Pre-dawn at the beach car park, Cley
According to the song, Giant steps are what you take, walking on the moon. They are not what you take when walking on Blakeney Point. It is akin to walking through deep new snow. The stones act like some devilish conveyor belt forcing your feet back. Progress is slow. Small steps are what you take.
I began this journey at the car park at the end of Beach Road in Cley. 5 a.m; a stiff breeze was blowing and the air was chill. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom there was the faintest glow on the horizon with an accompaniment of breaking waves on the shingle bank and the lone cry of a Curlew somewhere over the nature reserve, still swathed in darkness.
Dawn, Blakeney Point
Blakeney Point is a shingle spit, which is oriented east-west. The Point is 9.6 miles long, which is considerably shorter than Suffolk’s mirror image, Orford Ness. The width of the spit varies from place to place. It’s shape has been sculpted and defined by the restless sea and it is 33 feet high at its maximum. Apparently, it holds 82 million cubic feet of shingle.
I set off into the darkness, feeling the usual trepidation that the Point engenders. Perhaps I should point out that this walk should only be undertaken once the memory of the last visit has acquired the rosy glow of nostalgia that comes after the memories of the effort and aches and pains have faded. I invariably go alone on this nine and a half mile walk on sand and shingle to enjoy the introspection that this walk encourages.
As I trudged along the shingle the sky lightened and clumps of Yellow-Horned Poppy began to appear, erupting like volcanoes from the shingle. I crunched on through the shingle with the slow, steady progress of one walking through treacle.
I stopped again to study the dawn that was unfolding behind me. The sun was rising through a veil of thin cloud, a red disk.
After a while I veered left to visit a marooned fishing vessel on the edge of the salt marsh. A cobalt blue hull with the identification mark of WH272 and a superstructure which is mottled white and red with rust, it has sat here for many a year; I named it barca innominata on my first visit. The sheer ferocity of some distant storm must have sat it here, a few hundred metres from the sea
The first reference point on this walk is the Watch House and I could gauge my progress in this relatively featureless landscape as it loomed larger. Shortly before reaching that small oasis of vegetated land and a respite from the harsh lunar stonescape I came upon the dessicated body of a Common Seal with its bleach boned skull picked clean, lying like a Phocidean George Mallory, whose bleached and frozen remains have been resting on Everest since his death in 1924, like an alabaster effigy in some country church.
I continued the short distance to the Watch House, resembling a Marie Celeste; it felt as if somebody had left in a hurry. The land around the house was strewn with old fish boxes, a barbecue and the skeleton of a fish with spines along its long but curled up tail; a Skate.
The Watch House
I continued my trudge westwards, savouring the occasional patches of vegetation underfoot and passing yet more Yellow-Horned Poppies, their petals resembling Nepalese prayer flags in the strengthening breeze. The high point of the spit grew larger before me.
Yankee Hills is a legendary spot for birders. The autumn and spring migration always throwing up some poor bewildered vagrant for a voracious audience to ogle through their spotting scopes and binoculars. I soon reached the marram covered dunes and climbed to their high point. Its soft ridge looked like a Striding Edge covered in velour. I continued the short distance along a compact, sandy track to the Old Lifeboathouse, now a National Trust café, surrounded by timber huts and bungalows, putting up a Sparrowhawk as I did. I watched as it disappeared in the direction of Blakeney Harbour, its passage scattering flocks of small waders.
The Lifeboat House
I continued my direction in an arc, with the open water of the harbour to my left and hundreds of waders flying to and fro. I soon emerged onto the shingle again, but this time it quickly gave way to a sandy strip between sea and low marram covered dunes. There was a long hank of debris that made up the high tide mark and I followed it, the lines of beached seaweeds punctuated with the occasional corpse of a seal or Guillemot, in varying degrees of decomposition. A Tern lay on a pillow of weed, fresh. Eyes open and head outstretched it, looked nothing less than built for speed, a feathered dart. I was accompanied by foraging Turnstones and the occasional Ringed Plover.
Quite unexpectedly, I came upon a National Trust sign, asking visitors not to proceed further to avoid disturbance to wildlife. On the first ascent of Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, Joe Brown and George Band, stopped short of the summit because it is considered a sacred place by the Sikkimese. I sat down on the soft sand and listened to the only sound, the gentle waves running onto the merest band of shingle. All sounds of civilization were left far behind me and I felt a deep sense of satisfaction at having this wonderful place all to myself.
The end of Blakeney Point
As I gazed distractedly out over the sea to the distant shore of Wells Beach and the conifer belts that form its western border I had a feeling that I was being watched. Gradually, one by one, the heads of eleven Common Seals appeared out of the water, less than a hundred yards off shore. As I attempted to take photos of them, they slipped beneath the waves, only to re-appear as I concentrated on the next one. Who was watching whom?
They watched me with the baleful stares of East German border guards from some Cold War film. I thought of Ricki Tarr’s famous line from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, “Who spies on the spies, Mr Smiley?” I half expected them to produce cameras and start photographing me. The technology is there: waterproof cameras but I guess it is kind of tricky to press the shutter release when you have flippers instead of fingers. Perhaps this little problem will be sorted out by evolution over the next tens of thousand years. I rose and began my long journey back, resolved to leave the seals to their solitude and in peace. I was touched that for the first few hundred yards, I was escorted by a solitary seal, surfacing periodically and then slipping beneath the surface to surge forward like a living torpedo.
Debris, Blakeney Point
Finally, I was alone again and trudged the high tide line of debris, revisiting the corpses of marine life and the detritus of modern sailors, casually turfed over the side to litter this pristine landscape. I walked on, now faster, as the return leg had little new to catch my attention. There was a shimmering ahead of me, where sky meets land and the shelter on the Cley beach car park began to appear; at first, a small blob hanging in space just above the land, a mirage. Then I was back at my starting point and my final memory of the day was the sight of a Hobby hunting dragonflies high above the car park, unseen by everyone else.