Bantham, Collage, Concrete roads, Dereliction, Dormitory towns, Fishing, Genova, Indian Ocean, La Lanterna, La Manche, Lockdown, Metaphysics, Mills, Oceans, Otherness, Pandemic, Parraggi, Physics, Portofino, Railway Crossings, Scrap yards, Sea, South Coast, Spirtuality, The East Sussex Downs, Thurlestone, Tribes, White Cliffs
A point of crossing has seduced me. Slowly. Irrevocably. Immutably. Emphatically. No immediate and violent passion. It didn’t seize me. I wasn’t fired by it. No turbulent thoughts and painful feelings of loss suffered by its absence or my distance from it.
This point of transition, of crossing, didn’t press itself on me in a gaudy show of beauty, high-mindedness, primitive baseness or dramatic wonder – no, this transition allowed me to alight upon it. In my own time. In my own way. It waited for me. No ta-da. No trumpets, no fanfare. No hashtag or meme flurry.
This was subtle. Nuanced. A sense of an elegant coercion within it. And I realise now that within that elegance lies the transcendent part of it – barely discernible, vaporous, ephemeral – but very much there.
This makes sense to me. I would venture that transitions are seldom sudden or violent things. Of course we can cite transitions of power – sudden brutal exchanges and bloody un-seatings – where a collective or individual change from one state into another, whether desired or not. The board room putsch; the post-pub brawl. There are many transitions where a violent suddenness is part of the fabric of the transition, an essential element or particularity if you will. But this was not one.
The richness in my crossing revealed itself over time. Only after repeatedly traversing from one point in space to the other did the deeper, more spiritual sense of the crossing become apparent.
Each time. Each traversal. Knitting the contextual fabric around it, securing it. A small fractal moment, repeated over and over. Knit one, pearl one. The repeated act becoming an integral part of the fabric of the experience, not just the act of moving towards and away from a particular point.
As the emotional density and gravity of the point of transition increase with each undertaking, the act becomes an Act. The act of transitioning from one side to the other is rendered into an experience unto itself.
Where the Act of Crossing now stands, a simple set of actions stood. A set of actions with the sole purpose of traversing space in time towards a desired goal, objective, state or destination. In this instance, cold water swimming, the sea-bound kind, was the simple, practical thing I am repeatedly moving myself towards.
There were clues I suppose, to the profundity beneath the function. Clues to the deeper transitional nature of this ostensibly practical routine.
When I look back, the idea of my revelation is in itself unoriginal – merely the echo of someone else’s. But then I wonder if that matters; and I come to the conclusion, self interestedly that it doesn’t. Echoes and reverberations through time space and people are fundamental to how we have evolved as creatures. So balls to it.
This transcendental tale began as I would contest all do, knee-deep in human banality.
In conversation with an old friend of mine, I was despairing a little. My infinite positivity and usually rather annoying glass-half-full-of-itself-ness was stuttering and stalling. The Pandemic had devastated my modus. And utterly floored me.
“And how. But it’s ok. You see, I walk. I walk religiously every morning. Well. I march to be fair. Marching. Yomping. Sturdy stomping. Up Down and down Down. Until the ferment in my head calms a little, and the noisiness of my mind decreases.”
Which I did. From Lockdown’s beginning. When my need to commute up to London, sometimes 3-4 days a week, simply stopped. I walked fiercely; fervently, feverishly. Two hours. Sometimes three. On the Downs, lost in my thoughts. Sometimes with the wind against me, sometimes with the mist lying over the plain beneath, like the dragon’s breath of Arthurian legend. But always with nature’s dignity all about me, punctuated by Tick Warning signs, curious sheep and the odd passing hallo.
Yes, there was a sense of lifting, of elevation in these walks, climbing the scarped upsides of ‘pick a Down. any Down’. A sense of elevated connection. But even in the midst of all this beauty and nature’s wonder, there was something missing. The nature of Nature wasn’t quite immersive enough for me – at a base, primal level.
I needed something else. My soul was greedy for nature of a more dynamic, turbulent, flowing kind. Something in me seemed to reach back into the core of my creature self, stirring up an old and primary connection.
I’d love to claim that, at this moment of revelation, a higher lyrical sensibility consumed me; a poetic reverie from an ancient memory – but not so. [Though I would claim that the power of the cosmos resides in even the smallest and most banal of moments. In this case, old family photos.]
In the process of clearing out a cupboard I find an old shoe-box full of photos [yes, really: like a bad film script cliché]. Amongst the photos, there it is – a slightly yellowing photo of me, as a child, in a rather dainty tea-potting stance, in red swimmers, on the beach in Genova.
