Tuesday, 15 June 2010

So you want to walk the coast... highlights and lowlights

It is time to have a little fun after all of this serious talk. Below are my suggestions for the best bits of the English, Scottish and Welsh coasts. I have split it up into eleven sections, and will mention my favourite bits and honourable mentions.

England - east coast (Berwick-on-Tweed to London)

The east coast is best characterised as being flat, with possibly the easiest walking of the entire coast. Where there are hills, such as the spectacular white cliffs near Flamborough or the Cleveland Way, they tend to be low and rolling rather than jagged and steep. It makes for a gentle introduction to walking the coast, with few strenuous sections. Although rural, you are never too far from civilisation and shops.
This is the stretch of coast where you really learn about the power of the sea: deposition at Spurn Head and erosion at Happisburgh. The east coast of England is truly a dynamic coastline.

The best bit:
Undoubtedly the best part of this stretch of coast is in North Norfolk. I have walked here before and after my coastwalk, and it is the one area that I yearn to return to again. Do not fail to have a crab sandwich in Cromer.

Honourable mentions:
  • The coastal section of the Cleveland Way. Staithes has to be one of the most beautiful villages anywhere on the coast; small, compact and picturesque. 
  • Nearby Whitby has to be in the running for most beautiful town: it has not lost its charm dspite being bustling, touristy and historic.

The worst bit:
The path running from Middlesborough to Redcar between railway line and steel works. It is a horrid, stinking and waterlogged path.
A (dis)honourable mention should go to the walk from Spurn Head to Hull, and then across to Grimsby. Long plods along sea banks are interspersed with grotty industrial landscapes. The upsides are the regenerated centre of Hull and the crossing the River Humber via the magnificent suspension bridge.

England - south coast (London to Poole)

Perhaps the most built-up area of the coast. Easy walking along the Thames and around Kent is followed by a spectacular stretch of coast between Folkestone and Dover. Some flat walking past Dungeness leads to the cliffs at Beachy Head. Then the coast becomes heavily indented as it passes the Solent and skims the New Forest to reach Bournemouth and Poole.

The best bit:
A very difficult choice, but I think it has to go to the Seven Sisters and Beachy Head. a rollicking rollercoaster ride of a walk. I will never get tired of this walk, even if I get tired when doing it. The chalk cliffs seem to shine in sunny weather, and it is a challenge to see how close you dare to get to the very edge of the cliff. Being a wimp (if a sane wimp), I kept well away.

Honourable mentions:
  • Hurst Castle near Milford on Sea is a spectacular location, looking out over the Solent towards the Isle of Wight. Reaching it involved a long stroll along a shingle bank, or you can cheat by taking the passenger ferry that runs from the mainland.
  • Portsmouth and HMS Warrior deserve a mention, if only because I got married there seven years after I passed it on the walk.
  • The cliffs between Dover to Folkestone make for a spectacular and accessible walk, with lots of interest to see, from sound mirrors to the Battle of Britain memorial.
The worst bit:
Some of the towns: Brighton, Dover and Sittingbourne can be dreary and somewhat depressing places to walk through, although Dover does at least have plenty of interest for the historians amongst us.

England - southwest (Poole to Bristol) 
The majority of this stretch follows the South West Coast Path as it winds its way through Dorset, Devon, Cornwall and Somerset. From Minehead in Somerset, it followed the coast through Somerset to the mouth of the River Avon to the northwest of Bristol.

The best bit:
Another very difficult choice; perhaps the section from Bude to Hartland Point, if only because it is the hardest day of the entire South West Coast Path. In places the path resembles a stepped rollercoaster. In the process the path crosses the border between Cornwall and Devon, before eventually reaching the lighthouse at Hartland Point.

Honourable mentions:
  • The Isle of Portland. Although not an official part of the South West Coast Path until recently, the path around the island is superb, and in many ways a microcosm of the path as a whole (aside from the absence of sandy beaches).
  • Dawlish to Shaldon. This stretch of path mostly follows the railway line as it squeezes between the red sandstone cliffs and the sea. A favourite for holidaymakers, dog-walkers and railway photographers alike. Can be rather wet in stormy weather.
  • Land's End to St Ives. A superb section of coastal path that combines sea views with the skeletal ruins of old tin mines. In poor weather it truly feels like the very end of the world, yet it is never dreary.
The worst bit:
Possibly Torquay and Plymouth. The large towns and cities that the South West Coast Path passes through are the reason why the Pembrokeshire Path outshines it. You can walk through wonderful scenery for a day only to end up amongst drunken holidaymakers wearing kiss-me-quick hats. All well and good, but a depressing return to reality for the coastal walker.
A (dis)honourable mention ought to go to the landslip diversions around Charmouth.

