Linear versus circular walks
When we started regular walking 15 years ago, all we did was short circular walks near to home. Now we have completed the 630 mile South West Coast Path (not all in one go of course!). What has happened?
Circular walks are practical and easy to do; they represent a great introduction to walking regularly. There are lots of books of walks available, so it is easy to find one of the length and character that suits you. One of the nicest things about circular walks is that you can often see a landmark - river, hill, castle - from a number of angles and gain a clearer idea of its relationship to the surrounding countryside. And a series of circular walks is an excellent way to get to know a new area: gradually the isolated bits link together and you feel a pleasing sense of familiarity. They can however sometimes feel a bit artificial, involving detailed directions and changes of path, or a tedious section of road to facilitate the return loop.
I suppose the key initial attraction of long distance walks is that they offer more of a project and a challenge: our first venture was simply to walk across Berkshire from west to east. There is a delightful sense of cumulative progress, a feeling of wholeness if the path has some sort of natural integrity, and gradually a feeling of achievement. We find ourselves getting great satisfaction looking at a map and being able to say "look, we have walked from here all the way to here". It is also interesting to look ahead to future target places, although I prefer not to research future stages too much, as the feeling of an unfolding discovery is also very enjoyable.
Over time we have increased the level of challenge from relatively flat Berkshire to the hillier Cotswolds and later to the exhilarating South West Coast Path. This has brought us in contact with much more exciting and rewarding countryside and providing a pleasing feeling of increased fitness and resilience. We have been gradually pushing ourselves a bit harder and feeling good about being able to meet the new challenges.
In combination, all these factors contribute to the realisation that long distance paths are addictive and we are now absolutely hooked.
One other key feature of linear walks - I am not quite sure if it is a weakness or not - is the sense of them being a "one-time thing" (to quote a very old song by Mike Chapman). You don't really expect to go back and do it again, you are always moving on. This is the corollary of the feeling of progress and achievement, but it means of course that you may pass stunning scenery in the rain and not be able to take a photo, pass a house or church when it is shut, pass a wonderful site for butterflies or flowers when they are out of season. I suppose this is just the price you pay.
There is also the practical question of chunking the total walk into sections.
The first walks we did came in ready made sections which we just followed as they were or aggregated to make a convenient section. But latterly there has been much more need to look at the overall route and either divide it into convenient sections (e.g. the Cotswold Way) or to plan a three or four day assault (the Coast Path). This has been a great benefit and has forced me to improve my ability to estimate distance
and read maps generally, to locate steep climbs and other factors. What
we have found on the coast path is that some sections are so remote that
they can only be done in one go: you might not want to do nine miles,
descending to countless coves and then climbing back up to the cliff top
again, but if there is no realistic access point, you just have to get
on with it.
It is obvious that the basic logistics of long-distance walking - whether done in a concentrated burst or a series of linear sections - are more complicated. You need to get to the start and back home from the end. If you came by car, this of course means getting back to the start. Maybe there is a bus or train, but our experience has principally been either using taxis or taking two cars. Every time we do this with our friends Merv and Pud, we find ourselves having to remind ourselves of the key rules: meet at the end of the walk, leave one car there and leave in it a change of footwear (to avoid muddy boots in the pub) and anything else you might need at that point (handbag, iPad), drive back to the start, walk, have pub lunch, drive back to the beginning. All obvious, but it seems to have to be rediscovered every time.
Paths we have completed
Each link takes you to our review of the Path (or a section of it in the case of the South West Coast Path), which in turn contains links to the individual stages.
The Berkshire Way
The Blackwater Valley Path
The Bournemouth Coast Path
The Cotswold Way
The Oxfordshire Way
The South West Coast Path: Dorset
The South West Coast Path: South Devon
The South West Coast Path: South Cornwall
The South West Coast Path: West Cornwall
The South West Coast Path: North Cornwall
The South West Coast Path: North Devon
The Stour Valley Path
The Three Castles Path
The Wayfarer's Walk