This Luminous Coast

Over the course of a year, I 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. A thousand years ago a king commanded the waves to retreat to show human futility in the face of nature. Others built sea walls and estuary defences. Small stretches of cliffs provided natural protection, as did shingle heaped into banks. Sea walls were raised, yet still churches, houses and whole settlements fell into the sea.

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This is a coast about to be lost. Not yet, but it will happen soon. A thousand years ago, a king commanded the waves to retreat from this shore. Others more sensibly built seawalls and estuary defences around the whole of the region. Small stretches of cliffs provided natural protection, as did shingle heaped into banks by the sea. Revetments have been added, and sea walls raised, even though they mostly they did their job, with some long-remembered exceptions, churches, houses and some whole settlements fell into the sea. The common field system came and went, then the agricultural revolution, and lately came the industrial age. We thought we were in control, with the means to remain an island of a size largely unaltered since the last ice age. There were siren calls, but we ignored them. Until this last generation, when the dots were finally joined.

Fossil fuels that drive our industrial economy, which in turn brings so much, have topped up the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and other waste gases. These absorb reflected light from the earth and warm up, and more atmospheric energy provokes climate change. A warmer world also makes water expand. And for the 70% of the earth’s surface covered by oceans and seas this means one thing: 1.3 billion cubic kilometres of water have to go somewhere. And that is upwards onto the land and its beaches, marshes, dunes, mudflats, grazing meadows and shingle banks. All are now under threat. And as if this is not enough, East Anglia is sinking too. It seems doubly unfair, but since the glaciers retreated from northern Britain, the land there has been bouncing upwards and thus levering down the south-east.

Some predictions are gloomy. In fifty to a hundred years, perhaps no landscapes by the sea will survive quite as they are today. What, some may ask, is there to lose? The interface between land and sea is ever-changing: it will adapt, as will the wildlife. We can, as it were, manage the retreat. We may lose a remote house or two on a cliff, a slick and grimy marsh, a Victorian waste tip, a windswept grassland peppered with skinny sheep. Maybe a beach will lose its sands, but how often does the sun shine on a North Sea shore anyway? Besides, our clever industrial age will come up with a fix soon enough, and all those doom-mongers will have to eat their words.

Map of CoastI took out a large-scale map to look more closely at the three counties of Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk, otherwise known as East Anglia, and traced a line from south to north, measured distances, and realised two things. Most of the shoreline was in easy reach of where I lived, where I had grown up too, yet surprisingly there were many places I had never been. I knew them by reputation or from books, but not first hand. It was clear, too, from the map that much of the character of the region must be defined by its proximity to the sea. It’s surrounded on three sides, intercut by rivers, suffused by the light off the water. Well-known wild places and natural landscapes sit side-by-side with settlements, power stations, military installations and clanging ports. I wondered, how would this rim of land by the sea look if you walked from one end to the other? Sometimes an idle thought is like a retrovirus: it gets stuck in your DNA and replicates. I came to realise I should walk the coast before it was lost. Perhaps this would be no more than a lament, but maybe too there would be the undiscovered in the nearby.

Collection of Items from CoastI bought more detailed maps, cut them up, stuck pieces together, and started taking notes about the named places of the coast. And also notes on the gaps, the apparent empty quarters. I came to realise there were many but of course none were empty. I built a small library of old books with faded dust jackets, and new ones that shined. I searched book shops and websites for the discontinued ones, and they came musty, matured, smelling of ancient farmhouses. My first idea was to make one long walk, a single grand expedition, but this plan would later change. These three seaward counties of the East Angles and East Saxons were once joined to continental Europe, when the last ice age locked up so much ocean water in ice. Now the coast strongly defines this region. Beach, salting, seawall and marshland. Fishing and smuggling, farming and sailing. Birds watched and birds shot. Created communities, deserted resorts, eroded cliffs, villages underwater, caravan parks and whole new invented places. All on a linear stretch of land and sea hundreds of miles from the Thames estuary at the east of the capital to the Wash at the king’s Lynn. The more I read, the more I realised that I’d already started, anticipating what might come, and so walking a future memory.

