Have you ever visited the coast, looked out to sea and thought about what might make it better? It’s likely that the things that might spring to mind would be things that are personal or convenient – ‘my own house with a white picket fence on the shoreline’ or maybe ‘a café with some nice sandwiches and a cup of tea’. Or the frequent request of ‘a bench’ or ‘dog poo bins’. I’ve often longed to live in a lighthouse and some of us would like to have an island all to ourselves once in a while, but I’m not sure whether my red and white striped spire would actually improve the coast in many of the places I’m lucky enough to look after in Ceredigion. What makes the 742 miles of coastline the National Trust looks after so special, what makes so many visitors want to spend time there is the fact that there aren’t any buildings or infrastructure at Penbryn, for example, or Whiteford Burrows – not even a dog poo bin.
Yes, we do own fantastic places such as spooky Souter Lighthouse and the beach huts at Llanbedrog, but much of our coast was beginning to be acquired 50 years ago to prevent urban sprawl and development. Caravan parks (wonderful in the right place) were springing up everywhere, people were buying beaches and preventing anyone else from going near them. Sometimes people want to visit and use the coast their way, and this can be to the detriment of other people. This is what makes the job of the National Trust so challenging – the sea means so much to people and we have to manage conflicting demands. We ask people to take away their litter and dog poo and in return they get a wonderful beach they can visit any time.
The fact that the sea seems so infinite is perhaps why man has damaged it to such an extent – the effects of inappropriate development, marine pollution and climate change are very visible to coastal rangers on a daily basis. We often see seals hit by boats or other craft, guillemots starved in storms or huge amounts of litter. Overfishing, water pollution, ecological damage and even disturbance may not be so immediately obvious, but can affect nature just as badly. It’s sometimes quite upsetting to see these changes, but the reward for us is seeing the results of the positive work we do. We have some fantastic wildlife on the coast – arctic skuas, the beaky pirates of the seas; pretty kittiwakes (to be said in a Georgie accent for the full alliterative effect); clowning puffins on our islands; bottlenose dolphins leaping in Cardigan Bay; grayling and small blue butterflies dancing in the sunshine; the hairy purple golf ball dancing in the breeze that is Devil’s bit scabious.
The British coast is full of inspiring places, and every bit is different. The red, Jurassic cliffs of Dorset and the white cliffs of Dover appear to rise out of the sea like glimpses of prehistoric monsters. Craggy clifftops in west Wales, bent and twisted when the earth was first formed, hold masses of white and grey guillemots and gannets. Peaceful wooded valleys of Devon and Cornwall conceal birds in the treetops, or a lost smuggler around the bend in the path beneath hawthorns dripping with lichen. Endless sand dunes full of flowers until you get to the top and then…sea. Sandy beaches with secret coves, or rocky ones with vicious dog whelks, nippy crabs and screaming children.
People can have a hugely positive effect on the sea while using it for dreaming, for stories of mermaids singing in the slow curlicue of a wave. One visitor created a lovely castle on the beach, which was nice to find during a morning beach clean – another left me an anonymous note at one of our beaches, telling the reader about a traumatic incident from many years before and how he felt his regular visits to the beach, alone, helped to heal the scars of that trauma. Maybe the coast is a place you were lucky enough to visit as a child, the sounds of gulls and smell of salt still evoking powerful memories. I have taken 18 year old students from London to visit the sea who had never seen it before, so moments from our childhood are precious. Great authors such as Virginia Woolf, Edgar Allen Poe, Hans Christian Anderson, Herman Melville have written about the sea in wonderful stories and books. The thing that’s so amazing about the coast is that not even reading the beautiful central passage of ‘To The Lighthouse’ can compare to being there.