Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Going Back (Updated)

Update: I put this post up then almost immediately took it down. It just wasn't right. But Dale's comment here, and Jessie's and Sonia's on the original post encouraged me to rework it - many thanks to them. It's a record of a visit made last July to a childhood haunt.

What brought me back were memories.

I hadn't been to Bradwell for years. It isn't really a beauty spot, just a small fishing and sailing village at the mouth of the River Blackwater in Essex - a lonely, remote corner of the world, frequented by a few holidaymakers partial to fresh air and no commercialisation.

It is also home to a now-decommissioned nuclear power station, whose brutal concrete bulk isn't out of place - aesthetically anyway - in this spare, almost bleak, setting. We used to take it for granted. Like other species, humans adapt.

The plan was to walk from the village along the sea wall to the ancient chapel of St Peter on the Wall, which stands isolated and surrounded by fields at the very tip of the estuary facing the North Sea. As I set off heavy grey skies were being carried eastwards by a strong warm wind.

To the left, on the other side of the banks of shingle, cockle and oyster shells, the tide had retreated revealing an expanse of mudflats, a feeding ground for Brent geese and seagulls. The wind whipped up small wavelets on the surface of the water and rattled the furled rigging of the yachts at anchor in the harbour.

On the landward side the reeds rustled and sighed in the drainage channels. In the distance a tractor crawled along a farm track, the drone of its engine barely audible. Wildflowers - purple mallow, poppies and meadowsweet - bordered the wheatfields. Skylarks sang overhead or rose suddenly from the long grass as I approached. There are so many of them here. I'd forgotten that.

I took a deep breath of sea air and a gust of wind blew my hair over my eyes. I had decided to do this trip alone, but if I had wanted a companion it had already occurred to me that I might have had my work cut out to find one. Lonely mudflats on an overcast day aren't for everyone.

The enemy has generally come from the east, from across the North Sea.

The Romans knew this. They built a fort, at the eastern tip of the estuary against the threat from the marauding Anglo-Saxons. After their departure, in the seventh century a monk from Lindisfarne, St Cedd, constructed a church – my destination - using stones from the abandoned fort, and established a religious community.

In their turn the Danes sailed up the Blackwater to the little town of Maldon a few miles to the west, and defeated the Anglo-Saxons in battle; a
poem of the time commemorates the bloody event. And latterly small concrete bunkers were built along the sea wall prior to World War II, now repositories for shingle and seagrass, for empty cigarette packets and discarded beer cans.

For two hours or so the world consisted of the low scudding clouds, the sea, the fields. I met just three other people. It was unsettling to be here again - there is something about these wide expanses of sky that encourages self-examination. I did this same walk years ago with friends in bright sunshine, when the light was so penetrating that it conjured up an almost hallucinatory, out-of-this-world quality in the surroundings, every small detail clear and vivid ...

The chapel was empty. Given the plain, austere decor, not much imagination was needed to visualise the monks going about their business. Both they and the soldiers who preceded them would have needed to be hardy - in winter there are few colder and more desolate spots.

I stood and listened to the sound of the wind tugging at the stones and tiles. On occasions it died down and the silence was tangible.


Then something shifted. My own personal ghosts were starting to gather, joining those who were perhaps already in situ. Just a few miles away I had swum and played beach cricket and walked along the sea wall at dusk, part of a group of holiday friends, children and adults. As a child I had on the whole been happy here.

But it's really not a good idea to spend too much time with ghosts, even benign ones. You run the risk of becoming disembodied yourself. It was time to go home.


I'm thankful this place is so difficult to get to. I'm glad it has never been on the tourist map. I'm glad that the beaches are of shingle rather than sand and that there are mudflats at low tide.

I don't want it to be spoiled. Ever.

  1. Click on all photographs to enlarge.
  2. Photographs from the top: Sky, land and water; St Peter's on the Wall with the North Sea beyond; view looking out from the interior of the church. Follow the link in the body of the text for more photographs of St Peter's and information on its location and history.
  3. More about the nuclear power station.


Blogger Jessie said...

So glad you brought this out of storage, Mary. It's great--interesting photos, and you did an awesome job of adding in the sounds, the sea air and "strong warm wind" for an excellent armchair (um, desk chair?) visit. Excellent links too. Thanks!

Hope all's going along well in your transition process.

2:42 pm  
Blogger Sonia said...

That is a beautiful post, Mary!
I enjoyed your well written memories and I like so much the pictures! I like specially the picture of the banks of cockle and oyster shells. Thanks for sharing.

I wanted to thank you for your kind words about my blog anniversary!

Have a nice Sunday!

3:17 pm  
Blogger chuck said...

May the wild, forsaken places remain wild and forsaken...

9:37 am  
Blogger Pauline said...

Amazing, isn't it, how much the same and yet how different are the places we remember from childhood. I expect it's because we return to them as different people. This is a lovely piece - I could smell the sea, feel the wind, sense the desolate sweep of the empty fields.

12:21 pm  
Blogger herhimnbryn said...

It's 11.10pm and I'm just checking in. This looks too good to rush so am saving your words for the morning. Night. zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

4:15 pm  
Blogger MB said...

