R. M. Lockley, coastwalking pioneer

June 3, 2017 2 Comments

Preparing for a talk about coastwalking in Plas Brondanw in a week or two I’ve been thinking about the origins of the practice of walking around the coast of a country, and specifically Wales.  When, I wondered, did coastwalking start to become a conscious mode of walking for travellers and tourists?  Rebecca Solnit, in her history of walking, Wanderlust, traces the origins of walking as a non-utilitarian activity to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Romantic writers and artists – Wordsworth, Coleridge and their circle in Britain.  She has nothing to say, though, about coasting.

Wales, especially north Wales, became a destination for gentlemen (and some lady) tourists in the late eighteenth century, especially after the publication of Thomas Pennant’s widely read Tours in Wales (1778-81).  Many of them were walkers, at least in part.  Writing about their experiences became a fashion, and hundreds of written accounts, published and manuscript, survive from the following century and more.  My impression is that few if any of these travellers had an interest in following the coasts of the country, except in a few standard stretches, like central north Wales.  They take inland routes for the most part, touching the coast only when castles or other obvious attractions beckon.  Few of them are very adventurous, like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and venture far from the well-trodden routes.  (Fortunately, my fellow speaker in Plas Brondanw is Michael Freeman, who knows more than most about Welsh tours, and he should be able to confirm my hunch.)

The reasons are not hard to find.  Roads and paths that hugged the coast simply didn’t exist, or were too difficult for most travellers, on horseback or on foot.  Landowners, then as now, could be uncooperative.  And there was a much easier way of seeing the Welsh coast than by foot or by pony – by sea.  Today the seas of Wales tend to be quite empty, but two centuries ago they were alive with ketches, cruisers, luggers, cutters, brigs, sloops, packets and all manner of other ships and boats, most of them sailing along the coast rather than across the sea.

There may have been forerunners, but I suspect the real inventor of Welsh coastwalking, in the 1950s, was Ronald M. Lockley.  Born in Cardiff in 1903, Lockley was a keen naturalist from an early age.  In 1927, inspired by Thoreau’s Walden, he took a lease on Skokholm, off the coast of Pembrokeshire and lived on the island till 1940 (he continued to live in the county before emigrating to New Zealand in 1970).  Once the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park had been designated in 1952 – he was a member of the Park’s Committee – he had the idea of piecing together a path round its 186 mile coastline.  He did a detailed survey of the route and wrote a report for the Countryside Commission in 1953.  The Commission accepted his recommendations.  But it took seventeen years before the Path was officially opened, by Wynford Vaughan Thomas, in May 1970 – an event commemorated by a plaque at Amroth, the southern terminus.  The effort needed to build of the path was huge – over 100 bridges and 500 stiles were made – and negotiating access with landowners proved long and laborious.

As far as I know the full story of how the Pembrokeshire Coast Path came into being is yet to be written.  It deserves to be, and Lockley’s leading role should be recognised.  Today 85,000 people a year use the Path, often regarded, on account of its spectacular scenery, as the jewel in the crown of the Wales Coast Path.  Few of them will be aware of the debt they owe to one man.  Without the Pembrokeshire Path the other coastal paths, in Anglesey, Ceredigion and elsewhere, would have taken longer to create, and the Wales Coast Path, opened in May 2012 as the world’s first complete national coast path, would not have been possible.

One reason why R.M. Lockley’s coast path work is so little known is that he had so many other achievements.  In a series of books he described all aspects of life on Skokholm.  In 1933, as part of his long study of animal ethology, he set up Britain’s first bird observatory.  He wrote a detailed and admired study of the Manx shearwater.  His 1964 classic The private life of the rabbit lies behind Richard Adams’s novel Watership Down (he also wrote novels himself).  He founded the Pembrokeshire Bird Protection Society, later the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales .  In 1934, with Julian Huxley, he made one of the first documentary nature films, The private life of the gannets, filmed on Grassholm and produced by Alexander Korda; it won an Oscar for Best Short Subject in 1938.  Lockley was also a militant conservationist, passionately opposed to the development of Milford Haven as a base for the oil importing and refining industry.

A fine recent radio programme by Jon Gower celebrates Lockley as naturalist and writer, though it underplays his campaigning and political activity.  It may be that his part in creating the Pembrokeshire Coast Path is as important as any of his other public achievements.

Comments (2)

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  1. Penny says:

    Hello Andrew – thank you for this very enjoyable blog about Ronald Lockley and his fantastic creation – the Pembrokeshire coastal path. We always say a thank you to him when we are visiting Lockley Lodge for our Skomer tickets! Like you we have long thought that a biography of Lockley was overdue. Did you know that his Desert Islamd Discs appearance from the 1980s is still available to listen to? Thanks again for a great blog, only sorry we will not be at your talk. Penny

  2. Stephen says:

    Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that the National Library of Wales holds Ronald Lockley’s diaries, 1921-1948, in twelve volumes, including his Skokholm years. Also two volumes of the Skokholm Island observatory’s daily ‘chatty logs’, 1946-1950.

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