Walking Great Britain’s great coast

Mainland Great Britain has around 17,820km of coastline. That’s just over 11,000 miles of beach, bay, cove and cliff forming the wave-battered circumference of the country.

For now, you can’t (officially) walk this periphery; there is no continuous waymarked trail and some stretches are off-limits. But plans are afoot…

The 2009 Marine and Coastal Access Act gives government body Natural England the authority to create a walking route around the coast of England, and the aim is to complete it within ten years.

In Wales, they’re ahead of the game: the 1,370km Wales Coast Path is due to open in July 2012.

Meanwhile, the Scottish National Party has mooted a similar nation-hugging route, linking existing stretches of coastal footpath to form one great Gretna-to-Berwick loop.

You may not be able to complete a circumnambulation just yet. But there are some fine stretches you can already walk to get a handle on this island nation.

English rambles

The South West Coast Path, which wiggles for 1,014 extremely undulating kilometres from Minehead in Somerset to Poole in Dorset via the shorelines of Devon and Cornwall, is Great Britain’s longest national trail. And it’s a spectacular one, encompassing UNESCO World Heritage sites, pirate coves, dinosaur fossils, surf beaches, seal-basked rocks and enough Cornish pasty parlours to sustain your hiking between them. Come in summer – for a day walk, week walk or to finish the whole lot (about eight weeks) – and you might see the benign fin of a basking shark cruise by the shore.

Further east more dramatic cliffs beckon: the day walk (12km) from Alfriston to Eastbourne rollercoasters over the Seven Sisters, a series of chalk-white, up-down cliffs that would make Dame Vera Lynn burst into song. Watch the waves pound Beachy Head Lighthouse and gaze across the Channel to France.

The North Norfolk Coast Path, in England’s east, is for those who like their sandscapes flat, wide and wildlife-heavy. Running along the North Sea for 72km from Hunstanton to Cromer, this three-day ramble takes in seals at Blakeney, flint villages, top-notch bird-watching (look out for flights of pink-footed geese in winter) and the country’s tastiest crab.

Up in the north-east, the one-day (21km) leg-stretch from Bamburgh to Craster along Northumberland’s undeveloped coastline links two castles (grand Bamburgh, artfully ruined Dunstanburgh), some of the country’s wildest beaches and excellent smoked kippers.

Walking coastal Wales

South-west Wales’s Pembrokeshire coast is a jumble of geology: rock stacks, natural arches, blowholes, bays, columns and a coast so craggy you could do a whole day’s walking and end up only a mile away as the crow flies, having followed a complex serrated shoreline to get there. The full Pembrokeshire Coast Path takes around 15 days (299km); attempt a stretch in late summer to spot whales off the coast and butterflies in the hedgerows.

Opened in July 2010, a 43km path now links Prestatyn with Llandudno, an add-on to the existing North Wales Path, which begins in Bangor. Here, traditional Welsh seaside towns mix with views out to the island of Anglesey and inland to the dramatic heights of Snowdonia.

Scottish strolls

The Fife Coastal Path stretches 150km from the Forth Bridge, near Edinburgh, north to the Tay Bridge, by Dundee. Traversing the ancient Kingdom of Fife, this week-long walk combines history (castles, cathedrals, key monuments) and wilderness to connect two of Scotland’s key cities. Sections vary in difficulty, though a head for heights is handy on the Elie Chainwalk sideloop – from Earlsferry Beach, a series of carved steps and metal chains allows close access to the cliffs and caves.

The 6.5km hike from Cape Wrath Lighthouse to Kearvaig Bay, right at the top of mainland Scotland near Durness, is perhaps the wildest day walk in the country. People: no. Seabirds: yes. A sense of being at the end of the world: without doubt.