Between the keepers’ cottage and the remains of the abbey a narrow path courses the seawall. It traces where the dyked field drops as wall, part grass, part stone, to beach. I walk it in wind, rain, sunshine, all three simultaneously, or none but an eerie vacuum; exchange greetings with other walkers, pass in silence or pass no one. I walk at high tide, low tide, between tides, collecting driftwood, unidentifiable plastic, kindling and some looser version of myself.
I joke that when I met the man I moved here for I didn’t know if I fell in love with him or where he lived. It isn’t a joke, of course. It’s a hedging of bets of how I might inhabit this place.
To in-habit: to be clothed by a place—wear it—as a monk might his robes—as a sponge might the water around it; or to in-habit: as routine, being informed by the place in which you and others act. I walk with water one side, land the other.
A power station, battery-squat, sits on the opposite shore warming the localised waters of the bay, fostering larger than average fish. The story goes that the construction workers threw their hard hats into the setting concrete to ensure its walls would withstand even a plane flying into it.
It stands opposite the first slipway that curves from the path down to the beach. By the second it’s behind me, forgotten. Only one ramp is used by fishermen and wildfowlers to access the beach, by 4x4s now rather than the whammels built to accommodate the shallow bay. At low water mud, shingle and rocks lie exposed at the base of the nearest slip. I do not descend to follow the track to the Victorian light at the estuary mouth. Long since automated, the beacon still guides ships to the nearby dock without the need for refuelling. We can’t see its flash since the repair, although its wind-vane is visible from the cottage’s one seaward window. The cottage was built at a time when sea was to be hunkered away from rather than viewed through double-glazed patio doors.
I pass through a stiff kissing gate without affecting its angle, as if a wisp of nothing much at all. I walk invisibly, middle aged, white, merely a body adding my incremental load to the wall. A ragged slap of concrete funnels into the unsealed path, keeping grass down. Despite its appearance of freshness it is endemic: most concrete is bound from sand mined from the seabed. Splodges plug the seawall against spates of sea and wind. A coarser mix extends along the wall’s footing in parts, a wonky seam that barely delineates wall from beach.
Less than an hour away, a deflated balloon, creased and muddy, will plaster a boulder at the slipway base. I’ll uncrease it and bin it. From there it’ll end up as landfill and leach into the water table; still, less violent than choking a fish, seal or jellie.
At the second slipway, a slither of holiday brochure beach collects at the wall’s foot. Possibly once wall, possibly fresh sand, it’s colonised by two sandcastles with moats and shell embattlements. Handprints pattern their walls and impressions of knees pock the ground around them. While elsewhere sand mined for beachfront hotels will take years to slide back into the sea, these miniature castles will last a week of neap tides before flattening under springs. Then trampled by birds, your own scuffing boots.
The sandstone furnishing the majority of the wall is pink, blocks from the abbey that stood in the fields until the Reformation. Before that they flanked a leper colony, garrisoned by the saltmarsh. Larger yellow sandstone, lining the lower portion of wall, once lay as great submerged slabs. According to Bob, son of the light’s last keeper, the yellow stone becomes less resilient exposed to air, a frailty relative to its 300 million years.
The pink abbey stones can be held in two hands, cupped as if receiving or making a blessing. Many hours spent gleaning the razed stones buttressed the land rising from the shore, to be packed with shale and pebbles and, years later, concrete: back-breaking, hernia-inducing work to keep sea in its place.
The once submarine yellow stone was also used for the cottage walls. The first keepers outgrew the upper light that housed them and extended it, until, too soon, they hit the road. They crooked the wall to continue for another room’s length. The cottage trembles when the milk lorry rounds the corner to the farm but has, so far, withstood the sea, tree trunks and other brash thrown in storm surges. From the upstairs window I watch floods lash the lane, housebound until the tide recedes.
The seawall remains under the remit of the Environmental Agency, although for how much longer is a case for budget allocation and arguments of population density. After a storm they check for holes, assess repair costs, concerned only with flow in one direction. Nothing is done to prevent fertilizers seeping from field to sea. Soil sieves nitrogen, potassium, chalk and other chemicals into the bay, where swift tides prevent blooms, circulating them out to sea. At low water a network of rills in the estuary banks illustrates how land migrates, sand extraction accelerating the movement.
Upriver, by the farm, the saltmarsh thins, whereas here the marsh is broad enough to absorb the impact of onshore gales and equinoctial high waters. Around the estuary mouth, it’s shaven to clumps and pebbles. Marsh grykes fill with oily water disappearing at low tide. It’s said grasses are carried, every seven years, from one side of the bay to the other, but who knows if this regularity will continue.
