The Hare and the Point

A warm, slightly hazy day on the north Norfolk coast; a day caught on the cusp as an unusually cold spring stumbles into an, as yet unknown, summer. We walk west past a few lobster boats from the beach car park at Cley-next-the-Sea, scrunching through the shingle to reach a meandering path that leads through low glaucous shrubs at the edge of a salt marsh. Just beyond the shingle ridge to our right is the North Sea, a constant mineral grumble of pebbles grinding on the tide; an aural massage – maritime poetry in motion. In the distance ahead, a solitary single–storey building, ‘Halfway House’, cuts a lonely figure in the landscape. Beyond this, in the murky haze at the very end of the Point, is the bright blue of the onetime lifeboat station that now serves as a visitor centre.

So what’s the point? Or rather, where is the Point? Blakeney Point is a shingle spit that begins at Cley Beach and extends like a claw nearly four miles to the west, the result of centuries of longshore drift piling up sand and stone to create new land. Although famous for its breeding population of harbour and grey seals, we are here today for its little terns, which nest at awkward and not particularly sensible places in the shingle leaving their eggs vulnerable to high tides and attack by opportunist predators like gulls and kestrels. Our friend Hanne is one of several volunteers responsible for keeping an eye on the birds.

A cordoned-off area of shingle encloses some of the tern’s nests, although many by now have moved on west to the end of the Point. There are oystercatchers too, and avocets – each species doing its best to mind its own business. Salt-tolerant plants like sea beet, sea campion and biting stonecrop are all anchored in the firmer shingle, while at the looser-stoned apex of the ridge that slopes steeply down to the water seakale is in full bloom. Elsewhere, clumps of yellow horned poppy, another shingle specialist, are starting to throw up flower heads in readiness for blooming. A place that instinctively you feel should be barren; it seems remarkable that anything can grow here nurtured by little else but stone, sand and saltwater.

Hanne takes us for a walk up towards Halfway House. A skylark sings high overhead, little more than a high fidgeting dot to the naked eye. In the distance, across the marshes close to Blakeney Channel, we catch sight of the unmistakable form of a marsh harrier quartering the reed beds. On the Point itself the bushes are alive with restless flittering birds that turn out to be a mixture of meadow pipits, linnets and reed buntings, although at times of migration almost anything could turn up here. And it does: as first point of landfall for any bird carried unwittingly by powerful winds from the north, Blakeney Point has an impressive record of rare sightings.

Our most impressive sight by far, though, is a meeting with a brown hare – or, rather, a pair. One of them makes a run for it and disappears into the Suaeda (shrubby sea-blite), the other remains, frozen in its tracks, hunched with long ears flattened to its head in an effort to make itself small. In some ways more resembling a small deer than a large rabbit, with improbably long ears and soft, intelligent eyes, it is easy to see how hares have always been revered in British and European folklore. Long gifted magical properties by those whose livelihood affords them a close relationship to the soil, hares engender a strong sense of ‘the other’: a sacred animal, a spirit familiar, a symbol of fecundity, sex and madness. A means of divination too: the Iceni warrior queen Boudicca is said to have read the entrails of a hare as an augury for victory against the Romans in her uprising of AD61.

The hare slowly adjusts to our presence and cautiously and slowly raises its ears, then straightens its legs before finally bolting off to join its companion. Our serendipitous encounter has been no more than a minute in total but the whole incident has put a temporal brake on the space-time continuum. As the hare moves off, time – at least the quotidian linear time that embraces cause and effect – is finally unfrozen.

We continue our walk to head down a wide swath of firm shingle and sea thrift that Hanne calls the Fairway. It leads to the edge of a tidal creek close to Halfway House. The highly prized real estate of Blakeney village is clearly visible across the channel that separates us from the ‘mainland’, as is St Nicholas’ church high above the houses and, west of this, the iconic windmill at Cley. In the network of creeks and mudflats that fringe the channel, redshanks alternate between stabbing the mud in search of invertebrates and flying short distances, calling plaintively as they go. At the muddy margins, marsh samphire is starting to emerge, although it is still too early to pick. Heading back to the car park, we walk along the sloping beach alongside the outgoing tide. Beyond the silhouetted fishing boats ahead, the distant cliffs of West Runton are visible in the sea-hazed distance. Just pure sea-sound now: no motor vehicles or human voices, just the swash of waves on pebbles, the piercing cry of terns and the aerial clatter of a skylark beyond the ridge to our right.

