Friday, June 7, 2013

Sea Change

Outside of the village where I live, crossing the brow of the hill, the view opens across low, rolling fields, out to the coast and the widening waters of the Solway Firth, where it meets the Irish Sea. Beyond, the hills of southern Scotland change colour and mood, depending on the weather. Whenever I pass this way, I pause at the brow of the hill and look out over the endlessly changing colours of the water, which shift from steel grey, through pale blue, to an almost colourless shade that reflects the paleness of the sky. On windy days, tiny flecks of white are barely visible on its surface, although I know that, out there, they will be large breaking waves; concentrations of noise and power, like wind made manifest. The sea is out there, somewhere, and I feel comforted.
I grew up far from the sea. Not so much geographically far, in the way that nowhere in England is more than a few dozen miles from the coast, but emotionally far, in that it did not touch my life. Once a year, we took our family holidays in seaside resorts which could be reached by train: Scarborough, Yarmouth, Folkstone; towns of a solid Victorian civility, their manicured pitch-and-put greens rolling towards the promenade, the pier, the beach. It was our annual encounter with some meek version of the wild strangeness of the sea, its rhythmic mystery and shifting tones. Holidaying inland did not seem to be an option, but it was not clear why we were by the sea. We played ball on the beach, searched for strange shaped shells, made sandcastles. Returning home, we would find a few grains of sand spilling from the toes of our socks after they were washed.
In the county where I grew up, the coast was fringed by saltmarsh; an indeterminate place which was neither land nor sea, which breathed the smell of saltiness but was perched above the distant waves, dry and pocked with the prints of birds. Rarely, we visited these unnerving flatlands to pick samphire; a soft fleshy saltmarsh plant which we blanched in a pan and pickled in vinegar, only partly disguising its salty taste, its haunting memory of the sea. On these brief visits, we stayed close to the high tide line with its car parks and footpaths, aware of a visceral but unnamed fear of the wildness which lay beyond. It was a perfect metaphor for my childhood relationship with the sea: distant, aloof, unknown.
I never thought of this relationship which we have with the sea - which I had with the sea - until I learned to sail in my mid-twenties. Not on the sea, at first, but in a dull concrete reservoir in the Oxfordshire countryside, a place where my friend had access to the local sailing club's boats. We cycled there on his tandem; two tall, lanky men on a fully laden bicycle whooping and screaming through lanes of cow parsley and hawthorn, the wind in our faces; the city over our shoulders. I learned nothing there of the sea, nothing of the movements of tides and waves, but I realised that I had been introduced to some ancient truth, had discovered a form of movement which was entirely dependent upon the world around us, on the wind and the water, as though to sail was to give up a part of one's own determinism and trust to the benevolence of the elements. It felt liberating, unfettered. I fell in love with the sound of the wind in the shroud wires, the slapping of halyards against the masts in an autumn breeze, the intense concentration required simply to continue moving in one direction when all around me was shifting and uncertain. The boats we sailed were prosaic glass fibre bathtubs, but in a good breeze, I felt like I was flying.
Later, I moved to the coast, and, for a few years, sailing become a part of my life. I sailed larger boats; ketches and cutters, clinker-built relics in which everything happened at a slower pace. I crossed the Irish Sea one summer in a friend's twenty foot sloop, and I began to understand something of the terrifying and unequal relationship which people have always had with the sea. I remember the sense of gathering darkness as the coast of Wales paled into an evening sky, and the short June night which, from our isolation in the middle of the sea, seemed to last so long: three hour watches on deck with a head torch fixed on the tiny compass on the cockpit housing; the inability to cook or eat anything in the rolling haystacks of waves; the sense of relief in seeing the coast of Wicklow appearing in the grey of morning. That evening, exhausted from a sleepless night, my body still swaying inside from the constant movement, I cupped a pint of Guinness in my hands and felt as though I had passed some test; as though I had entered a world in which my own powerlessness was dependent upon the sea, the wind, the tides. I thought of the manoeuvre in which a boat is 'hove-to': adrift yet inert; in control but unpredictable.

I no longer sail, but the sea does not fail to stir something in me. We take our family holidays on distant islands; westward fragments of a wild land, set in a wilder sea. When I step on the ferry each summer in Oban, I watch the yachts clustered in the harbour with envy and understanding. Like many people brought up in the British Isles, I carry the scent of the sea with me like an inner knowledge, like a sense of privilege, as though the sea represents some ancient freedom we might once have had, and only dimly remember.
And I begin to understand how it might always have been so; how boats are not a modern luxury toy, but a human creation forever tied to our development; like the wheel, or the plough. I read today of the discovery and excavation of a group of eight Bronze Age boats beneath a quarry in Cambridgeshire. They are estimated at 3,000 to 3,600 years old, and so well-preserved that they could still float when removed from the Fenland peat. Within them were eel traps which are almost identical to those used by eel fishers in the fens today. I thought of the importance of boats to these people, their journeys from mainland Europe, across a sea that had already covered the ice age land bridge between Britain and the continent, towards a land which, on fine days, they could see in the distance, but on stormy days would have demanded a commitment, a faith, to attempt the journey. I thought of the huge oak trees a metre wide from which some of these boats were built, adzed by hand using primitive tools, shaped into something which was both beautiful and seaworthy. I thought of the Fenland coast of my youth, the layers of silt filling its muddy creeks, the almost-silence broken by a faint hiss in the distance which could only be heard on still days; the sound of the distant sea, calling softly.


  1. Oh Ian, I love this! Such poetry and wistfulness...You're so right about so much when it comes to us Brits and the sea -I think it calls to us. This post shimmers - memory, informing understanding; prompting perfectly poetic prose. Just gorgeous.

    1. Thanks so much, Selina. I don't think I had realised how tied to the sea I am, and perhaps how much we all are, until I started to write about it. It's a topic I'd like to explore a bit more....

      all best wishes


  2. I think we all are drawn to the sea - like the elves in Tolkien, it's somehow part of our story.