Just a couple of quick shots taken at Brancaster on Monday evening at high tide. Tried to make the best of the fact that the light wasn’t great.
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.
Other – better – writers than myself have recently dug over what place nature writing has in the modern world, and some have even gone so far as to state some of the most respected nature writers of today are fiddling while Rome burns. At the risk of getting way out of my depth I will venture my own opinion on nature writing today (And I’ve even, unintentionally, managed to get a Wedding Present song-title within the text!).
Observing nature has been a human activity for as long as Homo sapiens has existed. When we lived as hunter-gatherers observing nature would have been the most essential skill anyone possessed. They would have been experts in what fruits, berries, grasses and roots were safe to eat, as well as where and at what time of the year they were to be found; they would have known the life-cycles, the habits and the habitats of countless species of bird, mammal, reptile, insect and fish; they would have known the nuances of the weather, which rivers were liable to flood, and when and where it was safe to make camp; they would have known spring tides occur at the new and the full moon, and that as well as the incoming flood tide being higher than usual, the outgoing ebb tide would be correspondingly lower than usual, perhaps revealing beds of shellfish not normally accessible. Knowing all this, and more, was crucial for the survival of themselves and the groups they lived in, and for us as a species. When Homo sapiens actually began documenting what they observed is debatable, but we do know that 40,000 years ago, in what is now Germany, a human being identical to ourselves carved in mammoth ivory what is known as the Lowenmensch – the lion-human. Due to a dispute about whether the figure is half-man, half-lion or half-woman, half-lion the original name of Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stade was sensibly amended. It is widely thought to be the oldest anthropomorphic likeness produced by a human being. 35,000 years ago, another human being painted a picture of a type of pig on the wall of a cave on the island of Sulawesi. Next to it there are hand silhouettes from the same period in time as the lion-human from Germany. Hand silhouettes such as these have been found as ancient cave art in places as diverse as France, Borneo, Argentina and Australia. Archaeologists and anthropologists are still unsure of their meaning. It must have been, at least partly, a yearning to document, to leave a mark, to eternalise themselves in that particular place at that particular time.
Independently, at a similar time, different groups of ancient, but modern, human beings were documenting the natural world and even, to an extent, fictionalising it. It was the single most important factor affecting their lives and they were consciously recognising, and recording it. Today the natural world remains the single most important factor in our lives. Though we may have domesticated aspects of it, we still rely on it for everything, whether that be food, water, fuel, heat, transport, electricity, or the internet. Without the existence of the natural world and its resources the human race could not, and would not, exist as it does now.
Unfortunately, many humans of today have lost sight of the natural world. Some have never had sight of it, and never will, whether that be through choice or lack of opportunity, and others are forced to abuse it out of necessity. As well as this, there are those who see it as a series of endless resources to be exploited in the pursuit of profit and the all-conquering dogma of capitalism – growth. Writing on nature – as well as writing on landscape and place, for all three are compounds of the same alloy – should, and does, go a long way to countering all of the above. Unlike the many charities and other organisations promoting conservation, recycling and other so-called ‘green’ agendas, nature writing celebrates nature for nature’s sake. But that is not to say it doesn’t promote its conservation. The realisation that something is beautiful and essential and alive, has a deep-reaching power that in these days of austerity, charity-fatigue and backlash, a mere request for outrage and funds can never match. To have your eyes opened wide by nature writing is inspirational and motivational, and once you’ve been moved by the written word, it is but a small to step to be moved by the reality. Nature writing engenders a wont to care, not just set up a direct debit to make you feel you are ‘doing your bit,’ though this is important too. Nature writing does not have to have a specificity aimed at conserving a habitat or a species to be considered a valid part of conservation; it is as important to conservation of landscape, place and nature as any charity campaign, or more targeted piece of conservation-minded writing.
Have human beings have ever been ‘at one’ with nature? Certainly not now, and not before the industrial revolution, and not before either the agricultural revolution of ten thousand years ago – when we moved from hunting and gathering to farming and domestication – or the cognitive revolution, which began seventy thousand years ago. The people who carved the half-lion figurine, or left their handprints on cave walls thirty or forty thousand years ago, may have lived cheek-by-jowl with nature, and relied upon it in a more direct way than we do today, but they certainly weren’t worried about conserving it. As a species, extinctions have tracked us through the ages with the dogged persistence of a bloodhound on the trail of a convict.
