Wednesday, 16 June 2010

So you want to walk the coast... Further reading

So all of this information has not put you off walking the coast. Your training is going well, you have bought some maps and you are ready and raring to go. Yet the scale of what lies ahead feels overwhelming. Where can you get more information?

Firstly, I would direct people to my website at (part of my larger walking website at There are over 340 pages describing my year-long walk, along with others based on the coast. I give notes on the walk and directions, along with google maps that roughly show the route taken. Unfortunately these notes were written in the evenings whilst I was on the walk, often on a Psion 5, so the quality of the English and typing are not as good as I would like - they are more of a braindump than polished prose.

I have collected a list of other websites from people who have walked the coast on my website - unfortunately many of these links are now dead.

Quite a few books have been written about the coastwalk, from John Merrill's detailing his pioneering walk in 1976 to Spud Talbot Ponsony's heartfelt description of her walk twenty years later. Each of these is worth reading if you want information about the walk before you set off (or even on the way if you can stand the weight). However, there is something incomparably pleasant about discovering places for the first time on a walk.

I had a few strange experiences on the walk, which I will collectively call 'literary archeology'. For instance, John Merrill's book contains a photo of a large pile of old, rusting horseshoes in a yard near Wareham. When I walked past a quarter of a century later the horseshoes had been arranged into a thick wall.

Likewise, in Durham John Merril describes large conveyor belts carrying spoil from Easington Colliery to the cliff edge, dropping it down into the sea to form new land. When Spud passed by the area she described a run-down area; the collieries had been closed. By the time I passed the story was slightly different; the colleries had been landscaped and many replaced with industrial and retail parks. The built-up cliffs of spoil were quickly being eroded by the sea, leaving a weird black beach behind. Different jobs, perhaps, but jobs nonetheless. Nearby I saw one solitary pit pony in a field; a dying breed.

Perhaps the books written by coastal walkers are acting as a commentary on the changes in the use of our coastline.

Below are just some of the books available. For a fuller list, see the 'links' section of my website.

The sea on our left

Shally Hunt's excellent book about her walk around the coastline of Britain with her husband, Richard. Details well the hazards that can confront people walking together, even if they have been married for years.

Two feet, four paws

Spud Talbot-Ponsonby's story of her walk around the coastline, accompanied by her dog, Tess. A truly excellent, heartwarming read, and perhaps the best book on the walk.

Turn right at Land's End

John Merrill's book about his walk around the coast. John was the first person to do the walk, and he suffered a stress fracture in his foot on the way. A good read about an amazing achievement.

Midges, Maps and Muesli: Account of a 5, 000 Mile Walk Round the Coast of Britain

The story of Helen Krasner's solo walk around the coast. A very heartfelt and interesting read.

And the Road Below: The Blister-by-blister Account of His Record Breaking Walk Around the Coastline of the British Isles

As the title says, this book is about John Westley's long walk, which for the first time included Ireland as well. A superb achievement.

No fixed abode: a long walk to the Dome.

This book details Douglas Legg's itinerant walk around the coast to the Millenium Dome at the end of the last century. His approach to the walk was certainly different, but his account is lively and thought-provoking.

Shake well before use
Walking the coast is hard enough when you are fit. Tom Isaacs' walk, however, was made even more remarkable by the fact that he suffers from early-onset Parkinson's Disease. He walked the coast in 2002/3 (we met in Cornwall), and raised £350,000 for the Parkinsons Disease Society and allied charities. An amazing achievement.It should also be said that my superb singing also gets a mention.


Andrew McCloy's book details routes around the coastline of England and Wales and is an indispensable guide to people planning the walk. And it is small enough to fit in a rucksack during the walk.

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.

Monday, 14 June 2010

So you want to walk the coast... Charity

It's all for charidee, mate!

This is perhaps going to be the most controversial of these sections. Some people have raised large amounts of money for charity whilst doing the walk - in the order of several hundreds of thousands of pounds each. I was remarkably less successful, and I think the reasons might be useful to others.

Firstly, the fundraising aspects were, for me, a drag (and even more so for my girlfriend). We both believed in the charity and wanted to raise money for them. However, the main reason for the walk was the walk, and fundraising was a side effort. We were attempting to do everything on our own, with few contacts to help us. To be frank it was a nightmare, especially for my girlfriend who was left to do most of the organising whilst I walked.