Wales - south (Bristol to Aberystwyth)
Shortly after leaving Bristol the Severn Channel has to be crossed; if you do not take the motorway bridge then a long diversion up to Gloucester is required. The South Wales coast is fairly flat as it passes Cardiff and Swansea. A spectacular walk around the Gower Peninsula leads to more flat walking and the start of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. From there, the Ceredigion Coastal Path leads on to Aberystwyth.

The best bit:
Again it is hard to know the best stretch of this coast, but it would have to be part of the Pembrokeshire coast. If pushed, I would say that the area around the Green Bridge of Wales on the Castlemartin Ranges is the best. Nestled within a cleft in the cliffs nearby is St Govan's Chapel. Unfortunately these areas reside on a military range, and access depends on the military. It is well worth timing your walk to reach the ranges when they are open, even if the diversion is not much longer. The areas west of the Green Bridge of Wales are rarely open to the public.

Honourable mentions:
  • Any of the Pembrokeshire coast. The Pembrokeshire Coast Path is by far the best coastal footpath in England and Wales, a true gem of a walk. It is also a contender for the best National Trail.
  • The Gower. I did not see the Gower at its best on my walk; it took another visit to show me the beauty of this accessible peninsular.
The worst bit:
Many would say the area around Milford Haven, but I found a certain grandeur in the structures in that area, especially when watching the gigantic oil tankers being turned into dock. For this reason my vote would go for the stretch from Redwick to Cardiff via Newport, which involves negotiating an oil refinery and other industrial nonsense.

Wales - north (Aberystwyth to Flint)
The coast swings north along some beautiful beaches towards the Lleyn peninsular, which is characterised by high, soaring cliffs. It then leads on to Caernarfon, with the Isle of Anglesea just over the Menai Straits. After Bangor the coastline straightens out and passes a series of seaside resorts: Llandudno, Rhyl and Prestatyn, before the English border is reached.

The best bit:
I loved the Lleyn peninsular, which was an unexpectedly beautiful area. Little known, it suffers from its close proximity to the high mountains of Snowdonia, but is well worth a visit. It deserves to be better known and walked more.

Honourable mentions:
  • The Marine Drive around the Great Orme is a lovely walk with superb views out to sea, although a little hard on the feet. Once you have walked the four-mile road you can take the Great Orme Tramway to the summit.
  • The long golden breach running north from Borth to the mouth of the River Dovey are superb in good weather.
The worst bit:
The worst stretch of this coast has to be through the seaside resorts of North Wales, with the notable exception of Llandudno. Rhyl and Prestatyn are depressing places for the long-distance walker, urban centres of joy for people who prefer lounging on the sand to walking. Llandudno escapes from this list due to Great Orme Head.

England - northwest (Flint to Gretna Green)
Back into England, you are dumped into the north-west connurbation around Liverpool. Blackpool soon follows, and then the more remote areas around the Cumbrian coast. The going becomes increasingly rural as the coast turns to head inland towards the Scottish border at Gretna Green.

The best bit:
The Cumbrian coast between Seascale and St Bees Head is perhaps the best part of this coast, with long beaches behind low cliffs leading to the red cliffs of St Bees Head. I remember this stretch of coast with fondness.

Honourable mentions:
  • The walk around Morecombe Way was a highly enjoyable stroll, with little villages and towns separated by long expanses of countryside and expansive mud- and sand- flats.
  • The walk along the southern coast of the Solway Firth was easy and surprisingly enjoyable. In particular, the stretch from Bowness-on-Solway eastwards.
The worst bit:
This has to be the stretch between Runcorn and Liverpool; a walk along the estuarine mudflats below John Lennon airport followed by a stroll through seemingly never-ending docks. The only upside are all-too-brief glimpses of the historic Liverpool waterfront.

