Landfall – absence and dislocation on the Forth shore

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It began with a dislocation. A couple of weeks’ residence north of the border in the house of friends who had chosen to trade the Scottish late winter for the Antipodean summer. It was an opportunity for some writing time away from the usual distractions, with the bonus of optional walks along the Firth of Forth to stretch legs and imagination. The house, in a village a dozen miles east of Edinburgh, was situated midway between the branch line railway station and the Forth shore – a ten minute walk to either. And if I needed a dose of cultural inspiration then I could easily catch the train into Auld Reekie and stay for as long as was necessary.

Travelling north by train, I don’t think I was even aware that the ‘Beast from the East’ was brewing trouble far away in continental Russia, and I had been installed in the house for a few days before the repeated warnings started to slowly filter into my consciousness. In those first few days of settling in, I usually worked until early afternoon before going out for a walk along the shore before it got dark. The first of these outings was at low tide. I walked westwards along the tide-ribbed sand, picking my way across shallow channels of water to head in the direction of Edinburgh, the city clearly visible ahead around the curve of the estuary. The twin-peaked bulge of Arthur’s Seat nudged the skyline in the distance, looking every bit the extinct volcano it was. Beyond it, the outline of Edinburgh Castle stood out amidst a hazy tangle of high-rise blocks and the spidery cranes of the docks at Leith. Across the calm, dark water of the Forth were the low hills of Fife. Beyond these, beyond the horizon, the jagged peaks of the Scottish Highlands rose stealthily in the imagined yonder of my mind, unseen yet a presence nevertheless.

The foreshore, glimmering in the low-slung sunshine of late afternoon, was dotted with waders preoccupied with probing the estuary mud. Periodically some perceived threat would alarm them sufficiently for them to fly off in groups before they settled somewhere else to resume feeding. A mixture of redshanks, oyster catchers and curlews, each bird provided their own distinctive piping call to create a wistful shoreline soundscape. In the shallow water close to shore, groups of wigeon huddled together companionably, elegant feathers rustling in the breeze. Out to sea, just about identifiable at this range, small rafts of goldeneye and eider bobbed dozily in the waves lost in sea duck dreams.

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Approaching Port Seaton I came upon the wreck of a boat sticking out of the sand, its remnant ribs blackened by salt and age. I wondered about the boat’s history; how long it had been wrecked and abandoned here; what of the lives of the men that had once made up its crew? Time and tide had reduced it to a stark sculpture of salt-soaked wood, a skeletal marker for a vessel that had once sailed the Forth and provided a livelihood: a monument to past lives, or perhaps a warning, a cautionary memento that spoke of the power of the sea.

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On the day before the storm arrived I headed in the opposite direction for my afternoon walk, across the headland of Ferney Ness in the direction of Aberlady Bay through the curious woodland of the Gosford estate.  The sky was greyer today; the Fife shore across the water less well-defined, the ships out in the Forth no longer highlighted by sunshine but hunkered down in the water. The signs were there: a change was coming. Large concrete cube blocks lined the shoreline – tank trap defences dating from the last war; an incomplete wall to chaperone the meeting of land and sea. The blocks continued even through the woodland, weaving through the trees like a broken causeway, an accidental land art installation that marched like a concrete-laying behemoth ever eastwards.

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The ‘beast’ made landfall on Tuesday but the full extent of its might was not fully apparent until the following day. On Wednesday and Thursday it snowed all day without stopping… and then some more – Snow had fallen, snow on snow, as the famous carol goes. The world outside quickly started to lose its familiar topography – the edges of roads blurred then disappeared, footpaths and gardens lost their definition as they submitted to an ever-thickening cover of white. The world had been transformed; made pure, made ice, filtered of colour and tone to leave it monochromatic, but mostly white. The whole notion of travelling far became laughable – in a world without edges there is nowhere else to go. By Friday it seemed almost as if the world had always been like this… and always would be. Frozen in space, frozen in time, this was a world where eternity was cold and white.

