Category Archives: National Trust

A sonic postcard from the coast

Close your eyes for a minute. Think of a favourite place on the coast. Tune into your memory soundbank and start to imagine the sounds that fill the airwaves. It could be the sounds from the days spent at the coast as a kid when the day felt like it would never end. Or it might be a trip to a seabird colony clinging to the cliffs and creating an intense wall of sound.

Seaside towns are full of fascinating sounds

Seaside towns are full of fascinating sounds

There is something really powerful about the sounds of our shores. Our sensory experience of being by the sea can fill our life with powerful memories.

This summer the National Trust, British Library and the National Trust for Scotland wants people to record sounds from the whole coastline of the UK – helping to crowd source a sounds of our shores coastal sound map. And it’s not just the wild stretches of coast but the 15 per cent of coastline that is developed too – villages, towns and cities; ports, urban beaches or classic seaside towns.

It’s a project that aims to capture a snapshot of how our coast sounds and also a chance to reflect on the changing relationship that we have with the coastline.

The tapping of a bucket to create a sandcastle is a powerful sound of childhood. Me on a beach in Devon with my Gran

The tapping of a bucket to create a sandcastle is a powerful sound of childhood. Me on a beach in Devon with my Gran

In the last century the relationship that we have with the coast has been transformed. It has shifted from a place of work to a place that we go to play. Yes there is vibrancy still to the working coast – busy fishing harbours and mega sized container terminals – but for most of us it about those special places that we like to visit time and time again.

Recording sounds couldn’t be easier and it’s a great way of creating a sonic equivalent of a postcard or photo. And best of all the sounds that make it up on the coastal sound map will end up in the British Library Sound Archive (one of the biggest in the world no less).

So this summer use some of your screen time to record the sounds of our shores. You’ll be helping to crowd source for a project that will capture the sounds from the UK coast for future generations to hear.


A magical English seabird colony

As an island nation we have some pretty special islands around our shores. One of these islands which has stayed rooted in my memory since my first visit is the Farne Islands. I can still taste the salt water on my lips as the ferry sails across to the Farnes and the unrivaled views of the beautiful Northumberland coast.

Puffins on the National Trust's Farne Islands

Puffins on the National Trust’s Farne Islands

A couple of miles off of the Northumberland coast they have held generations of nature lovers spell-bound. The biggest seabird colony in England and a special place for seals, the Farne Islands is somewhere so rich in nature, with wonderful stories to tell; including memorably an otter that made it across treacherous seas a few years back. An incredible 23 out of the 25 seabirds found around our shoreline can be found on the Farne Islands.

My first encounter with the puffin was on this windswept Farne Islands out in the midst of the North Sea. Seeing them close up remains one of my nature highlights. These comical looking birds that live in burrows in the ground are so charismatic and there are literally thousands here, everywhere you look. And it was great to see the puffin charting at number 10 in the poll to find our national bird.

Another very visible feature of the Farne Islands is the terns – sandwich, common and artic terns. You can’t but see them. If you wander around inner Farne during the summer you’ll be bomb-barded by them, worried about the impact of people walking around the island. It’s a bit like a scene out of an Alfred Hitchcock film. And remember to wear a hat.

this year its 90 years since the National Trust acquired the Farne Islands. Full-time rangers have only been on the Farnes since the 1970s and the pioneering research about seal tagging began on the islands back in the 1950s.

Seeing a seabird colony such as the Farne Islands up, close and personal is an experience that will stay with you for a lifetime. It’s the sights, sounds and smells that capture the imagination.

Creating coastal corridors

Walking between Port Isaac and Port Quin on the rugged north Cornish coast is pretty special. A landscape battered and sculpted by the sea this undulating walk is part of the South West Coast Path that meanders 630 miles through four counties.

And yet go beyond the tourist hot spot that is the South West of England and the opportunity to wander our majestic coast is limited. That’s why the ambition to open up the whole of the coast of England is so important and the lessons from Wales show the benefits that it can bring.

Championed for years by the Ramblers and now enshrined in an Act of Parliament, passed in 2009, a footpath around the coastline of England, would link many of the jewels of this beautiful coast.

There is a need for the new Government to back the commitment made by the coalition, and the Deputy PM, Nick Clegg, back in September 2014 to deliver this by the end 2020. This means committing money and resource to allow Natural England to help deliver this exciting and ambitious project.

The Wales coastal footpath opened back in 2012, the first of its kind in the world, has made great strides in giving people access to hundreds of miles of shoreline rich in nature, archaeological and epic beauty. This is giving people the chance to see their coast anew and generating much needed income for coastal communities.

Over the Irish sea in Northern Ireland, the journey to create a footpath along its coastline is just beginning and would be a real boon for the tourist industry. I’ve been to Northern Ireland three times and its coastline is spectacular.

