Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand
Extract from ‘Dover Beach’ by Matthew Arnold, 1867
I was born in middle England, well away from the coast and my only experience of the sea and the coast, like thousands of middle class families in the 1950s, was the yearly family holiday and, for us, it was mainly on the South Coast.
Money was always tight in those days and we normally spent a week in a chalet or very occasionally bed and breakfast, in guest houses run by fierce harridans. I seem to remember that a greasy breakfast was served at 8 o’clock sharp and then we were locked out of the house all day, as punishment, until we were reluctantly let in during the evening, so that we could sleep in rock hard beds between nylon sheets, in constant fear of electric shocks during the night. In this age of boutique guest houses and ‘Air B & B’, it is amazing to me now, that we were willing to pay for this yearly ritual humiliation.
This should have put me off the coast for life, but my abiding memory of those days was the hours I spent on the beach, whatever the weather, digging sandcastles, paddling on the edge of the water and wading in rock pools foraging for all sorts of miniature sea life.The reality was no doubt different, but in my imagination, it was a time of innocence and wonder.
Perhaps it was those memories that triggered a desire to escape the city after 27 years in London. When we moved down to the coast, was I subconsciously trying to revive those lost days of my childhood? Whatever the motivation, we arrived 9 years ago and a new life has opened up. In recent months I have started to try and analyse my fascination with the coast.
What is it that I love about my new home by the sea? I’ve thought about this a lot and, at the heart of the matter, it always comes back to the quality of light, at that point where the land meets the sea, the borderlands. Every day when I look out the window, the effect is different, the colour of the sky, of the sea, of the beach, the morning is different to the evening, from season to season, from sun to storm, and in fact from second to second. There is an infinite variety of sensations of to take in and the natural world is in a state of constant flux.
I now realise that for the last forty years or so, I have been pursuing this quality of light in my imagination and through my love of art. In the early 1980s, my wife and I experienced it in Skagen in the North of Jutland in Denmark. ‘Skagen Odde’ is a unique sandy peninsula which stretches 30 km and varies between 3 and 7 km wide, with a small 4 km long sandbar at very tip, which is growing every year, as a result of longshore drift.
Being surrounded on all sides, there is something special about the quality of the light that comes off the water on both sides and it was this light that drew a colony of artists to move here at the beginning of the 20th century.
The Skagen artists painted the sea, the sand and the local fisherman, but above all they painted themselves with the sea and sky as a backdrop. These pictures by Artists such as P.S. Kroyer, Michael Ancher and his wife Anna have become famous well outside the confines of their native Denmark, for their exploration of light and colour. Here on this remote peninsula the beginnings of Danish modernism can be found. More information on the Skagen Artists can be found on the Skagen Museum Website Two of the iconic paintings, which are on display in the Museum, are shown below.
At the same as artists in Denmark were discovering Skagen, in the far South West England, another group of British artists were moving to Newlyn, a fishing village near Penzance, in Cornwall, painting many of the similar scenes as their fellow artists in Denmark, again inspired by the extraordinary quality of light in the south west peninsula.
And then moving onto the 20th century a new generation of artists were inspired, in the town of St. Ives. to create pottery, paintings and sculpture. The names of Alfred Wallis the self taught fisherman together with Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Peter Lanyon, Bernard Leach, Patrick Heron, Terry Frost and many more, have become legendary in the annals of British 20th century art.
The result has been to make St Ives the ‘go to’ destination for art lovers. It was inevitable, with our love of ceramics and art, that we would be drawn to the town and over the last thirty years we have visited numerous times. When walking along the coast from Carbis Bay through a wooded area, you are suddenly greeted by the amazing vista of the harbour at St. Ives, a sight that never fails to lift the spirits. And yes, the light is as unique and wonderful, as it is rumoured to be.
And so, eventually, by a roundabout route, via the North of Jutland and the extreme South West of England, 9 years ago we eventually arrived on the South Coast of England and settled for our own slice of the good life along the coast.
When you actually live in a place, rather than just visit it, you gain a totally different perspective of life on the edge, where you can experience four seasons in one day, and the natural world takes on a reality, rather than being an abstract concept.
Having a view over Beachy Head has enabled me to experience how the landscape changes from season to season, from day to day, from morning to evening and even from second to second. I have tried to capture a feeling of this in an ongoing series of photographs taken over the last few years, a selection of which can be seen below.
However, the seashore is not just about beautiful views and gorgeous sunsets, it can also be a frightening and terrifying place and the storms can be fierce and relentless. We have experienced our fair share of extreme weather since our arrival and, for the most part, they are exhilarating and exciting, but you quickly learn to respect the power of the sea and develop a sense of awe in the face of powerful natural forces beyond your control.
Any article about the borderlands, the capture of light and the power of the sea, would not be complete without reference to our greatest landscape painter, J. M. W.Turner. Nobody, before or since, has captured both the beauty and horror of life at sea, from his beautiful sunsets to his realistic and terrifying paintings of shipwrecks, where you feel the total helplessness of the souls fighting for their lives.
Turner painted dozens of beach scenes, but I find this watercolour below very poignant, showing a solitary dog along the waterside. Ruskin named the painting ‘Dawn after the Wreck’, but there is no wreck and no wreckage. I think it was Turner’s aim to show how sad and desolate the beach can sometimes feel, a place of loneliness. I love the way that there are no boundaries between the strand, the sea and the sky, they almost merge into each other, a true borderland.
Nowhere captures the true nature of the borderlands than at low tide, when the sea retreats, revealing a hidden world, which for a few hours gives up its secrets. Bulverhythe beach is one of St. Leonards best kept secrets, during the short time when the sea retreats; where else can you experience a a 4000 year old Petrified forest, a group of 135 million year old Cretaceous rocks and the wreck of an 18th century Dutch cargo ship, all within the same half hour walk.
The borderland between strand and sea is a place of coming and going, of departures and arrivals. For centuries people have left for adventure and travel, many leaving these shores never to return. Fisherman sail out every day, risking their lives to bring us food from the sea. Lifeboat crews constantly brave the storms to rescue people and bring them safely to shore.
And in recent years it has become a place of arrival, a safe haven, as thousands of frightened and desperate refugees risk their lives to arrive on our seashore to escape war, torture and oppression. I am proud that in Hastings we have welcomed these souls fleeing oppression through the organisation Hastings Supports Refugees.
With a strange synchronicity, a phenomenon that seems to affect me more and more these days, I have completed this article, just as Hastings Contemporary opens a stunning new exhibition called ‘Seafaring’, which covers, in pictorial form, much of the beauty and terror of life on the borderlands and beyond.
These then are the borderlands that have become our home. The borderlands between strand and sea, between ocean and sky, between beauty and terror, between fantasy and reality, between despair and hope, between past and future, a constantly changing landscape of endless possibilities.