn to the South West Coast Path
I want to write a hymn in praise of the South West Coast Path. The word “hymn” feels appropriate because it will be essentially a hymn in praise of the glory of God as He is revealed along the Path. Throughout the walking of the Path I have felt close to God: or rather, I have felt that God was everywhere around me, in the land on my left and in the sea on my right and in the interaction between the land and the sea, and in the plants, animals and people that inhabited this enchanted landscape, and also in myself as a temporary visitor who, by walking the Path from one end to the other, was helping to bind together the hugely varied parts of the Path into a single huge manifestation of the glory of God.
The South West Coast Path is 630 miles, or more than a thousand kilometres, long. It has been calculated that, when you have walked the whole of the Path, you have climbed Everest from sea level at least three times. Some brave people have walked the whole Path in a single go, but I did not do so. I started in Minehead on 9th May 2000 and finished in Sandbanks on 7th June 2007. Altogether I made 23 visits to the Path, varying in length from one day to eight days. I rarely walked more than ten miles in a day, and I stayed in more than 50 bed-and-breakfasts along the route. I was taking the Path at my own speed, stopping frequently to drink in the beauty of my surroundings, and trying not to let my enjoyment be spoilt by physical exhaustion or by worries about whether I would reach my intended destination.
Since I completed the Path, I have found that my memories of it are a continual source of joy for me. I have memories of every single section of the Path, and these memories are almost always memories of pure joy. Even when the experience of walking the Path was less joyful (as in the section where my feet were hurting terribly, or the section which I completed in continuous heavy rain), I still find that the recalling of these memories is a joyful experience, as though these “negative” episodes were an essential and positive part of the overall experience of walking the Path. I also find, to my surprise, that my memories of the first parts of the Path (which, as I write, I walked more than 8 years ago) are still as vivid and detailed as my memories of those sections which I walked more recently. I know that I will take these memories to the grave, and that they will always be among my most treasured “possessions”. I took no photographs; I did buy some postcards, but for me the postcards are dull and lifeless, and far inferior to my internal memories of the places that I visited.
What is it that makes these memories so special to me? After all, during my long life (I am now 73 years old) I have visited many other beautiful places. I have wonderful memories of Venice, and of Sydney, and of the Lake District, and of the Scottish Highlands, and of other places too numerous to mention. But none of these are as important to me as my memories of the South West Coast Path. I think this is because my memories of these other places are disconnected, fragmentary, separate from one another, like a series of random snapshots of places which I happen to have visited; whereas, in the case of the Coast Path, I can see how all the memories are connected to one another and merge into one another to form a single united and glorious entirety. The continuity of the Coast Path is important to me. I feel close to God on the Coast Path, not only because it is beautiful, but also because I am aware of the subtle and miraculous ways in which the different manifestations of beauty along the length of the Path are linked together and are able to live harmoniously alongside one another, each one contributing to the glory of the Whole.
And also, the Coast Path is important to me because for me there is a special magic about the meeting of land and sea. Because we are creatures of the land, we may tend to forget that the sea covers more than half the surface of the Earth and is the original home of Life. The boundary between these two great domains always carries a special tension and a special vibrancy, like the boundary between yin and yang. The placefulness of the land, where every location has its own unique character due to its particular configuration of contours, soil types, vegetation, watercourses, and perhaps man-made artefacts, contrasts with the placelessness of the sea, where, although the whole may change from light to dark or from still to turbulent, there are no particular places that are different from other places. The land and the sea operate according to very different laws, and, when they meet, they challenge each other in complex and fascinating ways. And the action of the tides ensures that the relationship between land and sea keeps changing, not only from year to year, but from hour to hour. It is a dynamic relationship.
To walk along the land-sea boundary over a distance of 630 miles is to become aware of the huge variety and complexity of the ways in which land and sea interact. And it is to become aware also that the interaction between these domains of Earth and Water is affected also by the Sun (Fire) and the wind (Air). Thus, in walking the Coast Path we can see the interaction of the four elements in a particularly vivid and striking form.
