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10 lessons I learned walking 300 miles around Cornwall

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Sophie Pavelle

14 December 2017

What happens when a social media savvy science whizz sets off to walk the length of the Cornish coastline? Sophie Pavelle is a 22 year old Zoology graduate from Bristol University. While working on her MSc in Science Communication she spent last summer hiking solo around the entire Cornish coastline on the UK’s longest national trail - the South West Coast Path. She fills us about her journey and what she learnt

First of all, why did I commit to walking 300 miles on my own?

I wanted to test whether changing my conventional use of social media, could inspire an interest in science, the local environment, wildlife and conservation - to the infinite ready-made audience that lingers almost obsessively online.

I was curious to see whether people might be more receptive to learning about science if it was presented in an informal, punchy way that aligned with people’s social media feed. Oh, and I also managed to persuade my masters professors that hiking 300 miles would most definitely fit the criteria for an MSc dissertation.

300-miles, 22 days, 22 vlogs – it was quite a journey and my biggest adventure yet, teaching me some poignant lessons about our environment, its wildlife and myself, here’s 10 things I took away from the experience.

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Sophie Pavelle spent 22 days walking 300 miles around the coast of Cornwall - on her own

The coast path helped me to ‘rebalance’

When it comes to viewing time-spent in nature as ‘good’ for you, I feel modern society has been somewhat late to the table in recognising the powerful health benefits that stem from this simple act. ‘Life’ gets in the way; screens are distracting, relationships confusing.

Having suffered from mild anxiety myself, I was curious to see how my mental outlook would adapt to the monotony of 22 days alone on the coast path with the wildlife and the environment as my only company but it was a total tonic. I was astounded by the intense calm and clarity of thought I felt each day.

Despite its challenges and formidable climbs, the coast path was the best cure for a fierce worrier like me. Immersing myself into observing the consistencies and patterns of nature, placed the focus off ‘people’ and onto the environment – which was intensely calming and wonderful for re-balancing my perspective.

Cornwall built confidence

Leading up to the challenge I had a writhing knot of self-doubt, anxiety and fading self-esteem. Had I trained hard enough? What if I couldn’t pull it off and all the hype I had built on my social media pages was for nothing? What if no-one took any notice and it was all a big embarrassment?

The real tests were the huge range of weather conditions. Hiking terrain that rivalled Swiss Alpine trails in a freak heatwave, totally exposed was not fun. Traipsing through driving rain feeling totally isolated was, at the time, not fun either. But - wildlife was plentiful and landscapes beautiful and it was often those sights that really kept me going. I love how nature doesn’t care what you look like or where you come from, it simply rewards your effort - an amazing view at the top, a group of seals below, an unforgettable sunset all to yourself.

Setting myself goals each day of climbing that cliff, walking around another headland and safely reaching my destination, meant for lots of little daily triumphs. This, coupled with the amazing support I gathered online, boosted my confidence in ways I never expected. 

Cornwall is a true biodiversity hotspot

Who knew that Cornwall is a thriving hotspot of incredible wildlife? Although my research prior to the trek gave me a good idea of what to expect, I never would have guessed that I would play witness to an elusive mother and calf harbour porpoise; a peregrine, the fastest animal on the planet, ferociously fending off two huge buzzards; the enormous gannet commanding the waves near Polzeath, the surprising numbers of coastal kestrels…all this was right on my doorstep.

So it’s no surprise then, that such variety of life is reflected in the multitude of designated and proposed Marine Conservation Zones, Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), nature reserves of national and international importance and continual signs of habitat restoration that Cornwall has. You just have to get out there.

"Once you open your eyes to wildlife and quirky habitats and feel the power of the weather, you begin to become addicted"

Even the wildest places are touched by plastic

All too often we encounter plastic in places where it shouldn’t be; on the fringes of rivers, washed up on beaches, mistaken for prey by marine life. Exploring whether Cornwall’s precious habitats were subject to plastic pollution was important to me during my trek – and I was sad to discover how very real this problem is.

