The coast is clear

The 4,345km/2,700-mile England Coast Path will be the world’s longest continuous path. With more than half its length now open or approved, we caught up with the Ramblers volunteers working to establish the official route and explored some of its spectacular sections.

Words by Mark Rowe

Castle next to the shore

Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland

The 4,345km/2,700-mile England Coast Path will be the world’s longest continuous path. With more than half its length now open or approved, we caught up with the Ramblers volunteers working to establish the official route and explored some of its spectacular sections.

Keep your fingers, toes and bootlaces crossed. As you read this, the UK is slowly emerging from lockdown, a bleak winter replaced by a hope that grows with each lengthening day. There is good news for ramblers, too, for while life has been put on hold for the past 18 months, the landmark England Coast Path (ECP) has continued its progress towards completion.

When fully opened, the new path, announced back in 2010 following years of Ramblers’ campaigning, will stretch 4,345km/2,700 miles, making it the longest coastal trail in the world. Distinctive acorn waymarkers will link Marshall Meadows Bay in Northumberland to the Solway Firth via Land’s End in Cornwall. Progress, it’s fair to say, has been stately over the past 11 years, but Natural England hopes to have all 67 sections approved, and remaining establishment works under way, by the end of this winter. ‘It’s really important as people are desperate to return to the coast and walk,’ says Alison Hallas, the Ramblers’ policy and advocacy officer. ‘Coastal businesses and accommodation will also get an incredible boost.’

There is plenty still to do to meet that end-of-year deadline: over half of proposals for the path have been fully or partly approved, 16% of the whole English coast has new coastal access rights in place, and 14 out of the 67 stretches of the path are fully open – which means 53 are not.

Recently opened stretches include Whitehaven to Silecroft, Cumbria. Those still to open include Grain to Woolwich, linking the source of the River Thames (via the Thames Path National Trail) to the sea; and the exhilarating coastline between Amble and Bamburgh in Northumberland. This last section would extend to 301km/187 miles what is the longest continuous stretch to be opened so far, all the way south to the Filey Brigg peninsula in North Yorkshire.

Concrete sculptures near the sea

The Cloud Bar at Anderby Creek in Lincolnshire

Wonderful Walney

Other stretches now designated include Walney Island in Cumbria, arguably the kind of area the ECP is intended to shine a light on. It’s a coastline of great beauty often overlooked by the crowds in the adjacent Lake District. Long popular with ‘in the know’ walkers and wildlife lovers, Walney is a shingle island connected to Barrow and the Furness Peninsula by a bridge. Dunes dominate the north of the island, which is a National Nature Reserve, and home to quartering barn owls, while the south is a Special Protection Area with a grey seal colony – the only one in Cumbria numbering more than 500 pinnipeds.

Now a new 33km/21-mile path means visitors to most areas of beach, cliff and other coastal land on the island can enjoy secure statutory rights of public access. As well as the creation of new paths, the route runs close to the sea on a combination of promenade, foreshore and minor roads. ‘It’s an incredible place,’ says Ian Brodie, lead coastal volunteer for the Lake District Ramblers. ‘It’s a fantastic location in the Irish Sea, with views of the Isle of Man and the Welsh hills. You see the Lakeland fells from sea level, which is an unusual perspective.’

Lincolnshire’s big skies

Further south, the ECP now provides a corridor between the two traditional seaside towns of Skegness and Mablethorpe in Lincolnshire. A walk along this newly designated 26km/16-mile stretch sees crowds and ice-cream vans give way to huge skies (Anderby Creek is home to the Cloud Bar, where the coast has been designated the world’s first official cloud-spotting area). Unheralded dunes are a real feature, too. The flatlands of Lincolnshire, in contrast to the craggy coasts of Yorkshire and further north, also lend themselves to greater accessibility for wheelchair users and young families, and a new boardwalk links two promenades by the purpose-built North Sea Observatory at Chapel Point.

‘This stretch takes your breath away,’ says Sara Schultz of Natural England’s national trails and open access team. ‘It’s a hidden gem of coastal dunes shaped by wind and sea. The plants and birds make a great backdrop for bracing walks.’ The path was a mixture of ad hoc access, and Sara says improved signposting will help walkers explore smaller places of interest such as Sutton-on-Sea, boosting tourism.

(Right) The Saltburn Cliff Lift and pier, North Yorkshire

Funicular railway down to the seaFurther up the east coast, Newport Bridge (Yorkshire) to North Gare (Northumberland) is a 109km/68-mile stretch offering a range of landscapes not always associated with the coast path. The route runs along the stirring cliffs of the North Yorkshire coast, through the resorts of Scarborough, Whitby, Saltburn and Redcar, into the heavily populated and industrial heart of Middlesbrough. The last area, the Tees Valley, is more Blade Runner than fell runner in atmosphere: home to the Transporter Bridge made famous by Auf Wiedersehen Pet, your view is infilled with converging electricity pylons, petrochemical factories and flare stacks. But look upwards and you’ll see geese wobbling between the pylons, with the scarp of the North York Moors on the horizon.

Dynamic environments

Much of the North York Moors stretch of the ECP overlaps with the existing Cleveland Way. The ECP doubles up elsewhere, along the South West Coast Path (SWCP), and the North Norfolk Coast Path. While some might see this as duplication – or, more cynically, of picking low-hanging fruit that is easy to designate – this actually reflects another key feature of the project, the concept of ‘spreading room’. In reality, the ECP is more than a path because of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, which gives everyone the legal right to explore beaches and foreshores, right up to the water’s edge. ‘You get the surrounding access land included, so you can walk to headlands from the path,’ explains Alison. ‘Although it’s important to look at the signage and understand where you can explore.’