Another uncertainty lies in the region’s name and thus identity. East Anglia itself is a slightly problematic term. On large maps, it tends to include the lowland Fens and shire counties of Hertford, Bedford, Northampton and Cambridge, as well as the three coastal counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. But this is strictly larger than the kingdom of the East Angles, which did not include Essex. And Essex now as a county does not include swathes of eastern London and recently established unitary authorities, even though people there still feel they reside in Essex. East Anglia seems to cover Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk reasonably well, as that is how we generally understand this bump of land on eastern England today. These counties do, though, have distinct national and indeed local identities. Essex has its marshes, estuaries and islands and a formerly remote coast affected by proximal London, and recently a target of national jokes about social aspiration. Suffolk is a desirable escape for many, more agricultural too, resting on former glories of Tudor wool weavers and herring fishing. Norfolk is slower, with distinctive Broads, flinty landscapes, sand dunes and fishing too. It is curious that these counties should even have different identities. The borders are, after all, only administrative lines on the map, ancient though they are. One of my aims, therefore, was to walk the whole coast and its communities and ecologies, and learn what I could about the specificities of place.

Walking

Once, our ancestors walked the world. Then came domestication of animals and the wheel, and now the car. Today walking can be hard, as settlements and transport have become rearranged beyond our control. Many people still walk for pleasure, in urban parks or in the countryside. But few of us now walk far as part of daily lives. This disconnection from regular contact with the land has shifted our perspectives on memory, place and time. A few people have walked all their lives, and have seen how the land has changed. Ronald Blythe remembers that footpaths were once full of people moving about, working, interacting. These were like today’s main roads, except people talked and walked and watched. The old countryside was peopled. Blythe writes, “friends never tire of telling me that my life would be transformed if only I could drive a car, quite forgetting how transformed it has been because I cannot.” The trouble is, we get out less today, and the resulting alienation from nature is contributing to environmental problems. We are suffering in short from an extinction of natural experience. “I wish to make an extreme statement”, said Thoreau, “walking is about the genius for sauntering. It is not about getting somewhere, but being somewhere.” Edward Abbey was blunter: “you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees.”

Walking is one attempt to come to knowledge differently. By placing your body inside places and their memories, the path emerges, and the sheer physicality of the experience shapes and can even come to dominate. The land becomes tactile, said Robert Finch on his eastern shore, when we go beyond observing a scene to infusing it with physical and emotional sensations. The sun, wind and sand; the heat and cold; the painful feet or knees; the emotional ups and downs. In this sense, walking creates memory. It’s an act of fiction, of the fantastic, not just an objective observation of landscapes, people, animals and events. It can bring forth a world through subjective experience, and projects new pathways through the forgotten. Landscapes are “imagined into existence”, wrote Robert Macfarlane, “we do not see what is there, but largely what we think is there”. We should also ask “what happened here?”, as Keith Basso recommended, for we may then find that wisdom is in animated landscapes full of memories and stories. This creation of meaning invents stories as a way of rediscovering place, thus making it possible to allude to future environmental and social problems, as well as to reflect on past changes. By being in places, nature is put back at the centre of human affairs.

Wildness

Some take wildness to mean untouched by humans, though in truth there are very few such places left in the world. Wildness means to me a place where nature and the elements provide a predominant input to our senses. We see, hear and feel natural rather than man-made things, even though indirectly humans have shaped most environments and habitats in one way or another. The wild can be both near and far, and in places large and small. You can find wildness just around the corner, as well as in distant forests, plains or mountains. You can discover it in sweeping landscapes as well as in the grain of a stone picked from a beach. Thoreau also observed, “two or three hours will carry me to as strange a country as I expect ever to see”. I guessed that it would not take much to feel lost, cut off, to see landscapes that would take my breath away, to feel astonished at the local. You just have to give it a chance. Animals and plants would be there, of course, making up a wide range of natural habitats along this permeable borderland. But there would be no herds of large animals, or pods of whales, or bears by rivers. I would also not fear for my own safety, at least not from wild animals. Nature teaches some respect as well as survival skills. It builds self-esteem and confidence. It reveals the unpredictable and elemental side of the world, the driving rain, hard wind, hot sun, fear of lightning, cloying muds and crashing waves. Bill McKibben said he could spend a lifetime learning a small range of mountains. In the end the world is not knowable, and that is probably a good thing to learn too.

