Losing out on the shore thing

August 12, 2005

More needs to be done to stop the erosion of our coastline and our national identity, says Mark Horton

Sometimes it takes anniversaries to focus national attention on events in our past. Certainly, 2005 has the hallmarks of a vintage year, with the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, the 400th of the Gunpowder Plot and, of course, the 200th of the Battle of Trafalgar.

This particular anniversary is not just about commemorating naval history, it has also led to a summer-long festival of maritime activities, all loosely packaged as Sea Britain 2005. Such activities do wonders for tourism and provide opportunities for publishing both academic and popular books on maritime history and, of course, television programmes. The making of one of these has enabled me to visit many parts of the UK's coastline over the past nine months.

BBC Two's Coast (co-produced with the Open University) is an epic journey along 19,000km of our coastline. It offers 13 hours of glorious scenery (and a little bit of ecology, archaeology and history) to fill the summer evenings.

Filming the programme gave me several insights. I saw how remote so much of our coast is. No part of Britain is further than 116km from the sea, but most of it (of course the best bits) is so far from metropolitan Britain that it feels like a different world - places such as Hartland, that bit of North Devon with its own intimate landscape and dramatic cliffs, or Bowness-on-Solway, where Hadrian's Wall ends in a salt marsh.

This remoteness prompted me to wonder why we have neglected our coastline for so long. It is surely one of our greatest assets, yet its study and conservation is fragmented. Take the National Parks; half of the 12 in England and Wales have a coastline, but less than 1 per cent of National Park land is classified as cliff or foreshore. When the Countryside Agency commenced open access agreements as part of the 2000 Countryside and Right of Way Act, it included mountain, moorland and heath, but the coast was left for the next phase. Only the National Trust, with its Neptune programme, is actively concerned with coastal conservation.

Academic study of the coast fares little better; a handful of universities have marine studies institutes, but many of our largest universities, even those on the coast, have managed to ignore our maritime environment. Of the research councils, only the Natural Environment Research Council takes our coast seriously. In its five years of existence, the Arts and Humanities Research Council has managed to award only a single substantial and four minor grants to work related to the British coastline.

Yet the coast is part of the fabric of our nation. The images of the White Cliffs of Dover, Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland or fishing villages such as Mousehole help to define our sense of identity as an island nation. The trouble is that we are also losing our coast through modern developments (such as the new holiday park inside the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park) and erosion. The beauty of the coast lies in its active natural processes and, by all accounts, these processes will accelerate because of climate change over the next few years.

Let's hope that 2005 will be a turning point, and that perhaps we will begin to take our coastline seriously. And, yes, 2006 is another good year for anniversaries.

Mark Horton is part of the team of expert presenters on BBC Two's Coast and head of the department of archaeology and anthropology at Bristol University.

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