Mary, I'm very glad I got to see this after all. The photos are all marvelous, but in particular the one of the church — especially with the line underneath, The enemy has generally come from the east... — is stunning. I could almost see them.

I would have been there with you in a heartbeat. Your writing is very evocative.

4:19 pm  
Blogger Jessie said...

This is a great post on so many levels, Mary. I'm glad you're more comfortable with it now.

5:24 pm  
Blogger Tarakuanyin said...

This was lovely, the writing haunting and the images so clear I felt I was there. Thank you for putting it back up, for reworking it till you felt you were comfortable with it.

12:01 am  
Blogger herhimnbryn said...

Living now in a land of wide blue skies and often searing heat, it has been a wonderous experience taking this walk with you. I could hear the wind, see the enemy and taste the sea on my tongue. Thankyou for deciding to post about this Mary.

12:49 am  
Blogger rdl said...

glad you did, nice job!!

2:03 am  
Blogger Jean said...

How beautiful, and beautifully evoked. I'd love to go there.

12:01 pm  
Anonymous beth said...

Oh, me too! How I would love to stand there and imagine my own ancestors' lives as well. A beautiful post, Mary, I'm so glad you brought it back.

7:49 pm  
Blogger Sky said...

But it's really not a good idea to spend too much time with ghosts, even benign ones. You run the risk of becoming disembodied yourself. It was time to go home.

I love these words. Revisiting our past is such an intriguing experience. We carry so much of our past inside, but memories allow us to maintain a necessary distance that being once again "in the moment" doesn't always permit.

I wonder sometimes if experiences with "place" actually present a harbor for feelings which perhaps did not even originate in that place but which conducted our inner lives at a time we might have been connected to a specific place. I have a place like that in my own life...a summer lake house. My time there as a child was fun-filled, but interestingly melancholy surfaces when I revisit it.

These photographs are quite powerful and stark. The post is so moving in a variety of ways, and I am grateful for another peek inside your life. Thank you for reposting. :)

10:07 pm  
Blogger Patry Francis said...

Unspoiled places feel so rare now. Thank you for taking me to one.

4:13 am  
Blogger Mary said...

Thanks everyone. More than most, this post was for me but your comments made it very special:

Chuck: Yes indeed.

Pauline: It was my experience that I was a very different person this time around.

HHB: Thank you. Sunshine has its merits though :-)

MB: You're definitely someone I would love to do the walk with ....

Jessie: I owe you on this one!! Thank you ...

Tarakuanyin: The pleasure was mine .. but comments like yours add to it. Thank you.

Rdl: Thanks!

Jean: You would love it ...

Beth: ... and so would you!

Sky: I think you are exactly right, places are a hook, or a harbour, for the feelings of the inner life at the time. And once the period of life has passed it can't be recaptured. You can indeed only live the present moment ....

Patry: My pleasure .....:-)

6:47 pm  
Anonymous Becca said...

This is a hauntingly beautiful post. It is the kind of place I love to discover and walk ... but for you, full of history and memories.

8:20 pm  
Blogger LJ said...

This is an utterly beautiful post. Beautifully written, haunting photographs. Thank you for reposting this. From my crazy-busy day to the...hush of this.
Thank you, thank you.

9:54 pm  
Blogger Pat Paulk said...

A little partial to mudflats myself having grown up on the coast of South Georgia, US. Enjoyed the red!!

4:16 pm  
Blogger Sonia said...

Thanks so much Mary, nice of you to mention me!

Have a good weekend!

6:19 pm  
Blogger Stray said...

Wow. I was right there with you Mary, and would be again if you return and want the kind of company that is really about being alone but in the same place at the same time.

Too many moving thoughts to pick one individually ... though I suppose the gathering of the ghosts was a real drawing-in point for me.

Take care


6:49 am  
Blogger leslee said...

I missed this the first time around, so I don't know what you changed. It is lovely, both your description and the photos, both haunting. Lonely places like that are a little spooky, but there is something compelling in them. Thanks for posting this.

5:06 pm  
Anonymous susanne said...

"For two hours or so the world consisted of the low scudding clouds, the sea, the fields."

Your words have always resonated with me but these especially have.... the whole post has in fact and like Stray I could feel myself there. Thank you for that as it's a place I may never otherwise reach physically. I can't imagine more evocative words.

5:41 pm  
Blogger Mary said...

Becca: yes, definitely memories ....

LJ: Thank you for your generous comment. So glad you liked it.

Pat: Welcome! Good to see you here.

Sonia: I owe you too for this one!

Stray: What a lovely comment. Thank you.

Leslee: Spooky, perhaps. Not frightening though ... glad you liked it.

Susanne: So very pleased to see your comment. Thank you. And the resonance is mutual ....

9:00 pm  
Blogger Edie said...

I am also glad you brought this post back to light. Thank you for it. This is a lovely piece of writing and all of the photos are beautiful. I am most drawn to the one of the open door and find it most significant after reading your most recent post.

3:16 am  
Blogger zhoen said...

Sounds a perfect sort of day to me. Save to have company in your silence.

11:24 pm  

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