Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A telegram, or a picture postcard

Here is the end of the world: a small hut, hunkered on a concrete base at the foot of the dunes. Marram grass ratches against the door. The slit windows moan the insistence of a south-westerly wind. Beyond, a pebble-scattered beach and the inscrutable sea.

We came to Walney in search of birds; the residue of blow-ins and migrants which follows autumn's storms. Instead, we found lichened pebbles nestled in the grass like birds' eggs, crusted with the orange scales of Xanthoria lichens; the shattered carcass of an old pier, its splintered limbs as bleached as the sky; dry sand blowing across the surface of the beach, the ground in motion like an insect swarm. We found the whale-backed land adrift from the coast, rimmed by mud, sand and sea, scoured by wind and the low, grey clouds.

It is an island where history sits uneasily amongst the grass and mud, a landscape which has been a perpetual observer to the comings and goings of the Furness peninsula. Until 1908 it was a true island, a barrier to the ocean, creating the deep water channel on which Barrow's prosperity is founded. Now the island seems more like an afterthought; an apostrophe-shaped addition to the land proper.
From the rusted gun emplacements sequestered in the dunes, looking across the channel beyond the red bulk of Piel Castle, shipyards and submarine sheds crowd the horizon. On Shore Street, the removable bollards and traffic islands are silted with leaves and the coastal sinter of grit and sand. On submarine-launching days, the road can be stripped clean, opened out to allow the huge black bulk on its vast low-loader to pass between submarine hall and launching dock. Today, its impermanence seems pathetic, lost.
Out in the ocean, whale-black submarines which once descended the slipway into Walney Channel now glide silently through the water in the North Atlantic, the Persian Gulf, the Arctic Ocean. They are the restless souls of the world's seas, lurking near to global conflict like the ghosts at the feast. Their sinister shapes once slid through this narrow channel between Walney and Piel. Here is the end of the world.

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