The Bay

Essays Published November 29, 2013 in Published in The Clearing, November 2013

I live in a small market town in south Cumbria.

The town sits in a low agricultural bowl, surrounded by rivers which rise from the surrounding hills and flow under, through and around the town and out to the sea. Five miles to the north, the Lake District fells begin. Less than two miles to the south is Morecambe Bay.

Before I moved here, I had no real awareness of the Bay. I knew that Morecambe was a seaside town, but I’d never been there. I heard on the news about the deaths of the Chinese cockle pickers here a few years back, and that seemed grim and strange. But I didn’t know how big and curious and captivating a place the Bay was.

I am, slowly, beginning to get it. I am beginning to see that the Bay is a great entity in itself, a living system; not just a backdrop to human activities but a parallel world. This is the largest continual intertidal area in Britain; more than 300 square kilometres of shifting mud and sand, river estuaries, saltmarshes and sea life. The weather can change its character in minutes, and the position of the sun, the time of year, alters its look and feel. But the sea, above all, sets the mood. High tide down at Bardsea brings the waters almost to the edge of the sea road, with only a barrier of silted rushes between solid land and salt water. But at low tide, everything changes. At low tide Morecambe Bay becomes liminal space, a universe entire of itself.

I spend as much time down here as I can, writing and walking. Last summer, when I was writing a book, I used my need for writerly solitude as an excuse to drive my old camper van down to the edge of the Bay, leave the doors open and write. And when writing had taken me over for too long and I needed to ground myself again, I ran. I changed my clothes and struck off out to sea and I ran as far as I could from land, across the shifting sands, out into the middle of the Bay. This can be dangerous if you don’t know the tide times or you don’t know what quicksand looks like, but its dangers are also overstated, or at least that’s what I told myself. I liked this, anyway, because it meant that nobody else would ever follow me. It meant I was alone with the sand and the sky.

On the first day of September last year I wrote until midday and then I ran. I ran straight out, heading southwest. The sun was high and the sky was empty of clouds and the sea was a silver line on the horizon. I ran towards the great black rectangular block of Heysham nuclear power station, ten miles distant on the far shore. I ran for fifteen minutes and stopped at a shallow, silver river, only exposed when the tide is out, which was flowing low and snakelike across the sand. I had never seen it before. I turned.

Behind me was the far shore, my van a white speck on it, the hills rising behind it, the Coniston fells clear in the distance, their bands and steps clean in the white light. Along to the south the coast ran down to Barrow, the ruined castle on Piel Island just visible, an intimidation of distant wind turbines out to sea. On the far shore the table top of Ingleborough was clear on the horizon, the townlets of the Morecambe shore stretched out in silver, Blackpool tower a thin needle in the late summer haze.

I wasn’t alone there, though I was the only human. On the water a great flock of gulls was bobbing, moving on the slow current, sometimes taking off in pairs or singly, circling, coming down again. They were cawing and curling and calling in the sun. I crouched down and began sifting the muddy sand through my fingers. Tiny crustaceans skipped and crawled through the water. I looked up as a gull careened overhead, screaming.

And I had the strangest feeling, then. I felt like I was part of something very much bigger than myself. I didn’t think it, I felt it, and the feeling came entirely unbidden. I felt this place, this edgeland, this world of wing and water &emdash; I felt how it was working. I felt the clockwork of it, the movement, felt the blood of it flowing in the salt sea and in the movement of the gulls and in the sand and the riverflow. This was all part of some great living engine, working a task, ticking over, each of its constituent parts performing their function. I was looking on but I had no role. I wasn’t wanted here, or unwanted. I was jetsam, passing by on the tide.

In his essay ‘The Etiquette of Freedom’, the American poet Gary Snyder makes a distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘wild.’ He uses the word ‘nature’, he explains, in its broadest sense, to mean ‘the physical universe and all its properties.’ In this sense, everything on Earth is ‘natural’ because it doesn’t break the laws of nature. A rainforest is natural, but so is a space rocket. A badger is natural, but so is a plastic bag.

