The England Coast Path

The England Coast Path (ECP) is a new National Trail, which will follow the entire coastline of England. When complete, the route will total 2,795 miles in length and become the longest waymarked coastal path in the world. This new access builds on the success of the 630 mile South West Coast Path (SWCP) which will continue as a distinct National Trail; and one of the longest (and in our opinion) best parts of the ECP.  

We caught up with Steve Church, Chair of the SWCPA Path Committee to find out how the Association has been involved with the development of the new route and to ask about any changes this will have to the SWCP.

Q1) How has the SWCPA been involved with the creation of the ECP?

The job of establishing the ECP rests with the Government’s countryside agency Natural England (NE). In the south west, NE have sub-divided the coast into twelve lengths, which they call ‘stretches’. For each stretch, NE have had detailed discussions with the Association, which has meant that the Association has been able to inform NE of its long-standing hopes for improvement to the SWCP on that stretch. In addition, the relevant SWCPA Local and Area Reps for that stretch have been able to give NE the benefit of their local knowledge and the National Trail Officer, Richard Walton, has let NE have his views.

Following these meetings, NE has now published its proposals for the ECP in the south west, (except for one stretch, Lulworth Cove to Kimmeridge in Dorset, still awaited) with a period allowed for representations to be made on each of the stretch proposals.  While many of the Association’s issues have been addressed, there remain some concerns where the proposed route for the ECP does not meet our preference. In these instances, we have made representations to NE suggesting appropriate amendments to its proposals. In addition, where proposals have been made, which the Association particularly welcomes, representations of support have been submitted.

Q2) When is it likely to be completed?

Some lengths of the ECP have already been established. In the south west, the stretch between Portland and Lulworth Cove in Dorset was prioritised and completed in 2012 in time for the sailing events of the London Olympics, which took place at Weymouth. NE is committed to producing its proposals for the whole of the coastline by 2020, and in the south west proposals have been published for ten of the remaining eleven stretches. NE are tentatively proposing to have a formal launch of the entire project during 2020. 

The procedure then is that the Secretary of State for the Environment considers NE’s proposals for each stretch together with any objections that have been made (only affected landowners may make objections) and any representations, which will include those made by the Association. It is hoped that the Secretary of State will come to a final decision on all the stretches by the end of 2020. Following such a decision on any stretch, this will release funding to undertake required works to establish the route on the ground. Given the need to complete such works, it’s uncertain when the route will be physically complete. Our hope would be that the ECP in the south west will be completed by the end of 2021.

Q3) Will the ECP follow the same route as the SWCP in the south west?

Generally, yes. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the ECP will follow the current line of the SWCP. Where NE proposes a route for the ECP which differs from that of the current SWCP then the SWCP will divert onto the route of the ECP. However, the Association is aware that on occasions NE’s formal criteria could result in a route for the ECP which would be inferior to that of the SWCP. To address this issue, the Association has adopted a policy whereby it may wish to promote a route for the SWCP which differs from that of the ECP. There are three issues which could give rise to such a difference:-

  • Where the SWCP route facilitates a practical day-walk segment between convenient facilities which would be lost on the ECP route;
  • Where the SWCP offers a superior cultural, historic or heritage experience;
  • Where the ECP takes an alignment at a river or estuary which means loss of an attractive or necessary option, and/or loss of a circular day-walk.

It is emphasised, however, that such occasions will be few and far between and the overwhelming majority of the length of the SWCP will coincide with the ECP.

Q4) Will creating the ECP enable any improvements to be made to the SWCP?

Yes it will. As I mentioned in Question 1, the Association was in discussion with NE prior to their work on each of the stretches, and during these discussions we suggested a number of improvements. We’re pleased to see that many of these suggestions have been included in NE’s proposals for the ECP, which the SWCP will generally coincide with. As well as a number of relatively minor improvements, more significant ones should also be achieved on the east side of the Lizard in Cornwall, between Millendreath and Seaton also in Cornwall and at Stoke Fleming in south Devon. Currently at all of these locations there are inland alignments which the ECP will substantially address.

Q5) Will there be any changes to waymarking or to the name of the SWCP?