The moment I see the photograph, I am catapulted backwards [or forwards, or sideways; whichever direction the space time continuum and human episodic memory sends us in]. I can hear the sound of the beach. Smell the warm air about me – and the tang of the sea only a few feet from me. The aromas of the beach restaurant at Capo Marina float past me. Sound becomes sharp, clear. I hear my uncle’s name rattle across the beach intercom:
Telefono. Cleo Paravagna. Telefono.
The sea sound accompanied by the noisy bustle of humanity at the water’s edge. The rattling sticks and handles of the table football players near the bar. The splashes in the small, circular salt-water swimming pool where I probably learned my first swimming strokes. Every memory, living and true, plays out under the watchful eye of the Hotel Villa Park’s pagoda’d roof. I see the formidable silhouettes of the big ships in the distance as they leave the port, passing beneath the sundial shadow of La Laterna, as my brother and I try to guess where in the world these exotic, hulking ships are bound. But above all else, the photograph reminds me of the sheer joy I always feel and have felt in the sea.
Ever since I can remember, the act of rolling in the spume and briney embrace of her, bouncing through her waves, submerging into her ‘inky depths’ [I am one of Cousteau’s children], twisting and turning through her eddies and bobbing on her tides exhilarates me far beyond the physical.
Looking at the picture, it all seems so obvious. I realise what I need to do. To break the Lockdown blues. I need water. I need to swim. At the deepest yearning middle of me. I want to swim. I need the cold-water clarity of St Cuthbert. I need sky and the sea beneath it to un-clutter my panicking mind.
I need the sea to pour into the void left by the utter collapse of everything I understood to be my professional life and direction of travel.
When I announce my need, my friend gives me a deeply practical response. He tells me of a beach where he swims, to help him recuperate from a rather bad bike accident. He explains where the beach is and how long it takes to get there. He describes the beach very simply. Wide. Deep. Crescented. Pebbled [or stony if you are feeling ‘flinty.’] But a short walk, some two minutes, from a small car park
He uses some words that give it a more emotional context. Unexpected. Calming. Regenerating. But only lightly and only in passing. There’s no lyrical reverie in him. No momentary loss for words. The emotional weight of the place doesn’t create a trough in our conversation.
He describes the functional nature of how I get to said beach. Sat Nav. Parking, he suggests, is either to be had at the larger on-road car park. Or alternately, if I’m feeling forthright, pushy, or lazy, there is a smaller strip of parking on the left hand side up near the railway crossing. This is reached by driving up the aforementioned concrete access road lined with shrubs and bushes.
“At the end of that concrete road” he says, “you’ll find the railway crossing. Cross over the railway tracks, Walk the path. Bob’s your uncle. The sea.”
Crossing railway tracks!
This news thrills me. I’ve always loved crossing railway racks, or tram tracks, or any kind of track. I love the sound car tyres make as they cross them, the deep-set drum flourish and squeaking rubber purchase as the air filled tubes strike the rails. [This is an ancient love in me, rustled up from years of driving across the Continent where rail crossings seemed so much more plentiful and open.]
This brief rhythmic communion with the deeply carved infrastructure of our world has always enamoured me for some reason – these great lengths of steel or iron set into the rock concrete, tarmac and earth of us. Travelling infinitely, into the distance, in either direction.
Their weight excites me. And the opportunity cast into the form of them. In both directions something, everything lies – another story, another place – something other than where you are in the Now of your crossing.
The rails’ connection to all those other intersections of humanity, of teeming lives and industry, past, present and future. The connection. The materials and humanity they carry along their lengths. As I contemplate this an insane picture rises up in my head, of places, lands and people tumbling through occasions and moments and happenings both within and beyond my immediate existence, all interwoven and stitched together with rails – rails everywhere, like some insane theme-park ride, all surging upwards like a dramatic curlicued and brilliantly-inked spread of pages in a pop-up book.
In this crossing lies something else though. Beyond the rush of child like reverie. Something with edges. Something of the creeping crime. In the crossing lies the possibility of Transgression. There is something of the outlaw about being in close proximity to railway lines – and of walking the rails. Mischievous, pioneering – like the young boys in Stand by Me walking towards their destinies, great, small and indifferent. Walking across railway tracks smacks of the Outlier – the intrepid hobo-vagrant, the missionary or the errant child. They are also fringed with darker stuff. The edges of railways lines are lined with the human debris of us, cast both from and in front of the trains. The stories of the dead lie in the shadows at the edges of the railway tracks. There is the chiaroscuro of us in them.
