Thank you to everyone who’s looked at my trail blogs. I hope they don’t seem too grumpy.
I also hope nobody thinks I’m any kind of tough guy, still less an expert ultrawalker. I’m quite old, I’ve never been athletic and I’m returning to hillwalking after a pretty sedentary adulthood.
I’ve an awful lot to re-learn and I’m grateful for any advice.
I live by the sea in north Norfolk, where it’s hard to get hill-fit and harder to stay that way – the highest point locally is 78 metres above sea level. Sea level walking it is, then. I love hills, but I have to travel to encounter them and when I do they affect me in a profound and atavistic way, like storms.
Most winters, here on the North Sea coast, we get storm surges: high tides blown onshore by northerly gales. That of December 2013 was quite destructive, although not as bad as 1953’s in which several people died locally and hundreds overall. Another pretty major event on Friday night – Friday the thirteenth – has again flooded some of our coast, including the paths I walk most days when at home. While it was raging I took the opportunity to sleep out in the garden, testing a new four season sleeping bag I’d bought myself for Christmas. Luckily, it was quite warm.
The young are drawn to the oncoming ocean. As a child I was transfixed by the power and personality of waves. As I lay idiotically in my tent at the height of last week’s storm, social media showed me local youths playing a damp variant of chicken on piers and promenades, seemingly unaware of the numerous fist-sized flints that are pitched high and fast by Norfolk breakers.
Ensconced not only among a population of sleeping bags that might interest Malthus but also in one of the later ages of humankind, I nowadays find myself more intrigued by the ebb, more interested in recession.
I’m captivated by how water seeps away into the secret byways of the sea, as Pennine streams sink through the limestone, melting it into vast, secret caverns. I enjoy the way bodies of water, for which Norfolk people should by rights have as many words as do Inuit for snow, separate and merge again in an evaporative ballet, the ultimate slow TV. The bloated and sludgy hang around at this pool party, double-dipping each new tide of snacks. The svelte and shiny slip away, still hungry, in aquifer taxis.
Dampened denizens re-emerge; the Stonechat picks over the brash, I pick my way along my path. It’s transformed into a maze of new data, hydrological, ecological, sociocultural. Wigeon whistle and graze in place of cows, the ripped up roots of familiar plants are nakedly alien. Plastic garbage, nets, shattered structures. The flood has not only wrinkled and rotted a familiar topography, it’s dumped a hyperdiverse crud-collage onto the palimpsest of the land.
My head reels with not just the power of the sea in watts, joules and horses but the multivariate content delivered by and within a flood, its origins, its ramifications. Little wonder that long before mysterious hieroglyphs on foreign cosmetic bottles emulated pharoahs in their inscrutable immortality, people who lived among nature constructed myths to simplify the unparseable narratives and shallow the unplumbable depths of experiential complexity. No wonder we still cleave to simple certainties in our lives, our relationships, our politics. I’m reminded of how plastic on a beach evidences the official creation myth of ‘The Made in China’ in Will Self’s fabulous (in both senses) novel The Book of Dave.
I’m struck (ha ha) by how large, heavy objects are carried to destructive prominence and power by otherwise benign tides, of water, of discourse, of data. These big beasts of the flood are ugly and annoying enough while lounging around in washed-up isolation, squashing the homes of smaller neighbours, seeping pollution, tripping the unwary. Borne on the shoulders of a million wavelets they acquire a malign momentum.
Note to self – try to avoid thinking about politics while outdoors. Like golf, it spoils a nice walk.