Sunday, 2 June 2013

South Westerly Quests

On two recent occasions I've ventured to England's South West. Firstly, to the wonderfully picturesque city of Bath, and then most recently, much further South West - like really South West, as far South West as you can go before falling off the edge of Britain - to Cornwall: land of the pasty and where men still doff their hats at you in passing.

Bath © Ryan Chapman
Towards the end of April I traveled to Bath with my dear, sweet Mother to celebrate her birthday. We did so by way of sampling a host of locally brewed beverages in some of the city's finest watering holes. She even indulged in a birthday shot at a trendy hostel bar, though I'm not sure sickly sweet, fruity vodka is what the county of Somerset is best known for. The cider though, is exquisite.

We managed to squeeze in some touristic activities and none were as rewarding as a visit to the ancient Roman Baths that gave the city its name. There is a genuine feeling of stepping back in time; walking on the same stone slabs upon which Roman sandals padded at around the year naught. I was also pleasantly surprised to discover the audio guide had narration by superstar-travelwriter Bill Bryson. So I wandered round with the handset pressed firmly to my ear pretending I was on the phone to him. It was most agreeable.

I happened to be reading a Bryson classic at the time: A Walk In The Woods, a book that I first read eons ago, and the one that had inspired me to think about walking as more than just a method of getting from A to B. The thing I love most about this book is that Bryson made me laugh out loud (there should be an acronym for that) without anything funny actually happening. It's a book about two blokes going for a hike, but I love it. It made me want to find a path through the wilderness and walk until there was no more path to follow.

To a slightly lesser extreme, that's what I did, and it has now become an annual ritual. Once a year a friend and I hike a section of England's longest National Trial: the 630-mile South West Coast Path. We go equipped with a tent, playing cards, enough jumpers to start a jumble sale and a pocket knife, along with various other basic essentials all stuffed into our backpacks. The knife is packed with accompanying visions of it facilitating survival skills such as skinning a rabbits and building a rafts, but is invariably just used to spread Philadelphia cheese over Ritz crackers. The playing cards are hardly ever used because we rarely hit the levels of boredom required to play. We walk, and walk, and walk, pitch the tent wherever takes our fancy and then remember why we hate camping as we don all eighteen jumpers and shiver ourselves to sleep, all the time trying not to think about how much our legs hurt from all the damn walking. For some reason, we enjoy it.

Cliff-top camping on the South West Coast Path, somewhere near Portreath

Over the Spring Bank Holiday, on our fifth stint, we covered the 42.8 miles of rugged Cornish coastline between the surfer's paradise of Newquay and the quaint seaside town of St. Ives. The weather was mostly good despite a particularly ferocious wind that threatened to blow us into the Atlantic, and on one occasion, a morning frost that covered the tent and gave the very realistic impression we were sleeping inside an igloo. My cheap Tesco-bought sleeping bag is not designed for these conditions!

However much I love jetting off to distance lands and leaving footprints in far-away sands, it's nice to be reminded once in while just how wonderful England is. The Cornish coast is as spectacular as any, anywhere, with the added advantage of having good old fashioned English pubs within a healthy hiking distance apart from one another. And Bath, the quintessential English city, with it's unhurried pace and surrounding rolling hills, is just perfect. So although within five minutes of typing this I'll be on sky scanner, dreaming of future foreign escapades, it's reassuring to know I have places like this on my door step.

Click below for more photos. © Ryan Chapman