On form and fluid – musings from Minehead

Preface

Over Easter weekend 2015, I decided to cycle from Barnstaple (Devon) to Bridgwater (Somerset), wild camping (and, as it turned out B+Bing) along the way.

I might elaborate further on the trip in the future. But for now, here are some thoughts I had in Minehead in Saturday evening as I watched the flow and ebb of the tide.

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I’ve walked along the waterfront, from Butlins on the eastern edge, to the west end in the shadow of North Hill. Behind is the RNLI Lifeboat Station, and I’m sat on a trailer for towing boats.

Further down towards Butlins, the beach is sandy but here it’s all pebbles: grey, purple and violet, smoothed to irregular shapes.

Along the shoreline to the left and right stand two fishermen, spending as much time looking behind at the wooded hill and playing with their equipment, as out to sea. A couple sit on a conspicuous shelf of concrete, which seems to be a dried dump of cement; pebbles from the shore embedded within.  

I like watching the tide. A good deal of my childhood was spent in a village that is “the second most inland place in the UK”, according to my mother, though my dad is from Grimsby. The waves crash at rarely a foot high. The larger waves work further up the shore, and as the water recedes, the rocks clatter loudly, as though a smoker is taking a rattly inhale before the next crest blows in.

Sometimes the pebbles don’t rattle, the old smoker missing a breath.

I wonder: is the tide coming in or going out? After several tiny waves, I conclude going out, only for another large wave to come in, confounding me.

It’s seven o’clock, and the sky above the western horizon of the sea is golden. Wales, seen through the haze, is basking in sunshine, too, including the large power station; its smoke a barely-percepitble grey smudge.

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Anthony Gormley sculpture, Leith.

Why are coastal towns so often furnished with sculptures? In Aberdeen, the harbourside paving inscribed with poetry, a sort of concrete poetry, or perhaps better: granite poetry. In Leith, Anthony Gormley’s frozen, rusted anglers-without-poles stand stoic.

Minehead, too. A pair of giant galvanised hands wrestle with a corrugated map, marking the start (or, depending on proclivity and angle, end) of the South West Coastal Path. Even this deserted trailer upon which I sit (a sort of sculptural memorial itself) sits three small pebbles placed upon one another.  

In front of me, 100 or so metres out into the water, two structures I recognise but don’t understand, protrude from the surface. Two seagulls and a crow stands sentinel atop. A large ship approaches from the east, perhaps an oil tanker from the Avonmouth refinery. It floats in languid light, the same golden sunlight that has long been hidden from this sheltered section of harbour.

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Maybe this is why sculptures seem so plentiful on the coast; a desire to make form from the unending fluid of the ocean. Tim Ingold asks of his undergraduate anthropology students to visit Aberdeen beach, and to the consider the nature of place, space (though he’d never utter that word), emergence, surface and form.

In short, looking out to sea we saw a world in movement, in flux and becoming, a world of ocean and sky, a weather world. […Apply this way of seeing to the land, and] it is the solidity of the ground itself that is thrown into doubt

Ingold, 2011, pp131-132

So sculptures: more than just an attempt to fix the sea, but to fix the land too. Perhaps seaside dwellers are used to flux and dynamism: waves, coastline, rising rivers, supermoons, spring and neap tides, rain, fog, wind, but as well as seeing this in the sea, it is seen on the land as well. Groins and piers for the sea; sculpture for onshore.

It’s getting cold, and my thirst needs slaked – so to the pub. But before I depart, I look again at the pebbles in front. The couple have left, but in their stead, a neat stack of eight or ten pebbles. And yes, now I’m sure: the tide is coming in.

Reference

2011, Ingold, T, Being Alive: Essays on movement, knowledge and description, Oxon: Routledge

Impression: Afternoon to Gloaming

Today, Aberdeen was blessed with something of a summery day: what will surely be the last sun-and-warmth day of the year. Passing the digital thermometer display at the oil careers office, I was informed that the temperature was 20C. Wikipedia says the average temperature in July is 18.3C, while the highest temperature ever recorded was just shy of 30C. For temperatures to apparently reach 20C in October is quite the achievement: especially considering there was a big snowfall this time last year!

Buoyed by the conditions and soft sun, I decided to take the long route home from work. I work near the beach, so I first set off for the old village of Footdee (pronounced Fittie), so to follow the coast north, from the mouth of the Dee to the mouth of the Don. The tide is in as I start walking. I first start on the tarmac path on the top of the sea wall, and am quickly mesmerised by the waves crashing into the concrete. But these swells and troughs are not the rhythmic breathing of a sea (which have been conveyed superbly by Fife Psychogeographical Collective); these are intermittent, unpredictable. I see the water rising up, and approaching fast, but not always breaking and creeping up the sand. When the waves do break, they crash loudly into a concrete groyne, and I stand mesmerised for some fifteen minutes, as I lean against the wooden fence on the path. I think about what causes this sound and remember watching the extraordinary BBC documentary The Secret Life of Waves.

Mindful of the time, I start to walk. But this tarmac path is too far from the beach. I climb down the steps to the sand and take off my shoes and let the cold foamy water cover my feet. It seemed to be a summery day, but some things give away the autumnal time of year. For one thing, the light has already started to fade. Another: the skenes of geese as they hohn hohn hohn overhead. They are coming from the north-northeast, and I wonder if they are from Shetland, Orkney or even Scandinavia. The amusement park with its rollercoaster and big wheel are also closed for winter, with flocks of birds fly around and through the closed rides.

Hardly anyone is on the beach. Despite the warm sunny day, few people make it down the steps to the shingle-and-sand, although there are more people on the path above. Out to sea I can see gunmetal grey clouds. In the distance, squally showers, that never touch land. There are multiple ships out on the water too, mostly taking heavy equipment to the rigs, as well as a passenger vessel heading north, presumably to the Northern Isles. But I’m not drawn to these long views. My attention keeps coming back to the beach and its pebbles, to the foreshore and the bobbing gulls, and those crashing waves. I notice the changing colour of the water. Out to sea it’s deep grey, much like the clouds above. As it approaches the shore, a water green, and finally, golden-brown as the sand is swirled and swept up.

As I approach Donmouth, the light has dropped considerably; all that remains is a darkened walk along the river’s bank and home. And I smile as I do so, thinking of this final fine walk this side of next Easter.

Donmouth to North Sea, Aberdeen

Donmouth to North Sea, Aberdeen