The Coast Exposed

2005 is turning out to be quite a year for all things maritime. Not only is it the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, but it is also 40th anniversary of the National Trust’s Neptune Coastline Campaign, as well as – wait for it – the launch of the Government’s floods and coastal defence policy.

Britain’s history and identity is so defined by its shores and the surrounding sea that one cannot consider how such a small country could have become such a dominating force in the world had we not been an island.

Ships leaving constantly from the docks along the south coast, and London itself returned bearing riches and stories beyond any imagination shaped our ideas of what was possible. Britain’s prowess on the sea, not least demonstrated by Nelson’s achievements against the Spanish and the French, has been our defining skill, and a source of pride for centuries.

And our coastline is a precious asset, to this day. It still provides the (albeit less plentiful)waters which our fishermen trawl for their catch, it houses valuable wildlife which is crucial to our ecosystem, and it still provides the venue for thousands of summer holidays each year, for Brits and foreign visitors alike.

But the many miles of our beaches and coastline are under threat. From development, from rising tides, from litter and fly tipping, and from pollution in the sea itself.

And now a new exhibition both celebrating the richness of the British coastline, and observing the changes it is undergoing, is set to tour the country.

The Coast Exposedis a project put together by the National Trust, which itself acts as custodian of over 700 miles of coastline in this country, and Magnum Photography, which represents some of the best environmental photographers working today.

The photographs are wildly different: we can move from from close ups of cockles and barnacles on the beaches of Worm’s Head on the Gower, to romantic views at sunset across the coast of North Yorkshire in a second.

Sheep huddle in the fading light on a cliff in North Devon, and surfers muster up courage to brave the cold in Cornwall, while in the next room a puffin rescue in Northumberland is cleverly documented.

As the exhibition currently stands there are seven rooms, focusing loosely on different areas of the UK, at least four of which all contain photographs taken in black and white, which give a kind of timeless feel to the images, although I felt some of these could have benefited from being in colour, purely because the colour images there are are so stunning. Many of the photographs are blown up to an impressive size as well, which serves to magnify their effect.

Stop-time photography, a technique used by one of the Trust’s regular photographers Joe Cornish, is put to good use on a couple of outstanding pictures. The first was taken at Formby Point in Merseyside, of the sun setting across the tidal flats. The colours here are rich and vivid and the long grasses being blown by the wind look like they have been drawn on in oil pastel, such is the blurred effect. The same happens when Cornish slows down his shutter speed at St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, making the water appear like dry ice, or mist hovering over the shore.

Another important feature of the coastline, apart from the natural elements, is the people who impact upon it. From tourists to workers on an oil rig, many pictures in this exhibition look at the relationship between the sea and the people who live off it, or enjoy visiting it for a holiday, and the impact they have on the environment.

An image of a burger bar (off season, one imagines) and another of extensive littering all convey the reliance which many coastal towns have on the tourism for their economies, but also the damaging impact which tourists can have on an area if they don’t act responsibly.

All of which only further drives home that the damage to our coastal areas is essentially damage us as a nation, and our way of life. A beautiful image in the fourth room, taken in Merseyside, is accompanied by the information that this piece of coastline is receding by up to 4 metres a year. Shocking black and white images of Boscastle following the flash-flooding there in 2004 are complimented by information detailing how likely it is to happen again; a poignant reminder of how vulnerable many of us are to the changes in our climate and our environment in general.

At a Trust lecture earlier this month which was devoted to this exhibition I learned how the east side of this country is actually tipping slowly into the sea, millimetre by millemetre, hence the intense discussion about how to defend our island, not from the onslaught of the French or the Spanish, but the rising tides and flooding.

Hence Government plans for coastal defences, which inevitably cause concern amongst farmers whose land borders the sea, as well as other landowners, but the Trust maintains not all land can be saved. Some will inevitably have to be surrendered to the sea.

Which is all the more reason to appreciate what we currently have.

The Coast Exposed is on at the Grenwich Maritime Museum until . It will also be touring the country, and you can catch it at The Waterfront in Belfast from – ; the Trelissick Gallery, Cornwall from – ; The Lowry Gallery Salford from – January 2006. A poster version of the exhibition will tour National Trust properties throughout 2005.

Image courtesy of the National Trust/Magnum Photos.