Author Sarah Hall recounts her longing for the sea...
As a Lake District child I grew up surrounded by mountains, moorland and rivers. The landscape was dramatic, hulking and earthy. I loved it. The sea though the region's western border is water seemed far off. Sea was a very different element, and certainly a different prospect. This notion of otherness was reinforced by the summer holidays we took in Deal, where my mum's cousins lived. Cumbria to Kent in an old Austin Maxi was something of an English odyssey. Hot, arduous hours were spent with my brother and I doing battle on the sticky back seat while my parents navigated the roadways, north to south, petrol and service stations, diversions and the occasional counter-intuitive town centre.
In the end, like the spoils of war, or a survival trophy, the sea was our reward - its final lustrous appearance, its tonic fragrance, crashing breakers and pushed-at horizon, its inherent sea-ness. Most of the beaches we visited were pebble and boulder. The sound of waves ringing over shingle still features in my dreams, and hard lumps under a beach towel remains an unproblematic feature for me. Sand, sand's supple gloriousness and radiance, came later in life. So enamored did I become with the sea that both universities I attended were coastal Aberystwyth in Wales and St Andrews in Scotland. In some ways, though it was closer, and in the case of Cardigan Bay it was literally outside my window, I appreciated the sea less. I suppose because it was normalized, a given, somehow un-won.
"Why do we go to the sea? For salve or salvation of the self? Because it feels like an ancestral home?"
Then for several years I lived in North Carolina - deeply and dryly inland. Though broad in landmass, North Carolina is a subtropical State with the most breathtaking stretch of ocean frontage, and a delicate 200 mile-long stretch of barrier islands and spits - the Outer Banks. This is where the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk. There are runways of white celestial sand. Wooden houses on stilts. Black and white lighthouses. Pelicans and wild mustang horses. There are blue-green, almost muscular swells. Each drive to the Atlantic shore took me almost a day, this time in an old croaky Nissan truck that stalled at every other traffic light: another epic, water-sought journey. I still have Outer Banks dreams too. Flying across those long, low bridges over Currituck Sound. Vertiginously steep, spilling waves. Dry lightning storms over the water. Sunrise, where the ocean gives birth to fire.
Now I live in Norfolk - English Norfolk rather than American Norfolk - in Norwich. The county has some of the best beaches in Britain. In fact, if it were a clock's dial half the numbers would be wet. North is Holkham, with its ample sands and mud-channels, grassy dunes, pinewoods, and marshlands. Down and round is Wells-next-the-Sea, sporting rows of expensive colourful huts, and Cromer, famous for crabs and a still vibrant pier life. Then, Waxham and Horsey, where seals congregate and bask looking like giant beach stones. Towards the Suffolk border is Great Yarmouth, with its thriving fun park, donkeys, rigs and offshore wind power, gateway to the Broads and the North Sea. The county has no motorways, so trips to the coast are slow, sometimes effortful. This sounds familiar by now. I confess, I like it that way, or maybe I'm just programmed. We are repeaters of our childhood experiences, aren't we?
My favourite destination is Winterton-on-Sea, a name not immediately inspiring as clement place names go. More temptingly you have to pass through Somerton East and West, and quite close to California. It is twenty-three miles from Norwich, but feels much further, especially when caught behind farm vehicles, boat trailers and caravans. But the drive is beautiful, past mellow black and auburn fields, wheat, beet, duck-ponded villages and reedy broads, tall church towers and old windmills.
It would be fair to say that I have come to love the North Sea. Come to love it, after trying quite hard to. Compared to, say, the Adriatic or the Tasman, it's not an instantly striking or memorable body of water: pigeon grey rather than sparklingly jeweled, agricultural-looking rather than fresh, and moderately corrugated unless something big and bad comes out of Humber or German Bight. The seam between sky and brine is frequently indistinguishable, a sort of unglazed slip. The North Sea does not rouse the soul with Pacific power and splendor, though plenty of poems and songs have been penned in its honour, and like any sea it is soupy with history, industry and human story. The terrain, being somewhat flat, doesn't present you with a stunning altitudinous view on the journey. There are no awe-struck epiphanic moments, more debatable glimpses, strokes of what could be water between fields and folds. Even the stony track from Winterton village to the beach is sea-blind. It's a question of faith, accepting the passage and imagining the end, as all pilgrimages require.
There is a little ticket hut, manned or womanned by an attendant who always seems really quite glad that you have come. And a pound an hour for the car park has to be one of the best bargains in Britain. Stepping out of the car, cresting the dunes, you are immediately hit with that cool, elative, ionic, faintly Siberian breath of the water. Gentle wavelets. Shades of mushroom, sedge, shale and tan through the scenery. The density of air feels different, an aeration or effervescence, salt notes. I understand why in centuries past people believed the seaside would cure our very many ailments and complaints, why factory and foundry workers wanted their week's holiday, to clear chests and stave off their ruined health. If we must believe, irrationally, in anything that might save us, why not sea?
Winterton is a straight stretch of beach upon which you can walk a good way, with bright sands, so even if the water looks dull, or, let's say, opaque, it is goldenly framed, as a chalice might hold poteen. This beach is a favourite location for dog-walkers. Frequently I've seen a pair of wolfhounds stepping gigantically along, giving the place a mythical feel. The sea is, of course, its own myth, constant but adaptable. There always seem to be variations to the small sea-rivers running up onto the beach, mysterious black heads disappearing beneath the surface, mirage-like ships out at the edges, auguring, Easterly clouds. There are storm-gifts. Woods. Reefs of shells. Dead, creaturely things. Unknowable items that have been scoured and reconstituted. Immaculate plastics. Sitting, sheltering from the wind, or walking in its brunt or breeze, the shifting spirit-level of the horizon might be meditated upon, existential questions asked, temporary peace found, or at least a reprieve. Why do we go to the sea? For salve or salvation of the self? Because it feels like an ancestral home? Maybe just to cool down?
I do often swim, November and February included. Friends from the Mediterranean observe this ridiculous British masochism with horror and hilarity. And yes, the sensualist in me would prefer something warmer, teal-coloured and Lycian. But I very rarely can look at sea, of any description, without wanting to get in it and commune with it, and possibly surrender to it, as if hypnotized call it mountain girl madness.
Cold water swimming also makes me ravenous. Luckily, next to the car park is a black stone caf that sells pastries and sandwiches, teas, hearty-tasty fare. There are a few tables and chairs outside, but these are competitively sought in season. As are the public loos. I like the allsorts people, locals, day-trippers, children, and the fairly guaranteed aloneness in winter. In some ways Winterton might seem basic, unadorned, undeveloped. In other ways it is simply spare, it knows when not to go too far and what its main prize is. Beyond, lie other, more famous, and wilder beaches, populated by brigades of bird-watchers, rich Norfolkians, international tourists, proper holidaymakers. Winterton, though, seems like a citizens' beach, if that makes sense, its proportions and properties designed for us. It is not unremarkable, far from it. Immense beauty lies in the primer combination of sand/sea/sky. Hoofing across county, even just from Norwich, is always worthwhile. But it does remind me that the longing for sea and ocean, that human haunted-ness and call, that desire to seek vast bodies of water, to process, to journey and earn before baptism, might be an unremarkable condition. Winterton: for dreamers, travelers, and for all.
Words by Sarah Hall. Hall's latest short story collection, Madame Zero, is now available in paperback.
The imagery shown is from our Pre Collection shoot. The beaches featured are Whitstable Bay & Herne Bay in Kent.