Peter Overend Watts, who may be familiar to some as the ex bassist of Mott The Hoople (a band once described as looking like ‘hod-carriers in drag’ by Roger Taylor of Queen), was a rock star who hated the glare of publicity so much he left the band and opened an antique shop. That venture itself proved to be a bit rocky (geddit). One evening, he was watching Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and became fascinated by a contestant who was interested in walking the South West Coastal Path. For some unknown reason, the idea took root in Watts’ brain and he decided there and then to give up his struggling shop and do the walk for himself: an amazing choice for someone who had no previous skills, experience or – as it turns out – aptitude for such a task.
The SWCP runs round the SW peninsula for around 630 miles from Minehead to South Haven Point just past Swanage, taking in Somerset, Cornwall, Devon and Dorset along the way. Done as a continuous trip, it typically takes somewhere between seven and eight weeks. A gruelling route of ascents and descents amidst some spectacular scenery, it has broken many a walker and those who have completed it have often done so in different stages over several years. Watts, however, was determined to do it ‘properly’, all in one go, camping wherever possible to keep the costs down. He allocated himself £1,000 for the whole budget (this was in 2003).
Standing at last on Minehead seafront, he doubts, dithers and delays … then plunges in, experiencing almost at once an unexpected high of total freedom: that feeling of not having to be anywhere in particular, or beholden to anyone. Unlike most walkers, he has no spouse or children at home, anxiously awaiting news. He has only himself to rely on. This really is a fascinating travelogue from all sorts of angles. It isn’t really so much just about the path itself, although there is plenty of that, but about Watts and the people he meets. You will learn, as he did, much about rucksack packing and tent pitching, and that Fawlty Towers isn’t dead. You will discover why a Tilly hat is indispensable and a padded jacket isn’t. From finding out tiny details of severely blistered feet (hint: misuse of Compeed doesn’t help), to what can go horribly wrong in a public phone box when ringing for accommodation, to how two cans of cold beer nearly spelled disaster, you will find yourself involved in seeing how low a man can sink before (literally, in one case) pulling himself up by his fingertips and carrying on through sheer stubborn determination. Poor Overend also suffers badly from vertigo, something of a disadvantage on a trip which includes along its way the equivalent total height of several scalings of Everest. He takes a pole to ‘push away’ the cliffs and sheer drops on his right hand (seaward) side. Unfortunately, to save space, he also decides not to take any maps except the basic SWCP free one …
I suspect he overdid his dislike of people. His comforting of a weeping, angst-ridden woman doing the walk in the other direction for charity who is scared she’ll never be able to complete it is quite moving, and several lasting friendships were evidently forged along the way. One of my favourite scenes is when, arriving at his b and b feeling tired, dirty, hungry and ill, he is invited to a small drinks party in the lounge. ‘See that big yacht? That belongs to Roger Taylor of Queen’, someone says, pointing out of the window, adding, ‘he’s supposed to be a really nice bloke’. The normally reticent Overend can’t resist. ‘Yes, he is nice’, he says. ‘What – do you know him?’ ‘Oh, yes’, he says, ‘Queen used to be our support band’.
As I said, this is as much a book about people as about walking, and about the psychology of just digging in and carrying on when all seems impossible. For an ex rock star, he comes across as a quiet and modest man, very close to his parents, sister and nephews. Good people and bad, helpful and plain bonkers, cross his path. On this trip, he certainly seems a bit hazard-prone and has a terrible memory. Watts’ writing style is very engaging and naive in a quite original way (his penchant for Spoonerisms and for creative insults, for instance). He is punctilious about thanking those who helped, who are many, and apologising to those he felt he’d lost his rag with. If you want to read about a dog that smokes a pipe, why you shouldn’t order a takeaway curry in Ilfracombe and what Nasty Notemares are, this is the book for you. Reclusive, imaginative and retiring, Overend Watts might have found people difficult to deal with, but they, by contrast, mostly seem to have liked dealing with him. Several ladies also seem to have fallen under his spell during his trek; in each case he was too shy to pursue the matter, not sure if he was being given a come-on or not. Some of his musings on what might happen if he did chance his luck, as he talks himself out of it, are distinctly chortleworthy.
You end up feeling like he could have been a pal. It’s a story of achievement, but also a slice of everyday life. A great feelgood book, based on a journey made even more poignant by OW’s untimely death in 2017 aged 69. ‘Don’t worry about me, mate’, he apparently wrote to a friend at the end, ‘it’s like Carry On Nurse in here’. Overend Watts: 1947 -2017. Top bloke. RIP.
© foxoles 2021