When I visit the coast it is almost always in the winter. I love the empty loneliness of the beach then, the way it feels as though you have miles of linear space that is just your own. It is the wildness that is most inspiring though; the white and silver flashes of gull or waders, the hungry wind that drives waves up and inland to scrunch the shingle. I remember trips as a child, eager, racing my shadow to be the first to reach the water. Wet sand shining. Shellfish stuck fast to the groynes, seaweed limp and leathery.
We had a large hardback book on British natural history, between the pages of which we used to sandwich flowers to press. They’d emerge months later when we remembered to recover them, papery effigies of their former selves. Tucked inside the back cover of the same book were postcards, and a photograph of a beach, taken in sepia and hand-developed. There were no landmarks to identify the location, an anonymous capture of shades of brown and cream and sunlight rolling onto sand.
Littlehampton West Beach (West Sussex) was a favourite to visit as a family. A fish and chip kiosk occupied the car park, and starlings perched on the railings watching and being watched by, fishermen and onlookers that cast their gazes over into the fast deep waters of the river mouth. Wildlife and freedom on this side, the fairground entertainments across the waters. Sometimes boats would pass from the marina, some would smile wave, others chugged morosely in time with the tide. In summer, lizards would bask on the sun-warmed planks of the boardwalk, skittering away at the thud of rushing children’s feet on this race track through the dunes. In winter the sand-hued grasses would bend double in the wind.
I believe they still do.
In truth, I rarely visit the coast now, distracted by the pleasures and delights of the woods and fields and heaths. But it was thoughts of these childhood trips to Littlehampton, and to other visits to other coastlines (Windy reaches of pungent, oozing salt marsh. Golden sands of the Scillies peppered with coloured sea-glass. Brighton’s high-tide shingle overshadowed by the winter-closed pier.) that inspired my poem ‘Coast’.
I have no words for the coast.
My natural habitat is heaths and field edges and Wealden woods.
Not this open wide-skied place with vast air currents and so much light.
And yet I come, a stranger to the shore, but rushing, craning up over
the dune heads to catch that first glimpse of wave-light.
As though to check the sea’s still there.
I come to feel small.
The open beach has a way of re-proportioning the world
against the scale of rippled sand and rippled cloud.
I do not know the names of things here,
the language does not speak to me.
The wind knows this.
It keeps me at arms length, drowning out the secrets of this place
with its jabberwocky roaring in my ears.
There are birds here; they are part of this place.
Like the salt that coats my tongue.
The wind plays with them.
The boundless beach, expansive air;
it forces me to squint, to block out colour till there is just light,
light and shimmer.
A sepia photograph tucked in the back of a large book.
A tumble-rounded shard of sea-glass anchors the landscape.
It seems to draw in everything; light, form,
all pulled from sky and sand and wave, condensed into solid particle.
Pressed against my lips it tastes of smooth-hardness of salt.
Back home it sits in a jamjar on the shelf by my desk,
fracturing light and reflecting distant cries of gulls and wind.
A reminder to return, to come back to this strange shifting land.
Just to check the sea’s still there.