Walking on water: the path to Hilbre Island

17 01 2014

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‘What do you call a path that is no path?’ (Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways, p. 61)

Hilbre Island, and its two sister islands Middle Eye and Little Eye, lies 2 miles off the Wirral mainland in the mouth of the estuary of the River Dee. One of 43 unbridged British tidal islands that can be reached on foot from the mainland, Hilbre is a place set apart, marooned by the tide for 4 hours in every 12, and, although inhabited for centuries, now lies abandoned, its former houses falling in disrepair. Unlike the infamous paths that cross Morecambe Bay or Foulness in Essex, the way to Hilbre is easy (and popular): one need only consult tide times and avoid the couple of hours either side of high tide. Yet, to walk the 2 miles from West Kirby to Hilbre is to enter another world, one where the landscape is forever changing and where paths exist only as flux – a place where the path is everywhere and nowhere and you are free to choose it.

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In British landscapes outside of the national parks, such freedom of movement is rare; here, as soon as one steps out onto the sand, it comes upon you. The islands – low prominences of rock on the horizon (1) - are the guides that draw the path but, despite the passage of countless feet over the centuries, there are no lines made by walking. Until one reaches the red sandstone rocks of Little Eye, the landscape is a mesmerising spectacle of sand, light and water – always different because always in flux (2). Here the tide does not so much come in and out as appear and disappear out of the sand, its low ripples funnelling the water and light into endlessly shifting patterns.

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In this landscape, the rocks of Little Eye are an anchor, the southern edge of a shelf of sandstone that rises and falls for 2 miles before dropping back into the sea at the northern end of Hilbre Island. All along this shelf the rocks provide a temporary resting point for thousands of birds that feed from the rich tidal waters of the Dee: after high tide, the guano of countless newly-departed Oystercatchers fills the air with the rasping smell of ammonia (3). As one follows the rocks, they grow in redness, particularly if one is also following the setting sun, the layers of sandstone both sculpted by and resistant to the enveloping sea: here, swirls and eddies of orange and pink (4); there, green bands of algae support the red (5); elsewhere, tessellated lumps of fused sand and rock (6). At the northern end of Hilbre Island, where the rocks gently slope into the sea, one feels at the very edge of the world, watched only by the wild eyes of seals bobbing up beyond (7).

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At sunset, the return journey to West Kirby is magical, the shifting patterns of light now accelerating in a spectacular display. The hue of the red rocks edges from vermillion to purple, while the sand and water double the sky’s molten colours and mirrors its passing clouds (8 & 9). One is no longer walking on this landscape; rather between and inside it, enveloped as if caught within the elements themselves. And when one finally reaches the terra firma around West Kirby’s marine lake, the edgeland beyond still beckons in the semi-darkness – the now striated forms of water on sand like solidified embodiments of the fading clouds above (10).

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An English edgeland: Covehithe, Suffolk

5 06 2012

The beach at Covehithe, Suffolk

Coastal erosion is a common-enough occurrence in Britain – from the windswept Holderness coastline, north of the Humber, to the wild rugged cliffs of Cornwall; yet, it never fails to generate unease, an unsettled feeling of dread that sometimes haunts our dreams.

1. St Andrew’s church, Covehithe

Some of my childhood dreams of being trapped on the beach by an onrushing sea were probably rooted in frequent visits I made then to the Suffolk coastline, near to where my grandparents lived. Guided by my father, I heard stories of Dunwich – the once-great medieval town now mostly buried beneath the sea – or the weird world of Orford Ness – a great shingle spit constantly being remade by the sea. Most evocative to me was the isolated coastline north of Southwold. At Covehithe, the ruins of  St Andrew’s church (1) stand just one field away from the crumbling cliffs, the original 100-ft tower now the outgrown focal-point of a much smaller church building. Like many churches in Suffolk, St Andrew’s was outsized in relation to the size of the community it served – never more than 300 people. The villagers themselves pulled down most of the building in 1672 leaving the tower surrounded by ruins.

