My huge 10-page double article in Country Walking magazine

July 3, 2018 at 11:41 am / by

I’ve just picked up a copy of Country Walking magazine, and they’ve done a great job with my article on the ‘Love of the Sea’. Here’s the text, including my top ten coastal walks all around the UK.

For the love of the sea

With wet shoes, salty hair, and a wild gleam in her eye, Hannah Engelkamp sings the praises of the sea, and the calming power of this most restless force of nature

I live right by the sea, in the charming little town of Aberystwyth in mid Wales with its Victorian promenade, pier and harbour, cliff railway and seaside crazy golf. I’ve punctuated the writing of this article with short walks by the sea, which three days ago was so wild and furious that it was crashing into the harbour walls and creating vertical sheets of salt water 40ft high or more that hung in the heavy air for whole seconds, like scoured glass sculptures.

Two pairs of shoes are still stiffening on the radiator after mistimed attempts to get a closer look. Today the sea is softest blue and so hazy that I can’t make out the horizon, and its frilly edge is full of swimmers, sunbathers and castle-builders. Neither sea-characters are good for the work ethic, which perversely is in part what this article is all about.

I propose that the sea is fundamentally – elementally – good for us. We are drawn to it, possibly even created by it, and we are certainly soothed, inspired and in some important ways let-off-the-hook by it. In a culture that doesn’t think much of resting, the sea whispers a subversive song to us, which we find irresistible. Primordially speaking the sea may have caused us to walk on two legs, and so it is a fitting homage to return to this birthplace and walk by the sea as often as possible. Meanwhile the importance of this is luckily recognised – access to the coast is so important an issue that it appears in political manifestos as well as poetry, and our British coastal paths are astonishing in variety and ambition.

Ancestors by the sea

David Attenborough said recently, in a Radio 4 programmed called ‘The Waterside Ape’, “There is one location that to this day is favoured by humans above all: the shoreline. A 2010 report from Columbia University’s Earth Institute calculated that roughly half of all humans live within a coastal strip just 60 miles wide. By contrast all of our closest primate cousins ­– the chimps, bonobos and gorillas – live as far from the coast as it’s possible to reach, deep in the forests of Central Africa.”

The programme airs the theory, long contentious but gathering strength, that we human beings have evolved many of our features as a result of swimming in the sea. It is suggested that we came down from the trees and began by wading about on our hind legs and eating shellfish. Then we got deeper and deeper into our new environment, swimming and diving for fish, eating more omega-3 fatty acids which contributed to the development of our large brains. We lost our hair and gained a layer of blubber more similar to that of sea mammals.

One reason that the theory is contentious is that it runs counter to the dominant, but far from perfect, savannah hypothesis, which proposes that man, by nature red in tooth and claw, stood up in order to hunt animals in the tall grasses, and lost his hair because the chase made him hot. Woman followed along, although the new characteristics didn’t suit her needs so well. I prefer the aquatic theory to this ‘tarzanist’ one – it appeals to me as a feminist, a pacifist, and a fan of seafood, but most of all it just seems to harmonise well with the draw I have to the seashore.

And clearly this draw is universal. That half of the world’s population live in a coastal strip that adds up to only around five percent of the earth’s land surface proves that humanity in general like to be beside the seaside.

There are other reasons that we look to the sea, of course. It’s easy now to think of it as the edge, the periphery; out here on the west coast of Wales there is little water traffic, and most of it recreational, while the train line and main roads linking us to the rest of the world both go due east, away from the water, across the mountain passes. But it wasn’t always so, in fact until very recently it was the opposite. Stone-age hunter-gatherers came in dugout canoes, ancient Britons in coracles, fleets of Roman ships, and then Angles, Jutes, Saxons, Vikings and Normans – they all came by boat. And in the 19th century hundreds of the rural poor steamed out of Aberystwyth harbour for new lives in America, Canada, Australia and Patagonia. The sea has long been a busy place.

It’s this activity that I like – these days I appreciate the recreational activity going on in the water. The yachts, sea-kayakers, surfers, paddle-boarders, Celtic rowers and swimmers are all people getting the work-life balance right. Even dry and tame on the quay I am invigorated by seeing them, and my own time away from the desk feels legitimised. On warm evenings the circles of students who light driftwood fires and play guitars cheer me about humanity’s community spirit.

