I had few reservations making the move to Hampshire, as I did with my family last spring to a village by the North Wessex Downs. Few reservations except, strangely, the faint apprehension of being landlocked. Where this came from I’m uncertain; I have never lived close to the coast — I grew up in the grey monotony of sprawling London suburbia. And yet, with the house move looming, I grew alert to a creeping claustrophobia. It occurred to me that I had forged a connection with the seascapes close to my current and previous homes. Living in Suffolk, I would find excuses to drag the family to Aldeburgh, Southwold or Shingle Street, to step out onto a familiar crunch of stone and shell, and make a beeline for the waves. If alone, I might opt for the mouth of the River Orwell, whose narrow sand-soiled towpath snakes towards the Channel, ducking in and out beneath giant overhanging oak trees. Similarly, in southeast London I became obsessed by the Thames Estuary, and would drive in winter darkness the 35 miles to the Hoo Peninsula — to the Isle of Grain — and sit beside wind-clipped trees and feathered reeds in view of the vast rumpled mudflats, the passing freighter ships, the lone men in waders filling buckets with cockles, silhouetted against the whitewash. In all these places I found something incomparably nourishing.
And so, approaching Hampshire, I scanned a map for routes to the water, tracing a line across the south coast for a potential replacement. The feeling sought is not peace or tranquillity. It is more energising than that – a stirring, quickening, just the right side of unnerving, even. It’s the sting of the wind, the unobscured flatness of landscape, the distant groaning of tankers, the ubiquitous decomposition of manmade objects — all the metalwork run aground, retired fishing boats rusting, the sun-bleached timber washing up, planks, panels, fallen trees. Trees that, as the late W. G. Sebald wrote in his timeless edgelander’s companion The Rings of Saturn, appear like the bones of extinct species.
Curiosity is in the fabric of these places. Beached beside the Isle of Grain, for example, there is a sunken WW2 warship still loaded with 1,400 tons of unexploded munitions, the wreck too hazardous to dredge up from the sandbank that derailed its eastward assignment. The sight of its barnacled masts protruding from the water gives me that same stomach lurch as when treading water beside a boat and remembering the impossible depths below, the many creatures circling beneath you. At Grain, too, there is a brick pathway that materialises on the easternmost shoreline at low tide. Green with seaweed, it leads to the eroding steel and stone frame of a derelict 19th century gun tower; the path practically beckons you forward. But the micro-focus is every bit as compelling: knotted ropes tethered down below the sand, the otherworldly translucence of stranded jellyfish, stones shaped by the sea’s remarkable strength. And then, uniting all these things with a soundtrack as perpetual as wave break, there are the wading shoreline birds.
Whether you are attuned to it or not, the oystercatcher’s squeaking staccato, the metallic chink of the sandpiper and the mournful kettle-whistle of the curlew give the British coastline its distinct personality. Washed smooth over sand and shingle, their expressive calls mingle into one evocative dissonance. Walking the waterfronts, it is possible to lose all bearing of the true composition of this muted sound or the multiple directions of its source. In the winter months, yet more voices contribute, as migrants return to our shores: from their Siberian nesting grounds come coal-dark brent geese who chatter in loyal gatherings; flocks of dunlin land from summering in Scandinavia and integrate, quick-footed, with the chirruping waders across the sand. Redshank “pip”, plovers whistle and eiders gently, deeply “coo”. The chorus swells.
These winter visitors contribute in no small way to the arresting appeal of the coast for me. Carried in their voices are the vast distances and experiences of their somewhat mysterious intercontinental existence. We might know a great deal more about avian migration than we once did (at one point birds were assumed to migrate to the moon), yet so much still remains contested theory: the seasonal triggers, the remarkable speed and stamina, the acute navigational accuracy. Around 2,500 miles separate the summer and winter residences of the brent goose, and yet their flocks will return each year to some exact location marked on their internal compass. The Arctic tern (the ‘sea swallow’) regularly triples that distance. The wonder of this phenomenon is supernatural yet reassuringly routine, like the reliable reemergence of snowdrops in early spring, brightening the grass. In winter I go to the coast for the international arrivals as I might go to the woods for the sight of bluebells – for the sense of the wider world still working the way it is supposed to.
There is one winter migrant whose broad silhouette and long, ghostly call evokes all the mystery and remoteness of the water. Its voice is almost wolflike in tone — half laughing-half wailing, as remembered by the naturalist John Muir — and carries easily across the water surface. Its physique is crafted exclusively for the life aquatic. The bird can dive an astonishing 60-metres-deep with feet as powerful as propellers and eyes that can change colour for underwater vision. Broad wings allow it to speed to over 70mph, yet, if ever inadvertently landlocked, it becomes stranded — the feet are set too far back for effective walking and, on wings alone, it struggles to get airborne again. The bird is among the largest of the UK divers, known as the Great Northern, migrating down from summer breeding lakes in Greenland, Iceland and North America. It is not uncommon on our coastline but keeps a little way out from shore, fishing deep in protracted dives or cruising the surface, its muscular neck held forward. It is seen in pairs or small groupings but as often as not spotted alone. For some reason I had imagined you’d have to travel to a Hebridean island or the Northumbrian coast to catch sight of one but, to my delight, I learned this winter that Great Northern divers are familiar visitors to the south coast.
With the new year turned over and the January cold fidgeting my bones, I made trips to the coastal harbours and inlets of Hampshire and Dorset, seeking the Northern diver, but seeking, too, the stimulation and sharpness of the sea and its surroundings. The Southampton docks, the mouth of the Itchen, the Isle of Purbeck, Poole and Portland harbours, Sandsfoot Beach: repeated trips in snatched hours to landscapes new, blinking in reflected sunshine and dashing from passing rain. On shingle and sand, along mudflats and towpaths I watched the water and its folding waves, attempting to decipher diving merganser and red-throated diver from distant cormorant with binoculars pressed tight, casting at each spot a visual net across the waterfront. Encounters with walkers, birders and dog walkers alike helped colour and inform my search, but the solitude was the enlivening tonic: a familiar retreat into the clamour of waves and wading seabirds. Of these many places, it is perhaps Jerry’s Point that I have become most attached to – a slim bump of the Studland peninsular that looks out over Poole Harbour. Its sandy, gorse-thorned and pine-shadowed scrubland is in perfect discord with the unfathomably plush and affluent real estate of Sandbanks on the opposite shore. Meandering its escarpment takes you through birch and bracken, passing isolated ponds spongy with rush and sedge. At the Point itself you can stand on a low shelf of eroded topsoil with a near 360 degree view of water. When the wind sends ripples in your direction it feels as if you are at the bow of a broad ship.
On my last visit, late in the afternoon, I had to outpace the tide as it spilled over the shingle path, reaching the Point in fading light. I scoured the water, tuned-in to the birdlife: a clutch of black and white oystercatchers pacing the beach, a dozen brent geese in deeper water, blustered by the gathering wind. A merganser and its mate were making dives a little way off, taking turns. Gulls glided left to right. And then a darker thing, much further out, its broad neck held still above the fluttering waves. Soundless, alone. A dive, and it was gone.
Words and photographs by Matt Collins.