It is a land of sea and sky. The sky is immense: larger than forever, wide and open and holy and stretched like blue skin over the drum of the heavens. Far below, the ancient land fights a constant war against the sea: against the tidal warriors who hammer and chisel at the cliffs and concrete, carrying the land away, inch by inch, moon by moon, hour by hour, and who drop their cargo of broken England further down the coast to form dunes, beaches, mud flats and who silt up channels, build new spits of land that stretch far out to sea, and who mix the dust and debris that remains to make the tidal waters as treacherous as treacle and quicksand.
There is a no-man's land between the sea and the coast road, where salt and fresh water mix in a maze of marshes and where creamy cows graze happy all summer on grass and daisies. Where white-painted windmills and huge, high churches stand as protectors against the devil, winter and the coastguard. Where villages of tiny, flint cottages huddle together against the autumn winds that whistle across the cold North Sea and howl across the mudlands. Where migrant birds find sanctuary and the bird-watcher finds heaven.
The sea trickles into quiet, landlocked harbours, crashes against the sea walls and floods the grazing marshlands. It floats happy sailing boats and carries weather-worn row-boats out to harvest crabs and lobsters. It takes the lives of those who wander the marshes without knowing, without understanding the fickleness of this shifting coastline. It cleanses and polishes sandy beaches for infant buckets-and-spades. It gives generously of fish and food and livelihood, and it takes greedily of life and home. It is always there. Sea and sky, sky and sea. Eternal and changeless, yet constantly changing. Sea and sky, sky and sea.
Summer fields of wheat and poppy blanket the low hills away from the coast, where narrow, winding, tree-hidden roads lead to everywhere and somewhere and most often to nowhere at all. All summer long, the village streets ripple with visiting voices and children's footsteps. The harbours are full of small boats, child fishermen and a garden of colourful sails. Ice-cream and paper flags. Dogs on leads. Sportshirts and shorts and sandals and sunglasses. Deckchairs and doughnuts and golf. But the first splash of autumn rain sends all the small boats running for cover, and the coastline instantly reverts to its own, its lonely, wild and howling own...
I suppose I first went to this coastline as a dream, a hope, a shining, hopeful future... because this is where my parents spent their first summer days together, wedded and new and easy, walking the chalk-and-sand cliffs holding hands, skimming dreams like smooth stones on the flat tide, gathering pink thrift for their infant garden, breathing the salt air as their own together; watching the homecoming crab-boats evening-sailing on a gentle swell; sleeping happy and home in the red-brick cliff house with its high view over the spilling sea.
They had bee happy together there. So, later, they took us all; back to the red-brick house with its family rooms hired-by-the-week and its family welcome, when we were small girls and as eager and active as a school of small fish. Mother and father and two, then three, then four little girls. We would stand together by the sea wall, happy and holidaying, and the water would come in, high, high, higher! until it banged loud and deep and crashed and broke! against the steep stone, splashing us and soaking us with excited laughter. Giggling and running and slipping and daring, we waited, waited, waited until the very last second, teasing the giant waves and shouting "Get me, get me!" and then running in laughter to escape the rainbow-sparkling spray.
And later in the day, when the water was walking backwards and slipping gently away from the town, we would play on the smooth, clean and red sand; building castles for our dreams, tunnelling for pirate's treasure, digging rivers and streams to channel our wishes and prayers into the ocean. And then prodding and poking under the stones by the tall, seaweed-clad breakwaters, looking for the soft-backed crabs who were waiting quietly and patiently for the evening tide: and then running, squealing, terrified! when one raised its juvenile claw... And early-morning scampering through the bakery-scented town, eager to buy a morning newspaper and to get back to the red-brick house in time for breakfast and the white, creamy milk from the cows who grazed on the green wall against the skyline. Sharing a pot of cockles and vinegar and white pepper, bought from the old man with the weathered, brown smile, who kept a stall at one side of the side of the narrow seaside street. And tumbling into bed at night, happy and tired and wanting the holiday to last forever and ever and ever...
I watched each wave and counted each pebble, each grain of sand. I tried to catch the sun as it sank each evening, trying to push it back up into the sky and to stretch the daylight for a few more hours. To catch the sea in a net and to take it back home. To climb inside a lobster-pot and never get out. To be forgotten and left behind... and I planted my feet deep in the strong red sand and waited for the tide.
