Wednesday, 9 June 2010

So you want to walk the coast... Routes , maps, support, companionship and expense

The route

There are several questions that need to be answered about the route that you will be follow.

The first question is whether you want to walk the coast in one go or split it up into sections. The former means taking the best part of a year out of your life; the latter means giving up your holidays for up to twenty years. Walking it in one go is much harder and is a greater achievement; walking it in sections allows you to savour the very best of what the coast had to offer without having to hurry through.

The next question is how much of the coast you want to walk. Some people choose to walk just England, using Offa's Dyke and Hadrian's Wall to miss Wales and Scotland, whilst others choose to walk just Wales or Scotland. John Westley included Ireland on his walk, and others such as myself, included some islands. It also seems to be fairly popular to include the three highest mountains (Scafell pike, Snowdon and Ben Nevis) on the walk as well, walking from the coast inland before climbing them. Obviously the more you include, the longer and harder the resultant walk.

For the purpose of these articles, I shall assume that the entire coast of England, Wales and Scotland is being circumnavigated in one go. Much of what I say is applicable to sectional walkers as well.

The next question is the start and endpoints. These will usually be the same place; i.e. you will walk around the coast, ending up where you began. The most popular single place to begin is London, for the obvious reasons: it is accessible to many people, and it is an ideal place to get publicity for the walk. There have been many other startpoints: my own was Edinburgh Castle, whilst others have started at Eastbourne, John O'Groats, Southampton, Aberyswyth, Whitby and many other places. At least one person started by walking straight out of the door of his parent's house. Pick your start point according to what meets your needs best.

The next question is the direction in which you walk; either clockwise or counter-clockwise. Both are fairly popular, although a surprising number of people go clockwise because anti-clockwise is, apparently, the devil's way. The less superstitious may want to walk in a direction that means they are on the south coast in winter - giving you the longest days and better weather.

Another important decision is whether to take ferries. When I was planning my walk I measured the route on paper maps. I planned two variants - one taking ferries, which came in at about 4,500 miles, and another without taking them, meaning that I had to walk to the nearest crossing point (bridges, fords, stepping stones etc). This came out at 5,500 miles, or a thousand miles longer. I set off planning not to take ferries, although I was willing to break that rule if forced to. In the end I did not, with two exceptions: in South Devon I caught a ferry across an estuary to a town in the evening, recrossing the next morning to resume the walk. The other exception was when I took a ferry across to the Isle of Arran, which would have been hard to reach without taking a ferry! Afterwards I returned to the place I had first boarded the ferry.

It is also important to think about when you want to start. If you assume that you are walking for 4,500 miles, then that will be about ten months of walking. A February start would mean that you would miss the shortest days and coldest weather. Obviously, that is a guideline and irrelevant if you are planning to walk for an entire year.


The route I walked required 101 1:50,000 maps - exactly half of the Landranger series. I had several already, but over the course of six months before the walk I bought the rest, sometimes getting them cheap from shops that were closing. Nowadays electronic maps are available, but I would recommend only using those as a backup - there is nothing like paper maps for seeing large areas, and there are no batteries to go flat. Unfortunately, the maps will cost money. You could buy the electronic maps and then print off your route; however this will limit you to just what is visible on A4 sheets.

I also used guidebooks for coastal paths where available - for instance the South West Coast Path, Pembrokeshire Path, North Norfolk Path and the Cleveland Way. Although they are expensive the guidebooks give you a wealth of information about what will be seen on the route and guidance on the walk. They are all valuable additions to your armoury.

The next choice is whether to use 1:25,000 or 1:50,000 maps. The former give you more detail and make navigation easier, but you need far more maps at greater cost. The latter are less detailed but cover a far greater area, meaning that you need fewer of them. For most of the time 1:50,000 maps should be fine.

It was also possible to pick up a surprising amount of information from Tourist Information offices on the route - I discovered, amongst others, the Berwickshire Coast Path from a TI office. More are being created all the time. Welsh walkers should have a complete coastal footpath by 2012; England and Scotland will take longer to reach the same position. Maps are still vital, however. Their bulk can be reduced by using the Royal Mail's post restante service to forward bundles of maps to where you need them.


My girlfriend drove a motorhome for the year, supporting me as I walked. Several others have done this, whilst some walkers have been more hardcore and camped out for most of the way. This obviously means less comfort and far more weight to be carried.

The jungle telegraph in rural areas can work wonders if you need help; it is possible to get people kind enough to put you up for night after night as you walk, each new village having someone willing to help. Naturally enough, it is vital that you are a companionable, pleasant person for this to work!


Before I set off I expected the walk to be 80% mental effort and 20% physical effort - i.e. I expected it to be harder mentally then physically. Having my girlfriend with me was vital - she could give me warm meals, comfort and companionship when I was not walking. Some parts of the coast are very remote, and you may go for significant periods without seeing (yet alone talking to) another person. Such loneliness can wear down even the hardiest of men or women. Fortunately mobile phones make it easier to hear that much-needed friendly voice when you are feeling down.

Doing this walk on your own would be tough. However, walking with other people can also be hard - you have to imagine spending at least ten months of your life with that other person, twenty-four hours a day, in fair weather and foul. It would be enough to test any relationship. If you plan to have company during the walk, make sure it is with someone that you can get on well with.


Obviously walking the coast will cost a great deal of money. How much depends on how you do it - staying at B&B's would obviously cost the most and camping the least. Whichever you do, however, think of how the expense will effect your plans. I paid for my own walk, and the cost for the year was probably about £12,000; however, we had the up-front cost of buying a motorhome, which we sold after the walk at a £4,000 loss (not bad given the distance driven).

Calculate your expenditure before you set off, add a contingency, and make sure you know how to get that money. Contact everyone you know who lives near the coast to see if they can accommodate you for a night or two. Advance planning could save a great deal of heartache in the long run. It would be a tragedy to have to stop the walk due to lack of funds.

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