This year marks half a century since the stunning South West Coast Path started to become a reality - here we look back at 50 years of its history and we look to the future of the well-walked trail.

In 1973, a dedicated band of walkers determined to fill in the missing links and create an uninterrupted national trail skirting the entire peninsula from Somerset to Dorset via the most westerly reaches of Cornwall. The resulting 630-mile South West Coast Path, from Minehead in Somerset (the official starting point) to South Haven Point in Dorset via Land’s End, is right up there with the world’s greatest trails - the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest from sea level four times.

The South West Coast Path Association (SWPCA) celebrates its 50th anniversary this year to great fanfare, with a programme of fun events. The Trailblazer Walk covers the entire length of the path in two sections, leaving Minehead on May 12 and South Haven Point on May 27.

And there is also the launch of the inaugural South West Coast Path Photographer of the Year exhibition.

There might only be 20 miles of the coast path in Somerset, but some would argue those are the best of the entire 630. Surely this is why most walkers start in Minehead (those who start at South Haven Point in Dorset are doing the trail 'in reverse').

The start of the path is marked by a statue of a pair of hands holding a map - a must-have selfie. Leave the kiss-me-quick hats behind, climbing North Hill, with its historic army encampments used for training purposes in both World Wars. Then suddenly, you’re on Exmoor, in the company of a pony or two.

Somerset County Gazette: Porlock Bay. Photo: Bob SmallPorlock Bay. Photo: Bob Small

The path drops down into Porlock Vale, on the slopes of Dunkery Beacon, and neighbouring Porlock Weir, once a working harbour trading with South Wales and even as far afield as Africa and the West Indies. Only 20 years ago, this was agricultural land defended by a shingle bank, but it has been breached by flood waters. Happily, this has given rise to a thriving brackish wetland supporting a huge range of wildlife including shelduck and egrets, with spoonbill expected to make an appearance.

From here, step into sessile oak woodlands (bark used for tanning) and discover Culbone church, said to be the smallest parish church in England. Then there’s a stretch over majestic Countisbury Hill followed by a merciful drop into the pretty North Devon harbour town of Lynmouth, known with its twin Lynton as 'Little Switzerland'. If you are finding it arduous, consider how in January 1899, RNLI volunteers dragged a lifeboat 13 miles, overnight in terrible weather, from Lynmouth to Porlock to launch safely in aid of a ship in distress.

The path passes through so many landscapes which are protected at the highest level, including Exmoor National Park and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) such as Porlock Ridge and Saltmarsh, including the shingle beach at Bossington. The National Trust is the largest landowner on the path, managing 30 per cent of the trail. 'But the trail isn’t owned by any one person,' says SWCPA director Julian Gray. 'Rather than seeing the coast path as ours, we see ourselves as custodians, guardians, champions.'

Today, the work of the SWPCA includes campaigning and raising awareness as well as funds for necessary maintenance work, while its extensive network of volunteers keep their eyes peeled for signs of wear and tear, especially during the annual winter survey.

Julian sees the association primarily as 'a health and wellbeing charity,' backed up by research from the University of Exeter that estimates its economic value in annual savings for the NHS at a cool £75 million.

'Our purpose is to improve people’s lives by getting them out on the path,' he says. 'We know that being in green space, being near water and being active are the three different elements that are good for us, and the South West Coast Path offers all three in one. It’s like a super-vitamin: a Natural Health Service.'

In 2022, Julian represented the path at the World Trails Network’s biennial conference in Greece, themed around sustainability. This was especially pertinent for a peninsular coastal trail: whichever direction a storm comes in from, the path will be hit, and Julian confirms that the increasing frequency of severe weather events is taking its toll: 'The impact on coastal and surface erosion means the costs of managing the path and keeping it open are rising.' Mile Maker donors currently pay £1,500 towards the annual cost of maintaining a mile of the path, but that is likely to increase.

Somerset County Gazette: The South West Coast PathPassport Book. Photo: SWCPAThe South West Coast PathPassport Book. Photo: SWCPA

The South West Coast Path Passport was launched in 2022, partly in response to requests for an official expedition memento, but also to encourage walkers to support the countless businesses making a living along the path, from cafes to B&Bs. Just over 100 now act as stamping points, in an echo of pilgrims collecting stamps on their journey to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain.

