The Luminous Coast

Jules Pretty – InSuffolk Interview

Jules Pretty is a distinguished environmental scientist and academic who is currently Professor of Environment and Society and a Pro-Vice-Chancellor at the University of Essex. He was awarded an OBE in 2006 for services to sustainable agriculture. This Luminous Coast is his record and meditation on the walk he took around the Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk coasts. It was published by Suffolk’s Full Circle in 2011 whose edition of the book was described by Robert Macfarlane as ”One of the most beautifully produced modern books I have ever handled, inspiredly illustrated and designed.”

Over the course of a year Jules Pretty walked along the edge of the East Anglian bulge, completing 400 miles on foot and a further 100 miles in a variety of boats. This is a coast that is about to be lost: not yet, perhaps, but soon. In 50 to 100 years it is possible that no landscapes by the sea will survive quite as they are today.

This Luminous Coast

Doug Coombes: What was the starting point for this journey ?

Jules Pretty: One of the nice things about planning this type of big project is that you start travelling before you go, it’s a bit like a holiday: you start imagining being in the place before you’re there. I intended it to be a single expedition but it morphed into a project that lasted a year. That became more interesting because I went back to places at different times of the year, I dwelled on places more.

I was looking at a map of East Anglia and the shape is like half a wheel and the way we engage with the coast is to go along the spokes of the wheel and then go back. We don’t have a big road around the coast and people don’t perambulate around the edge of the wheel. When I thought of it like that I saw there are places I knew very well but then there are gaps where it looks like there’s nothing there. And then you know there’ something there, something interesting.

DC: With your background in environmental science, did you first approach the walk as an ecological project ?

JP: I’ve written before about the relationships between us and the land, the land in the broadest sense, and how that engagement changes us. And we invent the land as well by our policies. In this particular book there’s a special zone by the land and the sea and where the tide is coming and going it changes by the minute. That zone is quite different to other parts of the landscape and I was very interested in how that affects us when we go to the coast.

DC: Did you find an awareness of these rapid changes, and especially the losses of the coast ?

JP: In certain places people are acutely aware of the losses, places Dunwich are iconic and places like Haisborough in Norfolk people are very concerned – they can see their village falling into the sea as the cliffs erode so there is a sense of edginess, of loss and potential loss.

People of a certain generation still remember the 1953 floods, these inked into people’s memory. That’s why I had a whole chapter on the floods in the book. 308 people died on the coast, 57 at Canvey Island alone – that was a night of hell.

And at the same time the coast is the place where we go to the beach. The beach is an interesting phenomenon. It legitimizes a very different set of behaviours. People sit around doing nothing, watching other people doing nothing, gazing around doing nothing. We’d never allow ourselves to do that at home, we’d feel guilty. It’s a really interesting mediative space where people are able to do different things, children especially.

It’s a relatively recent cultural phenomenon. It’s only in the last 150 years we’ve invented something called the beach that allows us to go there and do nothing. On parts of the North Norfolk Coast there are fisherman’s cottages with walls that that face the sea that don’t have any windows. The last thing they wanted to see was the dreaded sea. They wanted to look inwards.

And the constant ecological change on the coast has always encouraged social innovation. You have different religious and social movements there and a lot of settlements on coast

DC: Was it hard to avoid a sense of melancholy on the walk, witnessing these environmental losses ?

JP: Its an interesting question. Of course a classic of the East Anglian coast has now become The Rings of Saturn by Max (WG) Sebald which is very much about his melancholy, woven into the state of humankind.

I wanted to write in a way that wasn’t too didactic or too preachy to readers. I wanted to take readers on a journey. There ups and downs, there are parts that are uplifting and there are other parts that are reflective of the human condition which is all sorts of emotions and feelings.

DC: You grew up in Suffolk, in Southwold, so what your the discoveries of the journey ?

JP: There were bit of the Essex coast that I didn’t know but it was also about discovering your ‘own’ places in a different way. Walking on the coast there’s a sense of coming into place by the back door. You see in the distant a settlement on high: Southwold, Thorpeness, Aldeburgh. Because you’re by the sea you’re low-down it looks like they’re on a hill. An awful lot of it was very new, even the places I thought I knew.

If someone read the book and were inspired to go to places then I would say go anywhere on the coast, even the familiar places.

DC: There’s a great tradition of East Anglian nature writing. You must feel a strong connection with that.

JP: I’d love This Luminous Coast to be seen as part of that emerging tradition. If you go back there are books like Julian Tennyson’s Suffolk Scene, and Samuel Bensusan wrote 500 stories about Essex; The Peregrine (by JA Baker) – there’s an often hidden history of marvelous writing about this region. And more recently writers like Richard Mabey, Roger Deakin, Robert McFarlane and Mark Cocker’s Crow Country.

This Luminous Coast is published by Full Circle Editions. More details at


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