There is something incredibly primal in the compulsion of the sea. Not any old sea – after all I have lived along the south coast for the majority of my adult life, and have had numerous weekends with in laws in south Devon, and half term breaks in north Cornwall.
No, this is the overwhelming compulsion of the North Sea, the coastline of the Norfolk-Suffolk border, and of north Norfolk. This is the sea of my childhood, the huge empty sea that vanishes imperceptibly into the vast empty sky, with the almost-as-empty land barely registering.
This is the sea where, if you stand with your back to it, you are confronted with sand dunes or shingle banks that also stretch as far as the eye can see. There is a sense of disorientation in time and space, a bewildering absence of evidence to anchor you in the here and now.
I walked for half an hour straight into the teeth of a strong south easterly wind, ear-aching, mind-numbing, and was transported to any number of similar walks in the past. After an hour it was a shock to reach a small harbour with, bizarrely, a Waitrose delivery van parked to one side. Waitrose didn’t exist last time I walked along this particular bit of coast.
This sea always feels an integral part of me, as though I was born with it in my veins. In the same way that I have heard people say that they feel an inexplicable pull towards the edge of cliffs when walking along cliff paths, so do I feel the same pull to walk into the infinite stretch of the sea. As a child I used to imagine that you could walk into the sea and keep walking until you would reach a magical land, the land of fairytales and of one’s imagination. There is something reassuring about the vastness of the sea. It dwarfs all the landmasses of the earth, it has been there for eternity and will continue to crash onto the shores long after we are gone. The gaia concept of mother earth has never resonated for me, but the idea of mother sea, the eternal mother calling us back to her, certainly does.
Of course, on the coastline that I have been walking today the sea is very literally claiming the earth back as its own; I was brought up with the story of Dunwich, the town swallowed up by the sea, and coastal erosion continues. Another story that was very real to me as a child, because it had affected my parents and grandparents (although luckily neither they nor their homes were directly affected) was the story of the Great Flood of 1953, still the UK’s biggest peacetime disaster in modern times. Many east coast villages have markers on the walls of buildings to show the level the the water reached. On my walk I noticed the one at Southwold – on a level with the first floor windows of the pub.