In 1936, my predecessor at the Open Spaces Society, Laurence Chubb, called for the protection of the coast and our access to it: We have called attention more than once to the danger which confronts the people of this island of losing their freedom of access for recreation to a large proportion of their own coastline.
We are getting there. In 2017 we celebrated both the moment when Natural England had either opened or was working on every stretch of the England Coast Path, and the tenth anniversary of the launch of coastal access.
I well remember the launch, Tuesday 19 June, because it started with some excitement. I was to meet the BBC’s Sarah Mukherjee for a live interview on the Today programme at 7.50, with David Fursdon, president of the Country Landowners’ Association. The location was Warden Point just north of Leysdown on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. We picked it because there was no public access there, and we hoped it would be remedied by the new coastal provisions (this stretch is still being developed, so we do not yet know where the path will run).
I left home at 4.30 and was in the vicinity of the broadcast by 6.30. Then Sarah rang me to say her equipment was faulty so she needed mains electricity, and ‘could you find one of your Ramblers’ members who would let us use their house?’ That was rather a tall order. I knew no one in Leysdown and anyway, it was an anti-social hour to call. I drove up and down the unpromising road in the settlement of Warden, and tried a newsagents which was open but the manager said no.
I drove on to Leysdown and noticed the door of the Cosy Café was slightly ajar so I poked my head in. They were closed, but they were happy for us to do the interview from there. I then had a call from David Fursdon, who was in a taxi wondering where to go, so I went to rescue him. Eventually, but still in time, we convened at the Cosy Café and Sarah set up her satellite dish outside on a long cable. The interview was fine, except there was no sound of the sea in the background. The kind owners of the café even produced breakfast for us.
White Cliffs of Dover
Later, David and I joined others at the National Trust centre on the White Cliffs of Dover for the launch event. The environment secretary David Miliband made a fine speech. He confirmed that the government would introduce legislation for a legal path, up to 10 metres wide, around the whole 9,040 miles of coast (there had been much talk about voluntary options).
The Guardian quotes him as saying: We are an island nation. The coast is our birthright and everyone should be able to enjoy it. I want families to have safe and secure access to walk, climb, rock-scramble, paddle and play all along our coastline.
The success of the right to roam on open countryside, established by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act in 2000, has shown that people are responsible about increased access and want to enjoy it in a mature way. That greatly encourages us to press ahead with opening up the coast.
I noted that he also said: I think this is about what we think of British people. … It’s about trusting people. If you give people rights they’ll act responsibly. If you don’t give them rights, they don’t. I liked his acknowledgement of trust.
Two years later the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 received royal assent. It set out an ingenious method of achieving coastal access, combining the long-distance path provisions in the National parks and Access to the Countryside Act with the access provisions in the Countryside and Access Act 2000.
Natural England was tasked with the job of identifying then creating the path and adjoining access land (from the path to the sea and inland to the first boundary). After much preliminary work, the processes were agreed.
On 6 July 2012 the first section was opened, in time for the Olympics, in Dorset: 17 miles from Rufus Castle on Portland to Lulworth.
We still had to run a campaign to ensure that the Isle of Wight was included in the access provisions and the Isle of Wight Ramblers worked tirelessly on this. At last, in July 2014, Defra confirmed that the island would be included.
In December 2014 deputy prime minister Nick Clegg announced an injection of cash to ensure that coastal access could be complete by 2020.
This has made a significant difference, and Natural England was able to expand its staff and effort to crack on with its phased programme.
On 1 September NE announced that it had completed or was working on every stretch of coast (there are 66 sections). You can view the latest map here
And the work continues, with Ramblers volunteers providing valuable assistance with their detailed knowledge of the coast. There have been and still are disappointments, where the path goes inland against our wishes, but overall this will be a fantastic achievement.