My third reason for loving the South West Coast Path is my love of the whole peninsula of south-western England. To travel from London or Bristol into the far south-west (especially outside the holiday season) is to enter a different world, a softer, gentler, slower, more mysterious world, where the supermarkets and other trappings of the twenty-first century feel like superficial and unimportant intrusions into the landscape. This is especially true of Cornwall, with its Celtic placenames and its belief in itself as a separate country from England. But Devon also, with its rolling hills and deep wooded valleys, has its own particular magic. And Dorset too is a distinctive place, with its own atmosphere and its own unique beauty.
And my fourth reason for loving the Path is the Path itself. The Path is a recent creation; thirty years ago there were still long stretches of coastline which were pathless wilderness, or to which the public was denied access. Now there is only a brief section (between Torcross and Dartmouth) where the walker has to go inland because of the obstinacy of coastal landowners. I have learnt to honour and feel grateful to the huge army of nameless heroes who have built bridges, fords, fences and stiles, and cut steps into the hillsides; who hack away at the encroaching vegetation; who put up signposts to show the way; and who work to re-route the Path when bits of it fall (or are in danger of falling) into the sea. The Path itself is a thing of beauty, an artistic creation in honour of the glory of God, which (like the medieval cathedrals) is not the work of a single artist but the result of co-operation between a great number of skilled artisans. Its creation is one of the surest signs that, even in this day and age, there are people for whom Money is not the most important god.
I will now take the reader on a journey along the Path, pointing out some of the features which have lodged most strongly in my memory. It is important to stress that this is the Path as it was for me, and not the Path as it really is. Each person who walks the Path will have a different and unique experience. Edward Relph (1) says, “All places and landscapes are individually experienced, for we alone see them through the lens of our attitudes, experiences and intentions, and from our own unique circumstances.” This is true of me, and it will be true of you, reader, if you walk the Path. It would be possible to give a purely factual account of the Path – here you turn left, there you turn right; here is a tin mine, there is a secluded beach – but as soon as we take note of the effect of the Path on our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual selves, then the account becomes specific to the individual.
In order to give some structure to the account, I will divide it into the sections which I completed in particular years.
2000: Minehead to Bude, 124 miles.
The very first section of the path, coming out of Minehead, is strangely muted. The sea is quickly lost sight of, and one finds oneself tramping over desolate moorland. When I walked this section there was a thick mist, which increased the feeling that I was passing through some kind of portal at the end of which the Coast Path would be revealed. But then suddenly, coming down Hurlstone Combe towards the charming village of Bossington, the mist cleared and a glorious vista opened up of Porlock Bay and the Exmoor hills in the distance. For me, this was the point where the Coast Path really started.
The section between Porlock and Lynmouth is one of the most beautiful on the whole Path. Most of the section is thickly wooded, and the sea is visible far below through the trees. In springtime there are bluebells in the woods. Although the Exmoor plateau is high, there are no cliffs, as the land slopes gently down towards the sea. One has the feeling that this is an area where the land and the sea are at peace with one another. All this is possible because the Path here is protected from the predominant south-westerly winds.
Somewhere along here is the Sister’s Fountain, where the young Jesus is supposed to have drunk on the way to Glastonbury with Joseph of Arimathea. I never found the Fountain, but I definitely had the feeling that I was treading on ground where Jesus had once trodden. Of course it does not matter if this is only a legend, as God is present everywhere on the Path.
Beyond Lynmouth is the spectacular Valley of the Rocks, and then a long section with no human habitation except the Hunter’s Inn. Parts of this section are across open moorland which, more than anywhere else on the Path, reminds me of the Pennines and the uplands of Northern England. This leads up to the summit of the Great Hangman, which is the highest point on the whole Path. The long descent from the Great Hangman to Combe Martin is one of the most exhilarating stretches of the Path: the sky is huge, the land and the sea stretch into the distance, the walking is easy, and everything is right with the world.