None of this falls from my friend’s lips of course. In his mind, the crossing is a purely functional descriptor – part of the process of getting me from despair to elation. In that he is purposefully precise. Correct. Useful.
In the first few days of my new swimming regime, I undertake the journey with the practical mindset of my friend’s instruction. I drive to the car park, either road side or the one closer still. I cross the railway lines. Gates clank behind me. I walk to the wide crescent pebbled beach – as a function of going cold-water swimming.
To begin with there is nothing in any aspect, element or ingredient of the journey to and from the water that is anything other than functional.
The drive through the countryside. The expanse of sky, clouded, low, wistful or otherwise is there as a matter of fact. Even the swimming itself is a gym-deprived exercise regime cloaked in a communing with the sea. Nothing more.
Even when my pedestrian eye for beautiful light makes me pause and capture aspects of the walk through the flinted shadows and echoes of the Mill, viewed over the wildflower and gorsey borders, the penny has not yet dropped in any substantial way. Something whispers to me in the back of my mind but I am otherwise occupied.
The feeling of crossing, the act of transition, physically, materially, temporally, spiritually, comes through in small glints and sparks. Much as the sun scatters splinters of light off the surface of the grey-green sea, the revelations came to me randomly at first, and then, as time goes on and the rhythm of my crossing becomes more regular, so too do the revelations of crossing, of transition, become more regular, more fixed.
The first realisation is through taste and smell. Unsurprisingly some might say. But there we are. I am a number of days into my regime. The morning journey to the water and the arrival at the beach is increasingly visually rewarding. But the visual allure has not popped properly yet. I am in the water, slow rolling tide waves moving me in an exotic manner far beyond my own physical abilities or grace.
As I move the moment occurs. It is the way the salt water feels and smells and tastes on me. As I tread water I am held in the glittering laser beam of morning sun streaming across the water towards me. The air shifts. Warms. The salty taste and smell of the sea water cracks into a memory. I am young. I sense the sea. The smell memory is overwhelming. Behind it comes a splinter of every warm-air, salt-water, sun-scratched memory – a rush. I feel my body change as an electric charge bolts through me momentarily. It is exhilarating.
And it comes to me.
I feel like a Russian doll. The shells of previous increasingly younger, other mes lining the inside of the other all the way back to the first time I would have been dipped in the sea and anointed with her salty divinity.
My recollections – of the nature of the sea, my immersion in it, and of the scattering of sun across it, its interplay between the clouds and sky above it, and the rocks and sand beneath are informed by something other than by the wells of sentimental data stored in various corners of my mind.
I do not trust my own memory to have such depth and expanse. Even though many papers and articles and studies point to the incredible faculty of our episodic memory and what it is capable of retaining.
I am certain that my earliest technicolour memory of sea water, is largely informed by the kodachromatic photographs of my childhood – those snapshots of existence – which I have then subsequently codified into ‘memory.’
It must be photographs. Of me as a baby in my father’s arms as he stands at the edge of the beach, rolling sea water glinting beneath his feet and into the distance. Various tableaux interleaved with each other in various shoe boxes. Of the beach at Capo Marina. Various people, in their youth, bright floral 60s bikinis and swim suits, about me as a baby, as a child. And the sea always there, nearby. The glinting sea below at Portofino. The sandy Paraggii beach with the crescent road. Cornish waters with the grey stone hotel standing on the cliffs above them. The beach at Weston SuperMare with Renee, my brother’s and my long-time babysitter and sometime nanny. Every one of these images, singed and tinged with sensorial data and emotional memory, flood into the space in my head and heart triggered by the salt edges in my nose and my mouth, and across my skin.
Finishing my swim, I feel quite electric. Time to return to ‘reality.’ I hear myself say. Hmmn. ‘Reality.’ This shift seems to be pervasive. From my physical and mental sense of it out into my phrasing. I am seeding the language I use about this place with otherness.
I traverse the crossing. Gates clank. I return to my car. Something has shifted. Small tectonic plates within me and about me have moved, ever-so slightly. The sea and the beach have taken on a different role for me, suddenly stitched into my myth. A sense of otherness has developed for me here. The utilitarian nature of traversing the railway line has transformed into something richer, deeper.
The small concrete road up to the railway line. The railway line itself and the gates at the crossing either side of it. The borders of the derelict Mill strewn with thick gorse, hawthorn and blackthorn and wildflowers. This coming to the sea feels as if it has multiplied in depth by multiple lifetimes.
I feel the relativism of it, the connection of myself in relation to the now derelict and deserted mill buildings, and those that lived and died here. It feels overwhelming. And beautiful.
