The north Norfolk coast. Regarding humanity, I can understand why animism.
The water here is shallow. There are many areas known to maritime traffic that are grounding hazards – the land under the surface is so close as to beach a vessel in what is otherwise the middle of the sea. Between the Norfolk coastline and Holland, this sea has only been present for a few thousand years. Things like mammal bones and reindeer antlers are still dredged up in the nets of fishing boats harking back to the time it was once marshland.
To get an idea of how recently part of a beach was inland, if you’ve ever seen the blue-black clay that covers the shore in horizontal striations – the stuff that’s so satisfying to sink your toes into (and is indeed used in spa treatments) – that’s the wet rotten remains of woodland boughs. It used to be forest and in a sense, it still is. Pine can still be detected in its aroma.
Much of the coastline of Norfolk was chased away by Dutch engineers in the 17th Century. A birdwatching hotspot – Cley-next-the-sea – is no longer “next-to” as the water is about a mile distant owing to the Dutch land reclamation skills. The local church stands aloft looking down on the road. Originally, that was the shore line.
The sea walls at Titchwell RSPB reserve – one of the most popular birding sites in the UK – were breached deliberately in 2011 in a bizarre kind of appeasement to the bellicose sea. To help tame the battering they receive from storm surges, wardens realised they couldn’t fight with them so instead offered up their virginity in the form of a wall gap to temper the waves’ worst advances.
This is a reminder that this land is only land if it’s worked on constantly. The tides will take back – all restrictions to their will are but fleeting, and while this artificial coastline is temporary, the sea is constant.
The quality of the light is unworldly. It’s as if the sun wasn’t picking out the details of the landscape under its auspices, but like each character were self-illuminated with the heavens acting simply to contain their glow. The sky broods vast and vaulted, yet remains domestic in sensibility. The impression it gives is that this corner of England is under a giant canvas.
The weather describes raw feeling. We can recognise depression, aggression, anxiety, solitude and even remorse. There’s an exigency in the atmosphere at all times – a need to express, to get things out of its system. You can see these tantrums and exultations arriving from a distance – sweeping across the sea like local gods on a junket.
Our body is the channel between the emotion and the audience, but which one are we?
When the clouds break after a torrent of horizontal rain or hail, you can feel the hope and euphoria in the aftermath. This catharsis is either drawn from us or breathed into us. The moisture turns to vapour, and rising, feels like the Rapture. It’s spiritual as your mood lifts with it. The ground, the shingle, the sand and the vegetation luster again. They become animated anew.
And you crunch across the beach in freezing conditions. Birdwatchers often walk along with their hand cupped over the eye pieces of their binoculars to keep rain and sea spray from the lenses. On occasion, it’s been so perishing that I can’t physically keep my hand exposed to the air for long. I have to alternate from left to right. My fingers might as well be steeping in acid brine.
Yet birders are willing ascetics wondering bare into the eyes of the storm in just such a fashion – heads bowed, ears open and stinging. Throw anything you want at them, they just keep on trudging.
The birds find reassurance and shelter by alighting on these same shingle banks. Compared to the temperatures out at sea, the land is a welcoming temperate respite. In darkness, I’ve watched the ghostly pallor of snow buntings a few feet from me in the gloom as they pick through the bracken with turnstones. It’s been so cold I can’t feel my face – but so worth it.
A birdwatching hide appears like a crude structure, but in these conditions it’s a haven and protection. The door being heaved open and shut against the elements makes the silence of the watchers inside deafening. Birding is sacred and this is its temple.
Inside, you don’t just witness the wildlife on the outside. The interior can be just as fascinating and a great deal more creepy. Which life-form left its sarcophagal chrysalis laminated to the timber a few inches from your face? The pupae, webs, skeins, nymphs and shed exoskeletons that adorn the inside panelling and beams of a hide are the stuff of nightmare – alien viscera H R Geiger could only dream of.
Due to these flat swathes being fertile but heavily agricultural, trees near the coast are scarce. But where they endure like at Holkham and its estate, walking under the trunks in the bleak of winter is both morbid and life-affirming. Looking up through the naked trachea of the branches, the forest floor is like a supine body holding its emaciated arms up to the season’s glare. Beseeching, the sleeper dreams of spring and the audacity of life.
The surroundings come across as timid – an east Anglian speciality I can even ascribe to the lands around Hertfordshire. But here it’s a false sense of security because this “timidity” along the north Norfolk coast is in fact lethality.
Elsewhere in Britain, we’re warned of dangerous landscapes by their blatancy. We can stand at the brink of a stony outcrop and look hundreds of feet down to waves pummelling a cliff face and feel the thud through our flesh as if we were part of the bedrock itself. That peril is an easily identifiable danger – it’s palpable. All you need to do is stay away from the edge.
But here, the sea goes out suddenly and absconds so far and so fast as to be indiscernible even by telescope. The coastal area that continues in an elbow up the Lincolnshire coast drains at low tide leaving hundreds of square miles of mud flats; hence its status as a birdwatching mecca for waders. The danger is that this expanse of what could loosely be called “ground” then fills up just as rapidly at high tide.
I have sat in a hide in Snettisham watching the tide snake in at a speed that could outrun you – especially in the sucking mire. Birds like dunlin are inundated in a split second and take off – you watch flocks of waders taking to the air as they define the water’s incoming edge.
And they twist and morph overhead like the silhouette of an adrenalin dream. Thousands of individuals make up a reflexive body. Shapes are articulated against the blazing sky – the dark tumour, the beating heart, the writhing serpent. Raptors are drawn in from miles around – openings emerge in the mass like tunnels – the bore through which the peregrine swoops.
Back in the town, Hunstanton in winter goes beyond bleak to be in mourning for its own passing. The businesses are boarded up. Litter drifts across the concrete strand. The town has been bled and is in monochrome. A corner of a flyer on a faded noticeboard flaps in the wind like the fin of a landed fish.
Early in our marriage, we sketched a heart in the sand with a piece of driftwood at Heacham. Inside, we spelled out our names. We were young – our relationship fresh. At the time, it was like we were members of an audience watching how our life would play out on the big screen.
The writing would’ve been erased by the first incoming tide. The image existed on our previous computer that no longer switches on. The shelf in the cupboard on which the computer sits used to be where she kept her summer clothes.
Hunstanton cliffs. The sun sets on their multicoloured strata – lighting them into colours so unlikely they resist the grasp of memory.
The ribs of a boat’s carcass clad in green algae lies sumptuous in death. Further out, the soaked table top of low tide is aflame – a raging furnace from the evening’s rays.