If you are walking to raise money for a cause that you hold dear, then the first aim should be the charity, not the walk. This means that the walk will be hindered to a certain extent by the fundraising - a classic example is having to be in a certain place at a certain time in order to do an interview. It all adds extra pressure on to the walk.

Secondly, you will need a person (or ideally, a team of people) behind you who are committed to the fundraising effort; people with contacts in the media are ideal. You will often be out of contact with the world, and you need people who can coordinate the fundraising activities for you.

Thirdly, get buy-in from the charity. This is absolutely vital, both for publicity and your own sanity. They will have the contacts that will help you publicise your fundraising efforts. Additionally, you will find that supporters of the charity will be keen to help you when you are in their area - that was certainly the case for us, and we were the recipients of many small acts of kindness during the year.

Fourthly, prepare literature to hand out on the walk. People will often not want to give you money as you walk (besides, there are legal complexities to doing that). Instead, have a website where people can donate and read more about your progress. Business cards and leaflets are a remarkably effective way of spreading your message, especially as you will meet literally thousands of people on your walk. I had a little banner attached to the back of my rucksack, and this seemed to positively encourage people to come and speak to me.

Please do not let this put you off fundraising as you walk - it is a great way of raising money, as many people have shown. Just be aware that it will get in the way of the walk, and that the walk will get in the way of the fundraising.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

So you want to walk the coast... safety

Walking the coast should be safe - I have only heard of one person suffering a serious injury whilst attempting it - he was the victim of a fall down a cliff at night in Cornwall. Given that over 100,000 miles would have been walked around the coast, that is good going.

However, safety should never be taken for granted. Some parts of the coast are very remote and, although the worst can happen to everyone, being prepared can save a great deal of trouble and pain.

First, even if you have a GPS, take a map and compass and know how to use them. This is absolutely vital. Various groups do training in their usage. Nothing can test your skills better than going onto Kinder Scout and trying to navigate between two points. I once met a man in Lynton who was attempting to walk the South West Coast Path using only the A5-sized publicity guide to the path!

Secondly, take a mobile phone. True, it is extra weight and it may not be possible to get a signal, but that would be a minority of the time. If you get into trouble then it could be a lifesaver. If mobile phone charging is not going to be practical very often then leave it switched off until a prearranged hour of the day - say between eight and nine at night. Also arrange for people to send you text messages for routine calls, saving power and allowing you to pick them up at any time.

Take a whistle and know the signal to use. A torch is also vital, both for signalling in emergencies and for use if you get benighted. Good, lighweight and powerful LED headtorches are fairly cheap nowadays.

Another useful thing is to tell people where you are as often as feasible, and when you will next be in contact. Ideally do this with someone who will know what to do if you do not get into contact, and not someone who will panic.

Another useful device would be a Personal Locator Beacon. These were originally developed for sailors, and send a signal via radio to satellites. When combined with an in-built GPS, they can be an invaluable way of trelling emergency services both that you are hurt, and where you are. I looked into getting one of these before my walk, but farcially they are illegal for use on land in the UK - as they are mainly used for maritime purposes the Maritime and Coastguard Agency had to deal with distress calls. This is in contrast to Tasmania, where you can hire them from the Parks and Wildlife Service. Fortunately it looks as though sanity will prevail soon. However, there is a solution available now. The SPOT device is technically not a PLB as it uses satellites phones rather then dedicated rescue satellites. As well as being a rescue beacon, it allows people to track your progress as you walk, providing a Google Earth map of where you last signed in. If I was doing another coastal walk then I would definitely get one. Note, however, that the situation is changing all the time, and you would be best off investigating which product (if any) best suits your needs.

Get a first aid kit, and throw out any contents that you do not know how to safely use. For instance, many kits come with syringes; I always get rid of these as I have no idea how to use them, and no real idea of a sensible scenario where I might need them. My kit includes various bandages, plasters, scissors, nail clippers, antiseptic cream, medistrips and zinc oxide tape. It is far from heavy and very compact. Your contents may well vary.

If you have particular medical problems (e.g. allergies), then put details in your wallet or purse where it can easily be found. Be sure to incude any medication you may be on. For serious conditions, consider using a medical bracelet.

Also investigate carrying a survival bag or storm shelter. A basic survival bag is a rectangle of orange plastic that you can crawl in if you get into difficulty. A storm shelter is larger, and can be used for similar purposes. It is basically a small, lightweight tent. It can seem a shame to carry the weight of a bag when you may not use it, but it may just save your life. Again, know how to use them.