These moments, experiences or happenings have now become regular, each quietly overwhelming or increasingly profound in different ways. I realise that I can perch at the edge of the water here and, in turns, all time becomes Now. Salt on my skin, and the sea air in my nose. The horizon fizzes – starts to feel particular. The clouds become timeless; become the same clouds I have looked at since arriving in this world – rolling, turning, folding, dissipating, building, streaking, patterning themselves. One day – subtle shifting formica patterns. The next; a chevroned pattern shuttering above me as if a celestial tractor tyre has imprinted its tread across the sky.
All time is Now.
I turn my head slightly to the left and the soft wind blows over Thurlestone beach against my 13 year old face, as I watch the edge of the sea hit the sky, the voice of my mother calling me to lunch from across the paddock field behind me. I turn my head slightly to the right as the motor boat pulls the skier in the distance, and I am simultaneously on the prow of the boat post-ski in Ibiza, saltiness baking into me, and my tubes still filled brimming with the salt water my face smashed into when the cosmos, tiring of my showing off and conceit, decided to trip me in a defining act of enforced and inelegant humility .
The salt tang and breeze about me creates a constant re-cloaking in shards of my life and other deeper ones I cannot fathom. The churning water off at the mouth of the Hanalei river. The blistering light over Bantham beach. The Indian Ocean’s tealy iridescence after a storm. The frothing topped Tasmanian Sea on a spring evening. The salted sandiness of Paradise Cove and the municipal beach at Huntingdon. A freezing monkish baptism in the North Sea in a Northumbrian spring, playing out across an endless expanse of sand beneath the warm sun-struck sandstone of Bamburgh Castle on its promontory.
Every immersion in every corner of the staggering entity that is earth’s singular ocean has informed and shaped me someway somehow.
Not only am I child of Cousteau and his expeditionary wonders aboard the Calypso but also of Attenborough and his natural world and the blue expanses of it. And of the wonder of my beautifully tooled pop-up book, of Jules Verne’s 20,000 leagues Under The Sea, which I immersed myself in as a child. The film of the same name with the majestic James Mason as the wise, capricious and flawed Nemo. Moby Dick. Call me Ishmael. Again, translated into a formidable 1956 epic of the same name, its salted obsession and creature madness fuelled by Gregory Peck’s masterclass Ahab. A mind filled with the puppeteering wizardry of Troy Tempest, Marina and Stingray. Marine Boy with his oxy-gum and twanging psychedelic theme tune. The deep memory imprinting of the magnetic boouuuu boouuuuu boouuuuu of the sonar emanating from the ray-nosed submarine in Voyage To The Bottom of The Sea, the immutable Richard Baseheart’s stern, troubled expression reflected in the blue void of its deck viewing glass. The pop cultural plotting points of my sea-bound psyche pour in from all quarters.
A sense of the seas’ natural wonder and fantastical nature has been instilled in me from a very young age. But there are things of the sea that vibrate through me that reach far beyond the warm ebbing and flowing of Attenborough narratives, seminal sea books and the pop cultural referencing of my young TV life.
The sea runs through me, spiritually, physically, temporally and genetically. I have Genoese blood, which should be sea-faring enough for my purposes. But in doing research for a book a few years ago, I discovered the simple scientific truths that mark our connection to the seas. The similarity between the salt levels and ions in our cells and in our blood plasma and those in sea water are seen as evidence of our evolution from and connection to the oceans. Human fat density, make up and ratios are very similar to those of cretaceous mammals and a world away from our ape cousins. We also potentially share the necessary crypto-chromes for magneto reception and navigation, though it is felt that we civilised ours out of our everyday lives long ago.
I find these facts and theories astonishing yet unsurprising. They add colour and depth to a deepening sense of wonderment in every journey to and from the beach,
But the taste smell and rub of the sea is just part of this. There are aspects of the beach and sea beyond the crossing that, for me at least, add to the transitional, the transformative and ultimately transcendent nature of it.
The beach sits, in a somewhat surreal manner, between two very distinct and very British things.
Looking from sea to land, to the left lies a small working port – where fishing boats and ferries crisis-cross out of the estuary and harbour mouth into La Manche. From the beach and in the shallows, before the sound of the water envelops you, it is possible to hear the wheezing, clanking industry of it all: the clattering release of anchor chains, ships horns, clattering endeavour, the scrap-yard claw wrenching and grinding clutches of metal wrecks and rubbish from one corner of the yard to the containers and crushers in the other. Humming cranes. Distant engines. At its edges, rows of housing braid the hills, off-set with anomalous ‘beachside’ apartment developments. A small drilling rig, out of commission, sits hunkered down on its legs, an old sea fort set into the cliffs above it.
