On a chilly autumn morning, I found myself catching my breath while looking down on the harbour at Mevagissey. Sniffing around my feet was my companion, a six-stone Rhodesian ridgeback dog called Jess. She and I had set off on foot from Minehead in Somerset 26 days earlier. In just under four weeks we’d hiked 361 miles, but we still had a long way to go. Ahead of us stretched another 270 miles to reach our destination, the end of the epic South West Coast Path.
The SWCP is one of the longest national trails in Britain, making its way across vast beaches and along exposed cliffs, through forests and over moors. With every mile there is the chance to see an array of wildlife, seals and dolphins, choughs and lizards, not to mention the many species of wild flowers. But for me the best thing is that the whole path is dog-friendly. It’s quite something to be able to set off with your four-legged chum on a ramble that could potentially go on for months. And that is exactly what Jess and I did.
Walking side by side for seven weeks brought us together in a way that I couldn’t have imagined. We shared the same struggles, we slept together, ate (enormous quantities of food) together and limped in sync at the end of the day. We revelled when the sun came out and shrunk into ourselves when it rained, squeezed together under my umbrella. I looked out for her and she made me feel safe. On more than one occasion, as a lone woman, miles from anywhere, I was grateful to have Jess nearby. Her calm demeanour helped to dampen my overactive imagination, particularly my worries about the threat of werewolves whenever we encountered fog.
At the end of a gruelling day Jess was the perfect drinking buddy, in that she didn’t drink, so cost me very little. However her presence, curled up in front of a crackling fire, or begging for pork scratchings from a fellow punter, was a great way to start a conversation. I lost count of the number of times I heard “your dog’s gorgeous, what is she?” I loved being able to tell people that ridgebacks were originally bred to hunt lions. Something about the dichotomy between her fearsome heritage and laid-back demeanour made people smile.
At the start of the trip I had worried over whether Jess would be allowed in the pubs along the way, but we were never turned away, in fact Jess was often shown to the cosiest spot, invariably in front of a fire. At those moments I was happy to tag along as her sidekick and reap the rewards of the best seat in the house.
If the pubs were friendly, then the B&Bs and hotels we stayed in rolled out the red carpet for my furry friend. When the dining room was reserved for those on two legs Jess and I would be set up in a quiet corner of our own, from where we could happily watch the comings and goings of the other guests. More often Jess could accompany me into the dining room for breakfast, and would grab the opportunity to take a quick nap under the table. The only thing guaranteed to rouse her from her slumber would be the mouthwatering smell of cooking sausages, and on more than one occasion while I tucked into an enormous full English breakfast Jess was brought a banger or two.
We made the most of every mode of transport whilst on the coast path, from the steam train that raced alongside the River Dart, to buses and ferries and even a cliff railway at Babbacombe. Jess took each new vehicle in her stride and was soon leaping aboard ferries and jumping on and off buses like an 18 year old backpacker.
For all her poise, Jess did show her hunter’s instincts every now and then. One memorable time she ran full pelt towards the cliff edge after a herd of moth-eaten wild goats near Crackington Haven. Fortunately my panicked shout of “STAY!” stopped her in her tracks as the goats scarpered over a ridge. Another time, while walking through fields near Exmouth, she caught a young rabbit. Appalled, I screeched for her to “DROP IT!” and it bolted down the nearest hole, apparently unscathed. One afternoon, while I was sketching the fishing boats on the shingle shore at Budleigh Salterton, I heard an ominous crack and turned to see Jess treading on a crab. Luckily a nearby fisherman noticed the plight of the crustacean and pulled Jess off it before popping it back into a large blue bin.
There are an awful lot of animals, both domesticated and wild, on the South West Coast Path, and it’s vital to keep track of your dog, especially near cliffs. After the hair-raising experience with the goats I kept Jess on a lead unless we were on a beach.
Seven years on, I look back at walking the South West Coast Path with Jess as one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. She is nine years old now and starting to go grey around her muzzle, and our walks are no longer measured in miles but minutes. Recently we’ve acquired a new addition to our pack, a miniature dachshund called Peanut who, despite her diminutive size, has boundless energy. While I’m looking forward to rediscovering the South West Coast Path with Pea, seeing it afresh through her eyes, I’ll never forget my 630-mile walk with Jess.
This limited edition map of Cornwall, beautifully illustrated by Sasha, shows many of the locations she visited. Check out Polpier’s Instagram Feed for the chance to win it.
Sasha Harding is an artist and author based in Cornwall. Sasha wrote and illustrated a book, A Brush With The Coast, about her adventures on the South West Coast Path. A new revised edition is available from her website here.