Review: “Coasting: Running Around the Coast of Britain” by Elise Downing

by Hannah Denno
Coasting Elise Downing

Elise Downing – Coasting: Running Around the Coast of Britain – Life, Love and (Very) Loose Plans (Summersdale 2021). .

Book review by Hannah Denno.

Bored at work one day, Elise Downing began daydreaming of a trip around the coast of Britain. It was spring 2015. That summer, Dave Cornthwaite, a man who had spent years adventuring abroad, was home in London and wanted to meet up with like-minded people. Elise responded to a Facebook post inviting his followers to join Dave on a camping trip. On this and subsequent campouts, YesTribe was born, a community of people sharing a love of outdoor adventures. Surrounded by these new friends who responded to her idea of a 5,000-mile run with encouragement, Elise started planning to set off in November. 

Heading to the coast from London, she set off on a clockwise tour of the island that she hoped to complete in ten months. Elise had little experience of running, an unhealthy relationship then on its last legs had left her emotionally fragile and she was setting off in winter. She tells us she gets frustrated with other travel writers “hamming up the hard bits,” but all the above added up to her finding the first few months of her journey a challenge so she does a fair bit of hamming up (or not skipping over) the hard bits herself.

To be fair, Downing is the first to flag this up. Her tone is chatty, personable, and self-deprecating. She starts sentences with phrases like “I feel awkward saying it but…” She writes with an irreverent humour reminiscent of Simon Winder. In her case, the subject of irreverence is often herself.

Is it a real adventure if you have frequent stops in cafes to eat cake?

In the early days of her adventure, the wet, wintry weather forced the author to keep her head down for much of the time. She was also engaged in a good deal of mulling over of her liaison with Greg. Thus, for the opening chapters of the book, we spend more time inside Elise’s head than we do on the running route. Although she hits moments of crisis, being on the move seems to help Downing start processing some of what has happened in her past life. As Rebecca Solnit says in Wanderlust, “exploring the world is one of the best ways of exploring the mind.” Downing describes how, with “just myself for company,” she was “forced to come to terms with all the parts of me I usually avoided.”

Downing lays herself bare in allowing us to follow her along the pathways of her mind. She shares honestly and movingly about money worries, about drinking too much and about this relationship that repeatedly reduced her to tears and agonies of self-doubt. She also lets us in on a fear of cows that leads her to climbing over barbed wire and electric fences to avoid walking through fields of them.

One of Elise’s early challenges is worrying about whether she is doing her trip the right way. She compares her adventure with those of some of her YesTribe friends and frets that it is too easy. Is it a real adventure if you have frequent stops in cafes to eat cake? Is it a real adventure if you get put up in B&Bs for free or friends and followers give you a home-cooked meal and bed for the night? These thoughts plague Downing.

Mirroring the coastal path she follows, there are emotional ups as well as downs. Elise finds that the hardships make small pleasures exquisite: a hot shower, warm socks, a cup of tea. Food brings Downing much joy throughout her journey. Despite the spectacular landscape and welcoming hosts, she reports that macaroni cheese pies are the highlight of the Scottish leg of her tour.

She begins to feel more comfortable with what she is doing. After one good day of running, she spends the night with a family in New Romney, Kent. Elise has a shower, changes her clothes and they watch a Pixar film. And she feels great.

“Maybe it was okay not to be in a jungle, sleeping under canvas, eating ration packs, I thought. Maybe just doing something different was enough, something that felt uncomfortable.”

Although this was a solo venture, there were plenty of times when the author had company. Here Dad visited frequently to run for a couple of days with her. Old friends, new YesTribe friends and followers of her blog dropped in for visits too, or hosted her as she ran through their hometowns.

Downing made a stop in Plymouth to meet up with old university friends, ended up having a drunken night out and spent the next day curled up on a sofa in the university library, occasionally dashing to the toilets to throw up.

Soon after this event, Downing returned home, feeling pretty rotten, and seriously considered giving up. But the trail called her back. 

“I wanted to keep marvelling over how quickly the weather changes, turning from bright sunshine to blackened, hail-throwing clouds in a matter of seconds and how the storms stir up the sea into a rage.”

As the weather turns more Spring-like and Elise settles into her journey, we start to hear more about the places she is running through and the people she meets along the way. Running down from Nant Gwrtheyrn in Wales, goats run ahead of her on the path. On the road to Little Loch Broom in the west of Scotland, she runs past a garden where a man is chopping logs. By amazing coincidence, he has circumnavigated Britain himself, but on a boat. He removes a tic from Downing’s leg with a penknife!

An ordinary person who undertook an extraordinary journey, Downing makes us feel as though we could do it too.

The running becomes less of a struggle as the author’s fitness builds, and she is clearly enjoying her surroundings more, but her descriptions are fairly general. Take, for example, this pithy line: “West Wales really put on a show for us that day… the views were epic.”

Downing’s fear of cows and other four-legged creatures is a recurring theme. But sheep and cows aside, as Downing travels, she grows in confidence and gains a fresh perspective on the past and on the present. In many ways, this is a story of the healing power of exercise and the outdoors. And yet she is honest about the fact that the problems do not just go away. “Life isn’t linear,” she writes. Even though as she ran, Elise had came to understand that she was a much stronger person than Greg had made her feel she was, she still crumbles when she receives a text message from him after a long period of silence towards the end of her trip.

“You’ve still run a long way even if you then go and have an absolute shocker of a night out, or your bank card gets declined, or you end up sucked into yet another conversation with a man who makes you cry.”

Downing’s honesty about the highs and lows, emotionally and physically, her sharing of her foibles as well as of her amazing achievement, make her easy to relate to. She is an ordinary person who undertook an extraordinary journey, and she makes the reader feel as though they could do it too. Though it might be lacking in terms of evocation of place, in this sense, Coasting is an inspiration.

Elise Downing – Coasting: Running Around the Coast of Britain – Life, Love and (Very) Loose Plans (Summersdale 2021).

Book review by Hannah Denno.

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