Top Shed residency blog 5 (Tuesday)

Today I went to Blakeney Point, on the north Norfolk coast. Blakeney point is a shingle spit several miles long extending into the sea, but parallel with the land. Between the point and the land is the river Glaven. The site includes salt marshes, sand dunes and sandy beaches, as well as the shingle. It is known as a breeding site for seals and terns. I walked up the spit from Cley beach, at the point where the spit breaks away from the land.

I end up wondering why places like this appeal so much. Places that are austere and stripped back. It’s like a kind of obsession, that probably says something about us. Part of the draw is the wildlife – grey and common seals frolicking a few metres off the shore; sandwich terns dive bombing for fish – but part of it is also a fascination with death, like the fascination we feel when we encounter a human skeleton in a museum. It is us, but at the same time radically not us. Bones are hard and cold, we are soft and warm. Bones speak of absence; of flesh and life. Hard landscapes are the same. They are natural, like us, and sustain life. On the other hand, you face something elemental that has nothing to do with human life. The forces that sifted and piled up millions of tons of shingle and that made a series of beautifully sculpted hollows and channels in the sand (caused by receding tide water) are not human forces. Shingle spits, like deserts, do not readily support human life. All comfort is stripped away in a place like this. What frightens us in small doses is enjoyable. To be stuck in a landscape like this which stretched away ad infinitum would be horrifying – would be death. Billions of stones, smooth and hard as carpal bones, all of them sculpted by inhuman forces, are horrifying. Luckily the car park is only a couple of miles trudge away.

It began to rain horizontally from the west as I made my way up the spit. It’s hard work walking on the shingle, so you have to walk right beside the surf, as close as you can without getting your feet wet, where there is some sand which is wet and firm enough to walk on. (There are also patches of really fine shingle, like potting grit. When this is wet it seems like you sink into it even more. So walking on the spit means a constant adjustment higher or lower up the slope in order to find the firmest ground and avoid incoming waves). Out to sea, two enormous wind farms are visible. Turbines stand in grid formation and turn in unison, like some sort of mad mass gymnastics exercise, such as those filmed by Leni Riefenstahl for the National Socialists in Germany. Sometimes the sun catches one farm but the other is in the cloud shadow, so you get a kind of strange dualism: white turbines versus grey ones. Behind them, rain showers trundle across the horizon like pieces of massive, unwieldy stage scenery. Curtains of rain like baleen. Before them the sky above the horizon is inky green; behind them everything is smudged into a grey oblivion.

When the rain shower was overhead I had the feeling of walking underneath a vast motorway flyover. A roaring sound, which turned out to be the wind in my raincoat hood, echoed like the hollow muffled noise of traffic you get under motorway bridges. A band of dark cloud arched above me and the shingle sank into the dead greyness of concrete. My shorts were soaked on the front, but more or less dry behind, like the way tree trunks get moss on one side only. The raindrops stung like small rods of ice. A family of four who were walking ahead of me turned back, presumably disturbed that their clothes were only wet on one side and desiring to get their backsides wet as well. Distance plays tricks with you in places like this. Once the family had gone, I kept thinking the thistles growing at the edge of the dunes were people. Looking back, it seemed I had walked no distance at all. (Later on in the day, I’m pretty sure I saw a middle aged lady in the nud, getting changed without bothering to wrap herself in a towel and relying on sheer distance to hide her. I was forced to pee likewise with no cover and hope that nobody could tell what I was doing because of the distance, so I can’t criticise. It is impossible to know what people far away can see: things seem either closer or further away than they really are).

At the end of the headland the shingle gives way to sand. Fewer people make it to the far end, so I was granted a brief period of that solitude you get on remote Hebridean beaches. Flocks of terns were engaged in a noisy feeding frenzy just beside a sand bar which extended from the beach. Sandwich terns in late summer lose the front part of their black caps, making them look like they are wearing some sort of weird tonsure, like they are all in some cult, or organised crime gang. I gave a baby seal a wide berth. I cut inland into the centre of the headland. A surreal hobbit landscape of grassy dunes and small wooden research huts. Purple carpets of sea rock-lavender. By now, the late afternoon sun was out, bathing everything in its uncanny light. Someone had collected dozens of washed up and abandoned shoes, of all kinds and in all states of decay, and arranged them on a couple of pallets in one of the dune hollows. A surprising number of them were in pairs. Even before I came across this sight, with its eerie resonances, I started to feel a sinister side to the place. Perhaps my failed attempt to reach Orford Ness, with its abandoned military installations, was influencing me. The flat bottomed hollows in the dunes would be excellent places to hide out, or hide something. The sandy, desert-like landscape reminded me of the Jordan valley just north of the Dead Sea. Perhaps the rough hardcore road leads to some secret military site. Better watch your step for mines.

Surreal places require surreal plants. You can’t get much more peculiar than yellow horned poppy, with its oversized finger-like seed pods. Various fleshy-leaved or prickly plants I don’t know how to identify. Sea holly is from another planet.

Walking back down the spit, I was able to take my shoes off and paddle, because the tide was further out and revealed more of the sand. I gradually descended back into the world of the living.