Rocky, indented and often spectacular, the South West coast has some fantastic secret coves. Access isn’t always straightforward and some are difficult to find, but that’s half the fun. There’s almost always a path down, sometimes with the help of a rope or some rough steps, so take great care and you’ll enjoy a refreshing plunge away from the crowds.
Before setting off, check the tides times carefully, as many hidden coves only reveal their perfect white sand at low tide. Remember also that tides are much more extreme during full and new moons – the so-called ‘spring’ tides that occur every fortnight. In the South West, low tide tends to be around lunchtime during spring tides. This is a great time to be on the beach and there will certainly be more sand to sit on, but the risk of being cut off may be greater, so try not to lose track of time.
More people than ever now own a canoe or kayak, thanks in part to affordable new designs. The safest are the ‘sit-on-tops’ made of hard plastic, which are unsinkable and self-draining. If you capsize, just get back on and keep going. The easiest to transport are the inflatables, with various thicknesses of skin. Make sure you buy one with multiple chambers and don’t use inflatables if you plan to venture far from the shore.
Everyone has the right to canoe on tidal waters, so if you are a beginner head for the sheltered estuaries and creeks common along the southern coast of the South West. If you time your trip carefully you can head upstream with the flow and return with the ebb. Be aware that the estuary mouth, where the river meets the sea, can be subject to swell and breaking waves. If you plan to canoe on non-tidal, inland waters, check out access arrangements and always be respectful to fishermen.
Lost ruins and ancient stones
Concealed in woods and covered in ivy or standing open to the elements on a remote cliff top, the South West has many ancient stone monuments, follies and industrial relics. Such places are often richly atmospheric and well worth seeking out.
The most recent ruins are the remnants of once-thriving industries, including engine houses, processing mills, railway tracks, tunnels and quarries. The tin-mining areas of the north Cornish coast have their own stark beauty and the lunar landscape of clay pits to the south, many filled with aquamarine water, is unique and extraordinary. Going further back in time, it is still possible to see the fascinating traces left by Roman lead mining, as well as the remains of an amphitheatre, in the Mendips.
This region is rich in Bronze and Iron Age remains, from hill forts to standing stones. Some of the most sacred are the ancient stone circles of West Penwith, Bodmin and Dartmoor, set in wonderfully wild locations. You can explore mysterious underground burial chambers or ‘fogous’, wander around lost village settlements, or visit ceremonial stone rows, some many miles long.
Night walks and sunsets
The golden hour before sunset is a magical time of day when heat still lingers in the air and the light bathes the landscape in a warm glow. Find a high vantage point and experience the glorious, grand finale of the day. And if you are looking out to sea, you might even see the intriguing ‘green flash’ that occurs in those last few seconds before the sun disappears.
As dusk descends, wrap up and settle down to watch and listen under an indigo sky. At night, the landscape shows its true wild character: familiar outlines blur, nightjars call, glow-worms shine and overhead the stars begin to glitter. For stargazing choose a clear night and a remote spot, such as Exmoor. Plan night walks on moonlit nights and pack a torch but try not to use it. Let your eyes adjust to the dark – it can take about 20 minutes – then start walking with slow, careful strides, taking high steps to avoid tripping on uneven ground. Retrace ancient routes and think of all the people who have travelled the same path over hundreds of years.
Caves, caverns and grottoes
Sculpted by natural forces and long used as shelter by people and animals, the caves and caverns of the South West offer a glimpse into the underworld. The caverns below Cheddar Gorge in the Mendips were formed from huge flows of meltwater, when glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice age, while those those higher on the plateau were eroded by the powerful action of water on rock. In some places many thousands of animal bones have been found, including those of hyena, mammoth, lion and buffalo; in others archeologists have uncovered the remains of our cave-dwelling ancestors. Sea caves, scoured out by pounding waves, also offer a fascinating insight into the world beneath our feet.