Many thanks to Hanne Siebers and Klausbernd Vollmar for their company on the Point. Check out Hanne’s wonderful photographs of Casper, Cley’s leucistic barn owl at The Silent Hunter

Winter Light

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Even in winter, the northeast Norfolk coast has its attractions, especially over the Christmas and New Year period when many flock here to see the grey seals that come to the beaches of Winterton and Horsey to give birth. For many it is an annual outing, an opportunity to walk off seasonal excesses, to get close to nature, to delight in the spectacle of the seals and their pups. Some are tempted to get too close, of course, but these days a dedicated army of volunteers in hi-vis orange jackets ensure that visitors and their naturally curious dogs do not disturb the vulnerable animals on the beach.

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We arrive to find grey seal mothers and their fluffy-coated pups scattered like driftwood along the shoreline. Some are on the sand close to the breaking waves, while others are further inshore along the tideline, or even in the hollows of the dunes that back this coastline. Here and then along the beach, a hefty bull seal waddles in awkwardly from the surf to try his luck with one of the nursing females – this is the season for both breeding and mating.

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The seals are not the only creatures of interest here today: walking north along the beach, a small flock of snow buntings – perhaps 20 or 30 birds – rise like a flurry of sleet on our approach before setting down again a little further ahead. Winter visitors from much further north in Scandinavia and the Arctic, they resemble frosted sparrows as they peck busily at the seaweed, sticking close together for security.

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The seals and birds are engaging but the real star this cold January afternoon is the quality of the light, which morphs from gloom to gleaming in the space of half an hour. At first it seems as if the sky is weighed down like stone beneath a dense slate-grey sheet of stratocumulus but cracks soon appear and, like a hagstone held to the eye, an opening forms in the clouds to reveal the blue that lies beyond. As the sun loses height  beneath the cloud layer, shafts of pale golden light break through. The play of light on the dunes invokes a ghostly atmosphere. The wind-bent marram grass of the dunes, caught in the glow, seems almost fluid – an impressionist rendering of a wave-tossed ocean. In the distance, beyond the luminous marram, the Perpendicular tower of Winterton’s Holy Trinity and All Saints’ Church rises loftily above the crouched bungalow roofs of the village. This fleeting serendipity of light gives the scene a numinous quality, an eerie supernatural glimmer. It is a scene that might be co-opted for the cover of a book of ghost stories – a lost work by M.R. James perhaps.

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On Stiffkey marshes

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On August Bank Holiday Sunday we drove east along the coast road from Cley-next-the-Sea. The coastline was bathed in hazy sunshine; the sky, milky white and unthreatening. Rain and wind had been forecast for later – typical bank holiday weather it seemed but, as yet, no sign of it. Was this the proverbial calm before the storm? Somewhere on the way to Blakeney the traffic slowed to a steady 20mph as we joined the rear of a procession of vintage tractors that were heading west for some sort of agricultural shindig. With Countryfile pin-up tractors and new-reg Range Rovers processing past flint-clad farm cottages, corduroy fields and cow-grazed meadows, all boxes had been ticked, all necessary stereotypes fulfilled. This might just be peak North Norfolk?

Driving slowly through Stiffkey we caught a glimpse of the ghost image of a swastika on a flint wall, its attempted redaction incomplete. Daubed here during World War II by the village blacksmith (a communist), it marked the property of the writer Henry Willamson (a self-proclaimed fascist and unapologetic admirer of Hitler), who in 1938 had moved here from Tarka the Otter territory in Devon to try his hand at farming. Further along the village’s main street, the tractors stopped to park outside the church. Was this some sort of Christian tractorists outing, or had the machines been brought here in anticipation of a ritual blessing from the font of St John the Baptist? The church certainly had previous, for its eccentric vicars if nothing else. Most notable of these was its early 20th century incumbent, Harold Davison, who was defrocked in 1932 for showing a little too much enthusiasm for saving the souls of ‘fallen’ women. This same unfortunate cleric subsequently met an untimely end whilst performing an ill-advised Daniel in the lion’s den routine in a circus cage in Skegness.

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We parked just beyond the village campsite at the edge of the marshes. The area adjacent to the car park was busy with families and dog-walkers but after just ten minute’s walking in the direction of the sea we found ourselves more or less alone. Soon the rippled sand became wetter underfoot thanks to sea water left in furrows by the outgoing tide. We came to a long-redundant, rusted sewage pipe and followed it in the direction of its outflow into the North Sea. Our original target had been the Stiffkey Freshes, the vast sandy area revealed each low tide between the Stiffkey salt marshes and the western end of Blakeney Point. But now the predicted rain had arrived and a change of plan was in order. It was still some way to the creek that had to be crossed to reach the Freshes so, given the worsening weather, we compromised on a shorter alternative and just followed the pipeline a short way.

