It was to become known as the ‘Neptune Coastline Campaign’. In 1964/65, the National Trust undertook a momentous endeavour – to survey and map the entire coastline of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. With the country rapidly urbanising in the two decades since WWII, it was felt necessary to develop a deeper understanding of changes in coastal developments, including locating areas of coast which could be described as ‘pristine’ and worthy of conservation from the threat of industralisation.
The survey has now been repeated 50 years on, with students from the University of Leicester – backed again by the National Trust – surveying the entire coast, including the 574 miles purchased and consequently protected by the Trust in the wake of the original survey (bringing its total ownership to 775 miles, around ten per cent of the total coastline).
‘To identify coastal land use changes we had to develop a methodology that overcame the different ways that individual surveyors mapped the coastal landscape in 1965 so that we could quantify any actual changes in land use,’ says Professor Alexis Comber, now at the University of Leeds, but previously part of the Department of Geography at the University of Leicester when the survey was carried out.
‘Our work was technically interesting because we used the digital versions of original 1965 maps which had been annotated by hand, together with current OS maps and modern aerial photography within computer-based mapping software. This provided us with a real sense of what land had changed and the processes that had driven those changes. At a personal level, the project gave us all insight into the work of the Trust. We were impressed by the diversity of the Trust’s activities as well as its land holdings in all areas of the country.’
The results of the new study show that while 17,557 hectares of urban developments have been added to the coasts in the past 50 years (‘a city the size of Manchester’, in the words of the Trust) it also found that 94 per cent of coastline considered ‘pristine’ at the time of the last survey is now protected through the National Trust, or at least through its planning system.
The urban developments consist of 1,000s of small developments as opposed to any single large-scale ones – although the southeast now has the country’s highest total percentage of urban coastline, more than 25 per cent. However, the fact that 76 per cent of the overall coastline remains undeveloped shows how little substantial development has actually taken place.
‘50 years after we launched our Neptune campaign, most of the UK coast remains undeveloped. Our coastline has been spared the sort of sprawling development that other countries have suffered,’ reflects Peter Nixon, Director of Land, Landscapes and Nature for the National Trust.
‘National Trust ownership provides unique permanent protection of the coastline to benefit people and nature, and there is a continuing need for us to raise funds for this. But we also know that 90 per cent of people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland agree that it’s important that the planning system works to protect the beauty of our coastline, and long may that continue.’
The results of the surveys are now available for anyone to view for free online used the new National Trust Mapping our Shores tool, which allows for quick transitions between the 1965 and 2014 maps of any point around the English, Welsh and Northern Irish coasts, enabling everyone to see how much their nearest coastline (no one in the UK lives further than 75 miles from the sea) has evolved over the past half century.