All hail the England Coast Path
But this isn’t just for walkers who want a very big adventure; it means wherever you hit the shore of England you will be able to go roaming. But like teaser-trailers before the main feature, some sections are open already...
When it opens fully in 2020 it will be the longest seaside trail on Earth!
“The ECP is under my feet and on my brand new Ordnance Survey map. I’m headed for Happisburgh, walking 13 of the 315 miles that’s already open.”
FIVE YEARS AGO, if you’d been walking east on the Norfolk Coast Path, you’d have had to stop at Cromer. This was trail end. While the town, with its stack of colourful houses and Victorian pier, has proper seaside charm, your feet would have itched to keep going along the shore as it curves away to the south east. What cliffs and beaches and wild ocean and rare seabirds might you see there? A crab sandwich would have seemed like poor consolation.
Then in December 2014, the route grew 17 miles to Sea Palling, both as an extension of the Norfolk Coast Path and as one of the first sections of the brand new England Coast Path. In 2016, another 21 miles opened to Hopton-on-Sea. By 2020 every inch of England’s shore should be open for business. You’ll be able hike the whole perimeter.
As I drop to the beach I think about the sheer ambition of the England Coast Path project. It’s so quick to say – let’s build a trail around the edge of the nation – but it’s flat-out daunting to make it happen. First, there’s knowing that England’s lovely crinkly edges mean it’s going to be 2795 miles long. Then there’s the minor matter of passing legislation to make it possible, which happened in 2009 with the Marine and Coastal Access Act. Next comes route negotiation between Natural England and a throng of stakeholders: local authorities, private landowners, tenants, conservationists, the Ministry of Defence and so on. Finally, there’s the physical path building and waymarking. Some areas already had a trail, but a fifth was deemed in need of repair, and a full third of the route had no previous right of access at all.
“The turf-topped cliff ahead is deeply scalloped, as if a monstrous caterpillar has taken it for a leaf. Below, the layers of rock lie smashed open…”
Governmental enthusiasm and funding has waxed and more often waned, and after the inaugural section fanfared open in 2012 – at Weymouth in time for the Olympic sailing events – it looked like the full route might (maybe) get done by 2032. But relentless campaigning by The Ramblers, the British Mountaineering Council and others eventually secured a completion date of 2020, and with work now underway on every section it looks like that might actually happen.
Here in Norfolk it already has. The ECP is under my feet and on my brand new Ordnance Survey Explorer map. I’m headed for Happisburgh, walking 13 of the 315 miles that’s already open (see p46). The route is shown by the traditional green diamonds of a long-distance trail, with an extra wash of pink beside it. This indicates your right of access to the seashore strip, known officially as the coastal margin, which is mostly the land between path and sea, but sometimes rolls inland too. Here you can roam free, explore any coastal curiosity that catches your eye, picnic, or just gape at the views, with the commonsense caveats you don’t wander in people’s gardens, fields of arable, or where you might come a cropper on cliff or marsh.
The transition from the bright beach huts of Cromer to a quieter, wilder coast is rapid. As I weave along the beach seeking the firmest sand and hopping over groynes, the waves shush gently up the shallow shore, softly cracking pebbles together before abandoning them with a freshlyvarnished shine. Grass and gorse and scrubby trees knit across the cliffs, while birds pipe from the thickets. Where the rock peeks bare, it’s sculpted into eye-catching shapes: sharp like the prow of a boat; intricate like a sandstone arête in Torridon; slumped like the skin of an elephant’s leg. What you see may be entirely different, though, for this is one of the most dynamic coastlines in Britain where the clifftop erodes up to seven feet every year. A recent landslip (which blocks the route at high tide – check times before setting out) hammers the point home.
We’re so used to the shape of Britain’s outline on an atlas it’s hard to believe how rapidly it’s changed. Just 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age, there was no sea here at all. Instead, a vast plain – albeit a swampy, stream-laced one – called Doggerland linked us with the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark. Melting ice pushed sealevels up and the North Sea flooded in, driving the residents to higher ground and making Britain an island 8000 years ago. It’s incredible to imagine what’s out there beneath the waves. It’s even more incredible to think the famously low-lying Norfolk landscape was once somebody’s high ground.
The sea didn’t stop there. Off the end of Cromer pier is the drowned medieval village of Shipden, and it’s far from the only one on this shore. The Domesday Book records 117 residents living around a harbour and three acres of meadow. By 1336 the
sea was washing away the churchyard, by 1400 the church had gone too. It was said you could still hear the church bells ring from under the sea, a haunting sound that foretold storms. Perhaps the skipper of a pleasure steamer in 1888 should have listened more closely: he beached his boat atop the sunken church tower on a trip from Great Yarmouth. A flotilla of little crafts saved the passengers, but there was no moving the speared Victoria until it – and the church tower – were eventually dynamited.
This land-sea battle is an ongoing, heartbreaking reality for local communities as storms and tidal surges devastate the coast. I pass caravans now just feet from the edge (one with an optimistic ’to rent’ notice in the window); outflow pipes and shards of tiled floor tell the fate of others.
In some places it’s done for the England Coast Path too, even though it opened just four years ago. After Sidestrand the path heads for the cliff top and then just vanishes, lying somewhere in the crumpled landslip below. It’s still possible to get through, although keeping the recommended five metres from the edge is not so easy. This is why a ‘roll-back’ provision was included in plans for the ECP. When a section is lost to erosion the coast route isn’t lost to walkers, but instead will, in consultation with landowners, shift inland to a new position.
From a geological point of view the destruction is mesmerising. The turf-topped cliff ahead is deeply scalloped, as if a monstrous caterpillar has taken it for a leaf. Below, the layers of rock lie smashed open and heaped in different colours: sunset-orange sands pocked by part-buried flints, the darker, greyer tills, and great flows of beige clay, which look like solidified magma. Even the sea is tinted, as sediment swirls into the surf before the brine clears to blue beyond.
