Hi, I’m Paul Hills, and I’ve decided to walk all the way around the coast of mainland Britain.
Me and long-distance walking
I’ve never been one for walking, to be honest. I’m really quite a lazy person. When I’d run out of milk, I’d drive the quarter mile round to the shop to buy more – isn’t carrying a two litre bottle of cold milk some distance one of the most uncomfortable things?
I have done a couple of long walks in the past though. Back in 1992 when I was living in Cardiff my friend Mike suggested walking the Monmouthshire canal in South Wales, from Newport to Brecon, about 33 miles in all. It seemed like a cool idea at the time. I was a reasonable athlete back in those days (although 400m was my favoured distance, not 33 miles), but I thought my fitness should make this a cinch. How hard could it be – canals are flat aren’t they? I’d even run two half marathons before (a long way for a 400m runner) so it sounded pretty easy. Although most of the length of canals are flat, it turns out they do go uphill at locks, and Brecon is quite an uphill sort of place.
33 miles is a very long way to walk. The first half was pretty easy, a gentle stroll, the sunshine on our backs, watching the baby ducks manically paddling to keep up with their mums. It was idyllic. We arrived at the exotically named village of Sebastopol which (unlike its namesake in Crimea) is a dull, unexciting place. Twenty streets of ex-council semis share the village with twenty more streets of two-up-two-down terraced houses, with nothing in the centre. Nothing at all. Only the Crown pub next to the canal showed any willingness to bring people together in one place, the friendly chatter and lively juke box music a hypnotic siren drawing in the bored and desperate for their daily fix of social interaction. The bar snacks advertised on the board outside turned out to be wilted sandwiches left over from the previous evening, but beggars can’t be choosers in a place like this.
After 25 miles, and a couple of hours of the sandwiches fermenting in our stomachs, things got quite a bit harder. Muscles can only be pushed so far, and once their supply of energy runs out there’s not much more they can do. Mike was suffering more than me, and decided he would hitch a lift the remaining few miles to Brecon, where his car was parked (mine was still at Newport). I was determined to finish though. Walking was now getting pretty hard, but then I discovered that the muscles used for walking are different from the ones used for running, well quite a few of them anyway. Jogging became more comfortable than walking, and also meant I’d get to the end quicker, so a final few miles of jog-walk-jog-walk brought me in semi-darkness to the welcome sight of Mike’s car parked outside an inviting pub in the pretty town of Brecon. Only Mike wasn’t there, his car was locked, I didn’t have any money on me, and it was getting cold. An hour passed and I got a bit colder, and a bit angrier. “Why did Mike lock his car?” I stupidly thought. “Why didn’t he give me the keys?” I thought even more stupidly. It was never likely that I would have got there first. Two hours later Mike limped up from the canal towpath with a forlorn look on his face.
“No bastard would give me a lift” he spat out in disgust. I looked him up and down, his bedraggled exhausted demeanor, stubbly beard, disheveled hair and knobbly knees below his shorts, and thought how sensible those drivers were. Given his obvious exasperation I decided to keep that thought quiet and said something vaguely sympathetic, even though I was bloody freezing at that point and quite angry. It wasn’t his fault of course.
We got in the car and drove back south to Newport where my car was parked. My anger and Mike’s depression were gradually blown away by the car’s heaters, and by the time we arrived in Newport we were feeling pretty chuffed with ourselves. It’s not often that arriving in Newport makes anyone happy, but I was glad to get to my car, drive the short distance back to my house in Cardiff, and sleep for the next 20 hours.
Some people collect things. Stamps, porcelain pigs, Pokemon cards, priceless paintings…. I’m not a big collector personally, but I understand the urge. I think I have a touch of OCD, but I can easily manage it. Candles on the mantelpiece that aren’t arranged symmetrically will annoy me, silently gnawing away at my comfort, urging me to balance them up. Knowing that this is happening helps me to reject the urge. I’ll look at them and picture how they “should” be, but I won’t get up and fix it – that would be giving in to it.
Where OCD does affect me is completeness. I like to have the complete set of things. My work colleagues tease me because I have to have all 26 colours in Pilot’s wonderful G2 gel pen range…. even the white one (yes, a white one, and no, I’ve never used it)
Now collecting sections of walks around the coast is the big idea, but I have smaller projects… ‘collecting’ lighthouses, piers, animals, and wild flowers on my walks, and have a display of my collections here.
Britain’s coastal footpaths
I grew up in Cornwall, although my home town (Launceston) is just about as far away from the sea as you can get in Cornwall. In our teens we would cycle the 16 or so miles to the coast – Bossiney, Trebarwith, or Strangles, and mess around on the beach, before the tiring cycle trip home again. The footpaths along the tops of the cliffs always enticed me, but not enough to bother walking them far. I grew up and left Cornwall, as many who want a job have to, and spent the next few years in various places around the country – Loughborough, Chelmsford, Folkestone, Cardiff, Manchester, but the sea always had a calling.
In 2000 the UK government passed the “Countryside and Rights of Way Act”, with the intention to create a footpath around the whole of mainland Great Britain. I had the idea that it might be nice to do some coastal walks. Then my collecting instinct and OCD kicked in – I couldn’t just do some coastal walks. If I was going to do one coastal walk, I had to do all of them. I wanted the complete set, the full 5500 miles. If I missed one it would be like that white Pilot G2 Gel pen.
