Current Affairs: In Search of a Collective Identity Along the England Coast Path
Is the UK really so united? Walking more than 100 miles, from Brighton to Dover in the south and Fleetwood to Liverpool in the north, one writer searches for a collective British identity along the England Coast Path
20 November, 2020
I'd walked more than 160km for this meal. With a twinging ankle, I'd scuttled sideways, crab-like, along the paths that fall from the Western Heights into Dover. Sunburnt and spent, I flounder into a chippy for no reason other than that its name, Wheeler's, reminds me of that oyster place in Whitstable. Turns out this one is a Marco Pierre White outfit, but the waiting area has good air con and it's 30 degrees outside.
I carry my takeaway to watch the liners from the harbour, slightly irked to have been handed a box decorated with faux newspaper print. Are those sachets of ketchup? Full-size cutlery? I lift the lid to a thimble of tartare sauce and a lemon wedge. Inside crisp batter, the cod flakes neatly; the chips are stiff. Yet what I really want is to unpick them from a mass sodden with vinegar. A few salty shards of batter. A dip of gravy. I want to give up on a futile little fork and eat with my fingers as grease soaks through the paper to my knees. I want a proper chippy tea, and restaurants just aren't up to it.
My walk had started four days earlier in Brighton, though it had been tiptoeing around my mind for a decade before that. As part of a Thatcherism module at university, I'd read Coasting, Jonathan Raban's account of sailing around Britain, a country he finds divided by class, an insular nation clinging to a fairy tale of our green and pleasant land. He was writing in 1982, but it's hard not to draw comparisons to the world of today, with record levels of unemployment, economic recession, a Tory government, a tug-of-power with the EU and headlines etched with the language of war - albeit one now waged against a virus, not Argentinians.
I want to gaze into our fourth, watery wall and see what of us is reflected back
I'm taken by Raban's idea that Britain's identity can be sought at its perimeter. The tidal pull has been particularly strong in my life - I grew up on the north-west coast and, after a stint in the capital, washed up in Brighton. But in the grand scheme of things, no Brit is more than 120km from the sea. I want to gaze into our fourth, watery wall and see what of us is reflected back.
Unlike Raban, I possess not the slightest inclination to play captain. Instead, I would follow the England Coast Path, a 4,500km sea-hugging route - the longest of its kind in the world - that will fill in the gaps left between existing trails by the time it's launched in 2021, the preordained "Year of the English Coast". An internet search tells me that it would take the best part of four months to walk the lot, so I settle on two manageable sections: from Brighton to Dover - home now - and Fleetwood to Liverpool - home then.
Starting a walking trip from your flat is rather unmomentous. I smother my two cats with kisses and take the bins out as I leave; nip back with post from the corridor. Heading to the pier, I pass a group on The Level who, at 7am, have lit a fire and several zoots. On London Road, I glance down a ginnel at the moment a guy crouches for a shit. So far, so Brighton.
It's only after I'm through the marina, the white splinter of the Undercliff piercing the horizon, that I feel like I'm doing something greater than trekking to the big Asda. Over the next few days, I trace a coastline crumbling under the weight of its own history. I pass Peacehaven's prime meridian, cross the brackish Cuckmere Haven and scramble up the whale's maw of the Seven Sisters. There are nine climbs on this rippling stretch between Seaford and Eastbourne - a point I imagine more people would make a fuss about if they walked it with a heavy rucksack.
Caught between daytrippers, I walk in tandem with two men whose conversation ricochets through the wave- song. "We need to think of a better word for the working class than 'gammons'." "Yup." "Meritocracy." "Yah." I pass a woman dressed head-to-toe in white who has pitched up with a guitar, a violin player and a tripod, and is reciting the kirtan Ong Namo. "I'm coming home. I'm coming home," she chants. I feel quite far from home.
The ice-cream-scooped edges of the south coast become amphitheatres of the places from where I come and go. One morning, inhaling a fried-egg sandwich between boats moored around Pevensey Bay - Bad Buoys, The Reel Thing, Fat Git - I see Beachy Head back west. Out front is Dungeness, the post-apocalyptic fantasyland where I'd wander among the sun-bleached ribcages of much older vessels the following afternoon.
I have no map. I am guided by the topography of the coast. In the areas the sea slips from view, tidal energy permeates clapboard cottages, rock shops strung with inflatables and herds of static caravans. At the unbridged River Rother, it takes three hours to divert inland through Rye, a saccharine town which sat on the coast before its harbour silted up. It's a brief interlude on a busy road and, over thundering cars, my mind replays the coastal orchestra: the cymbal crash of waves, rattling grasses on the strings, my boots on percussion, crunching through scrub. Black-headed gulls take the melody.