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In the rain-faded light, the sea lavender, already well past peak bloom, had lost most of its remaining colour. Fresh rainwater glistened on the sea-drained sand like a desert mirage; the precise edge of the sea itself, indeterminable to the eye at low tide. But all edges were fluid and transitory here. Retracing steps, we detoured along a path that followed a slightly raised bank, dried-up thrift and blackened patches of gorse indicating that this narrow strip would remain high and dry even when the tide came in. Redshanks piped in alarm from the surrounding marsh, a solitary curlew flew up, disturbed from its determined mud-probing. A few late swallows were swooping low for flies, feeding up before departure to points south.

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The path brought us abruptly to a wide creek where the skeletons of long-abandoned boats were slowly rotting into the black mud. A single wooden bench stood against a backdrop of dead trees – a suitable place to contemplate such entropy at work. One of the boats still clutched a rusted engine within its frame, although its hull had long been eaten away by salt monsters. Bottomless, with mustard-coloured corrosion and flaking red paint, what remained of its surface was a fantasy landscape painted in rust. We tried to continue beyond the bench but the track disappeared in a wide expanse of marsh samphire. I gathered a plastic bag full of the succulent jade-green stems and then joined the others in wondering which way to go. After several aimless, mud-spattered creek crossings, it became obvious that all we could sensibly do was retrace our steps back to the raised bank we had arrived by. This we achieved after much slipping and sliding on the mud. It was a soggy walk in mizzling rain back to the car park, where we discovered a newly arrived line of tractors parked tidily along the camp site fence.

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That night, eating the steamed samphire with butter, I thought of the bench, the decaying boat and the glistening creeks with their swathes of sea lavender and glutinous mud. The Stiffkey marshes – each salty mouthful was imprinted with the memory of this tidal world: a landscape reduced to its bare elements, a simplified inventory of mud, salt water, salt-tolerant plants, birds and human detritus – boat wrecks, nylon ropes, and semi-opaque plastic vessels of indeterminate purpose. A place where land, like water, was fluid: each day and night, each tide, a death and rebirth.

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Lammas Day, Suffolk Coast

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Lammas Day – the first day of August. School holidays, warm weather, beach visits, perhaps a swim in the sea? Or, on a windy cloudy day, a walk; a beach walk. At low to mid tide it is possible to follow the beach all the way between Lowestoft and Southwold on the north Suffolk coast without ever venturing inland. The coast along this stretch of the North Sea foreshore is a mixture of sand and shingle, with low cliffs and the occasional freshwater broad lying perilously close to the ever advancing tide. At odds with the gentle agricultural landscape of the hinterland the coast here is an uncompromising full stop in the landscape: a sudden transition from land to sea. Far to the east, beyond the horizon, are the European Low Countries that were once so closely tied, economically, and culturally, to this region. Lowland – sea bed – low land: the North Sea (WG Sebald’s ‘German Ocean’ in The Rings of Saturn) is but a watery interruption in the flow of things, both a barrier and a conduit for the movement of humans and goods. IMG_1716I set out from Kessingland, just south of Lowestoft, where a large expanse of dunes and shingle separates the sea from the holiday homes and caravans that line the low clifftop like racing cars at a starting grid preparing to rush towards the sea. Truth be told, there is little in the way to stop them. It may be August but even now the beach is relatively quiet – just a few families and dog-walkers clambering over the dunes to reach the sea, which today is grey, grumpy and not particularly welcoming. The Kessingland littoral is distinguished by its specialist salt-tolerant flora: sea holly, sea pea, sea campion, sea beet – in fact, place a ‘sea’ in front of any common plant name and there is a good chance that such a species will exist and flourish here. Also rooted into the shingle, thriving on little more than sunshine and salt spray, are clumps of yellow-horned poppies with long twisting seed pods. The poppies are mostly past their flowering peak but elsewhere, where there is a thin veneer of soil to root into, colour is provided by stands of rosebay willow herb – a rich purple layer of distraction between the straw-hued shingle and the cloud-heavy sky, both washed of colour in the flat coastal light. IMG_1718Further south, the cliffs grow a little higher. Ferrous red and as soft and powdery as halva, they are irredeemably at the mercy of the North Sea tide. And it shows: the cliffs are raw and freshly cleaved, with collapsed chunks that have been further eroded by the incoming tide such that they appear to seep from the cliff bases like congealed gravy.  Man-made objects receive no preferential treatment – a collapsed WWII concrete defence bunker slopes between cliff and sand at one point, its long process of total disintegration still in its infancy as its perches ignominiously at 45 degrees, an involuntary buttress for the flaking cliffs.IMG_1744

