The England Coast Path by Stephen Neale – Review
By David Schuster
Very soon, something incredible will be possible for the first time: to walk the full coastline of England on a single continuous footpath. The opportunity to make this 2,795-mile journey is the culmination of 20 years planning, political lobbying and the sheer determination of several individuals, resulting in the world’s longest coastal path. It is something decidedly unique and English; we should all celebrate it and be rightly proud that we live in a country with this level of access.
Stephen Neale is a talented and clever author, concentrating on topics on which he is expert, and about which he is clearly passionate. He acted as surveyor for the Southend-On-Sea section. I’ve previously reviewed Wild Camping, and in The England Coast Path he shows a similar love for, and insight into, his subject. Neale writes lyrical prose within the format of a guidebook, which is a pleasure to read, rather than just a necessity for information. Of Studland Heath, Poole Harbour, he writes, “Like most of the Jurassic Coast, this is not a window into the past. It is the past. Little Sea is a tree-lined brackish lake reminiscent of a Sinbad novel; all adventure, marsh and monster.”
His objectives in writing the book were to record how the long-distance route was conceived and made reality, to celebrate those whose efforts went into its creation, and to provide a guide to places of interest. It is divided into distinct parts which reflect these different aims: ‘The People of the Path’ is an engagingly written account of how one woman, Ann McLaren, envisaged an Essex shoreline right of way and how this was taken up, championed and developed by a series of other people to become the full route. The author’s political astuteness allows him to gently highlight how MPs of any party can be used to champion a cause, so long as it aligns with their own! The other sections, ‘Wonders Of’ and a full gazetteer, provide a guide to places and experiences along the route. In this way, he manages to wholly deliver on those disparate objectives.
Have you ever woken up and thought, “It’s a lovely day – I’m in the mood for a 3,000-mile stroll”? No, neither have I, (well, not often), and the author’s intention was not to create a guide for long-distance walkers. Rather, The England Coast Path allows you to plan mini family adventures, with walks of a length that suit your inclination and ability, but which all offer interest and reward. There is, perhaps, a surfeit of riches in the guide, which occupies the majority of the volume; a thousand entries leave little room for detail, or the charmingly evocative text which is Neale’s hallmark. The absence of maps also seems odd, though the places and sites are presented in a progression along the shoreline at roughly three-mile intervals, meaning that, having found one in your locality, the rest are easy to locate.
As ever, Bloomsbury’s production values are of the highest order. The hundreds of beautiful, evocative photographs are crisp and vibrant, with the text flowing around, through and over them in a visually interesting manner. There’s a wide ranging and eclectic ‘Best For’ chapter, such as ‘Best for Sacred Isles’, ‘Best for Secret Swims’ and ‘Best for Sunsets and Cliff Top Views’, providing something to appeal to all tastes. All the gazetteer entries are visually coded, including woodlands, ancient sites and nature. There are also handy references to cafes, restaurants and accommodation. The chapters are peppered with interesting facts and things to do. The ‘Wild Things to do Before You Die’ opening page of the section covering Yorkshire, for example, offers cave exploration at Thornwick Bay, standing under a waterfall at Beast Cliff and watching porpoises around Spurn Head – all things guaranteed to entice even the least enthusiastic walker out into the countryside.
It may be that the Covid-19 pandemic delays the official opening of the England Coast Path, previously planned for 2021, but no matter, almost the entire length now exists. Buy this book and begin your adventures today.
‘The England Coast Path’ by Stephen Neale is published by Bloomsbury