Moss as marsh, as fixative, as filter, punctuates the wall as brown limey bobbles that both plug and corrode it. Walking it demands attention to how each foot is placed on this unmade being remade. I breathe slowly. The moment when inhale turns to exhale, or exhale to inhale, is to aspire. Out here I aspire to a similar point of stillness.
When my neighbour Ralph left for a short stay in a nursing home, bright-eyed, shiny-faced like a newborn, he said he wouldn’t be coming back. He’d lived here for ninety three years, and though he didn’t return, he hasn’t left. He’s a filter, clarifying this place for me. Superfast broadband doesn’t reach this far from the junction box. Nothing here happens quickly, if you keep watching, and nothing really disappears. Everything accumulates somewhere. My knowledge of the estuarine field names―Dead Man’s Butts, Greasy Pike, Piper Hill―comes from him. Others also act as percolators. Despite never seeing it I know where the cottage’s well was, and its miracle sink pumping briny water into the house, because of Bob. It’s my partner who clocks the arrival of pink-footed geese, the golden plover roost, flocking godwits. Gav, chimney sweep and purveyor of eels, keeps us abreast of fish numbers, depending on what’s in his net.
For centuries the cottage garden benefitted from seaweed for fertilizer. The soil is soft rich and crumbly. It may be why the plot is higher than the encompassing land. A sprawl of bladderwrack often collects on the southern edge of the wall footing, within easy reach of the slipway. Home-grown vegetables once supplemented plover and curlew, as well as flatties and salmon from the river. Salmon, arriving from Iceland to spawn, have declined by hundreds this year. Next year fewer will breed, and fewer will return.
Long after the tide withdraws, shallow biomes in the wall’s footing thrive with barnacles, limpets, whelks feeding on microscopic algae, plankton enriched by nitrogen phosphorus run-off. Beyond the rocks, lugworm casts butte the mudflats, and beyond that a glacial canyon plunges out to sea. Perhaps forty times deeper in parts than the wall is high, it is a close, silted place of chemicals and heat. No hint of it in the corrugated seaskin or mud.
At the tip of the embankment we call the skear, that juts west as the wall bends back east to edge a smaller tributary, stands the light. One of two, its alignment with the upper light―gone but for a concrete imprint in our garden―marked the channel’s entrance.
A tanker ran into the light a year or so back. Dismantled, each segment was numbered and laid out in clusters on the skear. The repair lasted months. The pillar unwound in blocks half a meter long, a quarter thick―curved and square―bedding into the shale and shells: pitted white, tan and black―each block massive compared to the wall stones. Each slightly different to its neighbour―cut so they might need nothing but their own weight to hold them up.
Unlike a footprint on the moon, deep as the day it was made, the tracks made during the lighthouse repair are sluiced slowly by tides. Renting the cottage ensures us shallow-roots; that we rent from a family who’s lived here for centuries also grounds me. We live with their decisions for how a house should be, with those of the owners before them, and those before them. It’ll be up to them―or the sea―when we leave. I can watch the future come in on the weather from the west, guess how it might arrive, but make no prophecy beyond that.
Talk is of the channel being left to silt up, decommissioning the dock in favour of a larger port near the power station. This doesn’t stem the sense of losing land. Across the estuary the sandy spit of the Point has no legislative protection, only boulders paid for by another family who has lived there for generations. I imagine it being tongued from beneath by currents. Though the same imported boulders bolster parts of this wall I walk on solid ground, tamping it with each step.
What looks like a large iceberg rests on the skear. Two of us will have to come back to carry it, when we discover it’s polystyrene. Later still I learn it’s part of a pontoon hundreds of miles away, smashed by a storm weeks earlier. We haul it more awkwardly than I anticipated. Beads fly off, catch in my throat, stopper breath.
Higher crevices in the wall will, in early summer, sprout thrift and campion, obscuring mussel shells whose beds have not been farmed for mercury contamination. Increased acid in seawater weakens the byssus attaching them to rock, making it easier for birds to tug them free.
As many turbines as scattered shells stitch the bay, most spinning in the sunlight but some broken out of sync. They split the wind into hundreds of streams, but from this distance the breeze is singular. Hundreds more will be erected, stapling a thicker fence through the water long after I’m no longer walking the wall, when it is no longer this wall to be walked. Then the sky clouds, and they disappear.
Sarah Hymas lives by Morecambe Bay, England, working as a poet, writer and collaborator with musicians, visual artists, other writers and marine scientists. Her writing appears in print, multimedia exhibits, as lyrics, installations, short films and on stage. She also makes artistbooks and immersive walks. Read more about Sarah and her work or follow her on twitter.
A version of This Wall appears in Sarah’s second poetry collection, Melt, due this autumn from Waterloo Press.
Photographs by the author.