SWCP walkers will be familiar with the acorn waymark. The acorn is the symbol of all National Trails, and as the ECP will also be designated as a National Trail there will be no change to the waymarking symbol. It will still be a case of “follow the acorn”. 

Also, although part of the ECP, the SWCP will retain its own identity.  This means that the SWCP name will remain for all literature and signing will continue to refer to “South West Coast Path” or just “Coast Path”.  Generally, only where the ECP differs from the SWCP (see my answer to Question 3) will there be mention of “England Coast Path” on signing.

Q6) What type of access rights are being created?

Firstly, of course, there is the line of the route itself. This creates a right of access on foot around the coast of England. In the south west, where the SWCP already exists, this has less of an impact than in some other parts of the country. However, where the ECP is proposed to follow a new route then new access rights along this line will be created. Also, here and there along the SWCP the route may follow a line which may not be a legal right of way; the ECP process will rectify this. Note that although any new line will be a right on foot only, wherever the current SWCP follows a line with wider access rights, such as a bridleway or a minor highway, these greater rights will be retained. 

An additional benefit of the ECP scheme is the concept of “roll-back”. Coast Path walkers will be aware of the danger to the Coast Path from coastal erosion. Formal realignment of the route in such cases can be a lengthy and costly process. As part of the path establishment process, NE includes in its recommendations identified lengths of the ECP where such issues may arise. This then means that if at some stage in the future it proves necessary to realign the path further inland (or “roll it back”) because of erosion or similar natural processes, this can be done quickly and easily to the next suitable location inland, saving time and funds. 

The ECP creation process also identifies a continuous corridor of land adjacent to the ECP known as “coastal margin”. Primarily, this is all land seaward of the ECP. In addition, areas landward of the ECP may be defined as coastal margin if it is defined as foreshore, or as cliff, dune or beach which touches the foreshore. Finally, landowners may voluntarily dedicate land adjacent to the ECP and inland of it as coastal margin. The importance of coastal margin land is that it provides the basis for public access on foot. However, it is important to note that there are several categories of land to which, although in the coastal margin, legal access rights do not exist. Coastal margin land to which access rights do exist are referred to as “spreading room”.

Q7) Could you explain more about the coastal margin and spreading room?

As I mentioned in Question 6, “coastal margin” land is defined geographically, as all land seaward of the ECP plus certain categories of land on the inland side. This definition does not automatically confer a legal right of access, however. Such a right does not exist in certain categories of what is referred to as “excepted land”. On these areas no right of access exists even though they occur in the coastal margin. The main categories of excepted land are buildings and their immediate surroundings, parks and gardens, quarries, railways, livestock pens, schools and their playing fields, golf courses, caravan or camping sites, military land, ploughed agricultural land and burial grounds. Features such as saltmarshes or mud flats are also often omitted from a right of access, because of danger issues, and some areas are omitted for nature conservation reasons. Remaining coastal margin land, where access rights do exist, are referred to as “spreading room”. It should be noted that there is no obligation on landowners or Councils to provide easy access to such spreading room.

The term spreading room is also applied to land adjacent to the ECP to which rights of access exist under the CRoW Act 2000 or under other legal schemes or agreements. It is therefore the sum of all land adjacent to the ECP to which the public has a legal right to enter.

Q8) Who will look after the ECP?

As the ECP will constitute a National Trail, based on de-facto public rights of way, the ultimate responsibility for its maintenance will rest with the various Highway Authorities. There is thus no change from the current situation with the SWCP. In practice, the Highway Authorities often delegate day-to-day maintenance to the National Trust where the route crosses their land, and this will remain the case.

Overall administration of the ECP will be with a number of Trail Partnerships around the route. In the south west, the SWCP Partnership will continue to take on this role. The Partnership consists of each of the relevant Highway Authorities, the National Trust, NE and the Association, and is currently chaired by Ken Carter, the Association’s Chair. This arrangement will almost certainly continue, so both in practical and administrative terms there should be no change from the current position in the south west. 

Q9) Where can people find more information about the ECP?

Comprehensive information about all aspects of the ECP is available online at the Government website:-


Published on: April 27, 2020


South West Coast Path

1: Where would you like to walk?

Use my device location
from this location.

2: Difficulty and access restrictions

3: Length

4: Themes