One serious injury that has occured to coastal walkers are fractured metatarsals (the little bones in the feet made famous by David Beckham). John Merrill suffered from a fractured metarsal on his walk, and so did another coastal walker a couple of decades later. Both of these men were camping (i.e. carrying a great deal of weight) and doing 30+ mile days. It appears that the constant flexing of these small bones causes them to snap.

Perhaps the best safety advice I can give is this: if you believe that something is marginal - weather, tide or route - then take a safer option. On several occasions I changed my route due to high tides; in others I stated away from high cliffs due to high winds. It is better to change your plans than end up injured or worse. I prefer to carry a little extra weight with me and have the peace of mind.

Remember: to walk the coast, you first have to finish.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

So you want to walk the coast... Kit

The question I get asked the most is: "what sort of boots do you recommend?". This is perhaps the question that is easiest to answer: "ones that fit you." That is all there is to it; get boots that do what you want and that are comfortable: recommendations are essentially pointless, as what works for me will not for you. Unlike coats and trousers, boots are much more variable in terms of shape, fit and size. I used five pairs of Scarpa Trek 2's on the walk (sadly no longer in production), along with three pairs of trainers for the road stretches.

There is little that is coastwalk-specific about GPS units, so I refer you to the Walkingworld website for information. Note you may want to have a mapping unit, or leave it on the whole time to create a trail of your walk.

Again, there is little specific about tents. Please remember, though, that if you are camping you may spend many hundreds of nights in it, so get something that is a) bulletproof and b) comfortable. This may rule out some of the lighter tents.Get something that you can see spend many nights in.

Walking gear
Obviously a good coat and waterproof trousers are vital. Aside from this, fleeces, trousers and base layers are all required. Many people swap clothes out between autumn and spring, sending home or receiving warmer clothes. There are many different clothes on the market, many of which would do the job admirably. Find out what fits and is comfortable and think of how it will wear out over the course of the walk.

Friday, 11 June 2010

So you want to walk the coast... Camping, food, supplies and ablutions


There are many sites on the Internet that will tell you everything you need to know about camping in the UK. It is obvious that camping will be cheaper than most other forms of accommodation, with the main disadvantage being the weight you will have to carry.

Even if you have a motorhome supporting you, then there may be times when you need to camp - the Knoydart peninsular being a classic example. It would almost be a shame to do the walk and not spend a night or two under canvas.

An obvious problem is where to camp. Campsites are often few and far between, especially in winter, and therefore you will often end up wild camping, which is technically illegal in the UK. There are various approaches you can do to minimise this.

Firstly, I have found that asking people in a village for somewhere to camp pays dividends - on several occasions people have freely allowed me to pitch my tent in their gardens, once to the surprise of the homeowner's wife when she returned from the shop to find me sunning myself on their lawn! Farmers will often allow you to camp if you ask politely (and politeness is the key) - once I ended up camping in a graveyard with my tent between the gravestones.

If you are working with a charity, they may be able to help. Most people are genuinely kind, and the bush telegraph in rural societies can work exceptionally well. One coastal walker completed most of his walk simply by staying in stranger's homes, each person phoning around to find him a bed for the next night. I find it very hard to accept such kindness from strangers, but as someone put it: they get more out of being part of your challenge than you take from them. People like being involved with the challenge.

Sometimes the best-laid plans will fail and you will need to wild camp. I have several rules for this: firstly, always try and get permission. If that is not possible, try to be as unobtrusive as you can be. Do not make a mess (I always keep the area around my tent immaculate). Do not start hanging washing lines between trees, or leaving empty food cans scattered about, even if you intend to clear them up before you leave. Campfires are also, unfortunately, a big no-no. For more details, see the excellent v-g wild camping website.

Get to know where the YHA and independent hostels are to be found along your route - they provide fairly inexpensive accommodation and offer the chance to charge batteries (electrical and metaphorical) and have a shower. In Scotland, bothies will also be of use. The Mountain Bothies Association can give you more information.

If you are camping, then make sure you know your kit inside out. Invest in a very good tent - you may be spending over 300 nights in it - and sleep in it on both cold and warm nights. Practice putting it up in a storm as well as in the sun. Likewise, get a good sleeping bag in which you will be comfortable. Learn how to cook on a small gas or meths stove, and find recipes that can be made from food bought in small stores.