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During a break in the snow showers I ventured down to the Forth shore and found the same transformed world. Stems of straw-coloured grass poked thinly through the snow on the dunes as if grasping for air. Another landfall other than that of the storm had taken place – the fresh arrival of wind-blown thrushes from Scandinavia. The sea buckthorn bushes behind the dunes were flurried with activity, noisy with bird chatter, their branches weighed down with feeding fieldfares that threw themselves up into the air at regular intervals to make a quick fly-over of the beach before returning to the shelter of the bushes and the winter-bleached berries that sustained them. In the trees of the golf links behind, there were hundreds – perhaps even thousands – more of the thrushes perched in the higher branches, occasionally flying up en masse into the air on a whim before returning to the tree. The tide was on the turn and the narrow ribbon of sand and seaweed between the water and dunes held an improbable number of birds frantically sifting through the tide line detritus for something to eat: an odd mixture of redwings and golden plover along with a few lapwings and turnstones.  This unusual parliament of birds appeared to coexist peacefully enough, out of the necessity of hunger if nothing else, but it all seemed strange and topsy-turvy: the harsh weather had brought about a dislocation, a disavowal of familiar habitat to leave an absence somewhere else.

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As if experiencing the aftermath of an apocalyptic event, I felt a parallel sense of dislodgement from the world. Telephone calls to my wife and emails to the house’s owners heightened the sense of dislocation as our communications triangulated between Scotland, Norfolk and Australia. There were absences too – of me at home in Norfolk, of my friends in the house in Scotland. The snow globes of our everyday lives had been given a severe shake up and we were all dislocated, unwittingly or otherwise, from our habitual places in the world. Digital technology has resulted in the world we live in becoming a shrunken globe of instant communication, yet the heavy snow and the enforced lack of mobility that the storm wrought resulted in a sudden reduction of the possibilities the world had to offer. In an instance, while horizons had drawn closer, the world beyond had become vast once more.

Life went on as normally as possible. I spent the days indoors writing and editing work, glancing occasionally out of the window to see if it was still snowing. I occasionally ventured out to trace a route to the village shop to buy food basics from its panic-shopped shelves. I followed my own boot prints back on the return journey – Crusoe and Man Friday on a snow-desert island. In the evenings, I cooked a meal and drank a glass or two of rationed wine. I watched the TV weather forecasts and listened to Landfall by Laurie Anderson and the Kronos Quartet, a newly purchased CD that turned out to be uncannily apposite. The music helped to extricate an ear worm: Harry Lauder’s  Keep Right On To The End Of The Road, which had been put there by way of googling for something I was writing (don’t ask… not yet anyway). There again, the Lauder song was appropriate too.

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After five days of snow, wind and reduced horizons, the thaw began. Local trains started to run once more and I was able to get into Edinburgh, where I had the pleasure of meeting up with fellow bloggers Murdo Eason and Brian Lavelle. Meeting with folk whose interests overlapped with my own, my sense of dislocation eased – I was back in the world, the familiar world of brick and stone and street signage, once more.

Before I returned home I went back for a final look at the shore. The snow had largely melted by now, although there were still frozen pockets of it on the dunes. The beach birdlife was much depleted: the usual redshanks and curlews were there but only a handful of redwings remained. The sea buckthorn bushes had also fallen silent now, although I could make the silhouettes of a small number of fieldfares that remained in the trees on the golf course. Thousands of birds had vanished overnight from this same locality in the brief transition from freeze to thaw. Their abrupt departure had left a void; an emptiness in the soul of this place, a sudden absence that was almost heartrending.

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Thanks to Murdon Eason and Brian Lavelle for taking the trouble to slog through the Edinburgh slush to meet up with me. Both have excellent blogs that are well worth investigating, From Hill to Sea and Edinburgh Drift. They have collaborated together to produce the highly recommended book + CD Language of Objects.

