“Cape Wrath is the north-westerly tip of mainland Britain. Its name comes from the Norse for “turning point” because the Vikings navigated by it. It’s one of the wildest walks on our coast, and my favourite. I first took on Cape Wrath back in the 70s with my dad. I was 18 and I was cutting my teeth on extreme adventures. But that unpopulated wilderness out there held a surprise: the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen.
A one-day adventure
A lonely lighthouse
After hopping on a ferry boat at Keoldale, two miles outside the village of Durness, it’s a day’s walk along a single-track road over open moorland to the headland. (You could also cycle or take the minibus.) The road ends at one of the most dramatically sited lighthouses in Britain, where a very public-spirited couple – Cape Wrath’s only inhabitants – have set up a tea shop. From the summit of the hill behind the lighthouse there’s a sensational view of the rugged cape and ships beyond. When we filmed this for Coast, we bedded down on the floor of one of the lighthouse buildings after being fed the most remote spaghetti supper in Britain!
A three-day adventure
Diamond in the rough
A note of caution: Cape Wrath is not for the inexperienced walker. You really do have to be fit and strong to tackle it. If the weather takes a turn for the worse, you’ve got to know how to use a map and compass, and be familiar with survival techniques. Even in high summer, it’s a punishing hike over rough terrain, streams and peat bogs, without the luxury of a footpath.
We spent the second night in a basic bothy on the river bank at Strath Chailleach. Our reward? The next day you reach the jewel on this section of the coast: Sandwood Bay, probably the most beautiful beach in Britain.
The Viking Coastal Trail is a lovely 25-mile walk or bicycle ride around the Isle of Thanet – once home to the Vikings. This is a coastal walk with a difference: built up rather than wild country, so there’s plenty to stop and look at along the route. It takes you through three very different seaside towns: Ramsgate, Broadstairs and Margate. Ramsgate is a working channel port; Broadstairs is a pretty Victorian resort; and Margate has a fabulous new art gallery, the Turner Contemporary, and a historic town centre with the cupcake café of your dreams.
I grew up in Norfolk, so I’ve been walking and cycling ever since I was a tot. My first bike ride on my own was around the county boundary of Norfolk – much of which is coastline – when I was 14. It was a big landmark in my life and three years later I cycled from Norfolk to Greece on the same school bicycle!
It’s fairly flat but there’s plenty to entertain: sandy beaches, salt marshes, windmills, flint cottages, village pubs, tea shops aplenty… even a steam railway. One of my favourite spots is the village of Horsey, where you can visit a five-storey National Trust windpump and stroll along a windswept beach that becomes home to a colony of grey seals between December and February. East Anglia also boasts one of the best sunshine records in Britain.
The coast path along the Sussex Downs is wonderful: undulating grasslands truncated by chalk cliffs overlooking the blue of the English Channel. When the skylarks are hovering and there’s a soft, summer breeze blowing over the grass, it’s pretty much as close to heaven as you can get. My grandparents lived in Sussex, so as a kid I spent a lot of time walking this path, sustained by a packed lunch of bread and cheese, tomatoes and probably a boiled egg – no fancily packaged trail mixes back then!
The most dramatic stretch is between Eastbourne and Seaford, up and down the rollercoaster of the Seven Sisters, with a riverside detour to Cuckmere Haven beach. One of the highlights is Beachy Head where you can peek – very carefully indeed – over a white cliff to the red and white-striped lighthouse on the foreshore far below.
Mousehole is a short bus ride from Penzance and is one of the prettiest little fishing villages in Britain. From there the south-west coast path skirts the cliffs and coves of the Cornish coast all the way to Land’s End – mainland England’s most south-westerly point. It’s a really spectacular chunk of the British coastline and it also boasts a proper, clearly signed path.
As well as the beaches and panoramas, there’s a nature reserve, an open-air amphitheatre and a Telegraph Museum for the historically minded. Stride out and you can cover the ten or so miles in a day. In the past I’ve walked for an hour from Mousehole and back, two hours and back… Alternatively, you can walk for a month from Mousehole: round to Land’s End and back up the north coast!
How to get there? A car ferry from Portsmouth to Caen
Mont Saint-Michel is a small mountain in the sea: a great spike of rock with 14th-century dwellings climbing up it and a monastery on top. Its distinctive outline dominates the land and seascape. Pilgrims set foot on this holy isle over a thousand years ago searching for the sacred. Legend has it that the warrior archangel Michael — who battled Lucifer — appeared here.”
Cousins across the channel
St Michael — as we know him — didn’t limit his divine presence to the French side of the channel. Cross the water to Cornwall and a feeling of déjà-vu washes over you: St Michael’s Mount is the spitting image and the archangel Michael apparently appeared here, too. These cousins across the channel have lived parallel lives. In 1548, Henry VIII put an end to the monks on St Michael’s Mount. Monks remained at Mont Saint-Michel more than two centuries longer until revolution rocked France. Today life on the islands is very different: St Michael’s Mount is a haven of calm, whereas Mont Saint-Michel hosts over a million visitors each year.
Magical views and mussels
It’s a steep walk to the top but the vista is sensational. Another wonderful walk — which I’d never done until we filmed there for this series — is across the sands of the bay at low tide. You have to employ a guide because they’re quicksands and the tides are very dangerous. The views of Mont Saint-Michel from out in the bay on the sands were utterly magical — like a scene from Lord of the Rings.
If you’ve time, it’s well worth tying in a visit to the beaches at Arromanches where the D-Day landings began in 1944. And of course Normandy is a great place for foodies. Its famous moules-frites are served in all the cafés and bars dotted along the coastline — watching the sun go down with a cold beer and a bowl brimming with mussels is a pretty good way to end the day!