There are three main extinction events which carry the tell-tale evidence of our modus operandi, and identify us as the serial killers that we are. The first wave occurred with the onset of the cognitive revolution, when Homo sapiens left East Africa and spread through the rest of the world over the following sixty thousand years or so. The fossil record shows time and time again that our appearance coincides with the disappearance of countless other species, including large mammals such as the mammoth, and also every other Homo species. The second wave came with the agricultural revolution, when our population began to grow with the domestication of crops and animals. The third wave, if you hadn’t guessed it, is happening right now, and once again it is Homo sapiens driving it. But this time the consequences are potentially catastrophic to us as a species as well.
Nature writing is as diverse as the natural world itself. As that diversity shrinks, so does our awareness of it. We do not realise that without the existence of the natural world our games consoles will also cease to exist, as will our mobile phones, and our internet connections and every other aspect of modern life. Nature writing is essential if we are to re-connect ourselves with our landscapes, and the species within those landscapes. If we are to save the wonderful and beautiful and amazing species that we live amongst we must identify, and understand our roles within their lives and their habitats. But preaching to the converted is pointless, as is preaching to those who are not willing to listen. We must have more than charitable demands, more than angry calls to arms, more than the belief that literature can influence our political classes, as has been claimed in this debate. We must have all those things of course, but we must also have more: we must have inspiration, we must have insight, we must have contagious enthusiasm, impulsiveness, and we must have awakening and arousal. And we must affect people first: ordinary, run-of-the-mill people. Not politicians, not the wealthy, but the ordinary. Real change will only come from the bottom up, there is no will for change to come from the top down, only a thirst for more resources and more profits. And nature writing can help orchestrate real change. All nature writing can. There is room for all under the canopy of the great tree that is nature writing. Let’s hope that by the time we’ve finished bickering amongst ourselves as to who has the right approach, that tree is still standing
This is an article which recently appeared in the Caught By The River fanzine ‘An Antidote to Indifference.’
As I get out of the car, a light rain falls from the sulky, monochrome stratus cloud overhanging the Wash from its low-lying South-East facing shore, to the North-West facing chalk cliffs at Hunstanton. Behind me the Fens stretch inland through Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire. Also behind me, as I set out along the banks of the sea wall, which pen the mouth of the river Nene between them, is the Sir Peter Scott Lighthouse; actually these are the first few paces of the Sir Peter Scott Walk. Here, from 1933 until the start of war in 1939, one of our best-known conservationists lived. The son of polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott, Peter Scott was a keen wildfowler who came to love the wildness of the Fens, and founded the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust as a result. Both hunter and conservationist, he symbolises the contrasts of this landscape, its inhabitants, its remoteness and its wildlife.
The sea wall stretches into the distance before me like a timeline. It is featureless and straight. Any change in direction is geometric: an obtuse angle of a few degrees. The Romans undertook some management of this landscape many hundreds of years before Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden carried out the extensive draining of the Fens on a scale not believed possible in the seventeenth century. This has been a managed landscape for a very long time.
That the Fens can be a difficult landscape to engage with is undeniable. In some people’s imaginations a fenland landscape is a dark, dank one: lonely country lanes intersecting unwelcoming villages surrounded by a fog-obscured marsh. That may be over-dramatising the case in point, but fens and marshes have traditionally been the haunt of the hidden, the nameless, the criminal. In Great Expectations Abel Magwitch appears from the ‘Dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard,’ the ‘distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing.’ Hinterland, that oft-over-used word from the German meaning ‘behind land,’ is a word that suits perfectly the fens and marshes that separate land and sea. These are the edges: the edges of society, of the habitable. But the fear of a nameless, ageless terror from the fen is older than Dickens.
The single existing manuscript of Beowulf was penned around the tenth century, passed down verbally for the preceding five or six hundred years. In Shamus Heany’s wonderful translation it is an epic, alliterative story of good and evil, light and dark, honesty and cowardice. What must it have been like gathered round the flickering firelight, as the storyteller recounted the horrors of the hall of Hrothgar? Of Grendel’s approach ‘off the moors, down through the mist-bands…greedily loping,’ of how he ‘grabbed and mauled a man… bit into his bone-lappings, bolted down his blood and gorged on him in lumps.’ Later, after Beowulf has fought the monster and ripped off his arm as a trophy, the ‘monstrous hell-bride,’ that is Grendel’s mother comes for revenge, and after seizing back her son’s arm she heads ‘for the fen.’
