England Coast Path - the whole story

Our senior policy officer Kate Conto has been involved in the England Coast Path from the start. She tells us all about the highs of this inspirational project, and the moments that it seemed plans would crumble into the sea.

Where did the modern push for a legal right of access to the coast in England come from? Like many great things – Southend Pier; Maldon Salt; and Grayson Perry – it came from Essex.

to the coast path sign

For many decades, the Ramblers campaigned for a public right to enjoy, on foot, the wild, open spaces of England. When legislation was finally won in 2000, the new right provided a right of access to mountains, moorland, heathland, downland and common land, but not - to our disappointment - the coast.

As the new right of access was implemented, it became clear that some parts of England would receive little practical benefit because they contained only very small amounts of the qualifying land types. Essex was one of those areas.

Whilst Ramblers volunteers across much of England were busy helping to make the new access arrangements work in practice, our volunteers in Essex didn’t wring their hands in jealous despair. Instead, they set to work surveying their long, splendid coastline and thought about how they could help bring about improvements that would allow the public to enjoy a continuous walk along its entire 350-mile length. They found that access to the coast was patchy, due to missing links, eroded paths and routes that went so far inland that really you couldn’t genuinely call them a coastal route. In 2004, Essex Ramblers formally asked Ramblers to campaign on the unfinished business of improving access to the English coast. 

Seven Sisters South Downs
Walking the Seven Sisters on the South Downs. Submitted by Sarah Howes for Walk magazine coastal photo competition

Soon after, Ramblers began to make the case for new legislation to provide not just a walking trail along the coast, but for open access to coastal landscapes, including beaches, for recreation. During the 2005 election campaign we convinced the Labour Party to include a commitment to improve access to the coast in its manifesto. Soon after, the new Labour government asked Natural England to explore the options for improving access.

A consultation followed, and then – to our delight – the Government announced that it would introduce legislation for a right of open access to the coast. A new National Trail would be created, giving visitors to the coast confidence that they could experience a high-quality walk in either direction, but also, crucially, provide a corridor of accessible land around the entire English Coast, meaning that walkers could also step off the trail to enjoy coastal landscapes.

This was set out in the Marine and Coastal Access Act, which received Royal Assent with cross-party support in 2009. The Act set out powers but not a duty to create the path – so we were aware of the risk that without political will the plans would be shelved.

Things started well. Plans were made to open the first stretch, between Weymouth Bay and Portland Harbour, in time for the London 2012 Olympic sailing events. But after this stretch opened in June 2012, we started to hear that there wasn’t much enthusiasm in Government for the project to continue. The aspiration of completing the path in ten years was quietly dropped and a new completion date of 2032 was announced.

South West Coast Path from Weymouth. Submitted by Danny Last for Walk coastal photo competition

Work on the path slowed, but there was worse to come in 2013, when huge cuts to the Defra budget and comments from the Defra Minister – calling the Path ‘an expensive legacy’ –threatened its very existence.

Whilst the government may have lost sight of why the path was needed – to improve public health and wellbeing; to boost tourism and economic growth; to connect coastal communities; and to connect people with nature and natural heritage – Ramblers certainly had not. With a renewed sense of urgency, we set out to remind the Government why they sought to create the path in the first place.

We produced Case for the Coast, a report highlighting the economic, social and health benefits of an England Coast Path – and delivered it (along with actual ice cream) to MPs from a Ramblers’ branded ice cream van parked right outside Westminster. We fought for – and won – the right for the Isle of Wight to be included in plans for the new coast path. We worked with other organisations, including the National Trust, Outdoor Industries Association and the South West Coast Path Association to make the case for continued investment.

One Coast for All ice cream launch
One Coast for All ice cream launch. Outside Portcullis House, Westminster, London

The real breakthrough came in 2014, when the then Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, announced that the government was committed to completing the England Coast Path by 2020. Since this momentous announcement, there have been spending reviews and elections, each potentially posing a new challenge to the coast path.

So we have to remain vigilant, but we also have very good reason to feel optimistic. Natural England is working hard, (with Ramblers, landowners and local authorities), meeting many challenges, to develop sensible proposals for the route and to complete the works necessary for sections of the path to open in time for the 2020 deadline. Evidence of their excellent work can be seen in the nine stretches already open for the public to enjoy, with many more promised to open officially later this year and in 2018.

Given the highs and the lows over the years, it’s easy to imagine a very different story for our coast. Without the drive and vision of the Ramblers, it’s hard to picture that we would be preparing to celebrate, in a just a few years’ time, the opening of the longest continuous, and perhaps most iconic, walking trail in the world. It will be a fantastic legacy for the nation, one that can be enjoyed by current and future generations. One Ramblers’ volunteer working on the England Coast Path called it a ‘once in forever project’; indeed, it is, and it has been a true privilege to be involved with.

Help us celebrate the coast by getting involved in our celebrations this month