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About East of Elveden

Hidden places, secret histories and unsung geography from the east of England and beyond
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12 Responses to Landfall – absence and dislocation on the Forth shore

  1. A real pleasure to meet you, Laurence, and I enjoyed reading your observations on the area, your time there and the limitations imposed by the elements!

  2. paulharley says:

    A great read, and photos, thank you. Somewhat surreally I landed from a trip to the tropics at Gatwick on the Wednesday of the Beast from the East. It was -7. I’d experienced nothing lower than about 20 in the previous 2 weeks and I was probably fortunate to make it back to Norwich that morning. Your point about digital technology also got me thinking about why I looked at English newspapers online when I was on holiday (because it’s possible and I look at them when I’m at home? – habit). Years ago when I travelled in the 70s and 80s the only news I’d get of home might be a letter which I picked up at a poste restante and I might read the headlines in local papers. The idea of having a friend text the local derby result, or knowing the coming weather never entered my consciousness. Weirdly reading the EDP and Guardian headlines was hilarious for the 5 or 6 days before we returned as the Beast from the East got closer to the UK.

    https://paulharley.wordpress.com/2018/03/03/el-sarten/

    • Thanks very much for your comments, Paul. I remember travelling back in the 70s and 80s – just occasional letters at poste restante, telephone calls impossibly difficult and expensive, even a complete lack of news. When I lived in Sudan 1980-1, I did not hear of John Lennon’s death until about two weeks later – BBC radio reception was so poor that I usually gave up on it. I fear that I carry almost too much information along with me when I travel these days. I rather miss that simplified life – living out of a rucksack and visiting places that you have almost no prior knowledge of. There is too much instant communication sometimes, although I am as guilty as the next person when it comes to depending on it.

  3. bill says:

    Nice. I like the idea of your being up there on a pleasant holiday and then bam, unexpected solitude enforced by nature, which is pretty much the decider. Something came up that was bigger than you, bigger than anybody, out of your hands. Once you realized that, I think I’d relish the time. At least for oh, maybe, three days. Or until that wine ration ran out.

    Hope you got some quality work done.

    • Thanks, Bill. Not sure about the quality work but I think that the time away was at least helpful. The thing was, most of the country was in the same situation and it was not really that much worse in Scotland than it was at home in Norfolk. We were all enforced to stay at home for a while. I was just grateful to be warm and well fed. It was good to see the birds too.

  4. Great to read this Laurence and the contrast between the first few days and what subsequently arrived. It captures that experience of a world completely transformed. (Love the line: “in a world without edges there is nowhere else to go”. It seems strange to think it was only a week ago when we had to abandon our Edinburgh rendezvous but glad that it all came together on the Sunday.

    • Thank you very much. Thanks for the RT too. You are right – it seems more than a week since we had to cancel our meeting because of snow on the tracks. All melted now – just a memory. Very glad that we did manage to meet up on the Sunday after all.

  5. Great writing Laurence and I know that part of Fife well. It’s a fascinating area well-suited for transformation, dislocation and being trapped with a pen and a bottle of wine. I wonder how this all affected the writing? Must have been a great meeting of minds with Murdo and Brian!

    • Thank you, Alex. Actually, I was on the southern, East Lothian shore. There was more than one bottle of wine involved. I am not sure the writing was affected – I was mostly editing stuff I had written about the Fens and West Midlands and so the geographical dislocation was quite marked. It was indeed wonderful to meet up with Murdo and Brian in Edinburgh. Hopefully I will do it again sometime.

      • Oh crap – mis-wrote that completely. Meant to say I know that the area and its views well and Fife got in the way. I think it’s I who have had too much wine! Get in touch if you are ever in Glasgow.

      • Not to worry, Alex – I mis-write things all the time myself. Will definitely be in touch if (more like ‘when’) I am in Glasgow.

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