How Nep­tune saved the coast

Michael Kerr is charmed by a po­etic ac­count of our shore­line that traces the Na­tional Trust cam­paign to pro­tect it back 50 years

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Books -

Pa­trick Barkham wrote his mar­riage pro­posal in the sand at Well­snext-the-Sea, in Nor­folk, and showed it to his girl­friend, Lisa, from a dune he had played on as a boy. When he walked to the beach af­ter a storm in 2013, the dune had gone. Its loss was a re­minder, he says, of our ten­dency to see the coast as “de­pend­ably per­ma­nent” when it is be­ing re­shaped con­stantly by the forces of na­ture. Over the past 120 years it has been shaped, too, by the Na­tional Trust, which made its first ac­qui­si­tion in 1895 – not a stately home but four-anda-half acres of rough hill­side above Cardi­gan Bay. In 1965, the trust ini­ti­ated En­ter­prise Nep­tune, ap­peal­ing for £2mil­lion to save the most pre­cious stretches of coast from car­a­van parks and power lines. That cam­paign has car­ried on, and to date raised more than £65mil­lion. The trust now owns a to­tal of 742 miles at the edges of Eng­land, Wales and North­ern Ire­land, to be man­aged, on be­half of the na­tion, for ever. In Coast­lines, pub­lished to mark Nep­tune’s 50th an­niver­sary, Barkham takes a se­ries of walks through this coastal es­tate. His in­ten­tion is not to cat­a­logue it but to ex­plore our re­la­tion­ship with it, both across the span of a life – from the tod­dler pad­dling in the shal­lows to the pen­sioner in a deckchair – and through his­tory. He re­minds us that what we see to­day as play­ground and na­ture trail has been a work­place not only for fish­er­men, wreck­ers and smug­glers but also for min­ers. He sum­mons the shades of sev­enth-cen­tury monks in their cells and Cold War sci­en­tists in their bunkers. He fol­lows in the foot­steps of nov­el­ists, po­ets and artists who have turned seaward for in­spi­ra­tion, from John Fowles, in the jungly Un­der­cliff of Lyme Regis, to Terry Frost, un­der the lu­cid light of the Pen­with penin­sula. “Ev­ery day,” writes Barkham, “there is some­thing sur­pris­ing, joy­ful and new to be found be­side the sea.” The same might be said of many pages of his book. On the sea-coal coast of Durham, writ­ten off by the trust’s sur­vey­ors in 1964 as black­ened “be­yond re­demp­tion”, he finds that na­ture has been restor­ing her­self. The sands may not be golden, but they are at least brown; fish are re­turn­ing, seaweed and mussels ap­pear­ing on the rocks. In North­ern Ire­land, how­ever, he learns that Strang­ford Lough, de­spite be­ing sup­pos­edly pro­tected by nu­mer­ous clas­si­fi­ca­tions (“a body of wa­ter sur­rounded by com­mit­tees,” con­ser­va­tion­ists joke), has been fished out, its seabed ru­ined. On walks with the trust’s staff and vol­un­teers, Barkham dis­cov­ers that ac­quir­ing land is the easy bit. Man­age­ment is trick­ier. It can en­tail the shoot­ing of foxes to pro­tect ground-nest­ing birds. Longer term, it can mean tak­ing on the sea it­self, if it shows signs of eat­ing away at what is known, in trust cir­cles, as “the li­a­bil­i­ties”. Cli­mate change, ris­ing sea lev­els and de­mands for en­ergy are adding to the chal­lenges. “New Wylfa”, a pro­posed nu­clear power sta­tion, could bring 3,000 jobs to An­gle­sey. It would also de­stroy the view and the peace that walk­ers cur­rently en­joy at Felin Caf­nan, a ru­ined wa­ter mill. The trust’s ranger there says: “Wylfa is good for switch­ing the lights on, but Felin Caf­nan Mill is good for the soul.” In Suffolk, Barkham meets the artist Maggi Ham­bling, cre­ator of Scal­lop, which has been such a di­vi­sive ad­di­tion to the seafront at Alde­burgh. When he con­fesses that he can’t de­tect in the real North Sea the pas­sion of Ham­bling’s painted waves, she teases him: “Well, that’s be­cause you’re a writer. You don’t use your eyes.” She’s wrong. This is how he sees brent geese: “Mur­mur­ing, they walked in a de­lib­er­ate fash­ion, a line strung across the pas­ture like po­lice con­duct­ing a fin­ger­tip search, pluck­ing at the grass with their beaks.” His ears

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