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1 July 2020updated 25 Jul 2021 10:54am

Beach-shaming Britain: The real story behind coronavirus crowds

Photos of packed beaches during heatwaves reflect a lack of access to alternative spaces and unequal land ownership.   

By Anoosh Chakelian

On Thursday 26 June 2020, Britain experienced a scientific phenomenon officially categorised by meteorologists as a “SCORCHER!” It was the hottest day of the year so far, with highs of 33 degrees.

So members of the public headed to the country’s most popular beaches to enjoy the sunshine. Lockdown rules have gradually been eased over the past few weeks, and driving to the beach in England for a daytrip has been explicitly allowed since 13 May.

Nevertheless, pictures of apparently packed beaches circulated widely in news reports and on social media at the end of last week, to horrified reactions at the crowds and the litter they left behind.

A “major incident” was declared by Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council on the second day of the heatwave – it was unable to accommodate the thousands travelling to the Dorset coast, and warned people to stop visiting for their own safety.

Yet there is a deeper story behind these images. In England, the average person’s access to public land and natural space is severely limited. More so than in other European countries, such as France, Spain and Italy, there has been a tendency since the Victorian period for Brits to favour travelling to beaches over other natural spaces or parts of the countryside.

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This long-standing connection to the beach holiday is partly custom, but could also be a result of having very little access (and perceived access) to natural space elsewhere.

“In England, specifically, we only have the right to roam over about 8 per cent of the country – that’s tiny,” says Guy Shrubsole, a land ownership investigator and author of Who Owns England? How We Lost Our Green and Pleasant Land, and How to Take It Back (2019).

“And a lot of that is in areas like Cumbria and the Pennines, which are not very close to where lots of people live – cities and so on.”

We have access to footpaths (“public rights of way”), and gained a legal “right to roam” off paths on what is known as “open access land” in 2000 under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (known as the “Crow Act”). This covers coastal paths and the land between the path and the shore – beaches, cliffs, dunes, etc.

In practice, however, this access isn’t straightforward. Natural England – charged by the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 with building a coastal path all around England – is still working on the trail, having been delayed by Covid-19 and environmental assessments.

Simultaneously, ramblers are currently scrambling to save 10,000 miles of historic footpaths missing from the official map of England and Wales, which could be lost forever after the 2026 deadline to record all rights of way. There is currently a backlog of over 4,000 paths waiting to be processed by councils, which could take 13 years to complete, according to Natural England.

When Shrubsole first saw the photos of Bournemouth last week, he noted that “on the stretch of coastline that covers Bournemouth beach, there isn’t yet a completed coastal path”.

If this is the case even for popular, large beaches such as this, then accessing quieter stretches of coastline is likely to be far more of a challenge.

Ownership of our beaches also complicates matters.

“About half of the foreshore (the area between high and low tide) is owned by the Crown Estate,” explains Shrubsole. Other parts are owned by bodies such as port authorities, aristocrats (the Duke of Beaufort, for example, owns a significant amount of the Severn Estuary), and councils, as in Cornwall and on the Lancashire coast.

“There are quite a lot of different owners, and there would potentially be different rules associated with each, but it’s very rare that people are excluded from getting onto the beach, and there are very few fully privately-owned beaches in Britain,” says Shrubsole.

This makes beach crowds unsurprising. We feel comfortable going to beaches we can access, public parks to which we regularly walk, cycle or drive, and national parks – but not so in the case of more secluded natural land.

“People go where they feel they have permission, or a sense of permission, to go. There’s a huge other bit of the countryside out there where we could be going and exploring, if we had the right to – or if we felt comfortable doing so,” says Shrubsole.

A “thousand-year-old tradition of trespass law” and land ownership in England, plus incomplete public paths, deters people from exploring lesser-known spaces.

“I think it’s really important to encourage people to explore not just little bits of countryside, or crowd onto beaches or green parks, but actually have a right to explore the whole countryside.”

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