Southwest Scotland (Gretna Green to Glasgow)
Although Gretna Green to Glasgow is a short distance at the crow flies (or the M74 drives), it is a long walk. The coast heads westwards through Dumfries and Galloway before curving northwards towards the Clyde and Scotland's biggest city. As you head north, views of Ailsa Craig and the Isle of Arran dominate the views to seaward, tantalising glimpses of the terrain to come.

The best bit:
I loved the area around Wigtown and the Isle of Whithorn. Hardly classic walking, but the towns and villages are all endearing. Wigtown is Scotland's book capital, and it is easy to lose yourself for a day browsing in the shops. St Ninian's Cave lies at the southern end of the Isle.

Honourable mentions:
  • The area around the Mull of Galloway lighthouse, from where the Isle of Man, Ireland and England can all be seen on a clear day.
  • The paths leading north of Largs, with superb views over towards Bute.
The worst bit:
As can be expected, I found the approaches to Glasgow along the southern banks of the River Clyde to be fairly nondescript. It was, however, far better than the areas around the Mersey.

Scotland - the lochs (Glasgow to Fort William)
Again a relatively short distance by car, yet the coastal route is about as indirect as it is possible to get. A series of lochs take you to virtually every point of the compass before you turn for the first significant southerly journey on the west coast, down to the Mull of Kintyre. The going becomes straighter after this, and you feel as though you are running up the coast through Oban to Fort William, and the start of the remotest section of Britain's coastline.

The best bit:
It is so hard to choose the best bit of this scenic area of coastline. If pushed, however, I would say that the Kintyre Peninsular had an undefinable something. Most people think of the Mull of Kintyre, but the whole of the mainland island was special. In particular, keep an eye out for the carved graveslabs that are displayed in several churches. The main town, Camplbletown, was very welcoming. Also look out for the long stretch of beach alongside Machrihanish Bay.

Honourable mentions:
  • Loch Fyne, if only for the eponymous restaurant that lies at its head. It is the longest of the lochs that bar the route westwards from Glasgow, but it is also the last, and marks the entrance to Kintyre.
  • The Isle of Arran was a pleasure to walk around, and the locals were very friendly.
The worst bit:
For me, this was the stretch around the western bank of Loch Striven. A hard, pathless walk with few decent views to make up for the exertion. I was well and truly fed up with the lochs by the time I reached Loch Striven, and the rough terrain just added insult to injury.

Scotland - the northwest (Fort William to Cape Wrath)
Perhaps the best bit of Britain's coastline, and certainly the remotest. From Fort William the coast heads westwards towards Ardnamurchan Point, the westernmost point on the mainland, before heading northwards towards Mallaig. A hard walk though Knoydart via Inverie is followed by superb stretches of coast passing the Isle of Skye. An exhilarating, winding road leads to Applecross, and then coastal roads and paths lead to Ullapool, the last large town that will be seen for weeks. If anything the coast northwards becomes even more remote, eventually reaching Kylesku, Rhiconich and Kinlochbervie. Then it is a wild and exhilarating walk to Sandwood Bay and Cape Wrath.

The best bit:
I have no hesitation in saying the stretch of coast between Kinlochbervie, Sandwood Bay and Cape Wrath. A path leads the four miles north from the nearest road to Sandwood Bay, which is perhaps my favourite part of coast. A shallow freshwater lock is separated from the sea by high sand dunes. It is truly a magical spot, and apparently the place where the last sighting of a Mermaid in the British Isles. Bleak moorland separates Sandwood Bay from Cape Wrath; wild, trackless but exhilarating countryside. A glimpse of the lighthouse at Cape Wrath is a just reward for the hard walking.

Honourable mentions:
  • Any stretch of the coast, really, especially if you like wild and bleak walking. There are large expanses of white, sandy beaches that are almost always deserted.
  • I have a perverse fondness for the Kylseku bridge which, despite being made from concrete, is far from brutal, and strangely fits in with the surrounding scenery.
  • The area around Ardnamurchan Point had some extremely pleasant walking.
The worst bit:
For me, this is Ullapool, where we had a nasty incident one night. It is unfortunate that one drunken man has blackened the name of the town in my mind. For others Ullappol would be a welcome place to reprovision for the shopless miles that lay ahead.

