The ancient town of Minehead in Somerset marks the start of The South West Coast Path. Sitting on the seafront is the iconic bronze sculpture by Sarah Ward and Owen Cunningham depicting a giant pair of metal hands holding a map showing the whole coastal path route from Minehead to Poole, marking your step in over 630 miles of world class walking trail.
Minehead itself makes a pleasant enough introduction to the route, sitting as it does right on the border of Exmoor National Park at the head of The Quantock Hills. This is the last piece of flat ground before the start of Exmoors dramatic run of coastal cliffs which tower over the town to the west. UK visitors may know it for its Butlins Holiday Camp, but this is safely tucked away on the eastern side of the town. On the Coast Path side Minehead reveals itself with a sweeping promenade and old stone quay making a hospitable stay for the night before you start your walk. Perhaps you might consider this starting point to your trip as the ‘decompression chamber’ that you pass through whilst leaving your 'normal' world and entering into a wild walking adventure.
The town's history dates back to the Bronze Age 4000 years ago, and has since gone through many iterations. From its’ role as a major trading centre in medieval times, the town developed into a fishing port in the 19th century before emerging as a centre for the more genteel occupation of sea bathing and is now best known as a popular retirement centre.
Originally laid out as three separate settlements, Somerset’s principal seaside resort now combines an interesting mix of architectural styles from stately Georgian Seaside Mansions to older thatched cottages, atmospheric sea faring cottages towards the Quay and a network of narrow alleyways inland at Higher Town. The old seaside pier has long gone but the old harbour wall remains and is as good a location as any for an evening stroll with views over to Wales.
Much of the towns historic beach was washed away by storms and floods in 1990, but has now been rebuilt, involving the import of 320,000 tons of sand and the building of. new sea defences. The resulting layout allows the town to now host water sports like sailing and windsurfing, and those keen to grapple with the sea before starting their walk can hire kayaks and dinghies.
There are an abundance of cafes, pubs, tearooms and restaurants in the town, serving up everything from cream teas to traditional fish and chips. There is also Minehead Museum (free entry), including exhibits on maritime history, the Hobby Horse, Arthur C Clarke, local theatres and Punch & Judy.
Minehead gets a mention in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Ancient Mariner” and is also the town where the hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful was written.
Those arriving by public transport will normally come by Taunton. If you have the time, take a restored steam locomotive on the West Somerset Steam Railway for a nostalgic journey delivering you right to the seafront of Minehead. Travelling along for over an hour through stunning scenery across the Quantock Hills, an "Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty", you pass through ten historical railway stations providing you with a memorable start to your walking adventure.
For those taking a rest day, before or after walking, nearby Dunster located a few miles east of the town is one of the most stunning villages in Somerset, dominated by its imposing National Trust run Castle. Wander here along several marked trails to visit the old yarn market, water mill and an array of listed and preserved buildings in a stunning wooded setting. For those wanting a decent walk you can easily catch the steam train out from Minehead, visit Dunster and then return on foot on a four mile jaunt to Minehead via forested Knowle Hill, offering superb views over Exmoor and the Coast.