Looking back through some of my South West Coast Path photos recently, I came across this shaky shot of a Pearl-bordered Fritillary butterfly, hidden amidst the thousands of photos (a colossal 8,323 in total) that I took during my time walking the trail.
I had forgotten about this particular encounter. Coming across the picture again, I flashed back in my mind. For a second or two, I went back in time, memories flowing back. An orange flash by the side of the path, lifting my gaze from my boots. The butterfly lifting too, sailing adrift, gliding ahead. To my right; the ever boundless sea. Salty air in my lungs, the sun high in the sky, the seabird choristers sounding out their waves against the background din of surf and spray. The butterfly eventually dropped from view, anchoring in the vegetation beside the path. I remember catching sight of it again as I continued on my way. Wings open, it glistened, golden in the sun. I took out my camera and snapped the shutter. And then, as if acknowledging my presence, it shot back into the air, sweeping away on the sea breeze.
I know at the time that I would have had no idea what species it was. It’s interesting, because if I were to see this same butterfly now I would react very differently – likely splurting out a muffled and excitable yelp, before instantly dropping into butterfly-observing stealth mode (something I am trying to perfect as almost all butterflies still catch on to my clumsy, blundering approaches). Nonetheless, I still reacted to what I saw, the butterfly capturing my attention and provoking my interest.
During those 61 days that I spent walking the trail, I had countless other encounters similar to those brief moments with the fritillary. The majority of the wildlife that I saw, I had never seen before (!) – or maybe more accurately, I had never paid attention to before. But now I was paying attention. Whether it was a Robin perched close in front of me while I took a quick break, a Kestrel hovering impressively above my head while I walked, an Adder curled up by the side of the path. I remember seeing a Fox with its latest catch in its mouth from the window of a hostel and tasting a type of wild garlic (Three-cornered Leek) for the first time after a fellow walker offered me some to try. All new experiences at the time, and all fascinating.
The pictures demonstrate me connecting with nature in a way I had never previously done before. They represent the very beginning of a spark, a flicker of appreciation. Over the course of the trail’s 630-miles I began to discover just how special the natural world really is; encountering it and enjoying it for the first time.
Finding the forgotten fritillary has served to remind me of just how much the South West Coast Path has changed my life…