Let us be blunt: food is a vital yet often neglected aspect of the walk. If an army marches on its stomach, then you will walk on yours. Food not only nourishes the body, it can alter moods as well; having a bite of your favourite chocolate bar when depressed can work wonders. Likewise, finding only a smelly, dried-up apple at the bottom of your rucksack when you are ravenous does not help you cover the last few miles of the day.

Many long-distance walkers use dehydrated food - this reduces the weight of the food you have to carry. There are ready-made dehydrated foods available on the market from companies such as Wayfarer - although, to be honest, I have never found any that I like. Some people purchase dehydrators to make their own campfood. They then practice, trying out different recipes to see which works. This would be a great deal cheaper, although requires much more organisation. A camper could have such meals sent out to them regularly.

Before you set off, try and work out what food you like, and how much you need to keep you going. My girlfriend was a trained cook, so I was kept well and nutritiously fed during my walk.

I tend to keep two types of food: the main meals are kept safely in the dry of the main body of my rucksack, where they can be retrieved when at camp. Additionally, I keep a strategic cache of snacks easily available where I can get at them without stopping: any combination of chocolate bars, Kendal Mint Cake, apples, bananas, mixed fruit and nuts or tracker bars. These can be dipped into when and if I need a burst of energy or just am feeling miserable and need cheering up.

A strange thing happened with my weight on the walk - I was fit before I set off, but my weight plummeted during the first three months. After that I started putting on weight, and at the end of the walk I was about the same weight as when I set off. It was a different sort of weight, however, and my fat had been transformed into muscle.


My walk required over 100 maps. Fortunately we had room in our motorhome to store all of the unused ones (it became a ritual every month to climb up to the roofbox and get out the maps we needed for the next few weeks, and put away the used ones). Many people will not have this advantage. As mentioned earlier, the Post Office's post restante system can be invaluable.

Access to shops is varied. In some places (e.g. the south coast) you will have little problem in regularly finding shops. In others, especially in Scotland, it will be much harder. Indeed, it would be worth finding out the locations and opening times of shops on the west coast of Scotland before you set off - there is nothing worse than finding a shop is shut when you arrive at its door. A well-provisioned shop can prevent you having to carry kilos of weight up hill and down dale.


This is where the topic becomes more scatological. Sometimes you will need to do what the bears do in the woods. If so, then there are rules to follow. On my trips I carry a lightweight foldable trowel and tightly-rolled toilet paper in a waterproof container for just such a purpose. On my coastwalk, however, I mostly did without - I used pubs and public conveniences I found along the way, and also campsites and caravan sites. I became a past master at planning my walk to pass pubs at opening times- which had an added advantage of being able to have a pint!

 Strangely the biggest problem was when walking along Brighton seafront before Christmas - every public convenience I came across was closed for the winter, and it was too early for the pubs to be open!

If the worst comes to the worst and you have to do as the bears do, then here are rules to be followed. Most of these are obvious, but it would do no harm to familiarise yourself with them.

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.

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.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

So you want to walk the coast... Introduction

In September 2003 I finished a year-long, 6200-mile stroll around the coastline of Britain (*). I wrote up fairly detailed descriptions of each day of the walk and put them on my website.

Since then I have received a steady stream of correspondence from people wanting to walk all of, or part of, Britain's coastline. Many of these questions are identical, so I thought that I would write a blog post that detailed some of the answers. It grew alarmingly in length, so it seemed best to split it up into sections. These are:
  1. Introduction
  2. Routes, maps, support, companionship and expense
  3. Rights of way
  4. Camping, food, supplies and ablutions
  5. Kit
  6. Safety
  7. Charity
  8. Highlights and lowlights
  9. Further reading
I hope that this will be of use to people.

Introduction: So why walk the coast?
So why spend the best part of a year walking day after endless day? Why force yourself to be outside in sun and rain until your skin resembles particularly aged leather? Why put your body through the rigours of walking thousands of miles? Why risk your career by putting your life on hold for the best part of a year?

These are questions that you will have to answer for yourself - your motivations may be to raise money for a favourite charity; to challenge yourself or just to get away from it all. Everyone will have a different reason for walking the coast. Yet it is important to have a reason to act as a little kernel of encouragement when the going gets tough. And, believe me, it will get tough.