Of course, there were other holiday homes, but never far away: for one, there a tiny flint cottage with a garden of peas and lettuce and gooseberries redcurrants, where my youngest sister slept in a crib made from a suitcase, because she was only a few months old and still tiny, and where the sea was a mile away, a long, quiet mile away, and the beach was a wall of smooth pebbles and fishermen with rods and lines and a decaying, broken pillbox which stood like a sentry watching the waves; and where I could imagine the ancient galleons and schooners that used to sail right up to the beach, because it was so steep; where I was still a child, but growing and learning.
And there were many weeks in rain-splattered, crowded caravans, filled to the brim with parents and rapidly-growing girls and wet clothes and wishes for dry weather, just one day, please! and games of snakes-and- ladders and hidden-away heaps of cheap romantic novels. But I never remembered the rain... just the sun, the sea and the enormous sky.
It was from one of these caravans that I wandered the day I had been left behind, feeling ill, learning to be a woman, while the rest of the family drove off to play on the Queen's sand. Sitting aloof on the quayside, I watched the sea's slippery face as it wriggled and twisted through the harbour and into the marshes, sucking and sliding, gliding and shining with currents and cross-currents, shallows and depths; the boats playing follow-my-leader back past the yellow markers to the deep, safe sea, the sea hiding from the harbour behind the dunes and sand and fir trees. I sat and watched the chessboard oystercatchers with their yellow dagger beaks red-stilting across the flat mud. I listened to the hovering terns as they squalled and called and nagged at each other. I sat and watched the sailors unloading crates of fresh, pink shrimps onto the quay, and the little boys squatting and fishing for crabs between the quayside and the shrimp-boats. I dared to buy a pink, red-spotted sea urchin from one of the sailors. It was wet and dirty and smelled of sour fish. And the childhood day was bleeding away, drop by drop, into the adult waves.
There were visits as a teenager. One week with a friend and her family, in the large summer town with the end-of-pier show, a lighthouse and a basement disco. And another couple of days with a college friend, feeding ourselves on pick-your-own strawberries, hitching rides in open-topped cars, braving the low-tide sands to walk to the stretch of land beyond the sea, where the birds had no fear and where young seals basked in the sun. We were young and happy, myself and the sea.
But the next time we met, I was a runaway: a one-day runaway. One wild, windy and careless day, runaway from The Man and our early home, when I should have been working and taking a bagful of groceries home; when instead I followed the tracks of my dreams back to the truthful sky and the waving poppies. And I returned home with seaside rock and a bag of sand and sea and the unfound pirate's treasure, which I hid and brought out only when the skies were dark and the day a storm.
And a few years later, pegged in a flaming orange tent on the top of a windswept cliff, I was introducing my own little girls to the sea and the coastline. Watching them as they shyly clutched their own buckets and spades, looking for their own secret treasures and building their own dream castles of sand and sea and sun. And playing childhood games with them on the beach and on the clifftops, flying kites and sailing hopes far out to sea. Showing them my favourite places and seeing just how much and how very little had changed, knowing nothing had really changed at all. And then spoiling it all by fighting with The Man and having to walk to the sea to mix my salt tears with the angry, boiling, brown waters.
And then, later again, one week passed in introducing this coastline to my New Man: my two little girls burying everything in the sand, the sun shining and a chill breeze blowing from the sea. A million steps to climb to a small, cosy caravan. Ten minutes to walk to the even-cosier village pub, hung with nets of wishes and full of the smoke of sea-tales and heroes and legends, where everyone was a friend. With our new son a small seed, silently growing. The coastline was hushed, quiet: not sleepy but waiting. As if it were holding its breath. And watching.
We returned together months later, our son happy in our arms, but the rain raining rods and the sea black and full of fury, the sun hiding fire and flame behind a skyful of low, black clouds as we drove away.
I haven't been back since. Not out of choice, but circumstance: not because I have turned my back and forgotten, but just because the chance hasn't been there: the road has pointed in the wrong direction, the ticket has another destination and home is far, far away. But I haven't forgotten... the still, pink twilight: the curlew calling alone: the barn owl sitting high on the naked, village-less church: the herons stalking and prodding the water, then flying away with a crash of wings, trailing their legs like kites-tails across an ocean of sky: the moon splashing on the smooth harbour waters, the breeze chiming the small-boat sails like bells, the roar of the pebbles pulled to sea by the full-bodied tide; the salt air and the whispering water and the secret, heathen paths... No, I haven't forgotten...
The sea echoes in my ear as in a shell, lying washed up on the beach. My ankles are bound to the breaking land with five chains of green seaweed. And my hopes are but pebbles washing and drying and rolling and breaking and roaring and fading against the eternal, ever-changing, never-changing Norfolk coastline.