On the chilly eastern flank of England is a town, a small town. It is situated where the coastline turns its back on its Scandinavian and Teutonic cousins, particularly when, as now, the jet stream arcs southwards at the impulse of the flapping of a butterfly’s slender wings in some distant hemisphere, causing cold Arctic air to compel its inhabitants to turn up coat collars and shiver. It is also situated where the River Alde attempts to enter the sea, but is deflected listlessly for miles along the coast where, when it has almost given up hope, an opening presents itself and fresh and salt are sweetly mingled.
Standing on the well-sorted brown shingle, the beach stretches like an arrow northwards to the eroding cliffs that turn someone’s loss to someone else’s profit, from depletion to accretion. Strong, rusted cables connect the waterline with weather-beaten wooden shacks close to the small concrete wall at the back of the beach, where small fishing boats safely perch away from the devouring tide that sweeps this coastline with metronomic regularity. Fresh herring, crabs and Dover sole are advertised on the fronts of the shacks, though few customers stop amid their bracing and strictly linear walks along the backshore.
The main shopping street of Aldeburgh is set back and exactly parallel to the seafront, protected from the easterly winds by a block of stoic but slightly seedy hotels and various brave but uninteresting dwellings. After a while, one realises that all of these buildings share one thing in common – they all have the appearance of having been built by wealthy Victorians with a penchant for fresh air and then left dormant for a hundred years except for the addition of layer after layer of thick gloss paint. Window glass has that murky, translucent appearance caused by the accumulation of North Sea salt. In more clement climes, as at the coastal resort at the end of the tramline in Adelaide, South Australia, the waterfront would be lined with adventurous architectural experiments in glass, bold rooflines and quirky balconies, but the conservative English psyche prefers mock Tudor to Frank Lloyd Wright. Nevertheless, our Victorian and pseudo-Victorian buildings have the very beneficial effect of allowing the townsfolk and visitors to this small English town to walk along the main street carrying out their business in some degree of comfort. No doubt Benjamin Britten did so in his time.
Walking linear fashion north of Aldeburgh we go in search of the source that nourishes the beaches of the town with nobbly, hard and rounded brown flints. Now I appreciate that this does not quite have the ring of discovering the source of the Blue Nile, but it’s pretty interesting nonetheless, for countless English men with handkerchiefs as head coverings tied by four small knots at the corners have sat on the brown shingle with their wives and children and not had the slightest idea of what they were parking their rears on, and what they were slinging distractedly into the waves, and what was swallowing up the small coins falling from their pockets with such ease.
In our search for the source of the brown flints, we are obliged to stop for a moment at the lost village of Dunwich, now beneath the waves, having kept a safe distance from Sizewell B on our route northwards. Dunwich also gives its name to a heath, with a thick, matted undergrowth of heather and gorse that camouflages small families of deer, and through which oaks, birches and the occasional pine poke to break the flat skyline. A walk down to the deserted beach reveals that the heath is underlain by sands, almost as friable as the day they were formed in a shallow sea not unlike the present-day North Sea, but 40 millions of years ago. The cliffs of ancient sands are wearing back by the attack of the North Sea, so that the elevated heath is shrinking, and it will not be long before the white coastguard cottages atop the cliff suffer the same fate as the sad old village of Dunwich.
It seems inconceivable that Dunwich once boasted a population of about 4000, who with faith built 8 churches, three chapels and two hospitals, and exported from the harbour the wool and grain of ancient Suffolk. All that is left is a row of brightly painted beach huts, a red brick pub appropriately called the Ship Inn, and a small terrace of assorted houses. There is a melancholy about this loss, as if some bizarre calamity had struck the luckless inhabitants of this eastern extremity of England. But the reality is more mundane, though equally chilling, for the village succumbed, in stages like a Greek tragedy, to the free rein of nature. To the sea, the tempestuous sea.
Most of the destruction took place in the 13th century, and the last remaining portion disappeared at the same time as the first world war loomed, enacted its ugliness and finished amid relief and grieving. The coast was a mile to the east during the village’s heyday, so a simple back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that the sea advances by the length of a cricket pitch every ten years. Off the Norfolk coast, a small distance further north along our linear walk, coastal look-outs built of ugly concrete lie askew in the shifting sands, pounded by surf, scoured by currents, testament to the retreat of cliffs since a second world war. The coast is far from the static frontier of an island nation, to be defended with Churchillian vigour. Frontiers are a human invention, and a disquieting illusion.
From these Norfolk cliffs come the brown flints that nourish the strand at Aldeburgh, first scraped by ice streams, then dropped, left like garbage, strewn carelessly, falling in landslips as the sea undercuts and devours, and transports to new temporary resting places, and to a final oblivion who knows where. The indestructible pebbles are graded in size from north to south along their zig-zag route dictated by wind and tide by a Nature intent on orderliness. They are Earth’s great survivors, left piled high on stormy beaches, rattling in contact together as backwash flows over and through them, defying time’s arrow.
Standing on the long beach beside the eroding cliffs of sand, under a grey, lowering sky, and with the rhythmic beat of shingle in motion, I felt vividly a personal onward march of time. I felt the freakish and ephemeral intersection in this vast expanse of time of two hearts and minds and bodies. We hugged each other silently, she facing the sea and I the cliffs, as a small tear formed, hovered on the brink and descended, un-noticed as it quickly dissipated through the wet sand into which our footprints were temporarily etched.
Strewn by the Million
What hard stone can this be,
Strewn by the million beneath my feet,
Dark glass, brown weathered rind,
Piled up where wave and river meet?
From where comes this stone,
Where was it first crystallised,
Micron by micron from leaching brine,
Now drifted in zig-zags on reversing tide?
For how long has this palm-sized stone,
Held silent stories of universal time,
In colour, shape and rounded form,
That Nature briefly intersected hers with mine?
How big a world is in this stone,
Trapped incognito within its blackened glass,
Stretching infinitely beyond my vision,
Yet into waves so carelessly cast?