Many have walked, cycled, or sailed around the coast of Britain but few have written of their experiences. Listed below are one ancient and eight modern accounts. The motives for their endeavours are various: solitary record breakers; middle-aged married couples seeking a break from their daily lives; families in search of adventure; the philanthropic raising money for charity; those setting out with a simple sense of curiosity to see what lies around the next corner.
The accounts themselves are equally diverse, from straightforward diaries of the days' events to authors in search of their own souls or the elusive character of the British peoples. They are different too because there is just so much to see. To pause and reflect at all the places mentioned in the AA/Reader's Digest guide, to absorb a sense of place and people, their history and landscape, would take half a lifetime. The other half would be taken up by seeing all the things in between. So each author travels the same coastline but sees and writes of different things, or sees the same things differently.
Yet the coastline does not remain constant. Only the names of the towns and villages remain unchanged from Daniel Defoe's day. The other accounts span a mere twenty years but a period of rapid social and industrial change in Britain. Steelworks and coalmines disappeared, the fisheries declined; docks and harbours became more likely to house leisure yachts than commercial shipping, warehouses to be middle-class apartments than storage for goods in transit. A hundred yards of the coastline itself have dissolved into the waters of the North Sea. Tourism reigns supreme.
There could be a hundred books on the coastline of Britain and each would be different. Read and enjoy them.
DEFOE, DANIEL. A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain. First published 1724-6; Penguin English Library edition 1971. Describes thirteen itineraries which ostensibly make up the complete journey, much of it being on or near the coast. In fact the Tour is believed to be 'based on a lifetime of sharp-eyed observation, as businessman, government spy and journalist'.
HUNT, SHALLY. The Sea on Our Left - A couple's ten month walk around Britain's coastline. Summersdale Publishers, Chichester, 1997. Leaving Eastbourne on New Year's Day 1995, physiotherapist Shally and dentist Richard took a year's leave of absence from their jobs to undertake their 302 day, 4300 mile clockwise walk. Unwittingly, our paths must have crossed about 18 July on Orkney.
MERRILL, JOHN. Turn Right at Land's End - The story of his 7000 mile British coastal walk. Oxford Illustrated Press, 1979. An experienced long-distance walker, Merrill was the first person to walk the entire coastline of mainland Britain. Walking clockwise he averaged 26 miles a day carrying 50-60lb of equipment and had to have a month off in the middle to recover from a fatigue fracture in his right foot.
PURVES, LIBBY. One Summer's Grace - A family voyage around Britain. Grafton Books 1989; Fontana paperback 1990. Journalist and broadcaster Libby Purves and husband Paul Heiney survived four months cooped up in their thirty foot cutter Grace O'Malley with children Nicholas (five) and Rose (three). In the summer of 1988 they sailed 1700 miles clockwise around mainland Britain as a more-or-less happy family.
RABAN, JONATHAN. Coasting. Collins Harvill 1986; Picador paperback 1987. In 1982 Raban sailed anti-clockwise around the coast of Britain in converted trawler Gosfield Maid. Reporting mainly the English portion of his voyage, it is half travel book, half autobiography. It evokes the sense of otherness of small towns and island people against the background of the developing Falklands war. In the process he rediscovers his childhood and his father through the places he sees and the people he meets.
READER'S DIGEST (editors). AA Illustrated Guide to Britain's Coast. Drive Publications, Basingstoke, first edition 1984; reprinted with amendments1987. (Republished 1996 as Reader's Digest Illustrated etc . . . ) The only guide book to cover the whole coast of Great Britain, including the main offshore islands, in a single volume.
SANDERS, NICK. 22 Days Around the Coast of Britain. Nicholas Sanders Publishing Ltd, Glossop, 1984. No, that's not a misprint! Nick averaged 230 miles a day for three weeks on a bike. This slim volume is more an extended photo-essay of Nick's record breaking cycle ride than a blow-by-blow account of the journey. Photographs by Ian Woollams.
TALBOT-PONSONBY, SPUD. Two Feet, Four Paws - The girl who walked her dog 4,500 miles. Summersdale Publishers, Chichester, 1996. Raising money for the homeless, in 1993 Spud and her dog Tess walked anti-clockwise supported by a dilapidated camper van driven by a constantly changing crew of pregnant friends, family, and erratic lovers.
THEROUX, PAUL. The Kingdom by the Sea - A journey around the coast of Great Britain. Hamish Hamilton 1983; Penguin paperback 1984. After eleven years of living in London, American writer Paul Theroux set out clockwise around the coast of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to find out what the British were really like. Travelling for three months on foot and by train he eschewed historic sites to seek out ordinary places and talk to ordinary people. He claims to have enjoyed the experience, but seems only to have liked parts of Wales and Scotland. The rest he found dismal.
WESTLEY, John. And the Road Below - The blister-by-blister account of his record breaking walk around the coastline of the British Isles. Meridian Books, Warley, 1994. From August 1990 to September 1991 Westley undertook this 9469 mile walk around Great Britain and Ireland to raise money for the Multiple Sclerosis Society. He averaged 23 miles a day for 412 days without a single rest day. Terrifying!