Scotland - the northeast (Cape Wrath to Aberdeen)
The character of the coast changes the moment it turns the northwestern point of Scotland: habitation becomes more common, and the countryside, although still wild, seems almost friendlier and accessible. After passing the tourist hideousness of John O'Groats the coast skirts the A9 south towards Inverness, before heading eastwards past Fraserburgh. One last turn takes the coast southwards through Peterhead and past the oil coast to Aberdeen.

The best bit:
Cape Wrath to Durness, via Kearvaig and Faraid Head. This really is a spectacular walk. A road takes you east from the Cape Wrath lighthouse and (if you are lucky) across a military firing range. Just before this, a track leads down to the beach and bothy at Kearvaig, which has to be one of the best-located bothies in Scotland (if you can stand the midges). The road ends at the Kyle of Durness, where a ferry can be used to get you across to Durness. The alternative is a long and wild walk around the southern end of the Kyle. Instead of walking directly to Durness you can take a long, winding walk that takes you past golden beaches to the military installation at Faraid Head, and then back past high sand dunes. A truly memorable stretch of coast.

Honourable mentions:
  • I have a breathtaking panorama of eleven oil rigs in the Cromarty Firth. This may seem surprising, but there was a spectacular grandeur in the line of stored rigs, especially when viewed against the surrounding hills. 
  • The Black Isle to the north of Inverness is not known for its walking, but it made for a pleasant stroll for a few days. Recommended.
  • The small fishing villages along the coast to the east of Inverness are all superb. Particularly recommended is Pennan, where the film "Local Hero" was filmed. The village is only accessible by a steep, winding road that heads down from the cliffs above.
  • The beach leading down from Fraserburgh to Rattray Head is superb, and a walk that I yearn to do again, perhaps exploring the inland areas of Buchan in the process.
The worst bit:
Possibly Aberdeen. This was the largest area of habitation that I had passed through since Glasgow, and the change in the attitude of people was marked. People were generally friendly in the rural areas (Ullapool excepted); enter a small village and people would undoubtedly take us into their hearts. The kindness we saw was notable and gratefully received. Enter Aberdeen, however, and it was all too obvious that we were in a city.

Scotland - the east (Aberdeen to Berwick-on-Tweed)
The Kingdom of Fife dominates this stretch, and the 82-mile long Fife Coastal path is well worth a walk (and possibly deserves to become a National Trail). From the end of the Fife path it is a quick walk across the Forth Bridge to Edinburgh, the beautiful Scottish capital. Easy walking follows eastwards and southeastwards, the only hard walking occurring in the St Abbs area.

The best bit:
Undoubtedly the Fife Coastal Path. If I had to pick an individual stretch, then the area around Elie and the Elie Chain Walk has to be the highlight. This is a series of chains attached to the cliffs that allows you - with care - to traverse round and up the cliffs. It gave me a perspective on the coast that I had not got in the previous 6,000 miles of walking. Added to this are the friendly towns and villages nearby, such as St Monans.

Honourable mentions:
  • Edinburgh. Although not strictly on the coast (Leith is the coastal part of the city), any coastal walker should consider a stroll up Leith Walk into the Scottish Capital. The views from Carlton Hill or Arthur's Seat across the city into the Firth of Forth and Fife can be superb if you catch the right weather. Edinburgh has truly caught hold of my heart.
  • The area around St Abbs is very pleasant, although there is hard walking immediately to the west. 
  • The walk south to the English border and Berwick upon Tweed is superb, with the path jammed in between the railway line to the right and the sea to the left. An exhilarating walk.
The worst bit:
This is difficult to decide; perhaps the area immediately to the west of Edinburgh after having crossed the Forth Bridge, or some of the larger Fife towns. Generally the walking in this area was good, especially when compared to some of the English stretches.


So there you have it, a whistle-stop tour of the British coastline, along with my thoughts on the best and worst parts. Your ideas will undoubtedly differ: for one thing, the weather in which you see an area will very much reflect on how you feel about it. The Gower in South Wales was a hideous walk for me, and it took a sunny return journey six years later to realise quite how picturesque it was. Likewise, Sandwood Bay has been bathed in sunshine both times I have visited. It, and the walk north to Cape Wrath would be very different in bad weather.

It is very much an individual thing:. For me, the sight of supertankers turning made Milford Haven fascinating; others believe that it spoils the rest of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path.

What stretches of coast do you love and hate? Please let me know.

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