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Life on the edge: Sasha Swire walks the windswept, wave-battered South West Coast Path, home to Butlin’s and solitary bird-watchers

Articles | By Sasha Swire

Hi-de-Hi! Butlin’s, Minehead, opened in 1962

Sasha Swire walks the windswept, wave-battered South West Coast Path, home to Butlin’s and solitary bird-watchers

The journey I describe in my new book is one that is deeply familiar to me: the South West Coast Path.

It is a linear journey, which blows westward and then turns east, following, for 630 miles, the contours of natural borders.

My journey started at Minehead in Somerset, clambering up North Hill to a population and low expectations ensured that Minehead will spend the next gorse-tangled plateau, and from there decades running to stand still. It is travelled through three counties, finishing in Poole in Dorset.

It passed through big towns, small towns, villages and hamlets; even wilderness. It wove between gone worlds that have risen and dissolved. It offered artistic associations and rocks that are more durable than the gathering of heavens. It gave me freedom on blond beaches under blue skies, and God over saint-wooed ground.

When I started walking, I was not seeking a lucid understanding of an edge world; just eco-therapy, as respite from the stresses of my job in an urban existence. I came where many people come, to the line between land and sea. I just wanted to add my feet to the current of a coastal path looking seaward.

As I sauntered along, on and off over a ten-year period, I became increasingly charmed, even enthralled, by the sheer level of expressive forces at work on the fringes.

What I discovered was the edge is where the action is; not the surface.

Minehead to Porlock

The hills have eyes.

What must they have seen from this protrusion of Exmoor that rises beside a town looking out to sea? The English seaside as its port declines: quay town houses turned to boarding houses, steamships, bathing machines, a steam train, ice-cream parlours run by Italian immigrants. There are amusement arcades, a theatre, a cinema and concert hall, and a pier. In the 19th century, polo ponies were exercised on the beach. In 1874, the railway brought even more summer visitors. Hotels were built and more shops opened. Then, in the 20th century, stiff competition from resorts abroad meant a chill wind blew on these seaside resorts.

Poor transport links, an ageing population and low expectations ensured that Minehead will spend the next decades running to stand still. It is another story about the near and the far away. Of other places and other worlds. I am on North Hill, at the start of my walk. Rising 900ft from the sea, the hill

I am on North Hill, at the start of my walk. Rising 900ft from the sea, the hill hovers over the town in a friendly fashion. I am on rare coastal heathland. Among gorse and bracken, bell heather and ling, I have clear views across the Bristol Channel. Somewhere below me, although I cannot see it from here, spread out before the sea, lies that which Minehead is reliant on for its economic health: Butlin’s holiday camp, the largest employer in this small coastal town.

Its founder was a rogue called Billy Butlin. Billy looked like a diminutive Rhett Butler and behaved like one, particularly with women; he was an archetypal edgeland character.

Born of fairground stock, he acquired his business acumen ducking and diving between the gingerbread stalls and toffee-apple barrels, flirting with the punters and learning where and when to use his animal charm.

His first pitch was a hoop-la stall, his prizes cheap rewards, chocolate and dyed wrens passed off as canaries.

From there, he moved on to operate a string of arcades, amusement parks, fairground pitches and zoos all over the country. For one who bobbed and weaved, it is appropriate that his early fortune came from importing dodgem cars. A natural gambler, he borrowed heavily to set up his first holiday camp in Skegness in 1936. Many more would follow as his business boomed after the war. The camp in Minehead opened in 1962, and flooded the area with 30,000 people in its first year alone.

The Minehead camp was built on former grazing marshes, with a trench around the perimeter to keep the sea out. It is a story of enclosure: enclosing the British holidaying public in their masses. As a painting exists within a frame, the same could be said of a holiday camp.

Billy Butlin became Britain’s seaside ringmaster, the significant performer in his own big tent show, directing the audience’s attention and producing a seamless performance. He was bigger and better than anyone else in the pleasure-dome world.

Billy came to an edge in the natural world and created another artificial one, a cultural one, and in doing so changed the coastal topography of Britain for good.

On this, my first day of walking, I come to Hurlstone Point. There is a birdwatcher with his binoculars raised, standing lonely at the sharpness of the edge. ‘What can you see?’

He reels off a list: falcons and wheatears, stonechats, ring ouzels and black redstart. He tells me a wide array of birds hover over this point and adds that it’s an excellent time of year to watch them, because the migrants are flying overhead on their journey to Africa.

He comes to this location because it is where the earth retreats and he has room to move outwards, further and further away from the near space in which he resides.

And it is not an uncommon sight, solitary men obsessed by birds, in this border territory.

I have a theory: that birdwatching in men comes from the dark corners where the conflicts with hunting and hurting reside.

Man’s whole narrative has been of escaping the wild, suppressing his savage and primal instincts: one of moving towards civilisation, away from caveman conditions towards hearth and home. But I wonder if there is still something beating in his heart from that time – some residue?

This intense viewing of species and behaviours, understanding the intricacies of their world, is like any great hunting or military operation; it takes careful planning and thinking.

On 29th October 1942, a long-range bomber was flying low like a big homing pigeon over this swampland, having completed a mission against German U-boats in the Bay of Biscay. It was returning to its base at Holmsley South Airfield in the New Forest and, like the bird itself, was following the grooves and hollows of valleys and seas, flying low to evade hawks and harassers.

Because of heavy rain and poor visibility, it clipped the top of Bossington Hill, which was in low cloud, and swung westward over Porlock, debris falling from the stricken plane.

A wheel and part of the undercarriage plunged on to Sparkhayes Lane before its carcass dropped heavily into the marsh, killing 11 of its 12 American crew. The airmen’s memorial, which has been moved from its original site on to the footpath so more people can see it, is made from the remains of the aircraft.

When people die like this, slipping between different realms, they become ghosts where they fall and that is how they stay alive with all that is already there. After all, what goes on here is otherworldly, ethereal, fluid; those native to the marsh already brave and longing to forget and smouldering through time.

It truly is a land fit for heroes. A place of desperate reaching.

Sasha Swire’s Edgeland – A Slow Walk West (Hachette) is out now

This story was from October 2023 issue. Subscribe Now