The word ‘wild’, on the other hand, denotes those portions of the physical universe which remain free from the agency of humanity; which are as yet untamed by the predator ‘Man’. Snyder writes that this definition of wildness:

Comes very close to being how the Chinese defined the term Dao, the way of Great Nature: eluding analysis, beyond categories, self organising, self informing, playful, surprising, impermanent, insubstantial, independent, complete, orderly, unmediated, freely manifesting, self authenticating, self willed, complex, quite simple.

The undomesticated animal; the self-propagating plant; the unturned soil; the unmanaged woodland: these, says Snyder are ‘wild’. In this sense, the Bay is wild. Perhaps it is the wildest place in England, assuming that it is in England. Assuming that it is within the territory of Man and not the territory of the birds and the razor shells and the curling blades of kelp and the grey-brown waters.

We would like to think so, because we would like to imagine that the Bay can be tamed, as we imagine that everything wild can be tamed, should we choose. We would like to imagine this because we suspect, on some level, that it cannot. In 2004, 23 Chinese immigrant workers, who spoke little English and had misunderstood the tide times, were drowned harvesting the Bay’s cockle beds. There was some national outrage at this. It seemed incongruous; here we were in the mechanised, mediated 21st century, and poor cockle pickers were still drowning on English mudflats, as they have done for millennia.

A lot of lessons were drawn from that tragedy; lessons about immigration and illegality and gangmasters and cheap labour and what our culture is prepared to pay for and turn a blind eye to. But the wider lesson was that the wild is still with us and needs to be negotiated with and respected. The Bay has been drowning humans since there were humans, and if you stand on the shore and watch the tide come in, you can see why. The seabed is shallow for a long distance out from the shore, and the angle of the sands is so obtuse that when the tide comes in it approaches like a mini-Tsunami.

On the stone pier at Arnside earlier this year, I watched the bore rising, heralded by a long series of blasts on a siren which echoed around the Bay as if warning of an air raid. Within minutes, a white line of water had built up across the horizon. Then it was breaking on the ramps and the bridge struts, and rising up the mud flats unstoppably. It could not have been outrun. If you don’t know what you’re doing or where you are, or if you’re not paying attention or you have had a close encounter with its many pools of shimmering quicksand, the Bay can claim you, more quickly than you would have believed possible.

Not that this happens very often any more. Before the Furness Railway was built around its perimeter in the 1850s, it was a different matter. For much of the history of human habitation around the Bay, getting from the Lancashire shore to the Furness peninsula meant crossing the sands. It was easier than attempting to walk or take packhorses or carts across the salt marshes around the edges or the hills and fells of Cumberland to the north. The old paths across the Bay still exist, and so does the Queen’s Guide to the Sands, the only such position in England, created after locals petitioned the King in the early 16th century in an attempt to alleviate the many drownings that resulted from people trying to cross the Bay by themselves or with dubious local guides. The position is unpaid but it does come with a free house owned by the Crown. Nobody takes packhorses across the dangerous, shifting paths of the Bay any more, but the current Guide, Cedric Robinson, a former fisherman who was appointed in 1963, leads regular charity walks across the Bay by way of compensation.

Before the Queen’s Guides, the monks of Cartmel Priory would escort travellers across the bay, for an appropriately holy fee. The Priory was dissolved by Henry VIII, and four of its monks were hanged for resisting the tide of history. The remaining buildings of the Priory are a tourist attraction today, but other built relics scattered around the Bay have not been blessed with tea shops and introductory leaflets. The old canal at Ulverston, at just a mile long said to be the shortest in the country, which carried goods ships from the Bay to the town for just a decade before the railways came and knocked it into the crumbling, appealing historical void in which remains today. The great shipyards at Barrow which furnished the Empire. The long-gone ironworks at Carnforth (and its long-gone railway station refreshment room, in which much of David Lean’s Brief Encounter was filmed in 1945; in a burst of enthusiasm, the refreshment room was recently recreated in its original form, and now draws film buffs from across the world).

