Connecting the coast

Once completed, the England Coast Path will be the world’s longest continuous coastal trail. But how exactly is each new stretch of coast prepared, developed, proposed, determined and, ultimately, opened for walkers to enjoy?

Words Mark Rowe | Illustration Stephen Millership

As islanders, we are almost hypnotically drawn to our coast. So the news that the England Coast Path – the landmark trail tracing the nation’s entire coastline – is on track to be completed, on schedule, by 2020, is undoubtedly positive. 

With a projected total length of 2,795 miles (4,500km), it will form a new and exciting national trail that, for the first time, gives people the right of access to open coast. As Natural England has emphasised, it is much more than just a path – it is a licence to explore beaches, cliff-tops, and many unique wildlife habitats. For the Ramblers, the route will be significant not just for the walking opportunities it will afford but for the role that hundreds of the charity’s volunteers are playing in its creation.

Last year proved a significant milestone for this ambitious project. Five new sections were opened, totalling some 343 km (213 miles). This included stretches from Brean Down to Minehead in Somerset; Camber to Folkestone and Folkestone to Ramsgate in Kent; Filey Brigg to Newport Bridge in Yorkshire; and Hopton on Sea to Sea Palling in Norfolk. This year further stretches will open between Whitehaven and Silecroft in Cumbria; Newport Bridge and North Gare around Teesside; Ramsgate and Whitstable in Kent; and – provided all goes to plan – Lyme Regis to Rufus Castle in Dorset.

In total, nine stretches totalling 506km (314 miles) are now open, and a further 1,885 miles are being worked on. ‘The England Coast Path is a fabulous asset and will add a new dimension to our enjoyment of the coast,’ says Alison Hallas, policy and advocacy officer for the Ramblers. ‘People will be able to enjoy the full diversity of our coastline and its breathtaking views, some of which was previously inaccessible to the public.’

The initiative was launched with great fanfare in 2010, and from the outset promised a walking corridor along the coast comprising both a path and the land between the trail and the sea. This forms part of the coastal margin and is defined as ‘spreading room’, conferring the public right to walk off the path and over access land right up to the water’s edge.

The input of volunteers has been invaluable, says Hallas. ‘They’ve walked and surveyed the coast, written detailed reports and met with Natural England’s coastal access advisors to put forward the best route for walkers. They had to get their heads around the complexities of managing access on the coast, including the need to protect vulnerable wildlife, steer the unwary away from hazardous areas and respect privacy around homes and other buildings. They have provided the benefit of local knowledge and the walker’s practical perspective.’

One of the most striking additions last year was the creation of a route above the small port of Staithes in North Yorkshire, on the Filey Brigg to Newport Bridge stretch. A new path between Staithes Beck and Beacon Hill enables walkers to reach a headland to the south and enjoy views – previously out of bounds – back to the port’s tightly huddled houses and streets and the distinctive wave-cut platforms that emerge at low tide. This new path was welcomed by local Ramblers from East Yorkshire & Derwent area, though they felt that better links with the Cleveland Way at this point could have improved the walking experience even more. ‘Our proposal would have allowed walkers to walk right along the cliff top and provided more access,’ says Tom Halstead, Ramblers access officer for East Yorkshire & Derwent.

Having campaigned for coastal access for some years, Tom and his fellow volunteers were well prepared to take on the role. ‘We’d already carried out preliminary studies,’ he says. ‘When the government decided to go ahead with the coast path we went back and systematically surveyed, photographed, mapped and documented where we thought the route should go, supporting this with evidence.’ Face-to-face discussions with Natural England advisors followed and the Ramblers’ proposals were broadly accepted. Along much of the route, the coast path overlays the spectacular Cleveland Way. ‘It has some of the highest cliffs in the UK,’ says Halstead. ‘But further south the coast is completely undeveloped – it’s very wild and you can walk there and see down the coast with no habitation for miles. There’s a certain breed of walker who will really enjoy that element as part of a long-distance walk.’

Difficulties in Dorset

The development of the coast path in Dorset has been a little like waiting for a final piece needed to complete a jigsaw. The stretch from Rufus Castle to Lulworth Cove was the first section of the entire England Coast Path to open – in time for the 2012 Olympics – and, five years on, the adjacent section from Rufus Castle to Lyme Regis was scheduled to open last year. While broadly layered on top of the existing South West Coast Path, it includes a mile or so of newly created paths that, according to Brian Panton, coastal access officer for Dorset Ramblers, ‘has a more seaward facing feel to it. This isn’t a route that offers high cliff-top views – instead it takes in Chesil beach.’ 