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Walking along the crumbling mud cliffs a stone’s throw from the church, one cannot help but re-imagine its history as a product of the unstoppable power of the sea. For, over many hundreds of years, this coast has been gradually eaten away: the only road terminates right at the cliff edge (on one childhood visit I remembered seeing a car that had careered over it); the footpath often disappears into the void; and trees are visibly tumbling over the edge.

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It’s these trees that form a kind of mirror image of the ruined church, that is, of survival amongst ruin. On the beach a group of trunks are arranged in a spectacular display of the effects of the meeting of wood and water. In some, exposed roots have been transformed into explosions of weird spikes – like strange, petrified sea creatures (2); in others, the roots seem to emerge from the sand as the new growth of some unknown plant (3). Some trees stand almost complete, their angular forms offering a kind of melancholy testimony to their stubborn refusal to decay (4); others lie prostrate, gradually sinking into the sand world beneath them (5). Some cradle pebbles, stuck fast in between sea-smoothed branches (6); others, in a much more advanced state of ruin, barely register, mistaken for stones on the shoreline (7).

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These trees offer tangible visible evidence of what happens to supposedly solid objects in these coastal edgelands. Contrary to what we imagine, these places are not really edges at all; rather, they are the meeting points of two different worlds, ones that we generally hold to be entirely separate. For us to remain solid and rooted, that other world of ceaseless flux must be kept at bay. In reality, however, this notion of solidity is an illusion; for everything is always moving, from the smallest subatomic particle to the largest galaxy. It’s precisely that movement which is constantly producing new and unexpected forms – the beauty of which is displayed in those sea-blasted trees.

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England’s desert: Orford Ness

5 11 2010

Twelve miles long and up to two miles wide, Orford Ness is a desert – a vast shingle spit lying just off the Suffolk coast. One of a series of similar landforms along the coastlines of Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex, Orford Ness was – and still is – created by the ceaseless action of tides, currents and seasonal storms, its undulating ridges of shingle marking the passing of time. Accessible only by boat across the river from the picturesque village of Orford, the Ness is as bleak a place as one can imagine – devoid of shelter, battered by winds, and where the only animate objects are hares, birds and the sea wind.

From the First World War until 1993, Orford Ness was owned by Ministry of Defence and, for 70 years, was the site of intense military experimentation. During this period, activities on the Ness were subject to complete secrecy: for the inhabitants of Orford, it was like a foreign land, the stark but oddly beautiful military structures the only indicators of its sinister provenance.

The 'pagodas' from across the river in Orford

Now owned by the National Trust, and opened to the public in 1995, its series of coloured trails delineate a small area where it is safe to wander – for the vast shingle banks are littered with unexploded ordnance and other military objects, strewn across the landscape like obscure clues to an unknown riddle. Here, ‘lethality and vulnerability’ trials were carried out: aeroplanes were lined up and shot to pieces with rifles to ruthlessly expose their weaknesses; and, in half-submerged bunkers nearby, detonation devices for Atomic bombs were tested with extremes of vibration, temperature and other shocks.

The 'red trail' on Orford Ness

Rusting object on the shingle

From the top of a building known as ‘The Barracks’ – used to photograph the trials carried out on the site – the vast extent of the Ness becomes clear, as do more inexplicable forms: huge shingle-covered bunkers; the off-limits ‘pagodas’, part of the Atomic weapons site; a vast circle inscribed on the shingle; and, all around, almost motionless and hunkering down in the wind, birds of all kinds – gulls, plovers, avocets, redshank.

The Atomic Weapons site from the top of 'The Barracks'

Circle in the shingle

Very gradually, the site is being reclaimed by the National Trust and the birds, but it’s hard to imagine them ever taming its bleakness. The almost overpowering sense of melancholy is generated not by any past human tragedy but by the senseless absurdity of its function as a vast arena for the systematic torture of objects. In a kind of surreal irony, objects of destruction were themselves destroyed in the game of real and imagined warfare. If we are moved by the suffering of people, can we not also be moved by the suffering of objects?

