The start and finish of long distance paths

Serpent Trail finish
The finish of the Serpent Trail

Ive walked a number of long distance paths this year which have finished in dreary car parks on the outskirts of towns or villages, leaving me thinking well, is that all there was to it?.

A long distance walk should end somewhere that leaves you feeling that you have arrived the journey is complete, a goal has been reached. It should be a definite point, marked by some significant object.

West Sussex Literary Trail finish
The finish of the West Sussex Literary Trail

The practicalities need to be respected the walk finished, you need to get home. There is no reason why the journey home from a walk should not involve a short stroll to a bus stop, a station or (if you must) a car park. But these utilitarian places are not destinations and should not mark the finish of a long distance path.

In theory, it is less important that the start of a long distance path is marked by a significant object the start is a point you are leaving behind. But most long distance paths are linear, and may be walked in either direction, so in practice the start of a long distance path requires the same consideration as the finish.

South West Coast Path finish
The finish of the South West Coast Path

The West Sussex Literary Trail is an example of a path starting and finishing satisfyingly. It starts in the centre of Horsham, at the Shelly fountain (admittedly the ugliest piece of council-sponsored art in Sussex, but still a significant object) and finishes in the centre of Chichester at the statue of Saint Richard in the cathedral precincts. Both objects have some connection to the literary theme of the walk.

Sussex Ouse Valley Way start
The start of the Sussex Ouse Valley Way

In contrast, the Serpent Trail is one of the best long distance walks in Sussex, but it has probably the worst finish point of any long distance path Ive walked recently a car park on the outer edges of Petersfield. It would have been more fitting to finish the path in Petersfield market square.

In some cases a long distance path has its own dedicated significant objects marking the start and finish of the path. A fine example is the South West Coast Path, which has substantial monuments at each end (and in the middle). However, the location of these objects needs to be satisfying in itself. The Minehead end of the South West Coast Path is a good example the path ends on the promenade along the shore, at the end of a high ridge leading off Exmoor.

The Sussex Ouse Valley Way (an excellent walk) has substantial dedicated information boards marking the start and finish points which would be fine, were it not for the fact that their locations are so dismal and uninteresting.

I think its possible to set out some principles that ought to be followed when designing a long distance path:

I thought Id better check my Alternative South Downs Way, to make sure Id followed these principles myself. I think I have. It starts at the trig point on Warren Hill above Eastbourne, within about half a kilometre of a bus stop with a regular service. It finishes at Winchester Cathedral, a traditional pilgrimage destination and not too far from Winchester railway station.

27 August 2010