The history of the South West Coastal path (SWCP)
The South West Coast (SWC) has a long history of human activity. Great Britain as we know it today thawed out from the last ice age around 12,000 years ago, becoming hospitable to human settlement once again. Around this time, Homo sapiens (us) returned to the land in great migrations. Archaeological evidence suggests the South-West Coast (SWC) was one of the first areas to be occupied, supplying relatively balmy relief from the cold and a rich supply of seafood to forage. Over millennia, the SWC became an important part of British industry with bountiful seas and mineral-rich earth deposits, meaning fishing and mining flourished here. As they are today, these coasts were also revered for spiritual and defensive purposes with bronze and iron-age burial sites and forts being found intertwined with modern graveyards and pillboxes. Be it for trade, pilgrimage or on their way to battle, humans have been walking these coasts for a very long time!
Iron and bronze-age structures found throughout Cornwall - thought to be used for social, ceremonial or religious purposes.
Like much of British history, the modern formation of the SWCP is based on debauchery and war. Following lengthy conflicts with France, Spain, America and Holland throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, a hefty taxation was issued on imports of luxury goods such as spirits, tea and chocolate. Not to be denied their god given right to indulgence, the smuggling of such items grew at a prodigious rate and reached astonishing levels - even by today’s standards.
It is estimated that at one time, nearly 4/5th of all tea drunk in Britain was untaxed and it wasn’t uncommon for as much as 3,000 gallons of gin to be brought in by sail and lugged up the cliffs during one smuggling trip! The isolated shores of the SWC proved an excellent stage for sneaking in contraband and a profitable industry grew, making the small towns and villages of Dorset, Devon and Cornwall the centre of British free-trade. To crack down on the illicit trade, coastguards walked from lighthouse to lighthouse to apprehend the fishermen turned smugglers. The need to spy into every combe and cove meant that a well-trodden path that hugged the SWC slowly emerged, forming the beginnings of the SWCP as we know it.
After the wars finished with France in the 19th century, the government sought to abolish smuggling. It couldn’t have helped that half the customs officers were involved in the trade!
During the course of the 1970’s and 80’s the newly formed SWCP association began their painstaking work, cleaning up the path, connecting the separate paths and campaigning against developments and the Navy who proposed to limit access to the path. Overall, this helped it gain appreciation and designation as a national path in 1978. Thanks to these efforts, up to 9 million people enjoy the path each year, supporting 9771 full-time jobs and bringing a revenue of £439 million to the local area annually. Now that’s a lot of pasties!
The humble Cornish pasty - there’ll be a few of these enjoyed along my walk I hope.
Be it from the engine houses of West Cornwall, the smuggling memorabilia in the pubs of Penzance or even the nicely trimmed hedges lining the paths, there’s evidence of the SWCP’s diverse history around every bend. All of this is out there for you to experience for yourself. Just remember, pass on walking with an unlabelled bottle of gin in your pocket if you want to avoid a flogging!