Exploded boiler on the red trail





Sunsets

9 12 2009

Sunset over Evenes, 2007. Pencil and watercolour on chalk and ink

In August, in Narvik, Norway – well inside the article circle – the sunsets draw one out into a time that seems to come to a standstill. As the sun sinks, the oranges and reds grow as the blue above slowly recedes and darkens. A few stars emerge and then, imperceptibly, time begins to hover; for a few hours the colours are held in suspension before the day begins again.

Such events, where day and night time are held in soft tension in space, mirror the process of meditation, which tries to create – or rather to become aware of – just such a time and space within and beyond oneself.

Sunsets in temperate latitudes are more fleeting events, especially in the winter, when they are also often at their most dramatic. Here, the sun seems to vanish quickly, throwing out its intensity from beneath the horizon – a last gasp before the hostile night once again reasserts its dominance. Perhaps these sunsets, with seemingly opposing forces fighting it out, are more characteristic of our inner lives. And yet, the sun never really disappears at all; rather, it is us, rooted on the earth, who turn away from it.

Sunset on Otmoor, England, February 2008





Spirals

25 09 2009
Stone spiral, Millook Haven, Cornwall

Stone spiral, Millook Haven, Cornwall, 2009

Unlike circles, in which we perceive stillness and completeness, spirals suggest dynamic movement springing out from a centre in ever-larger arcs. Spirals only end when a barrier interrupts their progress towards infinity: the hard casing of a shell, the top of a thermal, the edge of a sheet of paper. Making spirals is about encountering these barriers – stones too heavy to carry, the encroaching sea, or the edge of a beach. Spirals provoke reflection on limitations, in nature and in ourselves; we long for unimpeded movement but are all around confronted by enclosures of one kind or another. Perhaps it is why we often dream of flight, sailing up in spirals on a thermal as the falcon does so effortlessly.

Pilsey Island spiral, West Sussex, 2008

Pilsey Island spiral, West Sussex, 2008

Y Maes spirals, north Wales

Y Maes spirals, north Wales, 2009





Towers

25 09 2009
Five sisters, Scotland, 2006

Five sisters, Scotland, 2006

Towers are perhaps the most elemental of architectural forms – one of the first ‘building’ activities of young children, who take as much pleasure in destroying towers as in building them. Towers might be the products of infantile ambition, doomed to be knocked down by the vengeful; yet, they might also simply reflect on what is already there – a castellated mountain ridge, the undulations of waves in the sea, or a valley enclosed by high cliffs.

Millook Haven towers, Cornwall, 2009

Millook Haven towers, Cornwall, 2009

Rocky Valley towers, Cornwall, 2008

Rocky Valley towers, Cornwall, 2008





Circles

24 09 2009

Stone circles, Crackington Haven, Cornwall

Stone circles, Crackington Haven, Cornwall

When we see a circle, we immediately perceive a sense of completeness – not because of its mathematical properties, but because that completeness is already inherent in the shape itself before any analysis is brought to it. The circle is also a container for a number of powerful metaphors: enclosure, the womb, heaven, sky, safety, security, unity, infinity, return. More concretely, certain places suggest circles or roundness, particularly mountains and beaches. In these places, the making of a circle with found materials provides an opportunity to ‘contain’ the overwhelming scale of the natural world, to enclose its endless horizons, to trace unseen centres; in the words of Gaston Bachelard, in his celebrated book The Poetics of Space, ‘images of full roundness help us to collect ourselves … and to confirm our being inside’.

Stone and driftwood circles, An Teallach, Scotland

Stone and driftwood circles, An Teallach, Scotland

Driftwood circle, Hole beach, Cornwall

Driftwood circle, Hole beach, Cornwall








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