To be or not to be: the England Coast Path

Gorgeous cliff top scenery on the South West Coast Path
Gorgeous cliff top scenery on the South West Coast Path

The Ramblers is urging its members (and its One Coast For All petition supporters, of whom I’m one) to donate £12 each to help the organisation compile and publish a report to highlight the benefits of a continuous English Coast Path.

They are quite legitimately concerned that the Coalition Government is dragging its feet on extending access to the English coastline. In their email, Ramblers draw attention to the previous day’s Newsnight programme, in which Ramblers’ chief executive Benedict Southworth presented an excellent case for investment in the project, while environment minister, Richard Beynon, insisted (in his usual bumbling way) that a low-cost infrastructure project with massive potential economic gain is not a spending priority in the current economic climate (@26 minutes into programme).

Yes, this is the same environment minister who recently astounded Radio Four’s Any Questions audience and the whole scientific community with his blundering and ill-informed responses to a question about global warming.

 

Looking across the estuary at St Mawe's, Cornwall
Looking across the estuary at St Mawe’s, Cornwall

Richard Benyon is definitely not the man who should be making decisions about public access to England’s coastline. In fact, he seems so out of touch with… well, pretty much everything to do with the environment (except perhaps the farming subsidies paid to his wealthy landowning pals) that I cannot help wondering if he ever leaves his 20,000-acre Englefield Estate in Berkshire other than to travel to the Houses of Parliament? He certainly has no idea how it feels to live in crowded housing, a small flat or a terraced house without access to outdoor space. He cannot empathise with the thousands and thousands of people who flock to the coast for a few hours because they want to spend their precious leisure time somewhere more beautiful than their home surroundings.

I wanted to throw something at my laptop when this pompous man told the Newsnight presenter: ‘There are [sic] a relatively small percentage of people who want to walk from Deal to Portsmouth, I mean, if they want to do that good [sic], and we will have a coastal path for them to do that in time [sic], but I’m really concerned about the people who can bring maximum benefit to coastal communities, coastal businesses.’

Er, will someone run that last clause past me again? Who exactly is our environment minister concerned about? Goodness me, if Richard Beynon is the best advocate for the UK environment that the Tories and LibDems combined could muster, what does that say about the rest?

 

Harri walking along the South West Coast Path
Harri walking along the South West Coast Path

And if money is so scarce that the Government is honour-bound to take a utilitarian approach to all future spending, then will someone please explain to me what HS2 is all about? How come the Coalition can put its hands on an eye-watering £42.6b to cut journey times between London and the north to benefit a handful of businessmen (most of whom will be working on laptops, iPads and iPhones anyway) but continues to quibble over an investment of £4.5m.

I just can’t believe the percentage of people likely to benefit from HS2 is greater than the huge number of people who will reap the rewards, economic and otherwise, of an England Coast Path.

Richard Beynon’s words incense me because they are so wide of the truth. The Wales experience has already demonstrated that far from being a monumental white elephant, a project to benefit a few crazy hikers who want to walk from one end of our beautiful coastline to the other without having to do massive detours inland every few miles, the Welsh Government’s savvy £16m investment is already reaping massive dividends.

 

The new accessible footpath near Caswell Bay, Gower
The new accessible footpath near Caswell Bay, Gower

The 870-mile Wales Coast Path, the only one of its kind in the world, opened amid a fanfare of publicity on May 5 2012. Official statistics suggest that it’s already attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world, pumping millions of pounds into the Welsh economy. And we’re only one year on.

The Ramblers writes that the South West Coast Path generates £307m a year for the local economy – that’s an awful lot of jobs and happiness and well-being.

Some parts of coastal Wales were already very much on the tourism trail, e.g. Laugharne where the poet Dylan Thomas lived for the last four years of his life. Similarly, the breathtaking beauty of the 186-mile Pembrokeshire Coast Path has attracted tens of thousands of serious hikers and casual walkers since it opened in 1970; the Wales Coast Path is only likely to bring in more.

 

The Wales Coast Path runs right behind the Boathouse at Laugharne
The Wales Coast Path runs behind the Boathouse at Laugharne

But it’s the less well-known areas that are set to benefit most from Wales’ new found status on the international walking map. Less picturesque stretches of coastline like the sea wall near Newport, the amazing architecture of Cardiff Bay (which can compete with any capital city), the fossil-rich strata of the Glamorgan Heritage Coast between Newton and Aberthaw or the quiet windswept beaches of Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire.

The Wales Government believed that £16m was a fair price to pay to put Wales firmly on the international tourist map; if it was a gamble, it seems to be paying off.

The estimated coast of the England coast path is peanuts in comparison – just £4.5m would be enough to link many existing sections of footpath and provide a continuous 1,900km coastal path by 2019.

 

Many sections of the England Coast Path already exist, as here at Beachy Head
Many sections of the England Coast Path already exist, as here at Beachy Head

This is not an ambitious target by anyone’s standards. Ramblers campaigned for years for public access to the entire coast of England, finally winning the right in 2009. Even if this Government were to behave honorably and meet its original target, it will still have taken ten years to create a continual path around just 40% of England’s coastline. Many of the footpaths along cliff tops will still end abruptly, forcing walkers to make long inland detours around private estates, private beaches and great swathes of Ministry of Defence-owned land.

 

The Millennium Coast Path near Llanelli
The Millennium Coast Path near Llanelli

Talking of land… the Newsnight programme featured a landowner – a local farmer called Julian Brown. Mr Brown wasn’t at all happy about opening up his cliff tops to walkers. He talked about the economic loss (to himself), adding, ‘I don’t see why they should have to [develop the England Coast Path] in these austere times’.

Mr Brown was also a bit peeved that he won’t be ‘compensated’ for the inconvenience of having people traipsing along his cliff tops. I’ve got two words for Mr Brown: farming subsidies.

That’s the problem with too many landowners – they don’t want to share their landscapes, views or cliff tops with the proletariat. They pay their money (or inherit, as Richard Beynon is set to do) and want to keep all that lovely land to themselves, whether they’re using it for farming purposes or not. Obviously not all farmers feel the same as Mr Brown – on our own travels, we’ve met some lovely farmers (and farmers’ wives), many of whom have helped us with directions or just stopped for a friendly chat – but those who do object lend a powerful voice to the anti-access lobby.

With opponents like Mr Brown and Mr Beynon, it’s probably a good job the Government is legally obliged to develop a continuous England Coast Path.

Harping on and on about the small number of people who are likely to walk the entire coastline of England is just missing the point.

 

The Wales Coast Path meanders underneath the Second Severn Crossing near Caldicot
The Wales Coast Path meanders underneath the Second Severn Crossing near Caldicot

The Wales Coast Path has been such a resounding economic success not because all visitors to Wales are keen hikers who want to walk the whole of the 870-mile route, but because the path has put Wales firmly up there as a fantastic destination for all those who enjoy spending their leisure time and holidays outdoors.

Our visitors know that wherever they stay in our little country, they will be able to access the coast easily and walk in either direction for as long as they wish, unrestricted by barbed wire fences and large Keep Out, Private Property signs.

 

Some landowners will go to great lengths to deter walkers
Some landowners will go to great lengths to deter walkers

And guess what? That means all of us: rich, poor, young, old, families, couples, singles, able-bodied and disabled… Wales didn’t open up its coastline to cater for what Richard Beynon considers to be a handful of cranky hikers, it opened it up for everyone.

England deserves no less.

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