After Combe Martin the Path follows a tortuous (and often very hilly) route through Ilfracombe and Lee and on to Morte Point. Morte Point is a spectacular place: the headland juts out into the sea like a giant arrow, and the rocks beyond the headland are also in an arrow formation, so that at low tide one can see the arrow pointing out into the sea.
Beyond Morte Point there is easy walking to the surfing village of Croyde; and after Croyde we come to the estuary of the Rivers Taw and Torridge, which has no bridges and (since the recent closure of the Instow-Appledore ferry) no ferries. From Saunton to Westward Ho! is only about six miles as the crow flies, but on the Path it is 32 miles, as one has to go up the Taw to Barnstaple and down the other side, and then up the Torridge to Bideford and down the other side. Some walkers regard this as a tiresome interruption to their progress along the “real” Coast Path; but estuary walking has its own pleasures (not least the fact that it is flat!) and is an essential part of one’s study of the ways in which the land and the sea interact.
After Westward Ho! and through Clovelly there is a section which is reminiscent of Porlock-Lynmouth, with bluebell woods, lush vegetation, and a sense that everything is at peace. I remember especially a glorious viewpoint at Windbury Point, close to the remains of an Iron Age fort.
But then at Hartland Point everything changes with dramatic suddenness. Here the coastline turns a corner, and becomes exposed to the full fury of Atlantic gales. From Hartland Point to Bude is the most savage section of the Path: savage in the rock formations, which bear witness to the violence with which the sea batters the land; savage in the lack of vegetation, and in the way that the few trees are bent over by the prevailing wind; and savage also for the walker, who, over and over again, has to climb up onto the high cliffs and then climb down again into the river valleys. There was a strong wind blowing as I walked this section; this is fine so long as the wind is blowing in from the sea, but at Steeple Point the Path traverses an exposed headland, with sea on both sides, and I had to crawl round on my hands and knees so as to avoid being blown into the sea.
From Bude I caught the bus which trundles slowly across Cornwall and Devon to Exeter, and then caught the train back home. (This exploration of obscure bus routes is for me one of the pleasures of walking the Path.)
2002: Bude to Newquay, 67 miles.
Having been unable to walk in 2001 because of the foot-and-mouth outbreak which closed the Path, I came back to Bude early in 2002.
After Bude the Path enters a section which, in my memory, feels dark and forbidding. The cliffs are black, and below them the sea crashes against the rocks. Here one has a sense that one has to tread warily, as if this country was not built for humans and humans enter it at their own risk. This is especially true around the area of High Cliff, which is the highest point on the Path in Cornwall. After High Cliff the Path plunges into a massive landfall area, where the cliffs have crumbled halfway into the sea. Here the ground is uneven and the Path hard to follow.
Soon after this one reaches Boscastle (which I visited two years before the flood which devastated it in 2004), and then on to Tintagel. Around Tintagel the landscape is exceptionally bleak, although the seascape is brooding and magnificent, and I sensed a feeling of sadness and desolation in the air. Tintagel is famous as the birthplace of King Arthur, but it may also be close to the site of the “last battle in the West” where he met his death. Whatever the reason, Tintagel feels to me as if it is more about death than about birth.
After Tintagel the gloom lifts, and we are back in the feeling of joyousness, spaciousness and optimism which is more typical of the Coast Path. Between Tintagel and Port Isaac I traversed what seemed to be the least frequented part of the whole Path. Normally on the Path one meets and greets other walkers many times during a day’s walk, but here I was totally alone. The gradients here are extremely severe, and I arrived in Port Isaac totally exhausted after a walk of only nine miles.
After Port Isaac the walking gradually becomes easier, and the Path makes its way past the surfing beach of Polzeath to Rock, which is famous as a playground of the young jet set. From Rock I caught the ferry across the River Camel (the first of fourteen ferries along the Path) to Padstow.
