Off to the coast, while it's still there

Lots of people go to the seaside, but not like Prof Jules Pretty.

Steven Russell

Lots of people go to the seaside, but not like Prof Jules Pretty. He spent 45 days covering 500 miles of the East Anglian coast, largely on foot. Getting out and reconnecting with nature reminds us what's important in life, he argues. Steven Russell reports

YOU have to be quick these days to catch Jules Pretty, Professor of Environment & Society at the University of Essex and a poet in a scientist's body. He's just back from Death Valley, California, and the day after speaking to the EADT is off to Finland - all part of his quest to see what man is doing to the planet and how we might grapple with the consequences. He's gathering material for a forthcoming book on extinction: not just biological disappearance but cultural loss. In too many corners of the globe, people are being encouraged to live a lifestyle close to the western template, “only it's threatening the world, as we converge on high-consumption lifestyles modelled largely on America”. And modelled, more specifically, on places like the energy-guzzling capital of gambling, cabaret shows and quickie wedding chapels.

“I was 100 miles away from Las Vegas and you could see the glow of the lights in the sky. People aspire to that. Up until the credit crunch, there were 90,000 people a year moving to Las Vegas.” Finland sounds more appealing; he planned to spend time with indigenous people in the north of the country as they went about traditional activities such as hunting moose and fishing through the ice.

Prof Pretty's previous publications include titles like The Earth Only Endures and Agri-Culture: Reconnecting People, Land and Nature. “The next book will focus on deserts and the Arctic and jungles and coasts. I'll unite the locations around the theme that there will be unprecedented climate change this century.”

That's for the future, for we're here to talk about an already-completed and soon-to-be-published book, This Luminous Coast. It concerns places much closer to home than America and Scandinavia.

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Jules was looking at a map one day and realised that while he knew a lot of towns and villages on the coast of East Anglia, the gaps between them were a bit of a mystery. The coast was a bit like a wheel, he mused, with the seaside on the rim: you travel out along the spokes and then return home the same way, but you rarely move along the rim itself and “generally don't join up the dots”.

So he hatched a plan to walk the shoreline of Suffolk, Essex and Norfolk. The initial idea was to attempt it in one fell swoop, but long hikes would leave little time to chat to coastal-dwellers. Also, Jules wanted to visit some places several times, during different seasons. So the 45-day adventure was spread over a year.

It started under the droning M25 at Purfleet with a 10-day, 160-mile trek to Lowestoft. In all, he walked about 400 miles and travelled another 100 by boat. He spent time with oystermen and lifeboat crews, wildfowlers and farmers - listening to their tales, weaving them into the book, and learning what it was like to be “on the coast”.

He picked up and collected objects on his travels, each the source of a story or memory. There was a toffee-coloured stone with a hole from the shingle piled on a bomb-testing pagoda, blue and green shards of Victorian porcelain, a corner of fisherman's cork smoothed by the waves, a translucent moon-stone half-covered with lichen, the featherweight bleached bone of a bird. “These things talk.”

So why did he want to do it?

“There's a kind of scientific/futures reason, which is what we were saying about climate change: that these places are going to be threatened and they will change. We don't know how. Some of the change will be climate-induced and some will be politically induced - economically induced. It will be our response to the situation.

“It was partly a celebration of what we have; it was partly an interest in how wildness can be just around the corner - what you might call nearby nature, as opposed to the big wildernesses. And the coast is an important way this region is defined.”

The project reflects one of his key concerns: the importance of the natural world for humans. “I think it's pretty clear that we've become dislocated from nature. Round about now - it's difficult with the numbers, but it's around 2008/2009 - there are now more urban people in the world than rural people. The graph is just crossing over. People are less likely to come into contact with nature, and children have fewer opportunities to just go out and potter around.”

Simply stepping back from the daily grind, feeling the wind in our hair and the sun on our back, benefits us physically and mentally, he argues. Getting out there means you start seeing things like seals, weasels and peregrines, and you realise again that people, the planet and nature are all in it together: our fortunes intertwined.

For most of our history, says Jules, we have lived our daily lives in a close relationship with the land. But increased urbanisation has led to an estrangement - an “extinction of experience”. That alienation from nature has contributed to today's environmental problems.

“In fifty to a hundred years, perhaps none of the land- and sea-scapes will survive quite as they are today, as global temperatures rise and oceans expand and force up sea levels. I hoped that the walks would somehow also show that our current landscapes cannot survive in their current form unless we all change to slower lifestyles based on quite different patterns of consumption. There is not much time left.”

Much of this is uncomfortably close to home for Jules, who received the OBE in 2006 for services to sustainable agriculture in the UK and overseas. Nowadays he lives on the Suffolk-Essex border but as a child went to primary school in Southwold, so the North Sea is a familiar friend. And his father's cousin is Peter Boggis, the man battling officialdom in an attempt to stop his home at Easton Bavents falling into the sea as the cliff erodes.

Nearby, another fight continues: to stop land flooding around the River Blythe, where the nation appears unwilling to fund adequate defences.