But most of all it is the sea’s very own restlessness that calms me. The jury is out, but this may even be neurological. Where air is disturbed, as it is by the pounding waves, its molecules break apart, creating negative ions. Once they reach the bloodstream, negative ions might produce biochemical reactions that increase levels of the mood chemical serotonin. This is far from certain, but I recognise the benefits and don’t really care if they are in the mind or in the brain.

Researchers from the University of Exeter have been finding that people exercising in front of blue sea projections have less brain activity than those in front of green projected views, “which tells us that it’s possibly less stressful and more familiar to the core human being.” Researchers in New Zealand overlaid data from a national health and wellbeing survey alongside census information, and found that people with blue views (of lakes as well as the sea), were physically and mentally happier, regardless of socioeconomic factors. Similar research in the UK found that people within three miles of the coast rated their own health more highly than those more than 30 miles from the coast, and concluded that it was not the sea view that mattered as much as how often people got to the coast and considered it a part of their lives. Other studies have found that the sound of the sea alters wave patterns in the brain with soothing effects.

Meanwhile walking by the sea is the best of all. Writer Rebecca Solnit says, “Walking itself is the intentional act closest to the unwilled rhythms of the body, to breathing and the beating of the heart… Walking allows us to be in our body and in the world without being made busy by them…” And laid out before the coast walker lies the sea, the most active and stirring example of the unwilled rhythms of the earth. The seascape and the action of walking are perfect companions.

While calming the spirit, the coast is hard physical work – the ascent of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path is said to be equivalent to climbing Everest. With the heady oxygenated benefit of being at sea-level, you can nevertheless rise and fall, climb and sweat, a very satisfying amount, without the daunting prospect of a single high mountain ahead.

And while the overall ascent and descent might be concealed, the walk’s progress is more easily appreciated at the shore than anywhere else, as headlands are conquered and left behind. Navigating is easy – keep the water on one side and the land on the other – and paths are generally good and well used, all contributing to the calm and quiet mind.

A very depressed friend began to heal herself by renting a flat so close to the sea that I once sat in the armchair in her bay window and saw dolphins play in the sunset. When under pressure from the feeling that you have to be an ever-successful engine of industry, the sea, so much bigger than our tiny human woes, with its ceaseless rhythms, gives us perspective.

Those towering waves a few days ago couldn’t fail to put worries in their place, and wet shoes would be a fussy, human thing to complain about in the roaring face of all that wild, unharnessed power. The ever-changing light, the dancing reflections, the endlessly surprising moods of the sea – all of this movement gives us cause to look up and out of ourselves, to the far rosy horizon or folded headland.

Ten stand-out coast walks

Where the sea meets the land is by definition a restless, ever-changing, active sort of place. Add human traffic to the mix and it’s not just fascinating flora, fauna, blowholes and fossils that you need to look out for, but the historical debris of people landing and embarking, seeking refuge or pillaging. It’s a romantic landscape in which all walks of life are drawn to the coast, from pilgrims to smugglers and everyone in between. And modern day inhabitants have added their own fun features too – in this line-up there are diving ledges, boat rides, look-out points, lighthouses, a via ferrata, and an exceptional ice cream van. We do like to be beside the seaside!

  1. Trefor to Porth Dinllaen, Lleyn Peninsula, Wales

This walk begins and ends in Nefyn, an erstwhile herring town that once had over 40 herring boats. Around here the fish was known as ‘Nefyn beef’. With the hill of Garn Boduan, and the remains of 170 Iron Age huts, behind you, head instead to the more recent vintage glory of the bright-coloured beach huts along the shore at Porth Nefyn. Far from the identikit row of neatly painted huts, these are a lovely mismatching bunch of sheds on stilts, and look much more attractive for it.

Head west along the cliffs, and then drop down to the sand for the beach walk to Porth Dinllaen, an early-nineteenth-century fishing village with crystal-clear water, dolphins and seals, and very pleasantly no road access. Here you’ll find the most warm-hearted pub, Tŷ Coch Inn – a perfect spot for a little quiet contemplation of your own, with a glass of local Snowdonia ale.

