Cromer to Wells-next-the-Sea 18/07/2019
We decide to go to Wells-next-the-Sea today, Thursday. It’s a place I have special memories of from when I was a child of about nine years old, fifty-three years ago. Which is terrifying. How old I’m getting! I have a black and white picture of me posing by a fishing boat holding an oar. I’m obviously enjoying posing for the camera. I don’t know where that photo is now, but thinking about it brings back a feeling of warmth and nostalgia. Then a couple of years ago I visited with Keith and it was weird, surreal, the way the light and heat haze played off the sand and water, and the dark shapes of the seals on the opposite bank, and people apparently moving amongst them like ghosts, although they were further out, and the poor baby seal, decapitated and decaying as it floated along in the shallow shoreline waves, weirdly reminiscent of a story I wrote about that beach, which added to the strangeness and surreality.
So we decide to go again, although the sky looks heavy today, and some rain is forecast, but not much, and not in the afternoon. We’ll have lunch when we get there, and then walk down the causeway to the beach. I’m excited, looking forward to experiencing maybe that same sense of strangeness, all the while aware that you can’t go back. That you can’t recreate the past.
The bus is full of people, and again I note that the that the average age of the locals around here seems to be sixty five and above. I’m sixty-two but I feel no fellowship with these people whatever. I feel younger than that, and again, feel a sense of terror of my ageing, of my inexorable and rapid run into older age. I think that maybe working with younger people keeps me young, or maybe it’s because I’m a ‘creative’ with my mind constantly throwing up new ideas, constantly questioning my life, my environment, and the way I live within both. I balk at becoming like these people. Old in mind, it feels, as they sit passively, as well as in body. But I know nothing about any of them, and ‘m judging, projecting my own horrors of ageing, and I try to stop. Try to concentrate on the views to my right.
As we travel along the coast road I’m again mesmerised by the constant presence of the sea, the opalescent line of light that divides land from water. It’s a kind of light seen only on the coast, and I love it. It feels rejuvenating and life-giving. It starts raining pretty soon into the journey, and I don’t mind. Despite my earlier gloomy thoughts, I’m just happy to be out and about.
We get to Sheringham and the bus pretty much empties. Maybe the people from Cromer do their shopping here, who knows, although Sheringham is also pretty quiet, appears not yet really part of the modern world. So it seems to me anyway.
The bus continues its journey. We pass the Sheringham golf course, behind which the sea glistens. On and on, the rain coming down harder. Although I’m enjoying watching the rain wash the countryside, I hope it stops by the time we get to Wells. We drive through a place called Saltash, and I get a bit excited because we’re coming into an area of salt marshes, and there they are to my right, stretching out as far as I can see, right down to the distant shore. This is the home of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve, apparently a wonderful place to observe birds. I watch somewhat wistfully as we drive past the visitor centre, where one man gets off, fully equipped with binoculars and long lens camera. A little wistfully, I wonder what he might see. Hope we see something interesting. Through Cley and past the road that leads down to Blakeney quay, where you can go on seal watching trips. That would be fun, I think. Through lots of other picturesque villages, past the Wells and Walsingham light railway that we visited with Lawrie and Auro on Tuesday.
Down the final road to Wells-next-the-Sea and off the bus. It’s stopped raining. Hooray! We walk down Staithe Street, the main thoroughfare, looking briefly at the small independent shops and then, through a gap, I see the sea. We walk through the gap and the panorama opens up. Just what I’ve been waiting for. Again, I feel that sense of rejuvenation. Of restoration and rebirth. We look for somewhere to eat lunch. After asking for advice, we go on board the Albatross, a permanently moored wherry that serves Dutch pancakes. I’ve never had one before. Intriguing. But better than the idea of the food is the view. So we take a seat on the deck, order our food and watch birds at the same time.
I spot a cormorant on the beach next to a metal framed sculpture of a horse. It has caught a fish, which it gulps down, and then it holds out its wings in that weird way that cormorants do, and dries itself off. There are many black-headed gulls squabbling all around. On the far shore what looks like a greater black-backed gull stands, looking stern and slightly intimidating. I hear the haunting piping of an oystercatcher. I can’t see it yet, but it sounds close. I use the binoculars and train them onto where I think the sound is coming from and there it is on the far sand bank, sitting in the grass. I’m overjoyed. I don’t have a favourite bird as such, that wouldn’t be fair, but oystercatchers are special to me with their black and white plumage, their red eyes and long red beak. I just love them.
Lunch comes and it’s delicious. A Dutch pancake with chorizo, mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes, and fresh basil. It looks like a pizza, but the pancake base is soft and soaks up the oil from the chorizo and tomatoes. Yummy.
We finish lunch and as we walk towards Staithe Street (it’s started raining a little so we decide to go for shelter until it stops), I’m distracted by the ubiquitous black-headed gulls squabbling by the quayside over chips. I watch them for a while, loving their antics and their boldness. I guess they’ve become accustomed to the easy meals that people feed them. Then we go into the Wells visitor centre, where Keith buys me a pair of glass earrings the colour and opacity of opal, my favourite stone.