This is a landscape of contrasts; not the spectacular geological contrasts of mountains, or the jagged traverse from land to sea the Jurassic Coast provides, but still a landscape of characterful contrasts. One that affects you slowly but surely, like a stored whiskey steeps the oak of a barrel. The trapezoid permanence of the sea wall is as final a demarcation line between man’s domain and nature’s as the Berlin wall was to the East and West of the city. To my right is straight lines, obtuse angles, the fastness of man; to my left the salt marsh with its sinuous sweeps, and the wilful, infinite, randomness of nature. This may be a landscape which sees few people, especially in the bleak heart of Winter as now, and it may in places — particularly the salt marsh and the Wash — be what could be called wild, but the Fens themselves are probably the most managed landscape we have. It was the Anglian ice sheet, several hundred metres thick, which was originally responsible for flattening the soft, sedimentary rocks here, not man. What we have done however, is claim land from nature. One of the watch-words of ecology in recent years has been re-wilding: the process of allowing formerly managed areas to lapse back to their natural state. Land claiming here in the Fens is the exact opposite, it is taming and un-wilding. Since the Saxons, approximately a hundred-thousand hectares have been tamed for agriculture. It seems as well as encroaching on existing land for development schemes and the like, we have actually had to create new land from wild stock; hybridising salt marsh with dry land to create the rich agricultural mural that is the Fens as we know them today. The Fens themselves are genetically modified farmland.
The Wash is a place of beauty and raw nature; where crepuscular light woven from great, towering cloudscapes shines on shallow seas and sand banks; where flocks of innumerable waders cloud the sky, where peregrines stoop, and the haunting call of the pinkfooted geese echoes. The Wash National Nature Reserve is the largest Site of Special Scientific Interest in England. It is designated a Special Area of Conservation, and holds the highest international conservation status under the Ramsar Treaty for wetlands. Habitat includes intertidal mud and sand flats, ten-per-cent of the total UK salt marsh, coastal lagoons, reefs and shingle structures. It contains the largest peak number of birds of any estuarine system in Great Britain; four fifths of the English common seal population breed here; it is a nursery to juvenile fish of many species.
Half a mile or so inland from me a tractor is re-straightening lines, authenticating our occupancy of the land. A raptor rises over the sea wall some way ahead. At first I think marsh harrier, but through the binoculars I spot the tell-tale white rump of a female hen harrier. These rare birds nest in upland moorland, but in the Winter they head to coastal habitat such as this to take advantage of the swelling numbers of migrant birds. I’ve seen females in several locations in Norfolk, but when a male rises up over the sea wall in the female’s wake I’m thrilled. It is another contrast to add to this landscape. The grey plumage and black-flared wing-tips of the male is not the drab grey of the overhead cloud, but a luminous grey, a grey that lights up the landscape, and sharpens it to a point of immediacy before me. Landscape alone is enough, but it is our observations and our participation with landscape, whether physical or emotional, which validate it further, give it its purpose and credibility.
As I walk on towards the river Great Ouse and the town of King’s Lynn I notice some of the larger creeks in the salt marsh are bridged by the odd plank, and there is a line of white-topped posts I presume show a safe path for the wildfowlers that have hunted here, in one way or another, for many hundreds, and probably thousands of years. Some of the villages that fringe the marshes have age-old rights of wildfowling, and some of the wildfowlers I know would as soon give up their lives as their right to shoot the odd brace of duck or goose. It is not the driven pheasant shooting of inland with bags of two, three or four hundred birds a day. Often, after crouching in a creek for hours in the chill of a Fenland dawn, a wildfowler will head home without even having fired a shot, and every bird that is shot will feed family or friends.
The sea wall begins its sharpest turn since I left the mouth of the Nene as King’s Lynn hoves into view on the far bank of the river Great Ouse. There has been a ferry running between West Lynn and King’s Lynn since 1285, and it is this rarely seen face that the town shows the river which is by far its most attractive. The days when Lynn was a member of the Hanseatic League, with international trading links stretching thousands of miles, making the port one of the most important in the country, are long gone, though the docks and the surrounding medieval architecture still reflect it.
From the Nene to the Ouse — the length of the Peter Scott walk — I have been surrounded by wildness on the one hand and civilisation on the other, and I have walked the actual dividing line between the two. A wildness exists here on the fringes of cultivation; a wildness that is cut in two by our hybridisation of two habitats. Though the sea wall separates them, the Fens and the Wash are intertwined like multiple strands of DNA, and related by water, by land, by memory, by tradition, by people, by history. It is a landscape under attack on two fronts: from the North comes the wind, the waves, and the creeping sedimentation they and the tides bring, while from the South the constant pangs of an agricultural industry hungry for more land. It is this final contrast between nature and man which focuses this landscape for me as I step aboard the ferry to King’s Lynn.