Leaving Padstow, the Path first goes westward towards the Trevose lighthouse, passing the long beaches of Harlyn Bay and Mother Ivey’s Bay. In Mother Ivey’s Bay I had a strong sense of being in a secret place, a place which time had forgotten, a place which had stood still while the rest of the world moved on. I would love to return there to sense again the feeling of mystery and isolation which hung over this place.
At the Trevose lighthouse the coast turns southwards, and there is a long and almost straight stretch leading to Newquay. The coastline here is very beautiful, but not especially distinctive or memorable. Halfway along this coast are the Bedruthan Steps, which feature on many postcards. The weather as I came along here was sunny and warm, and I remember a particularly idyllic coffee break in the grounds of the National Trust café above Bedruthan Steps, sitting in the sunshine enjoying my coffee and feeling that life was wonderful.
And then I came into Newquay, which, after so much time spent out in the wilds, seemed like a huge and bustling metropolis.
2003: Newquay to Mawnan, 137 miles.
In 2003 there was a spell of remarkably fine and warm weather in March. Emboldened by the weather forecast, I set off for the Coast Path unusually early in the year.
Newquay is brash and assertive, but the exit from it along the Path is strangely secretive. I felt I was sneaking out through the back door. The Path leads through some quiet suburban avenues down to the muddy estuary of the River Gannel, which is crossed by a dilapidated and slippery footbridge which is only available at low tide. (I am told that this footbridge has been rebuilt since I was there.)
The next 35 miles, from Newquay to Hayle, have not lodged strongly in my memory. I know that the walking was mostly easy, and that there were some beautiful and very wild sections. I remember the sheer cliffs in the section approaching Godrevy Point. But what I remember most clearly is that my feet were hurting. Ever since Minehead I had been experimenting with different boots and shoes, but had not found any that really suited me. It was only when I came home from Hayle that I finally found a pair of boots that really fitted my feet and did not cause blisters and bleeding.
Armed with these boots, I set off again for the Path in April, and walked the short section from St Erth to St Ives, a town with which I was already familiar.
After St Ives we come to the wildest section of the whole Path. For more than twenty miles there are no human habitations along the coast, and if one needs shelter or refreshment one has to walk inland. The land is uncultivated, and, although there are no steep gradients, the going is often tough, as one has to squelch through marshes and clamber over granite boulders. Here is a land which, apart from the Path itself, is untouched by Man. One is alone with the sounds of the seabirds and of the sea crashing on the rocks.
Reaching Cape Cornwall and then on to the rampant commercialism of Lands End, we are back in “civilization”. And then at Gwennap Head the coastline turns a corner. From here on we are walking east rather than west, and looking out at the English Channel rather than the Atlantic Ocean. From here on we have some protection from the wind. The vegetation becomes lusher, and the sea is less fierce. We have entered a land which feels less challenging but more friendly.
The section from Gwennap Head to Mousehole is justly famous for its beauty, with high clifftop walking. At Porthcurno, near to the spectacular Minack Theatre which has been carved into the rock, the Path descends an almost vertical cliff face. Being no mountaineer, and having a tendency to vertigo, I was able to descend this cliff only by keeping my eyes firmly fixed on my feet, and never once looking out to sea.
From Penzance I came home, and then travelled out to the Path again in September of the same year. I passed through Marazion, which is dominated by St Michael’s Mount, and through Porthleven, which seemed to me to be a particularly friendly little town, and on through glorious cliff scenery to the Lizard, the southernmost point of the Path. Here (more than at Land’s End) there is a feeling of being at the end of the world.
Between the Lizard and Coverack I experienced my only day of continuous heavy rain. I arrived at Coverack soaked to the skin, and was “dried out” by a kindly landlady. After Coverack I came to Porthallow, a very remote little village which is the halfway point of the Path – 315 miles from both Minehead and Sandbanks – and celebrated with a really excellent meal at a pub called the Five Pilchards.
