Celebrating 40 years of the South West Coast Path
PUBLISHED: 13:29 06 April 2018 | UPDATED: 13:29 06 April 2018
Marking 40 years since the South West Coast Path was opened in its entirety, We look back on its origins and the people who fought to grant us access to it
Make your way to the coast anywhere in the south west, turn right or left and you are on the South West Coast Path. More importantly though, you have the right to be there and the choice to follow it for 630 uninterrupted miles, should you feel that way inclined! It hasn’t always been that way though. Cast your minds back to the early seventies when Ted Heath was Priminister, the now not-so-little Jimmy Osmond was singing to his Long Haired Lover From Liverpool and nearly every house boasted a shag pile carpet. Back then, venturing out on the coast path was quite a different story.
To start with, it wasn’t exactly coastal. Often diverting miles inland to keep walkers from crossing the perimeters of large private estates and farmland. Many sections were completely overgrown, way marking was unclear or non-existent and gaps in the route meant it was impossible to walk freely at any length, without facing a locked gate or impassable stretch of water. So how does it come to be that we now have this glorious asset right on our doorstep just begging for us to visit it once in a while? Well, first we must look to its origins in the days when smuggling on our shores was rife.
You need only to clock the names of coastal public houses in the west country to see this romanticised era documented. Yet in truth, smuggling or ‘free-trading’ as those who partook called it, was a nasty and brutal business. Poldark fans amongst you will no doubt remember the riotous scenes at Nampara Bay as villagers flocked to steal the spoils from a wrecked ship. At the end of the 17th century, it was estimated 50 per cent of the spirits drunk in England had evaded duty. Not able to tolerate such unlawfulness, in 1822 the Government established the Coastguard Service creating an official foot patrol of wardens to ‘inspect all creeks and bye-places’. The Coastguards proved so effective that by the mid-1900s the service was dissolved, and people adjusted to getting their hands on goods like tea, rum, gin, brandy and tobacco in less covert ways. Many of the well-trodden routes became overgrown and the coast path succumbed to a surge in urban development.
The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act of 1949 brought with it legislation to create a network of long distance routes (now known as the National Trails) as well as National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). A route based on the old Coastguard paths seemed an obvious place to start and it was approved by the Secretary of State to commence work on completing a South West route in five sections. Progress however, was unbearably slow, and many questioned whether plans would ever materialise to give us true coastal access.
We return to 1972 to meet the Carter family, fresh from a holiday walking the Pennine Way that had given them ‘a sense of adventure, a challenge met and overcome’. They now hoped to walk a stretch on the North Devon coast, but were in for a rude awakening and ‘lost and brambled, hot and sticky’ they soon gave up on their quest. Little did they know that this outing was to mark a defining moment in their lives. Philip Carter became doggedly determined to learn of the Countryside Commission’s plans to establish a Path but was met with numerous rejections to his requests for information. He managed to get hold of a set of plans and was horrified to learn the path was to follow roads inland, with great gaps that meant it would never be possible to walk it continuously.
Philip created a steering committee that would set out to achieve four aims: hasten the completion of the South West Coast Path; to make it continuous; to keep the path on the coast and to provide a body of informed opinion to actively promote users’ interests. A public meeting was held in January of 1973 at it was here, in the Community Centre of Newton Abbot that the South West Coast Path Association was born.
No less than 860 letters were sent out by the Association that spring and what followed were numerous meetings with local authorities, environmental planners, landowners and government officials to consistently put pressure on the need for completing a quality path that reflected the interests of its users. The Association grew quickly, offering membership to allow others to join their cause. Their voice grew louder and objections to proposed diversions, pleas for quality signage and information and concerns for plans to bypass path planning in urban areas were soon heard. The fruits of their labour soon paid off and in May the Association was invited to attend the official opening of the Cornish section at Newquay. The inaugural walk from Watergate Bay back to Newquay attracted almost 100 people, as well as media attention from BBC Radio, West Briton and Guardian newspapers. Following the opening, the Association and Cornish Ramblers arranged a series of walks to explore the newly opened sections.
A telling document called ‘Notes for Walkers’ issued at the time of opening by the Countryside Commission goes some way to explain just how complex the creation and maintenance of such a path can be. It was headed ‘Local Problems’ and started by saying ‘At the time of going to print there were access problems on a few sections of this 268 mile path….These problems will soon disappear, but others may arise elsewhere so these notes will be revised at six month intervals to take account of changing conditions.’ There never was another version issued and the Association is still working today to manage the ‘changing conditions’ of the Path. It took five years from the opening of the Cornwall section to complete the rest of the 630 mile route with both South Devon and Dorset opening in 1974, the Exmoor coast in 1975 and the final section through Somerset and North Devon in 1978.
It’s now 40 years since the coast path has been fully open. As the world evolves, so too do our attitudes to our environment and now, more than ever before, we are recognising the value of our natural surroundings and the need to protect them. The Association is no longer advocating the path’s creation, but actively contributing to its protection, promotion, repair and improvement. Still at its very core though, is representing users’ interests to ensure everyone can enjoy their right to be on the South West Coast Path.
In recent years, public funding to maintain the path has declined. However, faced with the constant threat of extreme weather, the cost of keeping it in good shape continues to rise. Meanwhile, the government is committed to the creation of a coast path around the whole of England that will do doubt put further strain on the public purse. We don’t know what the next 40 years will bring, but we do know that the coast path of tomorrow needs your help today. w
If you want to find out more about the South West Coast Path Association, and how you can help them care for the Coast Path, visit their website southwestcoastpath.org.uk