Finger-wide cracks in the cliff are an unnerving omen of what might happen next. The assault here is two-pronged. Stormy waves run up the narrow beaches to undercut the foot of the cliffs, while groundwater soaks through the upper sandy layer,
hits the impermeable clay and off it all slides. For a more reassuring view look inland, to green forest and cottages of flint, and fields edged with poppies.
Beyond Trimingham, the path takes a turn inland: the ECP does its best to stick tight to the waves but it’s not always possible. Mundesley makes a good Mr Whippy pitstop and then it’s back to the beach. High tide has pushed me to the inland side of the sea defence where the sand heaps dry and the going is slow. The barrier is a head-high rake of railway sleepers, technically known as a revetment, with regular steps up and over so you don’t get stuck paddling in a rising tide. I can hear waves lapping at the other side, and the occasional clap and spray of a bigger breaker, and when I peep over I surprise a curlew and a gaggle of tangerine-beaked oystercatchers. A sea defence and wildlife hide both. Less prettily, I later spot a gull tearing strips off a headless seal.
The path passes beneath a huge gas works and onto the sea wall at Bacton Green, and to be honest, it’s a punishing section: two miles of concrete that make my knees howl, with a pancake sea on one side and bungalows on the other for distraction. But this is also one of the strengths of the England Coast Path: it takes in absolutely every aspect of the country’s shore. Some sections will make you weep at their beauty – the Seven Sisters in Sussex, the castle-backed sands of Northumberland, the hidden coves of Cornwall – but it will also take you to the in-between places and these are the ones full of surprises.
Take this one short stretch. At Mundesley, a memorial honours a tale of local heroism. During World War II Churchill ordered mines buried around the Norfolk coast in case of Nazi invasion. The maps of their locations got lost, the devices shifted; nobody knew where they lay and nobody could walk the shore. In 1944, men began scouting the beaches from Yarmouth to Holkham, prodding sticks into the sand to locate the mines, before digging them clear and making them safe. 26 lost their lives and a 500kg German bomb tops a flint plinth inscribed with their names and the lines: ‘It is thanks to them and their colleagues that our cliffs and beaches are now safe for everyone to use and enjoy. Those who survived will never forget. Those who did not will never be forgotten.’
The Norfolk Coast from Sheringham to Mundesley is known as Poppyland, a term coined by poet Clement Scott in the 19th century. From the moment he first laid eyes on it in 1883 he adored the area, later writing a book about it which enticed many Victorians to come and see the picturesque coast for themselves. “Some sections will make you weep at their beauty… but it will also take you to the in-between places and these are the ones full of surprises.”
A pebble’s throw inland you’ll find the hamlet of Paston, where the family of that name left one of the largest troves of 15th-century manuscripts ever discovered. Real-life, real-time stories of the Black Death, the War of the Roses, and one family’s meteoric rise from the peasantry to the aristocracy of Norfolk. There are letters, legal documents, even shopping lists and one of the oldest Valentine’s epistles, signed ‘ Be your Voluntyne’ by one Mergery Brews in February 1477.
And in Happisburgh – 800,000 year old footprints. Revealed on the beach after stormy weather in 2013, the impressions showed a group of five adults and children, walking south and perhaps foraging for lugworms and crabs. The prints’ age was calculated from the sediment layer in which they were left and they are the earliest known hominid prints outside Africa, thought to be from the species Homo antecessor. Two weeks later they were gone, washed away by the sea.
If the stories aren’t distracting enough, the scenery soon reverts to classic coastal again. I’m back atop a grassy cliff, headed for the red and white stripes of Happisburgh lighthouse, a surprising, and perhaps fortuitous, distance inland, and the end of my day’s walk.
So what of an all-Britain coast path? Well, Wales has had a fully-functioning seaside route since 2012, curving 870 miles from the Severn in the south to the Dee in the north, taking a tour of the Isle of Anglesey on the way. And Scotland has ready access to its coast thanks to the Land Reform Act 2003, although much of it is wild and trackless, and to some walkers best left that way. Some sections have path – Ayrshire, Clyde, Moray, Fife to name a few – but a full tour of the Scottish mainland would top 6000 miles. Add in the islands and you’re looking at more than 10,000. I think I might just start with the next 2783 miles of the England Coast Path...
FROM AN ACORN... ...a mighty project grows. When finished, the whole shore of England will bear the acorn waymarker of the national trails. ON THE FRINGE The shingle beach at Overstrand will be just one of hundreds of coastal habitats to explore when the path is finished.
TERMINAL FACE The cliffs near Trimingham are part of the Cromer Ridge, a stack of glacial moraines piled up at the edge of an ice sheet 430,000 years ago.
DON’T STICK TO THE PATH The England Coast Path opens up more than just a trail; the pink wash indicates coastal access land where you can go exploring.
uWHICH WAY NOW? Navigation on the coast path is a breeze: mostly sea to one side, land to the other, with waymarks wherever there’s a detour. BRITAIN’S BARRIER REEF Trimingham’s sign shows the village cliff, made from the youngest chalk in Britain. It also marks one end of a great undersea chalk reef that begins at Cley and here vanishes beneath the clay.
CABIN FEVER Originally built to give shy Victorians privacy changing into their bathing suits, beach huts are now prime coastal real estate.
RHAPSODY. . . ...in blue, when sea merges into summer sky.
WALK ON The England Coast Path treads past Happisburgh with its tall church tower, currently continuing to Hopton-on-Sea.
PILGRIM PATH Trimingham church is called St John the Baptist’s Head, once housing an alabaster head of the saint which drew pilgrims unable to visit the true relic at Amiens.