Thursday, 10 June 2010

So you want to walk the coast.... Rights of way

An often-asked question is how close you can get to the sea when you walk. In many places mile after mile of glorious sandy beaches take you onwards; in others, you will be lucky to get within a few miles of the sea. Causes of blockages are many and varied: caravan parks, private estates, dockyards and military ranges are some of the worst offenders.

England and Wales have a very well-defined footpath network. This includes stretches of coastal footpath, both short and long. The most obvious one is the 600-plus miles of the South West Coast Path, although the spectacular Pembrokeshire Coast deserves an honourable mention.

The situation in Scotland is somewhat different. Access laws are different and more open, although necessarily more complex (see the Outdoor Access Scotland website for more information). In England, there are plans to increase access to the coast under the Marine and Coastal Access Act. This will naturally increase access, but only over time as the plans get formulated. The Welsh Coastal Footpath around the coast of the Principality should be open by 2012.

It will be a long process to get the dream of a footpath around the entire coast of Britain. Until - and if - that happens, you will have to decide what to do. Some choose to stick as closely as they can to the sea, even if it means trespassing; others stick to a the nearest right-of-way, whilst the practical choose a more vague coastal route (for instance taking in the hills above the North Wales coast instead of treading along mile after mile of roadside cycle path). Pick the rules you want and try to stick to them; no-one will complain.

Most people will choose to pick the nearest right-of-way to the sea, whether that is a glorious footpath or dual carriageway. I did something slightly different; I did trespass a little in England and Wales if it meant that I could get a little nearer the coast, especially if that meant that I avoided road walking. Often I would walk along a beach, then scramble up when the beach ended to reach a right-of-way. I would generally ignore a right-of-way if there was no obvious route back except the way I came. Sometimes I picked a route further inland if it meant avoiding a busy road.

The route I took is detailed on my website. After I finished the walk I would get emails from people telling me of routes nearer to the sea than I chose - local knowledge is absolutely invaluable, and I have updated my website as applicable.

There are places where there are difficulties; one thing that sticks in my mind is in Somerset, where there is no right-of-way nearer than the M5. I have heard tales of someone who walked along the M5 for a short distance, but I opted to take a precarious culvert under the M5 and then footpaths further inland (later, I could legally walk alongside the M5 when it crossed the Avonmouth Bridge). It says a great deal that the only time I had a farmer tell me to 'get off my land' was when I was walking along a good-quality concrete track across fields to the west of Inverness.

You should be careful when walking along beaches; always ensure that there is an escape route at the far end, and that the tide will not trap you. Tide tables are available in shops around the coast. Likewise, be aware that in some places like the coasts of Lincolnshire and Suffolk, coastal erosion occurs at such a pace that footpaths are often rerouted. Take care.

Likewise, be aware that rogue waves can and do strike the coast, and at least one coastal walker had a nasty experience due to one. These are mainly caused by ferries heading close inland, so be aware of this near the ports.

I never knowingly encountered quicksands on the walk, a concern that I had before I set off. I did encounter soft areas of sand and mud, but nothing severe. A stranger and altogether unexpected hazard was unexploded munitions: I came across a couple of small shells lying on remote stretches of beach on different sides of the country - both near to old military ranges.

However, be aware that just because a right of way is shown on the map it is not necessarily safe to walk. Cliffs erode, throwing the paths onto the beach below, and bridges or stepping-stones washed away. Worse, some paths on the maps cross tidal areas and should only be used with experienced guides. The most famous example of this is across Morecombe Sands, where the Queen's Guide to the Sands has to guide people across. Another example is in the environs of Foulness Island in Essex, where paths lead out across the mudflats. Use at your peril.

Military ranges also cause problems; there are many on the way, including the Wash RAF ranges, the Essex ranges around Foulness, the Lulworth range, the Castlemartin range and the Cape Wrath range. All are marked on the relevant OS maps. More information on access and opening times of the ranges can be found on the MOD website. Some of these involve lengthy diversions if the ranges are shut.

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