The Wild Places: Seeking Out Wilderness Areas
GoNOMAD Book Excerpt: The Wild Places
By Robert MacFarlane
Are there any genuinely wild places left in England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales? That is the question that writer Robert MacFarlane poses to himself as he embarks on a series of breathtaking and beautifully described journeys through some of the archipelago’s most remarkable landscapes.
As he climbs, walks and swims in all manner of weather — sleeping on cliff tops and remote beaches, deep in snowy wildwoods and ancient meadows, and bathing in phosphorescent seas or hiking frozen rivers at night — his understanding of nature is transformed.
With lyrical elegance and passion, he entwines history and landscape in a bewitching evocation of wildness and its vital importance.
Chapter 12: Storm-beach
Lying just off the Suffolk coast is a desert. Orford Ness is a shingle spit twelve miles long and up to 2 miles wide. It is unpopulated, and in its hundreds of grey acres, the only moving things are hares, hawks, and the sea wind.
The Ness is the largest and strangest of the series of vast shingle peninsulas that jut from the coastlines of Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, and Kent. To its north are Scolt Head and Blakeney Point, and to its south is Dungeness, the fulcrum on which the North Sea pivots into the English Channel. These spits are created by the action of tides, currents and seasonal storms.
Like sand dunes, they are in continual slow migration, forming and reforming their shape as they shift. In their movement, they are as close to organism as anything only mineral can be.
Their shingle is made mostly from flint, which lies about in several forms: big chunks, white and bulbous like knuckle bones, or long translucent bars, shiny and nubbed as the skin on an alligator’s back.
There is an exquisite patterning to the structure of these spits. They organize themselves in designs so large that they are best witnessed from the vantage of a falcon or an airman. At Dungeness, the shingle is arranged into giant floreate blooms.
Orford forms itself in long parallel ridges, each of which marks a time when a storm cast up thousands of tons of gravel along the shore, and fattened the spit. These ridges are the stone equivalents of growth rings in a tree trunk.
Aerial images of Blakeney show it to possess the complex beauty of a neuron: the long stem of the split, and to its leeward a marshland that floods and emerges with every tide—a continually self-revising labyrinth of channel and scarp.
Wave and tidal action will always tend to round things off if they are soft enough. This is as true of a peninsula of several hundred square miles as it is of a stone or piece of sea-glass. Millennia of oceanic massage have given East Anglia its humpish outline, from which the spits strike out.
Robert McFarlane’s first book, Mountains of the Mind won the Guardian First Book Award, the Somerset Maugham Award, and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award.
The contrast between the north-western and south-eastern coasts of mainland Britain could not be more marked. On the north-west the long fingers of peninsula and sea lace intricately—a handclasp speaking of pax between rocks and water.
On the bulge of Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex, however, the land in constantly ceding to the sea, or weaving with it. There is an eeriness to these littorals, born of their perpetual motion, and the dialogue between solid and liquid.
On a hot summer afternoon, I traveled to the East Anglican coasts to see these shingle deserts. My aim was to join up some of the spits: to draw a wild ley-line down the coast, from Blakeney through to Orford and perhaps beyond.
I was following too I realized, a geological logic, or a geo-logic: in my journeys, I had moved down a gradient of mineral resilience—from the igneous coastline of Coruisk and the volcanic north-west, through the soluble limestone of the Burren, down to the sandstone and chalk of the Holloway countries, and now to these transient and fraying south-eastern edgelands.
I had begun to think that the history of Britain and Ireland could be well-comprehended through the history of its six great rock types—granite, sandstone, slate, chalk, limestone, and flint. There were others, of course: basalt, shale, the clays. But these six rocks, it seemed to me, formed the strong mineral skeleton of the archipelago. Whatever we did to the skin of the country, the skeleton would remain.
Beginning in Blakeney
I reached Blakeney on a warm late-summer afternoon. Big drogue-shaped clouds hung in a blue sky. Above them was a lattice of cirrostratus, hinting at weather trouble to come. A steady wind blew onshore, scouring the face and drying the skin.
I stepped down on to the gravel of the spit, and began the crunching walk out along the spit’s four miles. Blakeney is a terrain of extended lines: the gleaming ridges of the gravel ramparts, the water’s edge, the wrack, all sweeping away to a distant coincident point. The spit possesses the firm perspectival vision of an Uccello painting, guiding the eye towards its limits.
Only a few hundred yards along, I lay down on the warm dry shingle, and sighted the spit’s summit ridge off ahead of me. I looked along it at pebble level, over the gleaming stones, each of which held an ember of the afternoon’s abundant light. Scattered here and there were walkers, making dark uprights in this horizontal landscape.
Inland, a big wood fire, burning out of sight, was hazing the air above the marshes, thickening the sky between me and the mainland. Only the simpler shapes of the land were visible: a windmill, a four-square church tower, oak trees, pines.
I could hear children’s voices and laughter, carrying over the marsh. Ahead of me, two swans were trying to beat out to sea, but the wind was so strong that they were making no advance at all, beating and beating and remaining still. With the loud wooden creaking of their pinions, and their stasis, they seemed like early flying machines being tested in the wind tunnel.
Then a skein of twenty or so wild geese flew inland over my head, the slow Doppler of their honking causing me to look up. As they flew they formed and reformed the pattern of their arrangement, first as an arrowhead, then a horseshoe, then back to an arrowhead.
A single white goose flew just off the nose of the arrow. Thousands of feet above the geese two Tornado jets, out on maneuvers from RAF Marham, played. Both planes tilted sideways in unison to show their full hawkish silhouette—raked back wings, biro-top nose—while their contrails disintegrated behind them.
After an hour of walking, I stopped and hollowed out a seat in the gravel. I sat, watched the sea, drank some water, and picked up flint pebbles. They were beautiful stones to hold. Each was differently patterned.
Some wore a mesh of chatter lines, like the craquelure of old oil paint. Some had cortical furrowings. Others were patterned with swirls of sediment and color — cream, blue, beagle-brown — which resembled map-markings, indicating borders, coastlines, islands, seas, and they reminded me of pelts of the Enlli seals.
I got up and walked along, scanning the shingle for the best of these map stones. Near the water’s edge, I found a white flint egg that wore a rough blue map of the spit itself, and a big whelk, bleached chalk-white by salt and sun, hollowed and smashed so that the spiral construction of its interior was visible: a central post about which the shell chamber helixed.
Then, a mile or so further on, as though summoned or anticipated by the barnacle geese’s airborne cuneiform, I found an arrowhead. A small one, two inches long, with gently convex outer sides, so that it sat well in the palm of my hand.
There must have been something about its form, some indication of its workedness by hand, that caught my eye, lying as it was among those millions of other stones shaped by the sea. At its base it was the blue-black of storm-cloud, a color that changed to grey towards the head’s point.
I held it, wondered what other hands had touched it in the thousands of years since it was knapped out. I slipped it into my pocket. I would keep it, I thought, for a year or two, before returning it to the same shore.
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