“I think it's pretty awful that we're the fourth-largest economy in the world and can't pay a few quid to maintain seawalls that have been looked after for years.” There might be relatively few homes and businesses at risk, but this example of managed retreat is “not a very sophisticated way to make policy. 'We're short of money, so we'll let the “small people” go' - the people with little political voice. And that's terrible.”

His book doesn't touch heavily on such issues in detail, or bang on about climate change. Its focus is more on gentle storytelling: “layering history and memory”.

That said, how does he think we can beat the rat-race - one that exhorts to shop like there's no tomorrow in order to resuscitate the economy, and chase productivity targets that are always just out of reach.

“I don't think there are any simple answers.” But reconnecting with nature would help make us all more relaxed - as would outdoor activities such as gardening and fishing.

Studies have shown that, once people reach a certain level of affluence, there's a disconnect between increased riches and happiness. “Although we've become much more wealthy, we haven't become proportionately more happy. In a sense, what we should be doing is buying time, rather than buying goods to consume. Buying the time is probably what makes you happy.

“But it's a difficult one to pull off, because as humans we constantly benchmark ourselves against other people. Consuming behaviour is contagious - that's the problem. 'How much is enough?' is a question we rarely ask ourselves.”

He accepts people might think it's easy for an academic in his ivory tower (or concrete, in the case of Essex university) to tell us all to smell the roses and the sea breeze. Pondering the past and the future is a luxury for many folk grappling with an unpredictable present. OK, that parcel of land might be home to stoats, but a new factory there might bring jobs and put food on the table . . .

“There are always trade-offs, and I wouldn't advocate a return to the past, when there was serious poverty, but I do advocate a forward look; making the best use of the technologies we have but also allowing the space for that kind of reconnection.

“We shouldn't simply be saying 'Buy stuff'. If you have to buy, get things that are going to contribute to a greener future, though I accept those choices are generally not always easy to find.”

THE environment, reckons Prof Jules Pretty, has the ability to send you into different emotional states - and he wasn't long into his coastal trek before he had proof of that.

“That first day I walked from Purfleet to Canvey - a long walk of about 24 miles - and when I sat down in the room I was staying in I switched on the television and my first involuntary thought was 'Oh good, they have English TV here!' It wasn't anything to do with Canvey; you can be on your doorstep and feel as if you're in another country- provided you get out there.”

Once you are in the great outdoors, nature has treats up its sleeve. He was walking along the river wall by the Ore, perishing cold and wet, on the day before the snows last Easter. “Two weasels came scampering down and stopped. I squatted down and we just looked at each other for half a minute, and then they scampered off again into the grass. Little things like that touch you.”

Even the journey to towns such as Clacton, Aldeburgh and Thorpeness brought fresh perspective. “A lot of the places I went to, it felt like I was going in the back door: you walk in from a direction most people don't come.” Walkers follow that wheel rim he was talking about, while most other visitors travel along the spoke.

Cheek-by-jowl examples of wildness and industry were interesting, such as the oasis that is the 12th Century St Clement's Church at West Thurrock. It featured in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral and is next to the clanging and banging Procter and Gamble's massive plant. “There was a time when St Clement's was spoken of as being lonely and in the middle of the marshes. So that was there 800/900 years in the marshes, first, and is now surrounded by industry.”

Also in south Essex is the last uncapped Victorian tip. “From a distance it looks just like another beach, but as you get closer you can see the whole beach is made up of smashed Victoriana; porcelain, clinker, grates, bottles, bits of brick, all sorts of different things that have eroded out of the tip; and closer to the water they've been broken into smaller particles, like sand.”

There are human bones, too. With many cemeteries full, 19th Century legislation allowed authorities to deposit bones from cemeteries on remote marshes, “like the kind of place where Magwitch would have been in Great Expectations. You can walk on the beach and see pieces of femur and ulnas and radii. So it's a kind of wandering graveyard - the strangest beach of the region. One to observe, but not where you'd have a lie down . . .”

There were metaphysical experiences, too. That 10-day walk, with the light coming mainly from the same direction, left its mark. “For about two to three weeks afterwards, if I closed one eye and opened the other, all the colours were different. I felt as if the sun was just hovering behind my right eye, and everything was kind of bleached out. There was this sense the light had stayed with me,” Jules tells the EADT.

And he wrote of the experience: “I carried with me the vast skies, stretched lands of golden cereal, dusty combine harvesters, sea walls of dried grass, thistledown and golden samphire, and white sails gliding across the land on invisible creeks.”

Prof Jules Pretty joined the university's Department of Biological Sciences in 1997, having spent a decade at the International Institute for Environment and Development, where he was director of its sustainable agriculture programme from 1989

He set up the Centre for Environment and Society at the University of Essex

Jules gives the 2009 Burrows Lecture at the university as part of the Essex Book Festival. It's on March 18. Admission is free, but tickets must be booked via the university events office: 01206 872807, e-mail events@essex.ac.uk