Nearing the north west coast of England Essie shows a large blue expanse to our left but, frustratingly, there are sand dunes in the way and no amount of stretching my neck will allow me to see over them. Finally the dunes break and there it is: the sea. I grew up as far from it as you could be on this island, almost equidistant between the west and east coasts, a couple of hours drive at least. I now live less than half an hour from it and see it at least once a week, but I miss it even then. No matter how long between tides I still get the same leap in my gut when I catch that first glimpse. Now I haven’t seen it for months, the last time from a ship, the visible coast being a dock, which doesn’t count. I leap from the car like an excited terrier.
Like many on England’s west side Crosby beach has a very long tidal range. It shimmers silver, standing water left by the rapidly receding tide trapped in the ridges of the beach and reflecting a pale sky that occasionally splatters us with rain. What makes this beach unique is the hundred iron men, their feet anchored in sand, that stand looking out to sea: Sir Antony Gormley’s Another Place. It’s a unique artwork, human forms stretching for two miles, some only half-revealed by the sea.
The men nearer shore probably haven’t altered much since they were placed here a decade ago, but those which are submerged at high tide wear the sea’s deposits, barnacle-encrusted and green-stained. There’s a haunting beauty about the place, the wind biting my cheeks and whipping my hair, the tang of salt in my nostrils and on my lips, the glare of the retreating sea forcing me to squint or pull on sunglasses.
Signs warn of the danger of walking out too far – people have died on England’s west coast beaches, becoming trapped by a tide that can easily outrun a mere human – and a ute emblazoned with the RNLI logo tracks back and forth, keeping a wary eye out for anyone not paying attention. There are as many warm-bodied humans as there are solid metal ones. And dogs, lots of dogs, tails wagging and tongues lolling, chasing balls and barking with joy. How much nicer would the world be if people were more like dogs on a beach! I try and jump a small stream, landing in the middle, and Neil laughs. Water seeps into my trainers, another mark of where we’ve travelled. A couple of ice cream vans lurk hopefully at the edge of the beach and, thankfully, the leisure centre alongside has a café. The only thing missing is fish and chips.
Across the country the east coast is dramatic and beautiful, ranging from rugged cliffs against which the sea crashes to long beaches of smooth golden sand – from Yorkshire all the way to the tip of Scotland there is nothing but beauty. St Abbs head in Berwickshire is wild and wonderful – two of my favourite scenery adjectives. It’s a bit too wild as we leave the car park and traverse farmland, a short but fierce shower soaking us, a stiff breeze making me glad of my scarf and gloves.
The path leads to the top of jagged cliffs with vertiginous views over a rough sea and down to narrow, rocky inlets into which waves rush. A couple of grey lumps, seals, haul themselves ashore and flump up the beach. Offshore, lumps of rock jut from the sea and a small boat, lit against the grey, makes slow progress. The lighthouse, perched precariously on the cliff edge, stands sentinel, a huge foghorn at its feet. A few stunted trees lean away from the wind that eases as we descend a steep path to where the waves rattle onto a small pebbled beach, seaweed huddled in bunches along it.
The village of St Abbs is tiny, a few grey stone houses huddled around one of the smallest harbours I’ve ever seen. The café is also tiny but has an excellent selection of traybakes, which it seems are an oaty-cake base with chunks of chocolate bar – Crunchie, Malteser, Aero – poked into it then smothered with a thick layer of chocolate. Under the heading ‘when in Scotland’ I opt for the Tunnocks*. Good job I’ve had some exercise.
There’s outdoor art on this coast too, or just inland. At Northumberlandia, landfill from a huge drift mine has been repurposed to create the form of a naked woman. Named The Lady of the North (not to be confused with the Angel of the North, another amazing artwork – coincidentally by Antony Gormley – just a few miles south) it’s an amazing achievement, 100 feet high and spanning a quarter of a mile. Footpaths circle up her face, breasts, knees and ankles and traverse the contours of her body, stretching to four miles. Moorhens paddle in the shallows of surrounding pools. Adults, huddled into layers against the cold, chase after small children who chase after gulls and ducks. Natural beauty, fun, and human imagination – a perfect trifecta.
*Tunnocks – a chewy caramel wafer bar beloved of Brits (missed by those of us who have left the islands) and, according to the packet, sold at a rate of six million a week!