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Author interview: Jen and Sim Benson, Day Walks in Cornwall

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Branscombe Marsh. © Jen and Sim Benson.

Authors of Day Walks in Cornwall, Jen and Sim Benson, share the best things about having adventures with their children, the unique elements they love about the West Country and how tourism has changed the Cornish landscape.

How long have you been exploring Cornwall and Devon and what is it that you particularly love about the West Country that you can’t find elsewhere?

We’ve both spent a lot of time living, working and exploring in the West Country and, while we love the higher, wilder places, it still feels like our home. We’ve each spent twenty years walking, running and cycling the south-west’s many miles of incredible trails; climbing on its granite tors and sea cliffs; swimming and kayaking in its rivers and seas; and, more recently, rediscovering it all with our children. For us it’s the diversity of landscapes that sets it apart. You can see the sea from much of the high ground, so in a weekend you can have an amazing variety of adventures with relatively little driving.

Tourism in Cornwall is set to increase over the next ten years, particularly with increased interest from the American market. Have you noticed the area getting busier and has this had an impact on the landscape?

We’ve definitely noticed changes in Cornwall as the numbers of both its population and visitors have increased. The roads and beaches are busier but there’s also a much greater choice of places to eat and stay. Thankfully, that unique Cornish magic is still very much in evidence and there are places, like Lizard and Penwith, that still feel like the old Cornwall. The South West Coast Path remains one of our very favourite long-distance trails, with so much variety packed into its 630 miles, of which nearly half runs around the edge of Cornwall. We tend to visit out of season, when the beaches are emptier, the waves are bigger and local people are glad of visitors rather than swamped by them as they are at the height of summer – we’d highly recommend a winter trip, or early spring when there are bright yellow daffodils and primroses everywhere.

You’ve written several guidebooks, including two for Vertebrate (Day Walks in Devon and Day Walks in Cornwall), can you provide some tips on how to put a good guide together?

This is something we’re still very much learning as we go, but we do think we’ve come a long way since our first guidebook – the first edition of Wild Running – was published in 2014. There’s no substitute for really knowing places and having a passion for the area you’re writing about. If you understand the spirit of a place then that comes across when you’re writing about it. 

We’re firm believers in sustainable tourism so we try to make sure our suggestions have public transport links whenever possible and support communities through recommendations for food, accommodation and other places to visit while you’re there. Many beautiful destinations are constantly fighting to achieve a balance between the positive and negative impacts of tourism and we try to minimise the negatives by suggesting considerate places to park, quieter times to visit and recommending places to stay that offer easy access to a range of adventures rather than adding more traffic to the roads.

As parents of two young children, do you always try to include plenty of routes that are suitable for the whole family? What are the difficulties you find (if any) with going out as a family and how do you overcome them? 

We share parenting, working and time for our individual sports equally between the two of us – a balance that’s essential for us as partners in every sense. The same goes for balancing what we do for work and recreation with what’s enjoyable, and achievable, for the kids. The majority of the walks in the Day Walks books are too long for our primary-age children so, when researching them, we either broke them down into sections, spending a few days on each one, or we walked or ran them individually so we got to know them well before writing about them.

We’re lucky enough to also write about family adventures so it’s often our job to go to fun, family-friendly places, test out the playground and the ice-cream and find trees to climb and streams to paddle in. Often the most difficult part of any adventure with children is getting everyone ready and through the door in the first place. We find keeping the kids informed about where we’re going, giving them some choices about what we do with the day, and asking them to pack a few toys and snacks for themselves gets them on board and hopefully more co-operative when it comes to getting ready. When we’re out and about, regular snacks and endless enthusiasm are key; it still doesn’t go smoothly all the time, though! 

Through our fiction imprint, Shrine Bell, we aim to inspire children and young adults to explore the outdoors with our range of outdoor-adventure fiction. What have you found to be the benefits of having outdoor adventures with your children?

Growing up we were both definitely inspired by outdoor adventure fiction: BB’s Brendon Chase, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, Willard Price’s Adventure series, Swallows and Amazons and many, many more. We try to give our children plenty of opportunity to read and listen to similar books – they’ve really embraced Audible recently so we’re revisiting some of our childhood favourites. 

We’ve all benefited hugely from spending so much time together outdoors. The kids seem to come alive when we’re in the woods, on the beach or in the mountains in totally different way to indoors. When we’re somewhere wilder, even if it’s just a short walk from home, life becomes wonderfully simple and our adventures are guided by what we find around us. We all slow down and take our time to really look and listen to the world around us: we’ll find trees or hills to climb; or we’ll investigate caves and rock pools. Suddenly you don’t need all the equipment and instruction that comes with grown-up adventures, and yet it’s just as exciting in its own way. Rediscovering the great outdoors with our children has been joyous beyond measure.

You write a regular column for Outdoor Fitness magazine, how do you decide what to include in each issue? 

We’ve been lucky enough to write for Outdoor Fitness magazine (and its previous incarnations, Running Fitness and Running) since our first book came out in 2014. Each month champions a different route and its local area, drawing on history, wildlife, sporting traditions, geography and anything else that’s particularly interesting about a place – there’s never a shortage in Britain! We also edit the routes section for Trail Running magazine and contribute to Trail, Country Walking, Runner’s World and Walk magazines, so we’re always on the lookout for good routes. We spend part of each year travelling and always discover new places and new routes that we could never have imagined existed, so it’s never difficult to come up with good ones.

Where is your favourite wilderness area to visit outside of the UK?

We love France’s incredible variety of landscapes and hope to do plenty more exploring there soon.

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