Securing access to the Dorset coast has not proved straightforward, however. As Hallas points out, ‘Natural England was also given the sometimes difficult task of striking an appropriate balance between the interests of the public in accessing the coast and the interests of owners and occupiers, which needs to be considered thoroughly but also sensitively.’ Concerns have included reduced privacy, potential for trespass, damage to crops and environmental schemes, livestock and wildlife disturbance and damage to sea walls.

In Dorset, one landowner, the Ilchester Estate, objected to the line of the coast path, arguing that wildlife at Abbotsbury would be worried by walkers’ dogs and that the route ‘would have real and significant adverse consequences for the management...of agricultural land and associated business and tourism enterprises.’ A Natural England proposal to fence off the route across a mile-long stretch of land on the estate failed to resolve matters and the landowner objected. Instead, they proposed the path followed a narrow country road.  The case went to public inquiry in December 2016, and a decision from the Secretary of State is still to be made.

‘The criteria of the England Coast Path are that it should be by the coast, or failing that have views of the coast’ said Panton. ‘The alternative here gives neither. The original South West Coast Path would be a better alternative than the road as it would be safer and gives views of the sea, though from higher ground.’ Even so, Panton says he found Natural England officials approachable and rigorous. ‘We had a good relationship with them. We don’t have powers of objection but we held informal talks with them about our preferred route and they came back to us with their proposals. If we had any difficulties with them they were only minor.’

Notable Norfolk 

The newly opened route in Norfolk faced few objections but, like other stretches, did need to explore how the new path could refresh existing routes, in this instance the Norfolk Coast Path. ‘In many places the route has been layered on top of the Norfolk Coast Path’ says Ken Hawkins, the Ramblers’ Norfolk Coast consultee with Natural England. But, he argues, this has helped to increase appreciation of ‘that sense of openness and the big skies that Norfolk is noted for. This section has its own particular character – you also have the riverside of the River Yar, and the harbour at Yarmouth.’

Hawkins largely welcomes was what achieved along the stretch from Hopton on Sea to Sea Palling and was impressed by the rigour of Natural England’s staff. ‘Even if we didn’t always agree with their interpretation of where the route should go they took their surveying extremely seriously,’ he says. ‘We established a good, positive and open relationship with them and we felt they were very willing to hear our thoughts on the route.’

One issue that proved knotty to unpick focused on the dunes that run for around 8km south of Sea Palling and act as sea defences. The England Coast Path route runs behind the dunes, affording walkers only intermittent sea views, even though existing routes do run through the dunes and even along their crests. Natural England surveyors were mindful of erosion and Hawkins feels they erred on the side of caution. ‘They were a little over-protective but we’re not looking to create difficulties with local communities who are concerned about erosion. We’re not entirely unhappy with what we ended up with,’ says Hawkins. ‘But it would have been good to have some interpretation along the route, highlighting the unique character of the dunes.’

Two other stretches of the England Coast Path in Norfolk were due to open last year but instead their final reports will only be published this autumn. One section, from Weybourne to Hunstanton, has been delayed because the coastal route will be diverted around the RSPB’s Titchwell Marshes reserve. Negotiations with adjacent landowners are further complicated by the proximity of the busy coast road. 

Both Norfolk and Yorkshire have seen the benefits of the England Coast Path when it comes to the issue of erosion. ‘If a right of way is eroded and that part of a path is gone, you can’t automatically gain a path around it,’ says Halstead. ‘If you get a landslide then you can get a break in the path for several years.’

In contrast, the legal status of the England Coast Path is designed to safeguard it against erosion under the concept of ‘rollback’. As cliffs erode or slip, a replacement route can be put in place. The provision for such rollback will make a great difference to the stretch of coastline south from Filey Brigg through Holderness to the Humber, which is among the fastest eroding coastlines in Europe. ‘It’s very important for Holderness,’ says Halstead. ‘Whatever happens, the path will remain relative to the existing cliff top. That establishes a legal right of way and that is a huge advantage. People will be able to walk that part of the coast with certainty, whereas the erosion has deterred a lot of people in the past.’ 

The coast path has already been rolled back at Trimingham in Norfolk because of erosion. ‘Erosion can be very fierce, you can lose half a dozen chunks very quickly,’ says Hawkins. ‘The only problem is you can only roll back so far before eventually you hit private property.’ Despite some bumps in the path, Ramblers volunteers are hugely encouraged by their experience of helping the England Coast Path become a reality, something that many had feared would be heaped on the bonfire with other non-statutory facets of public life, such as the provision of libraries and public toilets. ‘There were several moments when funding for the coast path was in doubt and Ramblers members got behind our campaigns to make sure it stayed on track,’ says Hallas.

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