Seeking out the flowers growing in the sandy grassland of the dunes, we found several varieties I’d seen in books but were new to me in the field – common storksbill, Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon, sea sandwort, sea rocket and frosted orache. Remarkable names for lovely, remarkable plants. It was only later that I remembered I’d grown up alongside them – on the south coast of Dorset, where I lived between the ages of five and eighteen. Almost my entire experience then of the natural world was at the seaside, playing in the sand and swimming. It was elemental, but domesticated; the wild and wondrous mediated through beach hut, rubber ring, plastic bucket and spade.
Perhaps it was a pity there was no one to point out the flowers or creatures and teach me their names. But, although these plants were never consciously lodged in my awareness and memory, fifty years later, I am caught up in great waves of familiarity, a visceral sense of intimacy. The grit of the sand grains, the fishy whiff in the air, the soothing shush and suck of the waves and the petals glowing low to the ground all tell me my body knows this place.
I have never been to Beadnell before but the sea is inside me – from this lifetime and how many others since we crawled out of the sea, hungry for air and earth to lend a different shape to our stories. My story began in the North – in Wallsend – and my family would go to the coast for days out and holidays. When we moved South, the sea came with us, seeping into our summer days – beach, harbour, ferry and backwater. I never went anywhere without a towel rolled up in a bag. I trained as a life-saver, not knowing until much later it was my own life that needed saving.
Going out to explore the dunes around the estuary, I carried nothing except a small notebook and pencil slipped in my back pocket. Travelling light. As if I knew I needed to tread carefully to walk the tightrope between fresh and familiar, past and present, inside and out. What I found was simply more of me there on that three-mile stretch of land, liminal territory that allowed me to be neither here nor there, precisely where I need to be.