Look back along the coast at the impressive 560m Eifl, a rugged triple-peaked mountain, that drops in sheer cliffs into the sea.

  1. Farne Islands, Northumberland

There are 28 Farne Islands at low tide, famous for providing sanctuary to St Cuthbert in the 7th century, and for being the home of plucky Victorian celebrity-heroine Grace Darling who saved the crew of a paddle steamer in 1838, as well as a cast of hermits, shipwrecked mariners and soldiers. The National Trust look after the islands, and sailings are out of Seahouses.

You’ll feel thoroughly surrounded by creatures on the islands – the thousands of grey seals give birth all over the place, as do the ground-nesting Arctic terns. Watch out for the tern chicks on the ground, and the parents dive-bombing from above. For a calmer time, come outside the April-July breeding season.

A circular walk leads you on a clockwise loop of Inner Farne, and takes about half an hour. Peep in at St Cuthbert’s Chapel and the medieval Pele Tower, which used to have a beacon lit on the top of it before the lighthouse was built in the 1825. Cross the island to the lighthouse and beyond, where the south-facing cliffs are home to thousands of guillemots, kittiwake and shag, and there are views of Dunstanburgh and Bamburgh Castles on the mainland. The boardwalk then carries you through an area of puffin burrows, and look out for the Churn blowhole out on the rocks, which can throw up columns of water 90ft high.

For a longer walk, stretch your legs on the first stage of the Northumberland Coastal Path on the mainland, from Ellington to the charming fishing town of Amble, and revel in the seven-mile-long golden sands of Druridge Bay.

  1. Folkestone Warren to Dover, Kent

Dramatic chalk landslides have created a steep, pocked hillside lush with vegetation and full of rabbits, and the area is a Site of Specific Scientific Interest for its geology and biology, especially its fossils and the insects that enjoy the flowering meadows. A train-line runs through the Warren, and there’s a quiet hollow known as Little Switzerland!

Perched at the Clifftop Cafe for an early break, before dropping down to Samphire Hoe, a piece of new land created by the 4.9m cubic meters of chalk marl that came out of the British end of the Channel Tunnel, and is held in place by a 2km sea wall. The wall is a strange concrete esplanade, the size of 163 tennis courts and not at all like a neat Victorian promenade, but more like a giant’s wonky paving slabs. The views are great, of the white cliffs to your left and the caramel-coloured sand and minty-green sea to your right, with views across to France in clear weather.

  1. Aros Park to Tobermory and lighthouse, Mull, Scotland

Aros Park, to the south of Tobermory, is a quiet, wooded, mossy hillside, with a number of paths that wind around a lake, down to an old harbour, and above and below a thundering waterfall that pours down from the island’s boggy interior. Through the trees are glimpses across the Sound of Mull to the dramatic purple crags and mountains of Ardnamurchan on the mainland, much more remote than Mull itself.

As you round the coast the views of Tobermory are idyllic, with its brightly painted houses along the waterfront, and fishing boats and yachts in the bay. Stop in the town for chips on the quay or cake in the bakery, and then carry on north along the coast to the lighthouse, before returning over the golf course.

  1. Abereiddi to Porthgain, Pembrokeshire

Walk along the spectacular headlands and cliffs of north Pembrokeshire, and take in some dramatic photo opportunities. The walk follows the Wales Coast Path for most of the way, although it begins with two small false starts. First off visit the exceptionally good ice-cream van in the Abereiddy car park, and then take a small detour along the route to the left of the coast path, which takes you just around the corner to the blue lagoon, an old quarry now full of really bright blue water, with terrifyingly high diving cliffs for the brave (it’s often a stop on the Cliff Diving World Series!).

The walk to Porthgain follows high grassy cliffs and along the edge of fields; follow the steps down to a tiny secluded sandy bay if you feel like exploring. Porthgain itself is a pretty village with tall harbour walls, the peculiar red brick ruins of silos and chimneys, and huge whitewashed stone beacons on the cliffs at the harbour mouth.