The cliffs may be ephemeral geomorphology, constantly pushed back by the eroding tide, but they possess enough permanence for colonies of sand martins to pit them with nesting burrows high up the cliff face. The birds swoop and chatter in high-pitched whispers as they gather flies above the shingle, flying in and out their nest holes faster than the eye can bring itself into focus. IMG_1802

Further along, a red-brick building lies in an even more advanced state of breakdown. Dead trees, devoid of bark and bleached pale by saltwater protrude from the sand. Some stand roots-proud with their upper trunks planted in the sand as if drawing nutrition from deep underground. Others are inverted stumps that appear to channel the centrepiece of north Norfolk’s sacred Seahenge, upturned roots on display like rustic altars.IMG_1768

IMG_1783The tide is still going out, revealing new treasures on the wet smooth sand. Footprints ahead of me heading south look like my own but, of course, they are not – I have not been there yet. The unidentified boot-print doppelganger must be far ahead of me. One of the imprints has narrowly missed a solitary beached jellyfish, red-veined and otherworldly. Soon I notice more jellyfish on the tideline: unveined, translucent specimens that stare up from the sand like the detached iris of a giant’s eye.IMG_1770

Approaching Southwold, the pier stretching out to sea becomes clearer in detail. The town’s white lighthouse flashes in warning. Beyond the resort, a few miles further south, the gargantuan golf ball of Sizewell B glows uncannily white. Halfway between sea and cliff on the freshly revealing sand are miscellaneous concrete blocks, remains of footings, moorings, buildings. Some of these have been almost completely submerged by sand to leave a line of tiny pyramids like the vertebra of a buried dragon. Frame the scene carefully and squint and this might be an aerial view over the Egyptian desert. The lack of a viable sphinx and presence of a battered clifftop caravan soon disabuses such fantastical musing.IMG_1810

Southwold arrives – or, rather, I arrive there – the beach approach heralded by groynes and breakwaters. Then comes the first phalanx of the town’s famously expensive beach huts, a sink estate for solvent holiday makers who have succumbed to the Southwold equivalent of shed-envy. The huts trace a line along the seafront past the pier where a Punch and Judy show is underway, delighting a crowd of children and adults with good old-fashioned, non-PC entertainment that glosses over domestic violence and police brutality. “That’s the way to do it,” swazzles Mr Punch before exclaiming, “Lookout children, the Devil’s going to come and get you.” The Devil was, in fact, coming for Mr Punch yet is outwitted by the trickster anyway in the show’s denouement. Light entertainment, yet such darkness – the seaside has always taken liberties with propriety.

For more on this stretch of coast see my earlier post: At Covehithe

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Beauty and the beach: Winterton-on-Sea, Norfolk

IMG_5333What is it that draws us to the sea; to the coast, the beach? On hot days in summer the answer is fairly obvious: to sunbathe, to swim, to cool off in the sea. Hot summer days are not such a common commodity these days – not in the British Isles anyway – but, whatever the weather brings, people tend to be drawn to the coast like moths to lanterns.

IMG_5307Perhaps it is part of an unwritten code of leisure etiquette, something that established itself in the British collective unconscious in Victorian times when those who could afford it caught trains to the newly developed resorts on the coast in order to take the air. The tradition persisted into the 20th century when, given more leisure time and improved public transport, the working classes too could enjoy the same privilege. Nowadays a trip to the coast is a commonplace activity: a Sunday outing, an hour or two spent strolling on the beach, exercising the dog, dragging the children away from the virtual Neverland of their electronic screens.

IMG_5294But maybe there is something that lies deeper? Some sort of atavistic compulsion to gaze at the sea, to see where we come from, from land masses beyond the horizon, from the primal sludge of the seabed. An urge look at the edge of things where seawater limns the shore and shapes our green island. We are, after all, an island race.

Or maybe that’s just me.

IMG_5312Either way, there is beauty on the beach. Sensuous ripples of sand adorned with calcium necklaces and bangles; the pure white glint of breaking waves. Serried ranks of breakers on the incoming tide, parallels of swell and surf creating a liquid stave for the ocean’s moonstruck music: swash and backwash, the gentle abrasion of pebbles, the faintest tinkle of dead bivalves.

