Beaches are very much a matter of taste - and timing. Perilous for Government ministers in times of crisis, and for unwary walkers when the tide comes in too fast. A temporary home for sea anglers. Delightful in Connemara where breaking waves turn sea water into chilled champagne. And delightful, once you’ve avoided the sea-urchins, at the foot of the French Pyrenees where Matisse and the Fauvists came to paint.
The dazzling azure waters of the Mediterranean are seductive. Floating in the blue is a cheap, if partial, experience of weightlessness without being shot twenty miles into the air sitting on a fiery bomb. But in Summer you must dodge the ranks of human flesh cooking on sun-loungers to reach the sea. And then there are the jellyfish, water-skiers, speed boats, wind-surfers. Give me the ever changing grey, gritty waters of the North Sea off the East Anglia coast any day – or almost any day: sombre and Sebaldian or sparkling in the sun, crashing in on a strong easterly with spray turning to mist, or lapping gently and flat all the way to a sharp horizon, the shoreline temporarily domesticated by holidaymakers, children and dogs doing things you do on the beach. Dunwich with its choice of pebbles at high tide, emerging strips of sand at low, is a good place to begin acquiring a taste for the North Sea. No sun-loungers here.
Perhaps humanity evolved at the sea’s edge, experimented with being bipedal, taking advantage of the sea’s buoyancy. There does seem to be something hard-wired about beach behaviour. Family groups position themselves, in little camps, facing the sea at discreet distances from each other with their surrounding clutter: windbreaks, beach chairs, thermos flasks, backpacks. Small children – and parents - make sand-castles with intense concentration and seriousness, collect sea-water in buckets and dig out moats. But crossing that line between the beach and the sea is another matter: frantic retreats and compulsory screams at even the smallest wave whilst parents sit or lie or hurry to the rescue. The whole picture waiting for an Impressionist to capture its harmony and essential serenity.
Autumn, when swimmers have given up hope that the sea will get warm, is a surprisingly good time to start getting that taste for the North Sea. One or two fishing boats with huts for winding gear, a shed where retired fishermen can have tea early in the morning next to a fish-and-chip shop in a large free car-park, two dedicated benches sheltered from the wind. Even the occasional solitary seal, black dog’s head scanning the beach. Under the water the remains of the mediaeval town submerged by tidal changes, where a submarine could bump into a church tower. Inland it’s marshland, cows and skylarks. Turn through 360 degrees any season and it’s all beautiful.
By October, coach parties and school-trips have dwindled and sea anglers become the sole true occupants of the beach. There are plenty of brisk dog walkers and the occasional detectorists following the line of the cliffs, methodically sweeping the pebbles and sand like security officials dealing with a radioactive leak from nearby Sizewell, always one lucky day away from an Anglo-Saxon horde of gold, making do meanwhile with lost rings, silver groats and a skull or two from a mediaeval graveyard that is slipping into the sea as the cliffs crumble.
This is the time and place to talk with fishermen and to hear the lovely, but increasingly rare, gentle Suffolk accent, the beach a special place where you have permission to chat to strangers or simply be alone. And it is usually men fishing. They walk determinedly from the car park, laden with long black holders with their rods and tripods and one-man canvas shelters or big black umbrellas against the elements, plus modest provisions for many hours fishing. When they’ve chosen a spot quite high up the beach, there will soon be three lines taught against the current, running out to sea well above head-height, and similar little encampments dotted along the seashore. It is a timeless scene.
Talking to fishermen and watching them cast is another beach pleasure. With a ‘multiplier’ reel and correct handling of the rod, press the button on the spool and the lead weight with hook and bait flies an enormous distance through the air. The most skilled can accurately cast two hundred metres or more. A turning, high or low tide is generally thought to be a good time to land fish. A ‘bass sea’ is one that is rough. You catch flatfish, dabs, on calmer days. But these fishermen are not just Man as hunter and provider. Nor are they simply escapees from work and family. They are Man as contemplative - and when asked they agree. Those one-man shelters are temporary hermitages, the fishermen short-stay hermits gazing at the power of Nature. Sometimes two friends fish together but there’s not a lot of conversation. The sight and sound of the sea, its spiritual effect, is deeply calming.
There, contemplating the immensity of the ocean, with time measured in tides, and space by the shifting sea, the Dunwich angler experiences some of the wonder of creation, disturbed only by freeing a line that has just got snagged. And watching and talking with them on Dunwich beach you begin to understand why Jesus of Nazareth chose men fishing with nets on the vast lake, the Sea of Galilee, to be his companions.
See TheArticle 21/10/2021