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Trespassers won’t be prosecuted: do you have a right of access to the beach?

Matthew Chatfield
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I’ve been writing stuff on the internet for about thirty years – yes there was an internet in 1994, just. Now and again something from those early days comes round. Recently I was watching an online debate about access to the foreshore. To my delight I saw a reference in it to an article on this subject I had first written decades earlier. I don’t give anyone legal advice but this is an interesting topic that is particularly relevant to the Island. We have numerous private beaches here, which is not always the case on the mainland. Also, I saw a lot of misunderstandings and plain old nonsense in online comments (can you imagine?), so I’m going to see if I can explain it here.

The issue is this. Occasionally, landowners try to stop people walking on the beach. Predictably, those people object to this. A lot of commenters suggest that there’s a public right to walk on any beach, or that all beaches belong to the King. But in England, neither of these are true. Whilst most foreshore and seabed does belong to the Crown Estate, they can and do sell or lease it. So for example a lot of foreshore facing onto both sides of the Solent is private, and belongs in strips to people who hold the various properties fronting onto the sea. Thus those landowners really do have the right to ask walkers not to trespass on their land. Internet keyboard warriors, stand down. And stop going on about the Magna Carta.

But there’s a big difference between what’s legal and what might actually happen. To be honest, I can’t see this working out well for the landowners. There’s a reason most foreshore owners don’t stop people walking on their beach: which is that it’s a quixotic waste of time. For a start, when the tide is in, there is a right to navigate over a beach – for example in a fishing boat. So there’s no legal way to put up fences and stop people crossing the boundary. Secondly, all they have to rely on is the law of trespass, which doesn’t amount to much. If people insist on using the land despite the landowner’s protests, they would need to first catch them (using only ‘reasonable force’) and then take legal action against them – neither the police or the council will help out. Can you imagine the publicity if such a case were to actually reach court? I don’t think that would look good for the beach owner.

What I suspect will actually happen if any landowner really wants to make a thing out of stopping people walking on the beach is that people will just disregard these requests. They know that they cannot realistically be enforced at every low tide. If any foreshore owner asked my opinion, I would say best to let the walkers carry on, with your blessing, and keep your boots dry.

Matthew Chatfield

Uncooperative crusty. Unofficial Isle of Wight cultural ambassador. Conservation, countryside and the environment, with extra stuff about spiders.

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