For it should be made clear that it is not easy. There will be times when you are tired, cold and bedraggled, and you absolutely have to walk five miles in an hour to reach your destination. Yet there will also be magical moments: a beautiful sunset, a glimpse of a pod of dolphins or simply a great view. You will receive acts of kindness that you will never be able to repay, yet are willingly given. These moments of joy will remain in your memory for far longer than the bad times. The feeling when you reach the end may well be the supreme moment of your life. After all, more people have been to the top of Everest than have walked the coast of Britain.

So why did I do it? Looking back, there were a number of reasons. Firstly, I was recovering from a number of painful operations on my left ankle, and walking was a way of reasserting myself.

Secondly, I loved walking. This may seem like a strange reason, but it was fantastically important: I can find as much pleasure in walking along a canal through the centre of London as I can from climbing a mountain. The joy of walking propelled me onwards.

Thirdly, I wanted a challenge. I had spent a good proportion of my life being told by people I could not do things: ski, rollerskate, run; at one time a doctor told me that I would not be able to walk properly again. I had the last of several operations on my ankle in May 1998; in August 1999 I walked the Pennine Way. Instead of feeling satisfied at the end, I wanted more. The coastwalk went some way to satiate that feeling.

Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, my life was at the right place. I was bored with my job, and my girlfriend was keen to drive a motorhome to support me. I had enough disposable income to pay for the walk, and no dependants to look after. I will probably never be in that situation again, so I am glad that I took the opportunity when it showed itself.

Other people will have different reasons, many better and more worthy than my own. Graham Harboard walked to raise funds for a charity he had set up in memory of his late wife; Tom Isaacs walked to raise money for the Parkinsons Disease Society. Do it for charity or do it for joy: it is your choice.

(*) Technically I walked the mainland of Britain, as I did not do Ireland. People who complain about this are pedants who should go out and do the walk themselves as penance.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Thatcher hatred

Three of the candidates for the leadership of the Labour Party spoke at a GMB meeting today. All went quite smoothly and boringly until John McDonnell claimed that the best way to have improved life in the 1980s would have been "to assasinate" Margaret Thatcher.

He apparently received applause from the room, and none of the other candidates chose to argue the point with him. Even if it was a joke (which, given his track record, I doubt), then it is in seriously bad taste and reflects poorly upon him.

Think about this for a moment: the candidates have 48 hours before the vote; it is a time to set in place their vision for the future of the Labour party and, by extension, the country. It is most certainly not a time for crass comments, and yet he chose to make a comment that is hateful in the extreme.

I wonder whether this statement actually breaks the somewhat draconian incitement to violence laws that his own party introduced whilst in Government.

It is interesting to see how the BBC reacts. His comments are hidden away on a webpage about the meeting, and are then excused by BBC Political Correspondent Ross Hawkins in the following manner:
(the comments) should be seen in the context of the audience it was directed at and the fact Mr McDonnell and the other MPs were explicitly appealing for votes.
So, Mister Hawkins, if an Islamic Preacher in a Mosque was to call for the PM to be murdered, that would be okay because he was just appealing to his audience? Or an Irish Nationalist saying that all English in Ireland had to be killed would be okay because he was just talking to fellow terrorists? It is a measly, biased excuse, and it beggars belief that it is a quote from a BBC correspondent.

I wonder how the BBC would they have reacted if a Conservative MP had said: "the best way to improve life in the nineties would have been to shoot Tony Blair?" I can imagine it would be headline news. When Jeremy Clarkson called Gordon Brown a 'one-eyed Scottish idiot' it was front-page news on the BBC website. This is far worse and yet, apparently, it is excusable.

Unfortunately McDonnell has form. He has previously said: “It’s about time we started honouring those people involved in the armed struggle. It was the bombs and bullets and sacrifice made by the likes of Bobby Sands that brought Britain to the negotiating table. The peace we have now is due to the action of the IRA.”

His poor excuse for this is on the Guardian website.

The IRA tried to assassinate Thatcher. Five people died and 31 were injured, some seriously. I wonder if McDonnell approves of that action? At the very least he should be asked to condemn it.

MPs have to work for all their constituents, not just the ones who vote for them. How would you feel if you were one of the 12,553 of McDonnell's constituents who voted Conservative at the last election? Would his obvious hatred for Thatcher (and, by extension, Conservatives) prevent him from working for you?

