Adventurer and all round action man Aidan Harding and his four legged companion, Anuk took my girlfriend Laura and I on a true trail adventure. We followed our away along the stunning Southwest coast path as we made the very best of a British winters day. Aidan recounts a day to remember…
The trail is pocked with stones set into the rich grass; the cliff on my left plunges down to the Bristol Channel.
The ground flashes by beneath me, my mind buzzing. In each moment, hundreds of tiny decisions are determining how and where my feet will land.
I push sideways from a trail-side outcrop, nudging my direction and leaping one tricky step at the same time. On with fast, short strides. Now squeezed onto a narrow trail – my feet are nearly in line to stay between the grass cushions. A shout to my dog, Anuk, bushes his tail and increases his pace. I steal a glance, then lean further forward, faster, with hands flailing and countering to keep my balance. Eyes watering, feet blurring…
Puffing, I stand at a corner on the trail and look ahead. We’re halfway through a 17 mile trail run on England’s South West Coast Path. At 630 miles, it is the longest national trail in the UK. Here on the wild north coast of Exmoor, it is a runner’s dream. Around coves, cleaves, and cliffs, there’s barely an inch of flat. Tales of pirates, smugglers, and wild misadventure haunt the place with many of the prominent hilltops named after some variation of “The Hangman”.
Anuk smells the wind as I look down to Heddon’s Mouth: 500 feet below us, the river babbles and spills out across a stone beach, into the sea. Wales lies across the channel. A little hazy, but still visible on this near-fine day. Andy and Laura arrive down the track, joyous, making me proud to have brought them to North Devon.
Of all the motivations to go running, this run in particular is inspired by the need to see more, do more, and explore further.
Those streets and lanes we ran to gain fitness were fun in their own right, but they were also the passport to being here now. They bought us the chance to draw a big line on the map and be out all day. Today’s run is not about putting more miles on the clock, or increasing speed. It’s about going on an adventure and making full use of a fine winter’s day.
Later, we run the most perfect loam singletrack. It carves across the contour of a hill near Woody Bay, instructing us to leap tree-roots and flow with its turns. The ground is soft and sympathetic, the trees shelter us from the wind. The earthy smell of the forest is strong, and the only sound is the rush of waterfalls, both miniature and magnificent, dashing to the sea.
We cautiously pass through a field of cows – they’re curious of Anuk and their hulking presence makes the townies uncomfortable. You don’t get this at parkrun or on a London run commute.
We push on through The Valley of The Rocks towards our planned break. The hills have been devouring our energy so, in an attempt to put some spring back in our step, we walk and eat. Fun levels are also dipping until we reach the switchback trail down through the woods. Protected from the wind, and moving downhill, I can feel the scones getting closer.
Lynmouth marks our halfway point. It is a tourist town in summer, but we arrive on the first day of frigid February to find sandbags and “Closed” signs. All is not lost, though, and we find somewhere for a mid-run cream tea. Under the watchful eye of Anuk, Andy spreads clotted cream onto warm scones. He follows it with jam (cream then jam, not the reverse: this is Devon, not Cornwall). Clouds race past outside, and we dare not stop too long.
After an 800 foot climb out of Lynmouth, the rewards begin with views back across the bay. Then the childlike excitement of running madly down a grassy meadow, fast as we dare. We skirt the Foreland on a scree-strewn track. Ankles are manipulated, rolling with the punches from the larger stones. Eventually, a lighthouse starts to poke up over our shortened trail-horizon, and we near the bottom.
In the final miles, our weary legs are called on to leap streams – each one having carved out a combe, providing a tick-off countdown to the end. We are drawn onwards by the lengthening light. As it colours the trees and their lichen, so it colours our moods. It takes a final walk up a brutally steep slope to arrive back out onto the road. Collecting the car, the world of the trail is left behind. I wish we could run further, but not today. To go further will require more hours pounding the streets, more practice running in the hills and more daylight. It’s always good to go back to the real world with a plan and the motivation to see it through. We head home with just such a plan starting to form. Roll on summer.
The Southwest Coast Path stretches 630 miles around the Southwest coast of England from Poole to Minehead. If you can get there, go.
Photos: Andy Waterman
Words: Aidan Harding a runner, mountain biker, kayaker and adventurer. In the last year he’s placed second in Alaska’s 1000 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational and has completed the Yukon 1000 kayak race (Strava stats here). A recent convert to trail running, he can now be found exploring England’s south west on foot, accompanied by his dog Anuk.