Looking to the right, just before the white cliffs climb up and into view, lies what can only be described as a most quintessential sea-side town. Part resort, part dormitory, with a mixture of architectural styles one only ever finds in British sea-side towns. This place feels both timeless and lost in it. Sea-side towns in this country have a remarkable melancholy about them. Even when bathed in sunshine and light, the memory of that melancholy, and the inevitability if its return pervade its being. Sea-side towns wear the tenure of sometimes brutal and unforgiving human existence where the land meets the sea. These towns and the settlements that lie beneath them are riddled with the fragile truths of human endeavour and the indifference of nature and her oceans to the passing of our time here.
To one side Brutal utility and to the other an elegant melancholy. And between the two sits the beach. The crescent pebbled beach. And while swimming something struck me.
The beach sits like an unfinished piece of collage. To the left and right of it pictures and fabrics and textures have been applied, richly, clumsily, workman-like, with gentle artistry or brutal utility. All about it has been ‘coloured’ – with the sea beneath it and the sky above it. The derelict Mill and settlement behind it is defining – a solid something. Even the lighthouse has a charming simplicity – the kind of lighthouse a child would draw at the edge of their seaside picture.
But the beach itself?
A magical oversight. Exquisitely unfinished. As if the collage maker was suddenly called away, just for a moment, distracted. But the moment passed into months and years and then decades. And became a lifetime. Leaving the beach as a simple a fabric, a speckled flax of stones and rocks. The raw material of something.
Perhaps it is the nature of the beach as a work-in-progress that invests the experience of transition – of crossing – towards it into something seemingly metaphysical – capable of weaving and stitching its own folklore and gentle piety while time suspends itself, hung either side of the beach in purposeful waiting. Perhaps it is this otherness of the beach’s nature that gives a Narnia-like quality to the crossing.
Otherness is a theme here. The land and sea scape fizzes with it. Each time you move through it, it is different yet the same. In a certain light at a certain time, derelict mill buildings in East Sussex suddenly resemble the derelict farm buildings at the edges of airport runways in the southern-most latin countries. Landing strips at the edges of cities, carved into the rural surround. Vestigial echoes of lives once hewn from a land now veneered with the petrol physics of aviation, global travel and the need for our metal birds to alight somewhere. The light, momentarily crisp and blued air can turn in an instant – and a warm African reddishness run through it and across the foliage and flint. Or, as the blue deepens above it, the whiff of a New Mexico morning alights upon it.
Otherness marks this place. Otherness makes a beach you reach across a railway crossing, slung between two very different types of seaside town, tucked along a B-road on the south-east coast of England an extra-ordinary place.
Perhaps this is why it appeals so deeply to me. Because it plays to the sense of other in me. Something I’ve always felt. A sense of not quite belonging where I am, or to who I am or what I am.
Nothing dreadful. Quite the opposite. Something I’ve celebrated. Almost to the point of an arrogance. A quiet sense. Small. Momentary. Passing. infinitesimal sometimes. A twist in the lens of life. As if the picture is slightly skewed; askance, something different about it. The spectre of some hand at work. Perhaps that sense of not quite, of difference comes from within. A simple rather mundane irregularity in the fabric of me. Or perhaps it comes from growing up in a very provincial English village with a mother who is ‘foreign’ and a father who is ‘racy.‘ Perhaps it’s the reverberation of my parents dreadful schism, separation and deeply upsetting divorce, when the lives of all those about me seemed to simply roll on, secure in their banalities and routines, while mine seemed to inexorably stumble and crumble into some slip-shifting divided life, ferrying between two homes and selves. Perhaps this is from where my sense of sympathy and syncopation with spaces of transition comes. This relentless crossing between selves.
Perhaps that is what I do here. I use the crossing and the beach as a way of relentlessly reliving and, in doing so, reiterating my sense of other – recharging it, replenishing it, reinvigorating it.
My morning swim is a way of communing with that otherness. My own and that of the merfolk that inhabit the beach most mornings. Each of us, either individually, paired or in clusters and bunches, each of us with life happening to us, for us or against us in some way or other, gather up on the beach, a mercurial event, under the infinite possibility of nature. It is a celebration of otherness, each marching to the beat of a highly individual drum, yet, we gather.
A lost tribe of Other. Finding itself on a beach, in East Sussex.
But therein lies a different more expansive story, far greater than this small essay on the seductive qualities of a crossing near a beach.