Saturday, 14 November 2009

A sense of scale

There are parts of the Norfolk landscape that feel remote and isolated from the workings of Man, stretches of coast where a bleak solitude can be found amid the dull tones of saltmarsh and the grand winter skyscapes. It is at this time of the year that these stretches of coast offer up their charm, the last of the holidaymakers now tucked up at home and only the hardiest of souls tempted out on a day when the bitter winds drive in off the sea. It is a good time to be out and about, to take stock of the summer’s achievements and to reflect on seasons past.

Here, in Norfolk, it is the limitless horizon of the North Sea that delivers the special sense of place that I get from certain landscapes. By stretching away to meet the sky, it removes the sense of scale that seems ever-present elsewhere within the county. This landscape ‘on the edge’ moves me in the same way that I am moved by the great granite hills of northern Britain, the bleak moors of the west and the ancient chalk escarpments of the southern downlands. These are old landscapes and to be within them, part of them, reaffirms my place in the land.

The coastal saltmarshes, which echo to the haunting calls of Redshank and Curlew, are a fragile habitat, sensitive to changing sea levels internationally and increasingly squeezed in between the sea and prized arable land. Within Norfolk, however, the expanse of saltmarsh, which starts in the west at Thornham and stretches east as far as Cley, is largely protected from the direct impact of the sea by extensive shingle ridges and sand dunes. In recent years the defensive sea wall has been allowed to breach in places, part of a process of managed retreat.

The power of the sea is something that remains very difficult to deflect. Over the centuries the coastal fringe of Norfolk has been subjected to inundation, with periodic storm surges (or ‘rages’ as the Victorians called them) dumping huge quantities on sea-water onto fresh and grazing marshes, changing the shape of the coast and impacting upon the lives of those who make their living there. It is a reminder that we do not exert complete control over the world around us, that there are natural processes that will shape the way in which we live.

Being here, at this boundary between land and sea, shedding the sense of scale, underlines the fact that we are part of a wider world. It removes us from the comfort of our day-to-day lives, something that it is difficult to do in our increasingly busy world.

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