  1. Newborough Warren, Anglesey

On the south corner of the big Welsh island of Anglesey is Newborough Warren, an enormous 23km2 dune system and, at low tide, a vast beach and estuary mouth. I once tried walking with my eyes closed here, aiming for 500 footsteps, but after 268 I’d veered 90 degrees to the left and walked into the sea.

At the centre of all that sand is Llanddwyn Island, the island of Dwynwen, Welsh patron saint of lovers. Hers was a pretty miserable lot – she fell in love but then rejected the advances of the young man in question, turned him into ice with a potion from a fairy and went to live on this island as a hermit for the rest of her 5th century days. Her narrow island is only actually cut off at high tide, and pleasantly littered all over with picturesque buildings and monuments, linked by winding paths: a crucifix, a beacon, a pepperpot lighthouse, and a pilot’s cottage that’s now a wildlife exhibition.

  1. Perranporth to St Agnes, Cornwall

This walk takes in 3.5 miles of the South West Coast Path. As you leave Perranporth high on the cliffs make sure you turn back to admire the vast two-mile beach and its beginner surfing waves. You’ll pass a huge sundial that shows Cornish time (20 mins ahead of GMT!), the blowholes at Shag Rock, and Trevaunance Cove for a snack or a dip.

There are busses to take you back to Perranporth from the attractive fishing village of St Agnes, or you could retrace your steps north along the coast path. Alternatively take the steep but quiet back road past Wheal Kitty and Blue Hills Tin, pass by the wartime airfield on the landward side, and walk back into Perranporth along the Perrancombe valley, passing through the gardens and around the boating lake.

If you have time, look in at Blue Hills Tin. It’s an old mine building where they still crush, smelt and work tin, these days from alluvial tin ore that they collect from the beach.

(Return journey based on this:

  1. Durdle Door, Dorset

25 million years ago the European and African tectonic plates collided, creating the Alps, and ripples that spread right the way across the continent, messing with geology as they went. Rock bands folded and crumpled, and the iconic limestone Durdle Door is one result of this, as the softer bands of stone were washed away, leaving the much-loved arch. Lulworth Cove, an optional detour at the end of the walk, is also a result of this uneven erosion – its narrow hard limestone entrance giving way to a great round sheltered bowl of a bay.

All this crash-bang geological history feels very long ago when strolling in the peace of this lovely stretch of coast though, with views across the water to the Isle of Portland. The walk also takes in the towering White Nothe Undercliff, and fantastic views if you brave the zig-zag smugglers’ path up to it. Do!

  1. Fife Chain Walk at Elie, Fife

I’m not sure if this strictly counts as a walk – it’s often more of a scramble, or even dangle. But it is certainly a very exhilarating way to spend a couple of hours by (and in and above) the sea, in a way that is unique in the UK – clinging onto chains with your heart beating enthusiastically.

From the Shell Bay caravan park, follow the Fife Coastal Path south until you come to a path leading to the sea. Eight stretches of chain are attached to the rock so that you can move yourself around Kincraig Point, sometimes horizontally along the rock, sometimes pulling yourself straight up or abseiling down. In many places footholds or steps have been carved from the rock too, and you’ll get up close to all sorts of pinnacles, grooves, beaches and caves, as well as the sea itself – don’t go at high tide!

Wooden steps lead you back up to the coast path, which you can follow to the west along the cliffs above the chains to get back to the beginning, this time with much less sweating.

  1. Spurn Point, East Yorkshire

Spurn Point is a dramatic tadpole of land that curls a giant right-angle into the sea at the mouth of the Humber estuary. A National Nature Reserve and an island at high tide, it is three miles long and only 50m wide in places, with sandy beaches on both sides, and just enough land to have attracted some excellent Yorkshire names like Greedy Gut, Stony Binks and Numpties Watchpoint.

Not much chance of a circular walk here, your choices are to walk out and back along the beaches, on the footpath, or on the road itself which is now closed to vehicles. Keep an eye out for the vast numbers of migrant birds, and also lizards, roe deer, and seals, plus the abundant fossils on the beaches. It’s well worth climbing the 100-year-old lighthouse at the end for the aerial view of your fragile, audacious, skinny little spit out in the wild North Sea, and there’s a new visitor centre and cafe at the land end too.


Comments are closed.