When we get outside, it’s stopped raining again – indeed the sun is peeking out from behind the clouds – and so we decide to go down to the causeway, which is actually a sea wall built against the encroaching high tide flooding, about a mile long, leading to the beach. I feel a tingle of anticipation as we walk, remembering how it felt last time, how the beach opened out to that wide open strange space. But there are distractions on the walk this time that I didn’t really notice before, or which maybe weren’t there. On my right hand side, just beyond the scrubby grass, bushes and wildflowers that lay just back from the shoreline of the sea channel, the tide is out. Small fishing boats, some with masts, sails furled up, sit empty and apparently discarded. I wonder what they’re like when they’re in use, sailing on the open sea, catching mackerel and bass, evidently the most common food fish in these waters. I imagine fishermen from a past time hauling in the nets, and smile to myself. As always, my imagination is getting the better of me.
But it’s not my imagination when I spot an oystercatcher digging in the intertidal mud. It pulls a sand-worm from its hiding space, washes it in sea water, then gulps it down. Again, again, again. I am transfixed by it, watch it while Keith readies himself to take a photo, and then another. As I continue to watch, I become aware of more black and white, red-billed bodies spaced along the shoreline. Quite a lot of oystercatchers, I realise with a thrill that lifts my heart. I can’t stop smiling. I take my own photos but my phone camera can’t catch any details. I decide to ask Keith to share his photos later, so I always have a visual to help me remember.
We pass the oystercatchers, and then I spy a brown mottled something digging amongst the stones with a long curved bill. I stop. Again. This walk is barely a third done and we’ve stopped half a dozen times already, completely distracted by the view and the birds. I take Keith’s binoculars (I stupidly forgot to bring my own!) and spot the curlew. It’s on its own, absolutely engrossed in feeding. Another photo opportunity, of course. This isn’t a managed reserve but it’s giving us so many wildlife gifts. Above us the martins and swallows fly by like mini fighter planes. It’s entrancing. We leave the curlew behind, and I remark that we have to get a move on, that we can’t keep stopping and Keith agrees but of course we do stop. More oystercatchers, another couple of curlews. Then, wading in the sea channel, an egret, its feathers brilliant white against the blue water. Of course we stop. We’ve seen egrets so many times, but it’s always something special, watching them fishing.
On we go, pausing again and again, but eventually we come almost to the end of the causeway. We see a lot of gulls in the near distance flying around a sandbank on the far side of the shoreline. It’s partially fenced around, and we see a notice telling us that there are nesting birds here, and the area must not be disturbed. I remember this from last time, and feel another jolt of excitement as we come to the realisation that the noisy, squabbling gulls we’re watching are in fact a breeding colony of kittiwakes. They’re pretty gulls, smaller than herring gulls, short-beaked, with a ‘kind’ face, soft grey plumage on their wings, and black wing tips, black legs. We spend ages watching them as they wheel around, hardly ever still. There are juveniles amongst them, distinguished from the adults by mottled spotted markings.
After a while we leave them, pass the cafe and visitor facilities, and climb the small dune that leads to the beach. At the top, I stop, a little confused by what I’m seeing. It’s completely different from when we were last here. So different, it’s like another beach entirely. In fact, apart from the sandy expanse on the other side of the sea channel, it hardly looks like a beach at all from this side, and at first I think the sand has been covered by grass. A man next to me, having overheard my remarks, tells me it’s low tide, and I realise that what I think is grass is in fact brilliant green seaweed. I can’t help but feel just a little disappointed, but then shake it off, and acknowledge that this is a different kind of beauty, lush and vibrant.
There are gulls and oystercatchers in the channel, and on the far shore, where last year there was that eerie heat haze, our view is unobscured. There are no sandbanks, no seals, no people, but there is a distant pool with numerous birds clustered around it. Binoculars show more oystercatchers and curlews, and again I’m struck by the richness of wildlife in this area, which is also different from last year, where bird-watching wasn’t as productive as this has been. Something flits really fast in front of me. It looks different from the usual black headed gulls, and I think it might be a tern. I’m excited for a while but then what I think is the same something flies back, and it is indeed a black headed gull. I’m disappointed – seeing a tern would complete my want-to-see list. But oh well. I’ve accepted that today is not last year. That today is its own day, with its own offerings. We walk along the beach for a while, aware we can’t stay long because of the bus times, and then, there it is again, flying very differently from a gull, almost flitting, and it’s smaller, more slender, and sharper looking than a gull, and I notice it has, in the short time I see it, a small black flat ‘cap’ on its head. This is definitely a tern, and despite the fleeting time it was in my line of vision, I’m elated. As we leave the beach I keep on looking back, but it doesn’t reappear.
We walk back along the causeway, trying not to stop and be distracted, and mostly we’re successful. Walking back through the town, we chat about what we’ve seen, how privileged we feel, and how we wish with all our hearts that the tide of human encroachment and our destruction of nature could just be stopped. Now. Right now. It makes me feel angry again, and a little hopeless, but again, I tell myself that I can’t think like that because I want to appreciate it. And I have. And I do. But I long to live in a world where we live in peace alongside the beautiful creatures we share this world with. And I crave, even more strongly than before, to live by the sea on a beach as beautiful as the ones we’ve visited in the past few days.
We board the bus and travel back, and I watch the countryside go by, yearning already for the marshlands and sea strands, and hoping they’ll still be there when I next visit.