It was upsetting to see even the most remote stretches of the path could not escape being touched by things like nylon netting, plastic bottles and polystyrene – and it really hit home when I felt I was growing close to the wildlife I was spending time with.

But, it was so encouraging to see the positive action that is being taken across Cornwall and to see educational posters around the entrances to beaches, along with litter pickers and plastic bags, to encourage beach goers to join forces and do a quick beach clean as part of their day. It’s easy to get caught up in the doom and gloom of plastic pollution, but it’s important to remember how small changes to our daily consumption amount to big positive changes.

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Sophie became fast friends with a lot of Cornish wildlife

Using social media can be a powerful way to connect with nature

I was delighted to receive messages from people telling me that they were learning new things from watching the vlogs I was making – and even to hear that some were incorporated into A-level biology lessons!

Sophie’s Wild Cornwall made me realise the incredible potential social media presents for science communication. The touch of a few buttons enables an unrivalled sharing opportunity to a global audience, to spread good messages and form like-minded communities and present science as something worth talking about. So many of us make social media part of our day and instead of lamenting the digital shift of society, we should embrace it and learn to harness the unique opportunities it presents to make adventure, science and wildlife trendy and ‘instagrammable’!

Sophie made 22 vlogs which on YouTube to introduce younger people to the power of just walking in nature

You follow nature’s agenda

There was something therapeutic about letting the weather and the terrain dictate the day. We are so accustomed to following a prescribed agenda each day in the workplace or at home and it was such a release to have one goal each day – which was to arrive at my destination safely, leaving the rest up to the environment! 

Our environment is fragile

There was no question that my trek was an eye-opening experience. Not just for increasing my awareness of specific problems like plastic pollution, but for appreciating the overall fragility of the natural world. It got me thinking about how influential humans are as a species, in reversing the harm we have caused and the little changes we can make to our daily routines that can have a big impact on the future of our environment.

Spending time in nature can increase empathy for the natural world

I have always loved being outside and looking for wildlife. As cheesy as it sounds, once you open your eyes to wildlife and quirky habitats and feel the power of the weather, you begin to become addicted - you want to see as much as you can. Feed the questions that pop into your mind - be openly curious and engage with other people you encounter on the trail. I often found myself asking total strangers, “Did you see that buzzard just then?” or “How cool was that kestrel?”  Even if I did get funny looks, my excitement about the UK’s immense biodiversity was bubbling and it still is! 

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She got to see not just bugs and butterflies but bucket list stuff like watching seals in the wild

I didn't need other people

It was refreshing to meet few people on the coast path, given that public spaces are becoming increasingly crowded; leaving time for solace and thoughtfulness. I was surprised that I never felt lonely – sure, I felt isolated at times, but I relished the fact that the wild environment and nature around me was my sole company day after day. I also think nattering away to my phone for hours on end making the vlogs probably kept too much loneliness at bay!!

I found it interesting that I seemed to be the youngest person walking the coast path by a good 30 years! Apart from the weekend day ramblers, I barely saw anyone close to my age hiking and enjoying the surroundings from the trail – which gave me more motivation to continue with my pursuit to bring British wildlife and the outdoors to younger people on social media.

It pays to do something a little different

“The woman who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The woman who walks alone is likely to find herself in places no one has ever been before”.

I came across this little line by the great Einstein not too long ago - and unsurprisingly, it really stuck with me. Not only is it the perfect quote for that inspirational life-lover shot lined up for Instagram, but dig deeper and it says so much more about daring to go the extra mile for something, daring to do something a little bit different, daring to push yourself for a good cause.

Although it was quite a task to persuade my MSc professors and family that hiking 300 miles could become my dissertation, I am feel proud that I pushed myself and believed in the idea – and like many girls I am not often proud of myself. It really does pay to be confident in what you are passionate about and to find your limits can expand along the way.

Discover more people like Sophie and other eco-friendly travellers in the pebble pod

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