Most of the places recommended have large, safe openings, but if you venture further into the interior, you will need specialist equipment. In all cases, we would suggest wearing a cycle helmet, old clothes and wellington boots, and carrying a torch. Sea caves should only be explored in calm seas and in a group, with everyone wearing helmets, life jackets and wetsuits.
Ancient forests are a precious remnant of the vast primordial woodland that once covered the UK. Some trees, such as yew, are the oldest living creatures on earth and some of those found in churchyards predate Christianity. Oaks can live to be thousands of years old, becoming hollow over time and with massive boughs that are perfect to climb. As a rough guide, an oak with a girth of 12 feet is about 170 years old.
Discovering such venerable trees, climbing up and into them and imagining their history can be a memorable experience. Older woodland, too, can offer excellent trees for climbing freestyle. Experienced climbers bring ropes and harnesses to penetrate higher into the canopy of tall trees, and some even string up special night-hammocks to sleep among the boughs.
If you bring your own rope, you can easily set up a tree swing. Use a smaller string with a stone to hoist a larger rope up over a branch, then tighten with a lasso knot. Or try den-building, which is the perfect activity in any woodland, and guaranteed to keep older children amused for hours.
Meadows and seasons
Each season in the South West brings its own delights. Visit ancient woodlands in early spring for wild daffodils and wood anemones, and in late spring for bluebells. In April the rare snake’s head fritillary transforms damp meadows, while in May and June exquisite native orchids emerge.
Look out for ponies and their foals on Dartmoor, Exmoor and Bodmin Moor in early summer, when grassland is dotted with wild flowers. At this season, many woodland glades are alive with butterflies, such as the marsh fritillary, and on a warm evening you might see glow- worms, too.
Dolphins and porpoises, drawn by the warm Gulf Stream currents, swim up the coast in the summer months, and Cornwall is a hot-spot for basking sharks. These huge but harmless plankton eaters turn up in springtime, often staying until the end of summer. The abundant life in the water also attracts many birds, including gannets, fulmars, puffins and seasonal migrants such as shearwaters, skuas and kittiwakes.
In autumn, the South West’s ancient woodlands blaze with fiery colours, while enormous flocks of starlings, numbering tens of thousands, creating dazzling aerial displays as winter approaches.
Those of us who live in the South West are fortunate that Dartmoor National Park not only allows but actively encourages wild camping, because to camp in the open landscape is the best way to get really close to nature
Whether alone or with a group, don’t pitch your tent on any lowland farmland (moorland enclosed by walls or fences), within 100 metres of a road, anywhere within sight of houses, in reservoir catchment areas or on archaeological sites. If you are in a camper van, it’s also illegal to sleep in car parks, lay-bys or on moorland verges.
In other parts of the region, wild camping by walkers is often tolerated in more remote rural areas – typically, more than a half-day’s walk from an official campsite or other accommodation. Keep your group small and respect the site by taking litter home and leaving the area as you found it. And if you are camping on a secluded beach, wait until just before dusk to pitch your tent and leave early. Any wood fires should be below the high-tide line, so the sea can carry away the ash.
Food and foraging
To get a real sense of a place, it’s a good idea to explore its native food, and the South West offers one of the richest arrays of home-reared, freshly harvested, clotted-cream-smothered bounty that you will find anywhere on our island.
Provenance here can be measured in metres. Honesty boxes filled with overspill from veg patches line the little lanes of Devon and Cornwall, so fill your basket with shiny courgettes, pots of jam, eggs with deep-yellow yolks and some scented flowers for your camping table. Buy fish straight from the fishing boats in tiny harbours and head for the growing number of farmers’ or village markets that offer a lifeline to rural, artisan food producers. Their hand-made, traditional foods, free from additives and made with love, will make you want to throw away your supermarket loyalty card.
You can always catch your own supper by standing on the shoreline with a hook and line (unlike river fishing you don’t need a licence), or learn to forage for wild mushrooms in autumn. And if you want to get even closer to your food, sign up to one of the many courses on offer such as pig rearing and butchering or cheesemaking.