The passport has proved hugely popular, with walkers keen to collect the distinctive stamps from each section of the path, including the Exmoor pony, which can be obtained at Minehead Information Centre. 'The first person to get it stamped on launch day was a Canadian who was starting the walk that day,' says manager Sally Turner, 'and people who have walked it over the years have come back to us to get their passport stamped retrospectively.'

A sizeable chunk of visitors are in Minehead for the path, and walkers definitely have seasons: the British contingent favours the shoulder seasons of April to June and September/October, while walkers in July and August are more likely to come from overseas.

Sally has been taking enquiries by email and phone throughout the winter from walkers planning to visit in May. One thing she knows for sure is that serious coast path walkers are organised. 'They are usually experienced and prepared,' she says. 'They have the kit and have thought about where they are going to stay. They are very geared up, irrespective of the weather – they can cope with whatever’s thrown at them, and even enjoy it.'

The presence of the path brings £520 million to the local economy – that's 5 per cent of the visitor economy, and the equivalent of 10,000 jobs, especially in hospitality. 'People might stay one or two nights, but even if they don’t, they park here, and eat here before setting off,' says Sally. 'If they don’t have time to look around Minehead before they go, they often come back afterwards.'

Somerset County Gazette: Selworthy Beacon - Taken on the path leading up to the beacon. Photo: Malcolm Stone, South GloucestershireSelworthy Beacon - Taken on the path leading up to the beacon. Photo: Malcolm Stone, South Gloucestershire

Volunteers are crucial to the upkeep of the path, and Geoff Garfield has the great honour of monitoring the first 10 miles of the trail, from Minehead to Porlock Weir. He’s also the area rep for the trail’s most northerly stretch – and arguably the most unforgiving - from Minehead to Bude.

Geoff and his wife completed the path in 2008, having split it into week-long chunks over a decade. 'We used the South West Coast Path Association to help us, and continued our membership after we’d done the walk,' he explains. 'We moved to Porlock in retirement, and it seemed a good idea to get involved with the association.'

Geoff walks the path regularly and keeps an eye on its condition, looking out for problems such as trees blown down in high winds or a stream with burst banks. He’ll get in touch with path rangers, usually from Exmoor National Park. He also conducts the annual winter survey, the results of which are used to apply for funding for the upkeep.

It’s no hardship. 'I enjoy being out on the path, it’s as simple as that. The 12-mile stretch between Porlock and Lynmouth is hard, and it’s also quite remote – once you set out, you have to get on with it as there’s no real opportunity to break.' Time it right, though, and you can catch the open-topped bus back towards Minehead, which is a proper treat.

Somerset County Gazette: The view towards West Porlock and Porlock Weir, from the path at Bossington. Photo: Fiona KeeneThe view towards West Porlock and Porlock Weir, from the path at Bossington. Photo: Fiona Keene

The path has more than its fair share of well-known ambassadors. Raynor Winn’s memoir, The Salt Path, recalls a life-changing walk with her husband Moth at a time when they were beleaguered by sudden homelessness and ill health; and in The Electricity of Every Living Thing, Katherine May recounts how she came to terms with her midlife autism diagnosis by embarking on a physical and psychological journey along the South West Coast Path.

Rachel Hadley-Leonard completed the South West Coast Path in October 2022, documenting her experience in a personal podcast called Keeping the Sea on the Right. To celebrate the SWPCA’s half-century, she is volunteering for the charity by recording a year-long series of monthly podcasts under the title 630 Miles - An Audio Journey, meeting the volunteers, artists and business owners who form part of the path’s daily life.

'That first week, through Somerset and into North Devon, was the hardest, the most physically demanding - and I’m fit and had trained for six months,' she recalls. She learned to be resourceful, cutting arm holes in her polythene pack liner during unexpected rain - 'I looked resourceful if not professional' and switching to a luggage transfer service when carrying a full pack became too much.

The SWCPA was her go-to resource during nine months of planning. 'I thought it was important before, but now it’s my number one charity. The work it does, in enabling people like me and others less fortunate to access the path, is astonishing.'

Rachel has one message to anyone inspired by this feature to walk the path, either in part or as a whole: 'Do it, 100 per cent. It ranks alongside having my kids as the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. I can’t imagine that even just walking for a day on the path wouldn’t bring huge benefits to anyone. It’s magical.'

Somerset County Gazette: The trailblazer walk. Photo: SWCPAThe trailblazer walk. Photo: SWCPA