Saturday, 28 May 2011

The edge of our island

A few years back there was a short-lived flurry of media interest in a normally unremarkable farmhouse near the village of Coton in Derbyshire. Based upon calculations by the trusty Ordnance Survey, Church Flatts Farm was officially declared the place in Great Britain farthest from the sea, a mere 70 miles away. To be precise, the location is in a field a short walk to the south of the farm.

Needless to say the announcement provoked some controversy. The location was disputed. The 'centre' of Britain, it was argued, is not necessarily the same thing as the remotest point from the coast. After all, Britain is not circular. The distance was disputed too. The river Trent is tidal and on a high tide brackish water may encroach upstream to within 45 miles of Church Flatts. Never mind the statistics, it was all a bit of fun. The BBC turned up and some chap built a sand castle topped with a Union flag to mark the spot. Well done Brits!

There are two points to my writing about this. The first is that 70 miles really isn't all that far. None of us lives truly landlocked in Britain. The second is that, camera crew aside, hardly a soul ever visits the place. Save for a toy flag on a heap of sand it is unmarked, unnoticed, unromantic. It occupies no place in our imagination. Compare that with the cardinal points of our coastline. We teem in hundreds to Land's End and John O'Groats and are charged for the privilege of standing at the ends of our little piece of earth. Sadly these days the names have more romance than the locations themselves but we are not deterred. Some of us venture farther still: the Scilly Isles, Ardnamurchan, Muckle Flugga, St Kilda; the names ring with an exotic maritime poetry.

Perhaps it is a small island mentality but the siren song of the coast seems irresistible. We are drawn to the fringes of our land as we are to the seaward railings on the deck of a ship. We look outwards to the horizon. There are immediately obvious attractions in a coastline. It is exciting and varied, we have a great deal of it for such a small nation (just how much is the subject of a celebrated mathematical paradox, of which more another time) and there is always plenty going on. Large tracts of the British coast are accessible and it is full of recreational possibilities. We run and hike, fly kites and skim stones; we build castles, walk dogs, watch birds and poke around in its pools; we paint the coast, write about it, collect little pieces of it to fetch home. And like everything else we have tried to impose our human will over it. We have created safe moorings for our boats and built defences against flood and erosion. Where the land isn't quite enough we have defied the sea by extending it, building jetties and piers and filling them with all our human trappings.

We go to the coast when we are happy, in love, when we have things to talk through or are in need of inspiration, when we are pensive, reflective, desolate even. Whatever our mood or our motives, the coast and the sea seem to offer us something beyond the merely diverting or aesthetic. The lure of the sea has been much written and sung about.  It tugs at something elemental and primeval within us. For all the riches and beauty of the interior of our country it is not enough, the horizons beckon. The lore of our islands abounds with tales of drowned villages, ghost mariners, half-human sea people. We cock our heads to the waves and we hear voices in the tricks of the wind and the mewing gulls. Perhaps they are the voices of our ancestors, summoning us home.

I am fortunate to see the coast almost every day. I travel along a stretch of it on my journey to work and I sit at a desk not 70 yards from the sea, never mind 70 miles. Some days the sea is angry and grey, on others glassy calm. The opposite shore may glint back in the sun or be softened by mist. Some days it vanishes altogether. It is never the same view twice. I hope the owners of Church Flatts Farm are happy where they live. Derbyshire is a beautiful part of the country. I wonder whether they have the same sense of living on a small island with a long edge. I wonder whether the sea calls them in the way it does me and whether they answer.


  1. The siren call of the coast line. What an evocative thought... I was born and lived in a landlocked part of Europe until the age of six. It was then that I first saw the sea. Grey, vast and romantic. And all those other moods and states you have mentioned and described so well. I was on a two weeks holiday and I was in love. In love with the sea. I went back three years in succession and then I have not seen it for half a decade. Now I live close to the sea. My idea of heaven is a mountain range rising out of the sea foam (with or without sirens). Like you, I find 70 miles no distance at all. And like you I wonder whether those born away from the sea hear its call? Perhaps some do, very clearly. After all, the sea is a part of our collective memory.. Perhaps we are all sea people under our watertight skin.

  2. Which sea was it you first went to Madzia? I can imagine your experience of falling in love with it. In a future post I will write about my first memories of seeing mountains. I was smitten at once!

  3. I can't believe that I, an avid reader of your blog, somehow missed this.
    The very first sea shore I saw was that of southern Baltic. The dunes were golden with tufts of grass like an irregular beard, the water cold and salty (a surprise to a small child)and the days full of sunshine. I know it actually rained quite a lot, because my mother told me, but I can't remember it. I had a blown up dragon as I could not swim and spent most of my time on the beach, either in the water (quite often drinking it) or with the fishermen. They were very kind to all the children and used to give us small fish. The very young kept trying to make them swim on their tummies (the fish not the men) rather than floating belly up and would not be persuaded that they were well beyond help.. The sea went on as far as I could see, sometime joining the sky and to me it seemed to go on forever..
    I would like to read about you seeing mountains for the first time..

  4. This is charming Madzia! You should write a piece about it on your own blog. I like the image of small children trying to resurrect the fish and an inflatable dragon on the Baltic sounds like a cue for many an adventure. I rarely remember rain from childhood holidays either.