There are extremists on all sides of politics. Unfortunately McDonnell has put himself in the limelight by vying for the leadership of the Labour party. Fortunately for the country, he does not look likely to get enough nominations from his fellow MPs to get through to the next round. Perhaps they know the sort of man he evidently is.

John McDonnell, you are a nasty piece of excrement who does not deserve the honour of being an MP. To you, politics is about some infantile political struggle that was lost in the eighties, not on the needs of your constituents. We deserve better politicians than you.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Bhopal and BP

Let me get one thing straight: The BP Gulf of Mexico oil leak is a disaster: an out-and-out, straight-up, terrible disaster. Nothing I write here should be seen as trying to reduce the impact of the oil spill.

However, I am finding the way Obama is treating BP to be slightly... hypocritical. Yes, he should put pressure on them, and yes, they should be castigated (although not solely at the expense of the other, American, companies involved). A thorough investigation has to be started, the facts found, compensation paid and procedures put in place to ensure this never happens again. If we are going to allow deep drilling, then the industry should be forced to develop techniques to deal with this sort of disaster.

I do not doubt that Obama's anger is real and justified. Despite this, he is being hypocritical as the American head of state. For there was a disaster that cost far more lives than the Deepwater Horizon leak and whose legacy still blights lives decades later. It was caused by massive industrial laxity on the part of an American company, a company that has repeatedly refused to see justice done. One night in 1984, the Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India, released 40 tons of highly poisonous methyl isocyanate into the air.

The scale of the disaster is staggering: 8,000 people in the Bhopal area died within the first 72 hours; 15,000 people have died since and 100,000 people are believed still to be suffering from the effects of the gas release and polluted groundwater from the plant.

The compensation delivered has been derisory. From the Telegraph article:
Each surviving victim received 25,000 rupees – about £315 by current conversion rates. The average sum paid out for a death claim was 62,000 rupees (£780). In 1991, in a ruling designed to resolve legal disputes, the Supreme Court of India described the settlement as 'just, equitable and reasonable’. ('Five hundred and seventy-two thousand people received compensation,’ one campaigner in Bhopal told me. 'Within that group 80,000 were not properly entitled, and an equal number did not get compensation even though they were properly entitled.’ He shrugged. 'This is India.’)
Union Carbide was taken over by Dow chemicals in 2001. The plant was abandoned after the disaster, and still remains much as it was. Dow is refusing to pay for the clean-up of the site, meaning that clean drinking water is not available to many local inhabitants. In a staggering move, Dow have sponsored a series of runs this year to raise awareness about water scarcity, yet they refuse to pay to clear up the site that pollutes water for thousands of people in Bhopal. The hypocrisy is beyond belief.

So what do Dow say about Bhopal? They address this issue on their website, and say:
"Unfortunately, we have responsibilities to our shareholders and our industry colleagues that make action on Bhopal impossible. And being clear about this has been a very big step."
How would Obama react if BP were to say that they could not pay out because of their responsibilities to their shareholders? He would be furious, and rightly so. Yet Dow Chemicals are allowed to get away with it. Is it one rule for American companies, another rule for foreigners?

Five presidents - both Republican and Democrat - have been in power since the disaster. Yet none of them have done the right thing. So Obama, sort out Bhopal. It is the right, moral thing to do.

Or do you believe that disasters involving foreign companies on American territory are awful, terrible things, which the polluter must pay compensation for, whilst disasters involving American companies on foreign territory can be allowed to be forgotten?

It is a shameful stain on America and American values.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Misguided bus

I am someone who is generally in favour of technological advance. You would expect that to be the case, considering I worked for years in embedded software, and that my wife is a designer of silicon chips.

Technological advances have changed our lives beyond recognition over the last couple of centuries; whilst there are downsides, these are firmly put in the shade by the positives. Think of medical advances, or the way we can now travel around the world in less than a day.

Strangely, I am not one of the early adopters. These are the technologists who absolutely *have* to get the latest gizmo or gadget from the hot firms (e.g. Apple, Google) the moment it comes onto the market. Think of those chaotic scenes outside shops when Apple released their iPad a few weeks ago. These are people who worship at the bleeding edge of technology, and frequently get cut.

It is fine for an individual to take the risk of purchasing new technology. It is different when a council spends millions of pounds of taxpayers' money on an ill-considered scheme.