And, beneath the waves, or sometimes half above them, the dozens of wrecks of ships which have found the tides and the sands here too much to handle over the centuries. Sometimes, running across the sands at low tide, I see their ghosts: a few wooden ribs rising from the mudflats, rusted plates of riveted steel merging with the sand. The barnacles make good use of them, the Bay absorbs them, the engine keeps turning.

Relics are more easily created than we like to think. Walk around the Bay today and you can see tomorrow’s relics already in the process of being created. You can also see that the strange juxtaposition of the wildness of the sands and the human industry of the fringes continues as it has for centuries. Beyond the reclaimed salt marshes, where there were once ironworks, steelworks, shipyards or docks, there are now windfarms, nuclear power stations, the Glaxo pharmaceutical plant at Ulverston &emdash; soon to be rebuilt and expanded &emdash; and, in Barrow, where the Furness peninsula slopes off into the sea, the great, sinister hulking sheds of BAE Systems, where Britain’s dwindling nuclear submarine fleet is constructed and maintained.

The ‘energy coast’ they are calling it now, the west side of the Bay and the west coast of Cumbria. BAE and Sellafield are the big employers around here, joined more recently by the up-and-comers, wind energy in particular. Stand on the dunes at Walney Island off Barrow and look out to sea, and the horizon is filled by wind turbines bigger, and in greater number, than you thought wind turbines could ever be. Never mind the cosy green fantasies about ‘human-scale’ renewable energy: this is the future and, like the past, it is breathtakingly vast in its ambition and its engineering. Walney is the world’s largest offshore wind farm. Maybe it will bring tourists as well as electricity. Maybe it will save us; and how we need to believe that.

But none of this has really tamed the Bay. All of this human energy happens around its fringes, and although parts of the shore have been reclaimed from the sea and turned over to the farmers, the expanse of sand and wind and water remains wild still. Not that people don’t try to put their stamp on it. For a century or so there has been talk about building a bridge across the Bay, from Heysham or Morecambe to Barrow. At around twelve miles long, the Morecambe Bay Bridge, if it ever got off the drawing board, would be one of the longest in the world. As Barrow’s economy continues to slide, demands for its construction, with all the usual attached promises of job creation and ‘regeneration’, have grown louder, though not loud enough to give the local Build Duddon and Morecambe Bridges Party more than 400 votes at the last general election. In line with the times, the latest proposal is for a bridge lined with wind turbines, which would also act as a tidal barrage, drawing energy from the Bay. If such a beast were ever built, it would change, perhaps destroy, the character of the Bay for ever. The advocates of ‘sustainability’, with a rich irony, would have succeeded where the old extractive industries failed.

Between the estuaries of the Kent and the Leven, protruding from the north of the Bay like a crooked finger, is Humphrey Head, a slightly otherworldly limestone outcrop which features the only cliffs on this coast. Climb up Humphrey Head on a winter or spring day and walk across its limestone pavements, between the storm-bent trees. The place has quite a different feel to the low sand shores that make up most of the Bay. At the foot of the cliffs here is a trickle of water; all that remains of a once holy well. People once walked here from across the north of England to take the water, which was said to have therapeutic properties. Button-backed miners would come all the way from the Durham pits, bringing their hope with them.

There is a story about Humphrey Head, though it is a story that is told about many other places too. The story is that here, in the 1390s, the last wolf in England was killed by a contingent of local men, who pursued it with pikes and trapped it in the limestone bluffs. I choose to believe this, because the story fits the place so well, and because it suits me to think that the elimination of one of the last great mammals in Britain, the severing of one of our links with our own wild past, at least happened in a place &emdash; a rare place now &emdash; where wildness still means something.

There are no wolves today, and nobody drinks from the well, but there is something both wild and therapeutic about Humphrey Head still. On a clear day, standing on the limestone pavement, you can see the Bay laid out before you like a map. But it’s better when the sun has gone and the clag has descended as if the past has returned. On a misty day you can be here again with the last of the wolves while the gulls circle around you, dimming in and out of the clouds like spectres, and the oystercatchers pipe under the cliffs and the sands continue to shift and the waters flow from the holy well, and the untameable Bay goes on around you, its great engine turning over still with the years and the tides.

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