Many coastal walkers are doing it for charity. Just at the moment, Chris The Coastal Walker is raising money for Children In Need, Jim Morton for the Ghurka Welfare Trust, and Tracey for MIND. However, I still have a full-time job, so I can only do the walks every so often at weekends. It would be dishonest to take money off people saying for the walk when I don’t even know if I’ll complete it. If you feel you would like to contribute to something, then the Teenage Cancer Trust is my preferred charity. It is heartbreaking to imagine a child going through cancer.
I’m much better at planning things than doing them. The easy part for me then, was to plan the tour. 10 to 15 miles a day seemed to be a reasonable target, maybe up to 20 if the going is flat. I found a decent mapping app at Komoot, which would allow me to plan each segment of the walk. After realising that public transport is virtually non-existent in the far outreaches of the land, I bought an electric bike. I park my car at the end of the walk – so I can just fall into it with no worries about timetables – then use the bus or train or bike to get to the start. In the further reaches an old camper van would be very useful – I’ll have to think about that.
380 or so walks… that’s more than a year of walking, bloody hell! And I’ve got a job, and a mortgage! This is going to take quite some time. It’ll have to be holidays and weekends (and only those weekends that Manchester City aren’t playing at home), which means it’ll actually take several years in all. Maybe five, maybe ten, whatever.
A bit of browsing on the web shows that quite a few people have done this crazy thing before, and many of them are “sectional walkers” like me, who complete it in stages rather than all in one go.
I’m doing this on my own. I don’t get lifts to start points or picked up at the end. That can make motivation harder, but after a few weeks away I always get the urge to get back out there.
Clockwise or anticlockwise?
Why does clockwise seem more natural? It occurs to me that I never even questioned which direction to go round until I read some articles and blogs. As a track athlete I always ran anticlockwise – I was significantly slower when I ran clockwise in training – it felt so unnatural. But walking round the country anti-clockwise just seems wrong somehow. Shally Hunt, who has done this walk, wrote a book called The Sea On Our Left so maybe I’m not the only one who feels it. Then again, perhaps I am, it probably requires OCD for it to feel anything.
How far is it?
This is a really good question. Obviously there’s the uncertainty of whether you stick rigidly to the coast or follow paths or roads that might venture inland a little. Then there’s whether you cross long estuaries by bridges or even ferries (which I do) which reduces the distance quite a bit. At a more detailed level, does the measured distance cover the little curves that you walk as you go round a farm gate or a tree? Probably not, but they all add up.
How long is Britain’s coastline? How long is any coastline? The answer is that it depends on the resolution of your ruler. This is called the coastline paradox. If you had a giant ruler that measured in units of 200km (124 miles) like in the picture on the right, then Britain’s coastline is only 2400km (1488 miles) long. If your ruler measures in units of centimetres, then the length is constantly changing as the waves go in and out, but would average out at something over 20,000 miles. Shortly before 1951, Lewis Fry Richardson, in researching the possible effect of border lengths on the probability of war, noticed that the Portuguese reported their measured border with Spain to be 987 km, but the Spanish reported it as 1214 km. They were both measuring the same thing, but using different length rulers.
Since there’s no real solution to this, I can only add up all my Komoot planned walks, which comes to about 5500 miles. I’ll know by the end of the walk how far I actually walked.
At least 60 people have done this previously. Thankfully a few of them have written blogs about it which are so good I use them as guidance for my walks… Ruth Livingstone, Jon Combe, Alan Palin, David Cotton among them. There are many others who have also written about their journeys, and details of other people’s journeys listed on what seems to be the unofficial website. There’s also a Facebook page which several of the people named are members of.
Many of these blogs and books gave me invaluable advice – which routes to take, the most dangerous animals (cows), the best things to take with you (cakes). I thank all my predecessors, those still with us and those who have passed away, those who completed their tour and those who are still touring (however lapsed), Sea-on-the-lefters and Sea-on-the-righters (strange), all of you. You all have achieved amazing things.
My rules / guidance
Everyone that does this walk sets rules for themselves. My rules are really just guidance. On each walk there are frequent decisions to make… like “shall I strictly follow the coast and get cut off by the tide and washed out to sea, or instead take the road route and live to see the next day?” The rules/guidance help make those decisions.
I decided to use the same rules that Ruth used because they seemed pretty sensible, and added a couple at the end. I’ve already broken most of them.
- Enjoy every walk.
- Keep as close to the coast as is safe, legal (mostly) and reasonable.
- Start each stage at the exact same point where the previous stage finished.
- I don’t have to walk around islands, but I can if I want to.
- I don’t have to walk around peninsulas where the only link to the mainland is a narrow isthmus or causeway, but I will if I want to.
- When encountering a river or estuary, cross at the nearest public crossing point; stepping stones, bridge or ferry.
- When I get to a pier, I should walk to the end of it if I can. And add it to my collection.
- When I see a lighthouse, or an animal I haven’t seen before, or a wild flower I’ve not yet encountered, it also goes in my collection.