Sarah MarshallSat, 13 February 2021, 2:01 pm
She’s hiked for thousands of miles across 160 countries and seven continents, but one thing guaranteed to overexcite Kate Humble is walking in the footsteps of dinosaurs. On a recent filming trip to England’s east coast, the TV presenter gleefully admits to indulging in a childhood fantasy.
“Someone only has to say the word ‘dinosaur’, and I immediately revert to being 10 years old,” she laughs. “There’s something so incredible about seeing a fossil; it’s a direct and very visceral connection with a past so long ago.”
From prehistoric giants and primitive tribes to covert smugglers and marauding pirates, our coastline is awash with tales of colourful characters who’d look more at home in a fictional read than a history book. But as part of Channel 5’s new six-part series Kate Humble’s Coastal Britain, the TV presenter hopes to give those stories a “three-dimensional” quality, while appreciating the beauty of well-trodden paths in a refreshing new light. Revealing hidden spots and jogging memories of forgotten stretches, she reinvigorates interest in an island we thought we knew well.
“It’s always good to be reminded of how unfamiliar we are with places on our doorstep,” says the travel veteran, who has made a proud, personal discovery of her very own during filming: “A place in East Devon called Humble Point, which clearly belongs to me!”
Following trails across Exmoor, York, Dorset and Suffolk, Humble hikes through ancient woodlands and along vertiginous clifftops, often emerging at viewpoints that, in her own words, are “almost too exotic to be England”.
Recalling the Valley of Rocks, the culmination of her hike along Exmoor’s South West Coast Path, she compares the serrated, boulder-strewn hillside to Zimbabwe’s Drakensberg escarpment and South Africa’s Cederberg Mountains.
“You imagine the Devon and Exmoor coast as being quite gentle, rolling and green. But this was so startling, with dramatic skylines. It felt like the edge of the world.” Although perhaps not on a par with Africa, she claims the wildlife encounters were equally thrilling: adders writhing through the grasslands of Yorkshire; sand martins nesting in soft Suffolk cliffsides; and boisterous kittiwake colonies replicating scenes from Hitchcock’s Rear Window.
In the first episode, traversing Exmoor, Humble quotes musings from a 19th-century guidebook to reflect on her chosen path. Throughout the series, there are references to writers, poets and artists who have been inspired by England’s coastline and countryside, demonstrating the power of nature as a creative stimulus.
“If I want to get my head around something or work out a problem, I find the combination of walking and being in open green space incredibly therapeutic,” says Humble, reciting numerous scientific studies linking enhanced attention spans with time spent in healthy outdoor environments.
“Even if people like Wordsworth and Coleridge weren’t aware of the science at that time, they intrinsically felt it. If their brains needed the freedom to absorb the world around them and translate that on to a page, I suspect they knew being in a beautiful place would give a creative impetus.”
Along with sparking imagination, nature also has the power to restore physical health, a fact demonstrated by Humble’s meeting with author Raynor Winn. Her bestselling 2018 book, The Salt Path, describes walking the entire South West Coast Path to help her husband, Moth, beat a terminal illness. In a post-pandemic world, when so many people will be seeking a remedy for the mental battering of the past few year, surely countryside walks could be the tonic we all need?
“I don’t think it’s any weird coincidence that the minute lockdown ended last summer, people flocked to National Trust gardens, to parks, to open spaces,” says Humble. “We’ve found a renewed enthusiasm for the countryside. We’ve tapped into an instinct that this is what we need to make us feel better, even if we don’t know why.”
With foreign travel restrictions intensifying, it looks likely the UK is in for another bumper staycation summer season, but Humble warns we should tread with caution. She advises tourists to avoid rushing to honeypot areas, and instead look for alternative pathways, viewpoints or attractions.
“Tourism is incredibly important to a lot of coastal communities, but there needs to be a balance. I live in a honeypot area in the Wye Valley, an area of outstanding natural beauty. Yet I can go for a walk every day and not see a single person, because I take a different route.”
Discovered or undiscovered, there are signs of beauty all over the country. But there are also startling indications of human activity. What’s remarkable, Humble says, is nature’s ability to reclaim and recolonise abandoned spaces. In Yorkshire, she visits Ravenscar, an abandoned town originally built with the vision of creating a Victorian seaside resort, and in Kent she explores beaches running alongside the Sizewell B power station.
“As long as we don’t completely trash it, nature is an amazing thing. It can reform land and recover even after something as dramatic as mining.”
Like anyone with a passion for wildlife and wilderness areas, Humble is acutely aware of the damage we are doing daily to our planet. Britain, in particular, is often criticised for its shocking rate of habitat loss. Currently we have some of the lowest levels of biodiversity in the western world, with only 50.3 per cent remaining.
“Had I been doing these walks a few hundred years ago, it would have been very different,” she says. “We are sadly living in a time when our wildlife has to compete with the unstoppable march of human demand.”
Of course, there are examples of individuals making a positive difference, such as the owners of Kipscombe Farm in Exmoor, whose low-intensity farming methods are highlighted by the series. But we have a long way to go. Inspiring nature programmes might be a start, but Humble believes real change can only be driven by “brave political decisions” and “outdoor education”, giving young people “a chance to become the future guardians of our countryside”.
Ultimately, we all have a role to play.
“If we want a world that is going to be a healthy, happy environment for the next generation, then all of us need to step up and play our part,” says Humble. “It’s no one else’s fault. It is our collective fault and our collective responsibility… and should be our collective pleasure, too.”
Kate Humble’s Coastal Britain starts at 8pm on Friday on Channel 5. Travel within the UK is currently subject to restrictions.