Not all technological advances are positive. When I left Cambridge a couple of years ago work was starting on the Cambridge Guided Bus scheme. This was an ambitious scheme to replace the disused St Ives to Cambridge railway line with a bus route.

A developer wanted to build a new town called Northstowe on the old Oakington Barracks site to the northwest of Cambridge. This would be similar to several other developments; the 4,000 population Bar Hill, which was built a few decades ago, and Cambourne which is still under development but is expected to have about 10,000 people. Northstowe will be even larger.

Unfortunately the vast majority of people who will live there will work in Cambridge, and will want to travel in and out of the city during the rush hours. This would be along the A14 and other roads that are already well over capacity. Clearly, that is not a good idea. Therefore the council and the developer got together to think of a solution.

So what did they come up with? The obvious answer was to reopen the train line that passed by the new village, but that option was rejected. So was a tram line. Instead, they came up with the idea of a guided bus, which has only ever been used in a handful of places throughout the world. Central Government would provide most of the funding, with the developers providing the rest.

There were many problems with the scheme. Amongst the biggest of these was that the St Ives to Cambridge line did not actually enter the city, and instead ended at a junction with the Cambridge to Ely line at Chesterton on the northern outskirts. Therefore those same buses would have to join one of the busiest roads in the city for the last few miles.

Unfortunately railway trackbeds are too narrow to take two lanes of traffic. For this reason, the council opted for a guided bus scheme. Under this, specially-adapted buses are guided by concrete guiderails. At the end and start of the route, the buses join normal roads. A maintenance track was also required, which has been built alongside the original trackbed, widening the footprint of the route (I shall come back to that later).

Despite the objections of various campaign groups, the guided bus got the go-ahead (soon gaining the nickname of 'misguided bus'). Work was just starting when I left Cambridge in mid-2007, and it was expected to be open by April 2009.

Needles to say, it is still not open, and no opening date has been set. For details of just one of the problems they have yet to tackle, see this blog.

The costs are already out of control. It had originally been priced at £116.2 million, with £92.5 million coming from central government. This was my first problem with the scheme - even that initial price tag was extortionate. The latest figures are that BAM Nuttall's costs for the engineering works has increased from £88 million to £120 to £140 million. The total budget is going to be at least £161 million, or £10 million a mile.

So how does this compare?

Firstly, trams. The only tram system being built in the UK at the moment is the Edinburgh tram system. This will cost £512 million for a little over 11 miles of route, or £46 million a mile. Yet the Edinburgh tram system runs right through the middle of the city, and has complexities of traffic management and relocation of services (e.g. gas, electric and sewers) an order of magnitude greater than those of the Cambridge scheme. There would, however, be the problem of getting the trams into the centre of Cambridge from Chesterton; this could be done by on-road running or even, perhaps, by a new dedicated line alongside the railway.

Secondly, reopening the existing train line. This is the most obvious approach, but was widely ignored by the council. Reopening the 12 miles of the Claydon to Bletchley line will cost £134 million. This scheme is, on the face of it, roughly comparable to the St Ives to Cambridge line, both in terms of complexity and cost. The Edinburgh to Galashiels 'Waverley' line that is being reopened in Scotland will cost between £235 and £295 million for 35 miles - at about £8 million a mile, far cheaper than the Cambridge guided bus. According to Cast-Iron, the reopening of the St Ives to Cambridge railway line would have cost £50 million.

This is important, as other towns are planning similar schemes. There are plans for a buided busway between Luton and Dunstable using an old railway line. Given the experience of Cambridge, I wonder how much the cost estimates of £83 million will be exceeded.

So what will happen? I have always suspected that, with time, the guided busway would become a proper road, as has happened in the case of some other closed busways. The maintenance road has widened the route, removing one of the main reasons for building the guided bus. A simple question can therefore be asked: how long before they decide to spend another few million pounds converting the busway into a road?

The project should be seen as a case-study in how not to plan and implement a transport system. Yet all sides are too involved to either back out or think again, leaving Cambridgeshire and national taxpayers picking up the bill.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Bruce McLaren

Bruce McLaren, the New Zealand-born founder of the McLaren Formula 1 team, died 40 years ago today whilst testing a Can-Am racing car at Goodwood.

A quote from his book:
"To do something well is so worthwhile that to die trying to do it better cannot be foolhardy. It would be a waste of life to do nothing with one’s ability, for I feel that life is measured in achievement, not in years alone."

His name lives on.