I remember my last day of walking in 2003 as one of the most blissful days on the whole Path. It was a long walk, but I knew it was within my capabilities and there was no sense of hurry. The sky was overcast, but this did not seem to matter: there was a peacefulness in the air, and also in my own heart. The simple experience of putting one foot ahead of the other as I drank in the beauty of my surroundings was, on this day, a source of endless joy. I walked from Porthallow to Helford, crossed the Helford River on the ferry, and then walked on to Mawnan, where I sat for a long time in the churchyard before striking inland to my bed and breakfast.
2004: Mawnan to Plymouth, 87 miles.
In 2004 I returned to Mawnan, walked from there to Falmouth, and crossed on the ferry to St Mawes and the smaller ferry to a place called Place.
The 23-mile stretch from Place to Gorran Haven is perhaps my favourite part of the whole Path. This part of Cornwall is not easily reached by road, and the only habitations along this section are the little villages of Portscatho and Portloe. Between these villages there is easy and blissful walking, with the Path winding its way through the heather and the bracken, and with the sun shining on the sea. There is a sense of timelessness, a feeling of being totally remote from the twenty-first century and all its concerns; and yet (unlike some of the wilder sections earlier on the Path) this is a friendly country, where I felt totally at home.
After Gorran Haven the Path reaches Mevagissey, and then there is a tougher section to Charlestown. At Black Head there is a memorial to the Cornish historian A.L. Rowse, bearing the inscription “This is the land of my content”. How very much I agree with him.
After Charlestown the Path briefly enters the modern world, passing through an area which is being developed for a new “super-resort”, and then through the middle of a clay works; and then it is out into the wilds again, and on to the charming town of Fowey, where one crosses the river on another ferry. The final part of the Cornish section of the Path, though beautiful, is less isolated than the earlier sections, as one passes through a number of resorts. The stretch from Polperro to Looe is the most popular part of the whole Path – I met hundreds of walkers on this short section.
And so we come to Rame Head, which is where I would like my ashes to be scattered when I die. Rame Head is not particularly beautiful, but as a viewpoint it is unrivalled. On a clear day (as when I was there) you can see all the way to the Lizard, which is a hundred miles back along the Path. It is wonderful to look out at this long coastline and to realize that you have trodden every inch of it, and that every place along the coast has its own distinctive memories.
From Rame Head I walked to Cremyll, where I crossed the Tamar on the ferry to Plymouth and then caught the train home. I had walked this last section in the last week of September; the nights were drawing in, and there was a sense of completion and closure. I had completed my traverse of the coast of Cornwall, which is the county where I feel most at home. If the Coast Path had ended there I would have been content. But in fact I still had three years of Coast Path walking ahead of me.
2005: Plymouth to Exmouth, 99 miles.
Between Plymouth and Exmouth is the land of the ferries. There are seven ferries on this section of the Path, across the mouths of the rivers which flow down from Dartmoor (and Exmoor) to the sea: the Rivers Plym, Yealm, Avon, Dart, Teign and Exe, as well as the Kingsbridge Estuary which has no river. Some ferries (such as the one over the Dart) carry thousands of passengers in a day, while others are almost deserted. The smallest is the Avon ferry, where one has to go down to the riverbank and wave one’s arms to attract the attention of the ferryman on the other side. I love these ferries: to be transported across the water at the end (or even at the beginning) of a long day’s walking is a truly blissful experience. (If I had the time, and the technical knowledge of boats, I would write a Book of Ferries, describing all the ferries that operate around the British Isles. I will never do this, so maybe someone else would like to take up the idea?)
There is also the River Erme, which has no ferry, so that one has to wade across the estuary at low tide (or else go on a seven-mile detour). Rather than attempting this, I spent the night with Eric and Liz Wallis, who run the South West Coast Path Association, and who live a few miles inland. Eric and Liz very kindly picked me up on one side of the estuary, and dropped me the next morning on the other side.
The best walking in this section is in the far south, between Bolt Tail and Start Point (on both sides of the Kingsbridge Estuary). Here there are high cliffs, beautiful seascapes and a real sense of wildness and grandeur. Along this stretch I stayed overnight at a farm where they let me watch the sheep-shearing.