Bolting on the ECP also enables existing and new paths to adapt to coastal erosion via the concept of ‘rollback’. ‘If a path gets severed by erosion, the right of way can be lost,’ says Alison. ‘But the ECP includes plans for how the path will re-route around this.’ This ensures the path will be available for walkers in perpetuity – a plus for spectacular but crumbling coastlines such as those around North Yorkshire.

Jurassic Coast gems

For many walkers, one of the most spectacular stretches remains the first to open, from Rufus Castle to Lulworth Cove in Dorset, which was completed in time for the 2012 Olympics, so that the public could watch sailing events from the coast.

‘It’s special,’ declares Sarah Moyle, chair of South Dorset Ramblers, pointing out that the coastline here contains two harbours, a fort, a bird sanctuary, two prisons, a Roman temple, two museums and the familiar limestone arch of Durdle Door. ‘It’s also beautiful when you look inland from the coast,’ adds her partner Chris Moyle, a Ramblers webmaster.

Campaigners in this popular location were always clear the project was about access to the coast, too. At one point, at Black Down on the Purbeck side of Weymouth, the SWCP and the ECP run side by side (and are marked as such on the most recent OS map), with, says Sarah, the new ECP offering slightly better views. Yet even now the task is not complete, as local walkers are campaigning for the ECP to go around the whole of Portland, rather than nipping inland behind the prison.

Sandy bay with steep grass cliffs

Man o' War Cove, Jurassic Coast

Chris also points out that the stretches either side of Rufus Castle-Lulworth Cove have yet to be signed off, even though the Lyme Regis section plan was drawn up in 2016. He and local Ramblers are keen for all their stretches to be open.

The entire project is a testament to the dedication, passion, diplomacy and negotiating skills of more than 130 Ramblers volunteers, who have walked, surveyed and mapped routes; written detailed reports; and worked alongside access authorities and Natural England’s coastal access advisors to put forward the best route and ensure that access to the coast is fair and offers the best experience.

Local knowledge

Alison has plenty of praise for these volunteers. ‘They know the local issues, the best routes, and the impact of erosion, because in most cases they live there. They went out, surveyed and came up with the best solutions.’ The Covid-19 pandemic brought face-to-face contact and on-the-ground research to a halt, but luckily, says Alison, much of the groundwork had been prepared. 
Ian Brodie feels the consultation process in Walney went well. ‘Natural England listened to us. We had ideas about the ideal route but appreciate there were times they had to be pragmatic and listen to other interests. We have a good relationship. It’s a two-way process.’

One sticking point was access to a nature reserve at the southern tip of Walney, where the ECP cuts inland just to the north of the wildlife site. ‘We feel the route could have cut through the north of the reserve,’ says Brodie. ‘But we gained new access elsewhere. We realise these issues can be difficult to resolve.’

The benefits of walking are self-evident at the best of times, but in the wake of a pandemic they are even more palpable. Walking can improve mood and sleep quality, and being in a natural environment is shown to have a positive impact on mental health. This summer – all being well – the coast is likely to attract record numbers of walkers, many seeking solitude or the companionship of friends (coastal paths attract a higher proportion of solo walkers than other National Trails).

But don’t be deterred as plenty of space can be found within those 2,700 miles. The beauty of the ECP is that other areas will now emerge from the shadows. ‘The coast is so varied,’ Alison says. ‘The path matters because we are an island and the coast is very special to people.’

To understand your rights when walking in coastal margins, visit our guide to where you can find Open Access Land.

Our brilliant volunteers on the ground

"null"Ken Hawkins, Norfolk Area secretary

When work on the ECP was first announced, the Ramblers was looking for volunteers to take the lead in their area. It seemed a fascinating project, so I put myself forward. With my wife, Catherine, we established a pattern of walking where we thought the path should run and prepared a fully illustrated report. We established a good working relationship with Natural England, so when the final proposals were announced, I worked with the Ramblers’ Central Office staff to prepare our formal response.

For me, the benefit has been seeing the development of an integrated route enabling walking as close to the sea as possible. Challenges remain – parts of the Norfolk coast have seen erosion, even in the few short years since the oath opened, and require almost continual action. Even the rollback provisions are struggling to accommodate the impact. Climate change only makes this harder.
I hope the ECP will satisfy a strong human desire to appreciate the coast in all its moods: there’s something about the land-sea border that we find irresistible.

"null"Ian Wild, Kent Area coastal access volunteer

I’ve been working on the England Coast Path for the past 10 years. In 2010, I set out with a camera, GPS and notebook to walk the 215-mile Kent and Sheppey coastline to identify the gaps where we couldn’t walk. About 8% of the coast was inaccessible, including three stretches of beach which residents claimed were private. Natural England used my report to identify where the problem areas were likely to be. They divided Kent into six sections and started with the most straightforward. In addition to regular meetings with Natural England over the years, I have represented the Ramblers at one public hearing and two public inquiries where there was likely to be an impact on our enjoyment of the ECP. The first two sections, from the Sussex border to Folkestone, are now open. Most of the others have been approved. It’s down to local authorities to put in the improvements to bring it up to the standard of a National Trail, and this takes time. There are a few sections which are still in dispute. Having grown up on the coast, I firmly believe the coast should be available for everyone to enjoy.