Saving our coasts: an interview with Dr John Whittow

When Enterprise Neptune was launched on 11th May 1965, it was to become one of the greatest ever campaigns to protect our coastlines. Howard Bristol, who is working on the Neptune Coastline Campaign 48 years later, interviewed one of Neptune’s leading figures, Dr. John Whittow.

John was a young university lecturer in 1964, when the National Trust asked him to report on the state of our coasts. Howard asked John how he first got involved with Neptune, and how he became aware of the problems facing the British coast.

Land use in Wales: one of the original maps drawn up by Dr. John Whittow. The annotations show some of the ways the coast was being exploited.

Land use in Wales: one of the original maps drawn up by Dr. John Whittow. The annotations show some of the ways the coast was being exploited

How did you first get involved in the project of mapping the coastline of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland?

When I was at a coastal conservation meeting in Denmark, I was approached by J A Steers, Professor of Geography at the University of Cambridge. He mentioned that the National Trust was interested in surveying the coast of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and asked if I would be interested in getting involved. When we met again as part of a small working party in autumn 1964, I was asked if I could map the coastline and gather the results within a year.

So I organised a group of students, postgraduates and members of staff from my Department of Geography at Reading University, and we did a reconnaissance survey on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset. When we had worked out a methodology, I allocated all the different stretches of coastline to the students. And off we set, in the summer vacation of 1965, to map the entire coastline of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

What were you looking for?

We were looking at the present state of the coast, not from a qualitative, but from a quantitative point of view, and I categorised it into seven or eight different types of land use. Having received all the working maps back, I made fair copies, and hand-coloured them according to the various categories of land use. I then grouped them into three categories. Firstly, land beyond redemption (built-over land which would never be won back). Secondly, land which was managed and could possibly have been restored in future. And lastly, the rest of the land, which was productive (mainly agriculture and forestry), but not developed. We were trying to identify which parts of the coast could be acquired in the future by the National Trust, with the aim of conserving it for visitors to enjoy.

Had you been aware of the scale of developments before you started?

No. My wife and I mapped a large stretch of the North Wales coast, from the Conwy estuary and Anglesey all the way down to the Barmouth estuary and beyond to where the county of Merionethshire met the country of Cardiganshire. It was only then that I became aware of the way in which the coast had really been used by holiday camps, caravan parks, and the Ministry of Defence (i.e. part of category 2). There was an enormous amount of military equipment still left around, for example at Orford Ness, which had been absolutely ruined by the Ministry of Defence – after all, it was only a few years after the war.

Nuclear Powerstation at Winfrith, Ringstead Bay, Dorset

Nuclear Powerstation at Winfrith, Ringstead Bay, Dorset

Are there any examples which particularly stood out?

The East Anglian coast, a low-lying coastline with an enormous number of caravan parks and holiday villages – that stood out. Similarly, the entire coastal area south of Brean Down on the southwest coast was also overwhelmed. There was virtually no undeveloped part of it.

The Neptune Coastline Campaign has been one of the National Trust’s biggest successes and a fabulous thing for the coastline of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Did you realise how big the campaign would be?

At the time, I didn’t think that it would be on-going for so long. Now we’re approaching the 50th anniversary, and we’ve acquired more than 700 miles of coastline, which is an extraordinary achievement. We hope, funds being available, that we can continue, because the ultimate aim was to purchase 900 miles.

When did Enterprise Neptune become about broader coastal issues, such as wildlife habitats, coastal erosion, and coastal squeeze?

When we were negotiating with the Ministry of Defence to purchase Orford Ness in the 1990s, there had been one or two problems with coastal erosion. I pointed out that we were on the shores of the North Sea, which was, geologically speaking, a sinking basin, and we were already talking in terms of climate change and possible rising sea levels. The two working together would mean that this stretch of coastline – not within my lifetime, but certainly within 50 to 100 years – may suffer very severe erosion and be swept away down to Essex.

Abandoned buildings at Orford Ness National Nature Reserve, Suffolk

Abandoned buildings at Orford Ness National Nature Reserve, Suffolk

However, it was only in 2005 with the publication of Shifting Shores, that we saw the term ‘managed retreat’ being brought into the conversation. It was evident that massive engineering projects would be astronomically expensive and ineffective, so it was decided that in certain places we would have to let nature take its course and form its own defences, such as at Porlock Weir.

What do you think is the greatest legacy of the Neptune Coastline Campaign?

The coastal landscape is something that I consider part of our historic heritage, so I think that the greatest achievement of Enterprise Neptune is to have given access to the coast, and yet conserved the best possible scenery of our coastline for public use and public enjoyment. Some areas have been a real success, such as the Northumberland coastline. I had originally mapped it as beyond redemption because they were tipping coal into the sea, but this is now one of the Trust’s flagship coasts where it has won the coast back again.

Do you think there’s still work to do?

Yes. In the next 18 months we will be carrying out a new survey to see what the state of the coastline is today in comparison to the maps of 1965. When I carried out an interim survey for the National Trust in 2000, called the Millennium Report, I was quite dismayed to see that 5-7% of the coastline had been lost to development over 35 years. Of course, we all know that people have to have houses to live in, and industry has to evolve and spread, but if we continue to build over our coastline when there are alternatives, we are destroying some of our most important natural heritage.

If there’s one thing that you could say to someone visiting a stretch of British coastline, what would it be?

Take your litter home.

What is your favourite location on the coast? And what does it mean to you?

It has to be my homeland of Pembrokeshire. My ancestors have been in Pembrokeshire since the year 1100, and I was the first male member of my family not to be born in Pembrokeshire, but I go back there often and have relatives living there. It is a wonderfully complex coastline, with geologically interesting coves, beaches and headlands. It’s relatively unspoilt, which means that it offers as pristine a coastline as one can expect to see.

View from the Western edge of Dinas Island, Pembrokeshire

View from the Western edge of Dinas Island, Pembrokeshire

Why do you think the coast is an important place for so many people?

A number of reasons – to get away from urbanisation, for a breath of fresh air, to see new vistas, have the ability to walk and roam – and of course the Welsh coastal path is now complete. Our coastal heritage really is one of the jewels in our crown.

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