Scolt Head Island

This is an essay originally published by The Island Review website.


At low tide, if you don’t mind getting your feet wet, you can walk to Scolt Head Island’s eastern end across the sand and through the mud; you’d better not stay too long though, and you need to take careful heed of the tides and the weather, because once the tide begins to flood, begins to roll boisterously through the channel between the island and the mainland, Scolt Head becomes that most magical, and often unreachable of things: Scolt Head becomes an island. It becomes an object of desire, of jealousy even. Mere pedestrians, those who have walked out behind the retreating tide like waders searching for tit-bits, and then hurried back ahead of the tide on its return, have only had a couple of hours on the island and are now condemned to the car park to pack their empty picnic baskets and damp towels away, and return to their land-lubbing existence.Scolt Head Island’s house-high dunes are visible from the car park at Burnham Overy Staithe harbour. They’re mohicaned with marram grass, amongst which delicate bee and pyramidal orchids hide. On the other side of the island the approaching tide glitters in the sun, the waves tipping and tumbling over themselves as they advance from far out across the beautiful emptiness of Holkham Bay.


Meanwhile back in the car park, the mood of those who the tide has banished is not improved by the rising gaiety and bustling activity of the newcomers filling up the spaces in the car park of those departing: the island-goers are here.

Dinghies, dumpy-looking retired Norfolk crab boats – which always put me in mind of Gerry Durrel’s Bootlebumtrinket from My Family and other Animals –inflatables, canoes, kayaks, fishing boats; whether powered by wind, oar or diesel a veritable flotilla of small craft are readying themselves for departure. Picnic hampers are loaded, cool bags and barbecues stowed; sails flap eagerly in the breeze; halyards and various other items of rigging ting-ting-ting impatiently against mast-heads; outboards idle contentedly.

The tide is on its way; creeping across the vast expanses of sand and mud, filling the gullies and channels that web the saltmarsh, lifting strewn weed that it left on its last visit, gently prising boats from their muddy moorings with a satisfying schlurp, and pushing the oyster catchers, greenshanks, curlews and various other lanky-legged waders off of their feeding grounds, it seems to gather pace exponentially as it approaches land. There’s a greediness to an incoming tide that is only truly appreciable if you are somewhere like the North Norfolk coast; where the sand slopes gently from the beach, where there are deep gullies that deepen further each year, or sometimes change direction, or disappear altogether. The tide’s hunger, along with the wind, can change this landscape beyond recognition year to year. And, if you’re out on the sands when the tide turns, you will see the speed with which it can devour the land. The sand is corrugated like a metal fence, and the ridges and depressions are alternately filled and crested by the sea as it approaches the beach. The metaphoric sense of renewal is obvious. Twice a day the tide returns, erasing the sands of footprints, driftwood, weed, and all the flotsam and jetsam of the previous tide. There are few landscapes affected by such a constant sense of renewal. Most natural landscapes have a sense of permanence that give our lives constancy. Mountains are formed over millennia, trees decades. But our coastal landscape uniquely has the ability to undergo a radical and dynamic change without being under our control. It’s one of the things which attracts people to it time and again; not so much a true sense of wildness as a genuine one.

Scolt Head Island is a classic example of what geographers refer to as an offshore barrier island. It was leavened from wind and tide in the geological blink of an eye; around a thousand years ago is the latest estimate, and it probably started life as a spit of sand that spread westward over a shingle skeleton. It would have been colonised by marram grass seeds blown on the wind or transported by birds or the tide. Once the grasses take hold, their creeping roots hold the sand together and in this way dunes begin to develop. Now the island is four miles long and growing: reaching from Burnham Overy Staithe at its eastern end to Brancaster at its western, this eyebrow of dunes and shingle atop the North Norfolk coast contains four significant habitats: shingle, intertidal mud and sand flats, sand dunes and saltmarsh. According to Natural England, who manage this National Nature Reserve, the saltmarsh of Scolt Head Island is the finest in the country, and is apparently the most studied of any in the world. Its inaccessibility is one of the things that makes it so special. For much of the year, apart from researchers, the island is empty of humankind. Only in the Summer is its eastern end the playground of the privileged picnickers. The island is accessible year round, only the ternery at its western end is out of bounds during the breeding season, but unless you come on one tide and leave on the next your time to explore is limited. Apart from predator control there is a non-interventional approach to the island and its wildlife.

My fascination with islands began in childhood with Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons. Wildcat Island was the first island that I dreamt of. I’d get in to bed with the light on and either read until I fell asleep or, when I heard my mother coming up the stairs to check on me, hide the book under the covers and pretend to be asleep. There was just light enough from the hallway to carry on reading once she’d turned my light out and gone back downstairs. Then there was Treasure Island, and the Famous Five’s Kirrin Island; islands were the most exciting places in the world, full of secret tunnels, treasure, pirates, all the things that an impressionable young boy couldn’t resist. And as I got older there was Klovharu, Tove Jansson’s retreat. It’s not the pirates or the thought of buried treasure that keeps me interested now, though there is still something fascinating about islands for me and others. Maybe it’s the fact that we are all, in essence, islanders: Great Britain is itself made up of over six thousand islands.

In the Summer months, as well as those privileged enough to be able to get there under their own steam or sail, there is a small passenger ferry that chugs its way from Burnham Overy Staithe harbour, out past the sea wall on the right and the vast expanse of salt marsh on the left, to the golden sand of Scolt Head Island. Most people set up their picnics on beach there and then, perhaps a little wary about roaming too far from where the ferry will pick them up again later, and not without some cause for concern, for the Wells lifeboat has had to rescue the unwary in the past. And while they won’t have to wait so long that they’ve built up a raging desire for cheese a la Ben Gunn, it must still be a little disconcerting to be left behind, though I admit to a little frisson of excitement at the prospect myself, and though I do like cheese I could easily give it up for few months on a desert island.

Islands get deep in to your psyche; their enigmatic loneliness enthralls me. Maybe it’s a desire to retreat from a society where everyone is increasingly linked by mobile, or email, or ever-decreasing housing on ever-decreasing housing estates; the constant pressure to conform, to get a job, a mortgage, a better, bigger, newer car than the neighbours. While those at the other end of the scale have an infinite ability to isolate themselves the rest of society is forced to homogenise, to live the same, think the same, behave the same. Escaping to the countryside is many people’s pressure valve. Whether turning that valve leads them to the hills or the coast to relieve the pressure it is what keeps many of us sane. Our landscape should be available for all, not just those privileged enough to be able to live in our most beautiful places. Landscape has meaning to many, from profit to wonderment and many shades in between. It should go viral, should be disseminated out and across our entire population, not held close between those few who consider themselves its guardians, but in fact are its jailers.




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