The Great Orme, 12/05/15. Photograph Richard Williams 07901518159

The Great Orme where the National Trust has bought Parc Farm and the wider grazing rights for this wildlife paradise. Picture: Richard Williams

Our history, cultural and the story of our nations has been shaped by the sea. In the last 50 years the National Trust’s Neptune Coastline Campaign has saved, thanks to a people-powered and very British revolution, hundreds of miles of coast; something that it still alive and kicking as seen by the announcement today that the Trust has bought a farm on the wildlife paradise that is the Great Orme in north Wales.

The next part of our coastal story needs to look at how we can create the space for people and nature. There is a need to look at the idea of coastal corridors, where footpaths can be moved as the coast changes and we can look to move habitats for nature. This would truly revolutionise our relationship with the coast.

National Trust and nature

I love a good list. And the BBC Wildlife Magazine ‘power list’ is my kind of list, championing the people that are doing their bit and more for the natural world. It’s a list that you can believe in rather than the Sunday Times rich list which is all about people with loads of money.

Puffins on the National Trust's Farne Islands

Puffins on the National Trust’s Farne Islands

Lists always generate a lot of conversation. Who is top of the pops, who is missing and which people should have made it on to list?

I was a bit surprised I have to admit to see a lack of National Trust representation on the list. All of the people on the list are at the forefront of wildlife work but it seemed to be a fairly sizeable hole without any one from the Trust on there.

Over the last decade I’ve had the pleasure of working with Trust rangers and experts (we’re the only conservation organisation in the UK with an in-house biological survey team – animal, insect and plant ecologists). They’re a passionate bunch, they have great stories to tell and they’re doing amazing things to connect people and nature and to create the right conditions for wildlife to flourish.

Sometimes it creates a moment of existential angst when you lists like this one from BBC Wildlife Magazine: why does it feel like the Trust’s wildlife work lacks public recognition. After all that has been my job for the last eight years. Am I doing something wrong? There is always a lot of interest in the nature stories that we tell and we have reach a wide audience and our rangers and experts profiles have begun to rise.

Large Blue Butterfly {Maculinea arion}. Species formerly extinct in the UK, but successfully re-introduced, at Collard Hill, Somerset.

Large Blue Butterfly {Maculinea arion}. Species formerly extinct in the UK, but successfully re-introduced, at Collard Hill, Somerset.

It’s worth pausing to think about a potted history of the Trust and it’s cycles. For the first 40 years of its life it was all about green spaces. Then in the 1930s came the country house scheme to save the great stately home under threat, which has pretty much dominated the narrative of the organisation for the last 70 years. In 1965 the Trust launched a bold and brave campaign to buy coast and save it from the real threat of development – think costa del Dorset.

Wildlife has always been in the DNA of the Trust – it acquired the amazingly species rich Wicken Fen back in 1899. And the new ten year vision for the National Trust has put land, nature and outdoors at the heart of the organisations work in the decade ahead because there are so many massive challenges – climate change, habitat loss, development, intensive farming etc.

This will be make a big difference. The focus of the organisation is firmly on the nature agenda and we need to use all of our communication channels to tell this story effectively and consistently.

So take some time to see the Trust anew. Any list of top wildlife sites in the UK would include many National Trust places. Maybe it’s not one individual that should be celebrated for their contribution to nature conservation but the whole community of people that look after our places from the Farne Islands to the Lizard in Cornwall and Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland to Hafod y Llan in Snowdonia – the rangers, volunteers and ecologists.

Saving our shores

50 years ago today the Neptune Coastline Campaign was launched by the National Trust. Unbeknown to the founders of this campaign it would over the course of five decades transform the ownership of the coast around our shores.

Whiteford Burrows on Gower in South Wales; the first ever site acquired by the National Trust as part of its Neptune Coastline Campaign

Whiteford Burrows on Gower in South Wales; the first ever site acquired by the National Trust as part of its Neptune Coastline Campaign

The coast is deeply embedded in the DNA of the National Trust. Its first ever patch of land was a small coastal cliff near Barmouth in north Wales. There were some key acquisitions in the following three decades: the stunning Blakeney Point in 1912 and the one and only Farne Islands in 1925.

Yet it was 1965 that led to a game changing direction of travel for the Trust on the coast. The concept behind Neptune was very simple and had a clear call to action.

The coast was under threat from development and industrialisation and to save hundreds of miles of the beautiful coast of England, Wales and Northern Ireland a major new fundraising appeal was launch.

An initial target of two million pounds was unveiled in the late spring of 1965 and in the subsequent fifty years tens of millions of pounds has been reached thanks to the support of people from across the globe. A group of geographers from the University of Reading helped to map the coastline of England, Wales and Northern Ireland on a scale not seen since the Doomsday book; giving the Trust a clear sense of which bits of coast needed to be saved.

This has been a truly people powered revolution allowing a conservation charity to take its coastal ownership from just over 200 miles to 775 miles today (that’s ten per cent of the coast of the three nations). Since 1965 the Trust has been acquiring an average of around one mile of coastline every month including the world famous White Cliffs of Dover, much of the gorgeous Gower in south Wales and much loved Wembury just outside Plymouth.