Going to new places always suggests the possibility of becoming lost. Some lands may indeed be unknown, terra still incognita. More often, they are just strange to the visitor. Explorers in some senses are always lost, but retain optimism about their survival and discoveries to come. Is being lost something to do with not paying attention, as Rebecca Solnit has suggested? Perhaps it is inattention to the weather or tides, or simply being non-literate about the land. But lostness also suggests creativity and the generation of the new. Are we more or less likely to be lost today? On the one hand, we have GPS trackers, satellite navigation and mobile phones, suggesting that the physical world is known and that we can ourselves always be found. But our growing reliance on these aids appears to be leading to greater likelihood of actually becoming displaced. Thousands of railway bridges are now hit every year by lorries, not because there are no warning signs: they have always been there. Drivers assume the sat-nav is correct and forget how to read the land.

This Coast

I began with one ten day walk, and ended up walking for a year. Time distorted. I intended to do the coast in one go, and write it up. But I changed the plan and ended up making three types of walk. The multi-day walk, where the continuous rhythm changed perceptions of light and time, but during which I did not have enough time to stop and talk. The second were single day walks to link places and meet people. The third were layered walks or boat trips, revisiting places in different seasons to see how things change. It was a year containing forty-five days of walking four hundred miles and boating another hundred. I did count, but who really cares about the number of miles? What matters is what happened during this reinhabitation. Some days I was scorched by sun, others battered by wind and snow. Some days the fog and mist closed the landscape, on others the air was clear and the vault of the sky so vast I could see to another age. I was wet and cold, dusty and sweaty, content and sad, welcomed and lonely. I walked alone, with friends, with family, and alone again. In every part of East Anglia, local people say their horizontal places are distinctive because of their huge skies. It is a special feature of the region, bringing space, air, freedom and the sense of a long land that is both near and far. All the way up the coast, there seems to be a settlement on a slight rise ahead, or a pier jutting out to sea. When you drive to them, you do not notice a few metres in height. But when you walk five or six miles, they seem to rise from the sea or saltings like great castles. Every time you look up, they seem to shine in the sunlight.

These walks changed me. The most significant was after the ten day walk. I felt I was carrying an imprint of the sun holding position somewhere slightly behind my right eye. I had headed east, north, occasionally west inland and east again, and so the light was almost always ahead or off to starboard. It left me with an imbalance, and a sense that the whole world was luminous on one side. As dark clouds raced over the water it turned slate grey and menacing. But when the sun came out again, the water became a shimmering mix of silver and mercury, and I was lit from below as well as above. When the tide receded across the wide mudflats, distant container ships elevated as mirages, or sank into perfect reflections. Birds invaded the muds. After a baking walk one day along the sands, I drove west, and the light refracted from behind low clouds and created a piece of linear rainbow. I had never seen such a thing. It pointed the way home as the beach traffic streamed out of the town. This luminous light of the coast stayed behind my eye for a couple of weeks. I carried with me the vast skies, stretched lands of golden cereal, dusty combine harvesters, sea walls of dried grass, thistledown and golden samphire, and white sails gliding across the land on invisible creeks. There was also the hammering of hail on a river wall, drenching rain in a pine forest, crisp hoar-frost on grass at winter’s dawn. I heard the curlew and redshank, the outpourings of skylarks, and the crump of waves on the beach.

I have this coast in a box in front of me now. It is full of objects I picked up. It is also full of stories and memories, each conjured up by this assortment of stones, shells, badges, china, leaves, bark, bog-oak, feathers, cartridges, bones. Their textures and shapes contain larger stories, and these are part of yet more patterned aspects of land and seascapes. There’s a toffee-coloured stone with a hole from the shingle piled on a bomb-testing pagoda, exquisite blue and green shards of Victorian porcelain, a corner of fisherman’s cork smoothed by the waves, a translucent moon-stone half-covered with lichen, a rusty three inch nail from a seawall, bark of elm scoured by larvae of beetles, a pine cone from a shoreline forest, the featherweight bleached bone of a bird. These things talk in this memory box.

Contents

Mundon OaksPreface: A Year on the Coast

  1. There Be Monsters
  2. The Great Tide
  3. Down by the Sea
  4. Food and Fowl
  5. Wild Archipelago
  6. Wild by Industrial
  7. Artery and Estuary
  8. Strongholds
  9. Shingle Shore
  10. Erosion and Memory
  11. Barrier Coast
  12. Mud Cliff and Marsh
  13. Sandhills
  14. Coda

Notes and Bibliography