That night I'm staying in Camber and, as I cross fields back towards the sea, the light has gone almost completely and Google Maps is glitching. I call my mum who, through the power of a shared WhatsApp location and motivational hyping, successfully escorts me to bed. I wonder at what age I'll grow out of this.
England's vulnerable underbelly is a testament to nature's power to give and take. Such is the might of Poseidon, the Olympian god of the ocean, flood and drought. According to Environment Agency data, rising sea levels mean that vast stretches of the route I walk today will be underwater within a century. I see two sea walls under construction and lose count of the signs reading "Erosion. Route diversion." I pass Belle Tout, a lighthouse hauled 17m backwards from the Seven Sisters' receding edge. The Winchelsea through which I travel is, in fact, New Winchelsea; the original town was consumed by storms in the 13th century. "Are you looking for the coastal path, darling?" a woman asks me in Hastings' gill woodland, her dog nosing the crisp packet in my pocket. "Just duck under the landslide sign, we all do."
On my newsfeed, I see charades of patriotism; Britain standing defiantly against European neighbours and anyone who might seek safety on our shores.
I'm grateful for this lady. Between Ecclesbourne Glen and the Firehills, I navigate a twisted rockface matted with mosses, ferns and overhanging trees. For a couple of hours, the only souls I see are two wild Exmoor ponies grazing among the heather. Yet it's in the footsteps of man that I discover a coast carved by defence against more mortal enemies. In Fairlight, between cottages named Ozone and Calais View, a plane propeller plays garden centrepiece alongside a rain-streaked information card about the Battle of Britain. I pick up the Saxon Shore Way, along which Romans built defensive forts in 270 BCE, stop at squat Martello Towers and schlep around Lydd Firing Range to the sound mirrors at Romney Marsh.
The next day on Hythe Beach, I breakfast on deliciously pungent kippers as silhouettes cast out into a creased-silk sea, before tracing the Royal Military Canal. En route, I think about a Second World War-era poster I'd spied in Hastings town centre. Below a rendering of a shepherd on the South Downs shoreline it read: "Your Britain. Fight for it now." This coast is to die for.
After a swim by Sandgate's pastel huts, I cherry-pick the artwork in Folkestone's open-air exhibition: Tracey Emin, Yoko Ono and, under the Harbour Arm, one of Antony Gormley's Another Time figures eyeballing France. By the time I reach Dover, the continent is about 30km off - a distance less than I'd walked most days. My mobile service provider switches to SFR. The day I arrive, 16 refugees have crossed from Calais to Kingsdown and MPs are rowing over the Internal Market Bill. On my newsfeed, I see charades of patriotism; Britain standing defiantly against European neighbours and anyone who might seek safety on our shores. In real life, Vera Lynn's White Cliffs look grimy. I squint at France on the horizon.
In Fleetwood, it's easier to make out the Lake District across Morecambe Bay. I'd travelled up to my parents' the night before, greeted by three excitable dogs and mum's pièce de résistance: lasagne and crumble. "Noel and Doreen came around with three full bags of apples," she said, putting on her burdened voice, though I could tell she was delighted. It tasted like home.
In Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson calls the view from Fleetwood Esplanade "one of the most beautiful in the world". He's not wrong. When I arrive just after sunrise, the tide is out and the yawning bay is rippled with the mauve reflections of morning. It's somehow softer here. The local herring gull gossips quietly, the promenade is curvaceous, shingle has become sand. A down-to-earth warmth radiates from the people too. Against the grumble of the A587 and the click-thud screech of trams, the soundtrack of my northern leg is "Morrrnin." "Yorite luv?" "T'Liverpool yer walkin'? Shit."
I feel a bit different here, too. In the south, beyond Brighton, I was discovering my adopted home. Here, the coast is awash with memories. That time we got caught by the tide on Cleveleys Beach and when the Riverdance ferry ran aground, spilling its cargo of McVities digestives; school trips to The Beatles museum at Liverpool's Albert Dock; orthodontist appointments on St Annes' seafront; sticking our heads out of the sunroof as dad drove through Blackpool illuminations.
But in the harsh light of 2020, the north-west has a different sheen. By day, the illuminations lose their magic. Approaching the North Pier, I pass more hotel fronts with missing letters than complete signs. Ponies pull Cinderella-style carriages past shops emblazoned with "Cut-price rock!" "We sell cigarettes!" "Gypsy Lavinia! This lady has predicted for GMTV!" A tannoy from Pat's 10p Prize Bingo fizzles: "Eyes down. Yellow. Key of the door, 21. Red. Big Ben, number 10. Winner winner chicken dinner." A woman dressed as Ariel warbles Disney songs while a middle-aged Sebastian tap dances alongside, an old Britain's Got Talent number pinned beside an open suitcase. I try (and fail) not to cast my mind back to the buskers at Seaford.