At Start Point the coastline turns a corner and the mood changes. From here to Exmouth the coast faces eastwards and so is protected from the prevailing wind. The landscape becomes softer and gentler: more like a garden, less like an untamed wilderness.
Between Torcross and Dartmouth is the section where the walker has to go inland, as the coastal landowners have not yet agreed to allow the Path through their property. Rather to my surprise, I greatly enjoyed this section. It was a pleasant change to relax in the sleepy village of Stoke Fleming and then to wander along country lanes before coming back to the sea.
From Brixham to Torquay is the only section of the whole Path which is predominantly through built-up areas. Walking the Path, I was continually amazed to find that so little of the coastline has been built up. If one visits Devon and Cornwall by car in the holiday season, one’s main impression is of traffic jams, crowded beaches, and people, people everywhere. But if one walks the Coast Path, one realizes that nearly all of the coastline is in its natural state, and that people are quite thin on the ground.
After Torquay there is a difficult section, in which there are many exhausting ups and downs but the sea is mostly hidden from view. But then, coming down into Shaldon, a glorious vista opens out, perhaps the most remarkable view on the whole of the Path. From Shaldon I crossed on the little ferry into Teignmouth, where I spent a blissful evening in a little wine bar, watching the sun set over the Teign estuary and listening to a folk band that was playing in the street outside.
From Teignmouth I walked to Starcross, where I crossed to Exmouth on the last of the ferries, and then caught the train home.
2006: Exmouth to Weymouth, 61 miles.
I will pass quickly over this section, because, although it contains many beauties, it was for me less inspiring than most of the other sections of the Path. I think this is because here the coastline is indeed a line. In most parts of the Path the coast is deeply indented, and one is always turning corners and discovering hidden coves and other unexpected delights. But here in Lyme Bay there are no such surprises: the coastline proceeds (for the most part) in a straight line, and one can see exactly where one is going. Thus, walking the Path here is less of a voyage of discovery, and more of a march towards a destination.
An exception is the Undercliff, which lies between Seaton and Lyme Regis. The Undercliff was formed by a massive landslide in the nineteenth century. When it was first formed it was a huge tourist attraction, and the Victorians flocked to look at it; but now it is thickly wooded, and the Path winds its way through the dense trees with scarcely a view of the sea. Thus, the four-hour trek through it can seem claustrophobic. But I enjoyed the Undercliff, and for me, the chief memory is of the birdsong: it seemed that all the trees were alive with chattering birds.
After Lyme Regis the cliffs are notoriously crumbly, and the Path often has to be re-routed because of cliff falls. And then we come to Abbotsbury, with its swannery and its Tropical Gardens: Abbotsbury is at the start of the Chesil Beach, the famous bank of pebbles that stretches in a straight line from here to Portland. Here the Path goes inland, before descending to follow the shore of the Fleet, which is the salt-water lagoon between the Chesil Beach and the mainland. I had not been looking forward to this section, but in fact it was one of the most enjoyable and distinctive parts of the whole Path. From the inland section there were glorious views of the coastline, and then the walk alongside the peaceful waters of the Fleet, with its flocks of seabirds, was truly idyllic.
From the south end of the Fleet I walked to Weymouth and came home for the winter.
2007: Portland to Sandbanks, 55 miles.
At some time between 2000 and 2007 it was decided that the circuit of the Isle of Portland, which had previously been an “optional extra”, should be officially designated as part of the South West Coast Path. Initially I felt quite upset about this – how dare they move the goalposts to make the Path even longer – but in fact the circuit of Portland proved to be very worthwhile and enjoyable. There is something special about being on an island, and walking the whole way round before returning to one’s starting-point.
From Portland I crossed the causeway back to Weymouth, and set off on the last section of the Path.