At Studland in Dorset a big donation to the Trust coastal campaign by the Bankes family (the biggest in the charity’s history) meant that this special place was secured for future generations to enjoy. Pockets of development had begun to pop up and there is no doubt that Sandbanks would have spread westwards across the mouth of Poole Harbour. A million people every year now come to Sandbanks, a classic British beach.

We have a deep connection to the coast in the UK. As island nations the shoreline has shaped our identity and every year there is a mass migration to the coast for bucket and spade holidays or walking along the coastline. It’s a very sensory place: the touch of the sand between your toes, the sounds of our shores and the smell of fish and chips.

Time and time again we’re drawn to the coast and we put a very high value on its importance to us (think how many people have something from the coast in their house). It would be a very different place if it wasn’t for the crystal clear vision of the founders of the Neptune Coastline Campaign.

Heading to the hillfort at Eggardon Hill

For me the hillforts of Dorset are as important as the pyramids of Egypt. When you visit one it feels like you’re travelling back in time; connecting with the people that worked the land thousands of years ago.

On a spring day, as the sun tried to break through, the mist hindered the view but Eggardon Hill loomed large on the horizon. We drove along a road that followed the line of what was one of the vast mounds that surround the hillfort. Down one side was a sheer drop and the other was a defensive moat.

This is the third hillfort in Dorset (all owned by the National Trust) that I’ve visited in the last six months. Hambledon Hill is one of the best sites in Europe, a remarkable place, and Badbury Rings on the Kingston Lacy estate, is a place that comes alive with the arrival of the wild flowers.  Dorset really is a hillfort superpower. These magical places are true wonders.

The wind made the short walk to Eggardon bracing. But it was worth it. The earthworks here are stunning: a testament to human endeavour and indigenuity. It’s mind boggling to think that people toiled here thousands of years ago to create this intricate defence system to keep the community safe. This wasn’t some random act of setting up camp, the entrances and banks were carefully thought through to provide a robust way to defend the site from attack. The surrounding landscape would have been covered in trees, hence the need for a high vantage point.

Sheep graze the slopes and fragments of chalk litter the site. Skylarks high above belted out their distinctive and achingly beautiful melodies.  On a clear day you can see the coast. The trees here are windswept, growing at right angles, and the banks of the hillfort will be awash with orchids in the summer and butterflies fluttering gently above the chalk rich grassland. It is a place to connect deeply with human history and natural history.

When you’re visiting a place such as Eggardon it really does feel as though you are standing on the shoulders of a giant with commanding views across the landscape.

Coastal entente cordiale

50 years ago the National Trust set up the Neptune Coastline Campaign. It was a key moment in the story of the conservation charity as it identified the need to have a clear strategic plan for protecting the coast of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Whiteford Burrows on Gower in South Wales; the first ever site acquired by the National Trust as part of its Neptune Coastline Campaign

Whiteford Burrows on Gower in South Wales; the first ever site acquired by the National Trust as part of its Neptune Coastline Campaign

The pressures on the coast were huge from development and industrialisation. Our relationship with the coast had been slowly changing from a working relationship and one of the fear of invasion to the coast being seen as a place to visit for leisure (linked to the spread of the rail network and the arrival of paid annual leave). More of us wanted to go and take the sea air and there was a need to protect the natural beauty of our diverse and varied coastline.

In essence this meant buying vast tracts of coastline including the White Cliffs of Dover, Studland in Dorset, the Black beaches in Durham and much of the Gower in South Wales.

Ten yeas later in 1975 this pioneering model based around acquiring coast made it across the English Channel with the setting up of the Conservatoire du Littoral. Whereas the National Trust is a charity the Conservatoire is a Government body funded by licenses from boats moored around the French coast. But both have a shared common purpose; tapping into the respective national love of the coastline.

It’s intriguing to think that the Trust model of working on the coast inspired the French to take a hard long look at how they protect their own coast. You can see many of the pressures on the French coastline, especially on the Cote D’azur, in terms of development.

Ideas have a habit of flowing between nations and the double anniversary in 2015 provides a chance to reflect on the goals of the two organisations.

In the last fifty years the Trust has acquired 550 miles of coastline; taking its total ownership to more than 10 per cent of the English, Welsh and Northern Irish coastline. The Conservatoire now manages 13 per cent of the French coastline (it’s remit also includes French overseas territories).

Acquisition remains at the heart of the Conservatoire strategy: with a target to double its ownership by 2050. For the National Trust new models are being tested, such as managing rather than owning coast, and there is a focus on consolidation and adding pieces to the missing coastal jigsaw.

However – both organisations are focusing firmly on the realities of a changing climate. The coast is often at the forefront of massive and rapid change. This has been shown by the huge impact of winter storms in the last decade; with cliff collapse, dunes becoming even more mobile and the loss of beaches.

Thinking long term and planning is key to dealing with the changes happening and coming our way. It’s about innovation and sharing best practice across the channel: focused on the need for adaptation.

As two nations linked by geography, culture, history and the movement of people it feels fitting that our relationship with the coast has followed similar routes in terms of protecting these special places.