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...

Country Walking Magazine (UK) - - Contents - WORDS: JENNY WAL­TERS PHO­TOS: TOM BAI­LEY

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.

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