When to visit
There are few days on the South West Coast Path when the weather is not good for walking.
Warm currents brought by the Gulf Stream encourage the tropical plants for which the region is famous, and the mild air around the southern coastline means it is rare to have frosts and is responsible for an unusually early production of flowers and vegetables.
While spring and late summer are considered the best times to walk the path, Autumn and winter can be great too.
Spring is the start of nature’s year. Lambs are in the fields, trees come into leaf, wild flowers are appearing and migrant birds and basking sharks are returning from warmer climes. The fresh weather is great for walking, and the occasional shower merely sharpens the view.
Summer brings warmer temperatures, so you can often walk in a T-shirt and shorts, and stop off at beaches for a cooling dip in the sea. Flowers are in full bloom, and the sunshine brings out drifts of butterflies. In late summer, much of the north coast turns purple and yellow and smells wonderful, thanks to the heather and gorse coming into bloom. The disadvantage is that during the school holidays between mid July and beginning of September, the area is very busy with visitors and so it can be harder to find places to stay.
Autumn means the crowds have gone home, but the weather and sea temperature often remains warm enough for swimming. At this time of year, headlands are great spots to see migrating birds making their way back south. As the weather turns chillier, trees take on their lovely red and gold hues.
Winter requires more care when choosing a walk to suit the shorter days and unsettled weather. But there’s nothing like wrapping up warm on a blustery winter’s day and walking along the Coast Path to watch (from a safe distance) storm waves pound the cliffs.
Weather charts for the South West Coast Path (Slapton in S. Devon)
Data source: Met Office regional data 1971-2000
Across the pSouth West Coast Path ath there is a slight variation in climate. South and East Devon are usually the driest places on the Path (and West Cornwall), and in the summer 3 out of 4 days here are likely to be dry. Even in winter there are still more dry days than wet between Plymouth and Lyme Regis. Pack your waterproofs if the sky looks cloudy, but be ready to take them off again half an hour after it starts raining!
Rainfall charts for South West England can be misleading. If you look carefully, you will often see that the very edge of the land is consistently drier. Moist air blowing in from the sea passes over the Coast Path before it condenses on the higher ground behind and falls as rain a little further inland.
There's nowhere better than the Coast Path when the clouds clear and the sun comes out! Head to the St Ives/Penzance area or the Lizard for an average of 8 hours' sunshine on a summer's day (so you can expect wall-to-wall sunshine here for a lot of the summer). Cornwall will see the best of the sunshine the rest of the year, too, but South and East Devon will get their share – and the Hartland area joins them in the spring, when the swathes of bluebells just off the Path bask in a daily average of nearly 7 hours of sunshine!
In summer, the Path is usually at its hottest between Exmouth and Swanage, but in winter the mildest climate is around West Cornwall. Moorland and high ground tend to be cooler, although they too can be a lot warmer if the air is still. If it's a baking hot day, head to the Exmoor coastline for cooling breezes, or somewhere around the Devon/Cornwall border on the north coast.