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Cromer New Year, 2011

Many of us feel a need to mark the turning of the year in some way other than simply customary overindulgence on the eve of the old year – an outing to some favoured spot on New Year’s Day perhaps? For those of us who live in Norwich, the North Norfolk coast usually fits the bill. It is not just a matter of blowing cobwebs away or walking off the previous night’s hangover, although certainly that may be an element of it, but more a way of welcoming the New Year and bidding farewell to the cultural interregnum that is the week after Christmas. The last week in December may not strictly be a month of Sundays but it can sometimes feel like it.

Christmas and New Year have long been syncretised with ancient rituals that used to mark the winter solstice, the turning point of the year that heralds the long-awaited lengthening of days. The trouble is these days, as with any public holiday, the Christmas break (should that be ©hristmas?) is largely seen as just another retail opportunity to sell you stuff you really don’t need. New Year’s Day seems different though – especially now that the ‘January sales’ tend to begin on Boxing Day – and has the feel of a day with a tad more community spirit than most. It may be cold January but, venturing outdoors, you get the impression that families are more likely to go out for a walk together on this day than any other in the year. Naturally enough, this phenomenon may also have some connection with New Year resolutions that involve fitness, family togetherness and fresh resolve to avoid couch potato blight. Personal New Year favourites tend to be a walk along the shingle bank at Cley-next-the-Sea, a five-mile circuit centred on Horsey that takes in Horsey Mere and a seal-friendly stretch of the northeast Norfolk coast, or the cliff walk between Overstrand and Cromer. This year, we chose the latter: a seaside amble along the beach from Cromer to Overstrand then a return to Cromer by way of the cliff path.

On a dull winter’s day the north Norfolk seascape can appear almost monochromatic. It is necessary to make adjustments in order to fully appreciate its understated, charcoal-sketch beauty. Scandinavians, fully at home with cold northern light, are good at this; Brits, however, our eyes forever enviously half-cocked on the promise of Mediterranean sun, are not so adept. Whatever the time of year, the north Norfolk coast is a liminal landscape: just sea, sky and sand. Head due north from here and there’s nothing but cold dark water until you reach the Arctic pack ice – nothing but notional maritime territories: Humber, Dogger, Forties, Viking. Horizontal layers of grey stratify the landscape: murky water; shining banks of cloud that weigh heavy on the horizon; sand and pebbles in the foreground. Look behind you and the cliffs behind are crumbling: too soft to win the fight in any sea versus land standoff. The aural landscape is hardly brighter: just the usual coastal din of argumentative gulls and overexcited dogs, the swash of waves and the grate of pebbles.

Crunching east along the pebbles, keeping a casual eyen open for the ochre glint of amber (never found), a steely blue jewel  nestled in seaweed reveals itself. The object, a detached lobster tail – or, rather, thorax – is so intensely blue that it seems to suck in light like a tiny dead star fallen to earth. The cerulean richness seems unworldly in this colour-bleached landscape. Separated from carapace and succulent flesh, its isolation renders it all the more precious. Precision-engineered to allow the most delicate of movements, it is a tail designed for swimming, dancing and mating displays, a tail for lobster love.

Returning along the cliffs next to the golf course the path is lined with thickets of sea buckthorn. In other years these have been so weighed down with squishy orange fruit that they dazzle the eye but this winter the berries, following a savagely cold December, are little more than a withered memory, with few to be seen on the bushes, thinned by frost action and hungry birds. Archaeological evidence suggests that sea buckthorn berries once played an important role in man’s diet but the truth is that, while they may be nutritious, they are also unbelievably astringent eaten raw, like bitter acid on the tongue. Freezing and cooking are supposed to reduce their unpalatable quality so we must conclude that Norfolk’s early settlers made some sort of jam out of the fruit.

Since the millennial year, Cromer has staged a New Year firework display that is said to attract at least half the town’s population and the same again from the county beyond. This year, we stayed to watch. By well before the time that darkness fell, it was impossible to find a seat in the Rocket Cafe above the Lifeboat Museum – the perfect viewpoint for the event. Instead, we stood among the crowd by the seawall facing the pier, while others positioned themselves up the steps that lead up to the main promenade. The display, when it finally began after what seemed like a long, cold late-afternoon wait, was a wonderfully explosive affair – a lengthy and varied display that made the annual Lord Mayor’s Procession event in Norwich look like a damp squib in comparison. As the last cracks of pyrotechnic thunder echoed against the sea wall, and the final salvo of rockets stabbed at the sky, I wondered what Cromer’s offshore crabs made of all this unexplained cacophony. Were they all scurrying northwards along the seafloor heading for the relative peace of Dogger Bank?