Though it bears all the totems of a seaside holiday, the Fylde Peninsula isn't all fun and games. As if competing, its statistics are cut by phrases such as "Britain's unhealthiest community" "highest antidepressant usage" and "most-deprived area". Once the UK's third- largest port, Fleetwood was devastated by the Icelandic cod wars of the 1970s and fishing quotas set by the EEC (later the EU) in 1983. Here, Leavers sold Brexit as an opportunity to rewrite these unfavourable rules, and it's no surprise they won. I voted Remain, but on referendum day, while I felt sad about the result, I felt sadder still that my social media was littered with one-liners about the xenophobic, imbecile north where I'd grown up. This was the chasm between north and south, between the metropole and drowning coastal towns.
Where the south seems scarred by climate change and conflicts past, in the north, the tributes I see have a more intimate, modern flavour. In Fleetwood, a statue entitled "Welcome Home" depicts a mother and children gazing expectantly to sea for their father. Fishermen are fabled here. Another sculpture reads: "Their courage and comradeship under hardship is living legend." Alongside it are names of boats and locations. Twelve lost. Three lost. All hands. Just down the coast, four Angel of the North-style figures pay homage to Lancashire's emergency services. I walk across the dunes of St Annes, yellow as butter, melting into Lytham. A fighter jet scratches into Wartonairfield, an outpost of BAE Systems, the UK's largest defence company and one of Lancashire's biggest employers. Both my parents worked there.
That evening I tuck into fish and chips the northern way, my way: haddock with gravy, curry sauce and a cuppa. When I said that restaurants aren't up to serving fish and chips, what I meant is that I don't like restaurants' fish and chips. I'm not sure I'm going to find a collective identity on our coast, but from the places I've been, it seems that a lot of us are hellbent on defending things - whether battling the elements, foreign power or being a pedant about your chippy tea. You know the way you like yours. Maybe that's what Britishness is. The seafront is our homefront is our frontline. It's no wonder that Second World War ministers bent over backwards to make sure fish and chips were never rationed.
The next morning, this epiphany has me feeling down as I set off from Southport. Behind me, Blackpool's Pepsi Max rollercoaster has become a manmade crest among the Lakeland peaks. I pull my feet over Formby's shifting dunes knitted together by marram grass and reclaimed Christmas trees. On the shore, shipwrecks and Neolithic footprints peer from sandy graves.
At Crosby, for the second time in my journey, my horizon is punctuated by one of Antony Gormley's iron men. The tide comes in quickly, waves pushing the ring of scum up his motionless body. From the back of his knees, it rises over his wrists, buttocks, waist, shoulders, until the tip of his head, crowning between ripples, is the only sign that anything had ever been there at all. It reminds me of a Stevie Smith poem I read in school:
"Nobody heard him, the dead man, But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought And not waving but drowning."
I feel suffocated. Is "Brits love defending things" the thing that's really jumped out at me from this beautiful walk? Sure, you can put a triumphant spin on it, but this beleaguered independence feels rather lonely.
In the Port of Liverpool, Everton has proposed to build a football ground by 2024, but today the buildings on its outskirts remind me of aged men. Weeds sprout through the nostrils of their air vents; like neglected skin, their paintwork is blistered and peeling. I pass a rubbish tip topped by an upturned Henry hoover smiling mawkishly; and electrical boxes tagged by Sine Missone, the Scouse Banksy. "There never was a good war or bad peace".
There are stats floating around that those living near the shore are happiest. But I’m not entirely convinced by this myth of a coastal population high off sea air.
Past the Royal Liver Building, Pier Head and Albert Dock are from another world. The sharp angles of the Museum of Liverpool give way to the Tate and statues of the city's "Fab Four". And yet it's here, serendipitously, that I see a cluster of tucked-away war memorials, each dedicated to servicepeople from outside Britain: the Netherlands, Belgium Poland, Norway, China. "For those who gave their lives for this country, thank you."
The coast of Great Britain, including the islands, stretches more than 30,000km. For one week, in one strange year, I had walked less than one per cent of that distance. In that snapshot of time and place, between chalk cliffs and faded seaside towns, I had passed through communities that are as diverse as the lands they inhabit and yet united by a determination to defend.
There are stats floating around that those living near the shore are happiest. But I'm not convinced by this myth of a coastal population high off sea air. On Rossall Beach a sign reads: "Plants that grow on shingle or sand are specially adapted to the harsh environment." And I think this rings more true of the people with whom I cross paths on the coast than any study can prove.
Setting off, I had been naive to think of the sea as a fourth wall. It's a port; a reminder that there are horizons beyond ourselves, at home and away. No man is an island. If Britain's fringe harbours our spirit, it's here I feel buoyant about a future in which differences needn't mean we drift apart. So long as I have gravy with my chips.