This time last week I was staring peevishly up a steep path from a Devon beach to a clifftop. It was the third such climb I’d stared at that day, and it wouldn’t be the last. My dad came up behind me, saw the trajectory of the path and swore quietly into his beard, before puffing determinedly off up the hill with the measured, rhythmic breathing of the Little Engine That Hoped It Still Could.
My dad and I have been walking the south coast of England a week or so a year for five years now, and have made it from Lands End almost to the Devon-Dorset border. He’s a perfect walking companion, and stoically endures my teasing, including my habit of referring to our annual hike as “Walking With Dinosaur”.
Dad is in great shape for a man of 65, albeit carrying the legacy of perhaps one more steak-and-red-wine dinner than is medically advisable. He’s still capable of walking 15-20 miles in a day if necessary, though we usually tend to stick to 10-13 miles, given the frequency of swearworthy cliffs on the coastal path. He’s also more than capable of holding his own in the piss-taking stakes, given that he taught me everything I know, then held quite a bit back in reserve in case I get uppity.
Spending up to nine hours a day on a trail together gives time to chat as father and son that is harder to come by the rest of the year, though I’d not pretend we necessarily use the time for deep philosophical chat. Dad is always ready with a joke or an interesting opinion (invariably more thought-through than my own), or, when necessary, silence. Though maybe my opinion of when his silence is necessary differs slightly from his own. Possibly because time in the company of parents often makes people revert to their sixteen-year-old selves, my current favourite trick is to say something deliberately provocative or needlessly offensive just as we start up a big hill, knowing that dad will lack the requisite puff to argue the point during the ascent. For some reason, this is particularly enjoyable if he agrees with the basic thrust, but I overstate the case to the point of being completely indefensible.
“Given the harm caused to vulnerable people from cuts to the welfare state,” I’ll begin as we start to climb, “It’d be best for us as a species if George Osborne were to slip in a pigpen during a photo op for the NFU. And for him to then be devoured: living, breathing, screaming, dying, by a horde of ravenous Gloucester Old Spots. Ideally they should start from the toes and work their way upwards, don’t you agree? Oh golly gosh, is that another climb? See you at the top!”
We’ve developed a routine whereby we talk over the issues of the day, I overstate something in a kneejerk way, for what I hope is comic effect, and he patiently corrects me, using anecdote, legal precedent and, from time to time, quadratic equations. I then wait until the bottom of the next big hill before restating my case, often with a gratuitous knob gag thrown in for good measure. Dad is, at least in this context, an admirably patient man.
With a perfect walking companion, I’m lucky enough to also have a perfect location in which to walk. For all our occasional moaning about the up-and-down terrain, the south coasts of Devon and Cornwall are spectacular places to hike. Around corner after corner, clifftop meadows and wooded valleys give way to beautiful sandy coves (these sound like a P.G. Wodehouse description: “Old Biffy was known as something of a sandy cove…”).
A few conurbations like Torquay and Plymouth aside, the paths mostly run along uninhabited coastlines looking out over clear blue waters, punctuated by occasional beaches or fishing villages with names like Porthfallus and Polpott. These often offer deeply agreeable cream teas or crab sandwiches. That said, one can’t criticise the newer, more developed bits of the coastline without risking sounding like David Bathurst, the author of one of our guidebooks. Although Bathurst’s guide is excellent on the specifics of which stile to climb over when the markings are overgrown, his book seemingly channels the art critic, pompous opinion-profferer and first-class snooty sneerer Brian “R” Sewell. Bathurst moans incessantly whenever the trail comes anywhere near a caravan park or amusement arcade, and God forbid that anyone young or working class might go within 500 yards of his beloved coastal path. Here is Bathurst on the nightlife of Torquay, cracking what he presumably thought was quite the humdinger of a gag:
“You should also bear in mind, if lodging in the resort, that it attracts a fair multitude of what The Rough Guide describes as ‘drink-sodden revellers’; indeed, your muddy gaiters and stripey bobble hat, while wholly acceptable on the windswept heights of Bolt Head, may look somewhat out of place in the kebab queue among the boob tubes, thigh-length boots and six-inch heels. And some of the women’s clothing is a bit radical too!”
Of course the reader thinks Bathurst is referring to women wearing boob tubes, but the twist is that he is implying they are cross-dressing men! What an hilarious misunderstanding, he really is a card! Or something that sounds like a card, anyway. You can imagine Bathurst walking through a caravan park, ostentatiously pinching his nose between thumb and forefinger, muttering “ghastly, my dear, simply ghastly!”
Despite the walk being something my dad and I decided to do together, the real unsung hero is my mum. Each year she comes along, sorts out the accommodation and ferries us to the beginning and end of each day’s hike. If my mum had been on Scott’s Antarctic expedition they’d not only have made it back from the Pole alive, she’d probably have found them a lovely igloo to stay in on the return journey with a barbecue area out the back and a play room for the kids. She finds beaches and cafes and medieval churches to explore at her own pace while we’re out (as she would say) walking a very long way to get to somewhere we don’t particularly intend on visiting. My wife and son now also come with us, and my sisters too on occasion, meaning that what began as a foolish bloke-project has turned into a really enjoyable annual family holiday. The others are great at accommodating our plans, and we make sure we keep a couple of days free to join them on family outings.
We hope to make it to Dover before my dad’s knees give out. We’re around a third of the way there in terms of mileage and have done some of the hardest walking in terms of terrain. I give us a decent chance, as his knees are probably in better nick than mine.
Walking the coastal path has been a great way to spend time with my parents, to get fit, and to spend time in a lovely part of the world. Next year we’ll be starting at Budleigh Salterton, which marks, appropriately enough for our Walking With Dinosaur tour, the start of the Jurassic Coast.