The stretch from Weymouth to Swanage contains some of the most impressive and exhilarating cliff scenery on the whole Path. It also contains some of the stiffest gradients. I struggled up these hills with difficulty – after all, I was seven years older than when I started the Path.
And then, at Old Harry just north of Swanage, the Path enters another world. From the white cliffs of Old Harry one can see the coast stretching ahead towards the white cliffs of Dover, and one realizes that, although one is still on the South West Coast Path, one has left the south-west of England behind and entered the south-east. The south-east is a different country: a country where, although there may still be high cliffs and great natural beauty, there is no real wildness. Everything is shaped by Man. And one is aware also that somewhere in the background lies the great city of London, which dominates this country and regards it as its hinterland – whereas, from the far south-west, London seems distant, alien and irrelevant.
After Old Harry there is the long trudge along Studland Beach; and then, at South Haven Point, opposite Sandbanks at the entrance to Poole Harbour, the Path comes to an end.
* * * * *
This has been a tribute to the South West Coast Path: but any tribute to the Path is really a tribute to the Earth, which displays its manifold beauties in profusion along the Path, as it does also in so many other places. We are so fortunate to be alive on this planet and to have the senses which enable us to appreciate its beauty to the full – and also (at the present time) to be able to travel widely across the Earth’s surface and to become acquainted with its infinite variety, in which every place has its own unique ambience. We owe it to the Earth to savour it to the full while we are still here, and to be grateful to the great goddess Gaia for her generosity and abundance.
For me, walking the Path has been a profound spiritual experience. Spiritual teachers, from all traditions, say that the true reality is Oneness, and that the multiplicity of Forms that we observe through our senses is apparent rather than real. Some of them seem to imply that therefore we should turn away from the “apparent world,” and should focus only on Oneness. But I feel certain that, if God is Love, He loves all His creatures, and desires that all His creatures should love one another and be aware of their innate Oneness; and His creatures include, not only men and women, but also animals, plants, rocks, rivers, ocean waves, winds, and the Sun, Moon and stars in the sky – all the Forms that manifest themselves along the Path. In the words of Eckhart Tolle (in one of his videos), the Universe loves playing with Form. The Forms are transitory, and so are not the ultimate reality, but they are there nonetheless, and they can teach us about the glory and interconnectedness of God’s creation, and about how we ourselves, occupying in this lifetime a transitory Form, are an inherent part of this Oneness. There is the One, and there is also the Many; and, just as all numbers are divisible by One, so all of the many things merge together to form a single glorious unity.
And also, each of the individual Forms is worthy of our love. In this article I have talked about particular places (Tintagel, Porthallow, Shaldon) because each of these places is a Form, or a collection of Forms, which is unique and lovable in itself. In striving towards a realization of Oneness, we are striving towards unconditional love for all beings, and that includes not only human beings but all of the other elements of God’s creation.
Of course, we can learn these lessons without having to walk the Coast Path; but the Path (like other similar places) offers a way to escape from our usual environment in which most of the Forms that we observe are man-made, and to enter a world where Man’s creations are an integral, but not a dominant, part of the wonder of the Whole. Some people seek enlightenment in places which are alien to Man – in the desert, in the Arctic wilderness, on the ocean, or on the high mountain tops. But I prefer to seek it in places where Man and Nature have worked together in harmony, and where men and women can take their rightful place as part of God’s wondrous creation.
* * * * *
I do not intend to walk the Path again. But, on several occasions since completing the Path, I have been down to the South West and have visited some of the towns and villages which I passed through along the Path. At the end of these villages, where the road turns away from the sea, one can see a signpost with the legend “Coast Path” and with the acorn symbol which is used throughout the Path. From these points a section of the Path is often visible, rising up from the road until it disappears round a corner or over the brow of a hill. I know that heaven lies just around that corner; and yet I do not need to go there; it is enough to hold in my heart the memory of going there. Shakespeare wrote:
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
It is the same with the memory of my love affair with the South West Coast Path.
(1) Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness, London: Pion, 1976, p.36.
- David Hamblin, 2009.