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  • phildunn641

Outdoors

Updated: Apr 18, 2021

In the week following Easter my wife and I both had some time off - her from work and me from work and study. I hired a car and we travelled the furthest we have been since the beginning of November 2020 (5 months). We made trips to Rainham Marshes, an RSPB reserve on the Thames just inside the M25, to Walton-on-the-Naze, a seaside town on the Essex Coast that's about a 2 hour drive from our part of London, and used it to complete some domestic tasks.


It was bitterly cold on our trip to Rainham Marshes and sometimes an effort just to stand still and observe. None of the hides were open and without their shelter we were at the mercy of the wind whipping down the river and across the marshes. Despite this, it was a joy to be outside in a new environment, seeking out interesting bird life, breathing fresh (very fresh) air and looking back into London from an entirely new viewpoint for me.

I think most birds had the good sense to be buried deep among the reed beds, or to have postponed migration, but we did manage to see male and female marsh harriers, little egrets, redshanks and lapwings. We were listening out for, and almost certainly heard, the call of a cetti's warbler.


The site was once a military firing range and is littered with structures from it former use which creates a particular psychogeography when placed among marshland that is now given over completely to nature.

Next days trip was to Walton-on-the-Naze - a longer drive, but in better (slightly warmer) conditions. I'd been there, or close to there, a couple of time before. It's near neighbour Frinton-on-Sea, was somewhere to visit to seek out 1950's vintage nick-nacks when we still did that sort of thing and there was a great restaurant, The Stour Bay Café, in nearby Manningtree that my wife and I visited a couple of times.


We parked next to the Naze tower, an 18th century navigational tower built by Trinity House, the official authority for lighthouses in England and Wales. My Wife was particularly excited about this as earlier in her career she had catalogued the archive of Trinity House. We sat with the car facing the sea and felt such joy at just staring out onto an open expanse of water. It was the first time I had been this close to the sea for months and it was marvellous.

Starting at the Naze tower, we walked along a coastal path with the beach on one side and nature reserve on the other. On the beach side there was a cliff that was gradually eroding and from time to time we were warned away from the edge by signs, "Warning, Unstable Cliff Edge". Where the cliffs were lower and there were more trees around, large gaps appeared where trees had toppled tearing up their entire root systems which, once washed by several high tides, were almost indistinguishable from the trees' crowns which made me think of the works of both Robert Smithson and Rodney Graham which I had seen last year in the Among the Trees exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London. Robert Smithson is probably best known for land art and his work Spiral Jetty, but the work on display at the Hayward was a series of photographs showing trees that had been replanted root-end up. Rodney Graham's inverted photographs of trees were influenced by Smithson's earlier series.

Rodney Graham, Gary Oak, Galiano Island 2012 (detail) Transmounted C-print Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Hayward Gallery 2020


On the land side was gorse in full yellow bloom, its sweet slightly sickly scent just perceptible when the sun alighted on it and the breeze dropped.


As we walked on, ahead of us was the container port at Felixstowe and looking through binoculars I could see an incongruous row of beach huts seeming to sit below one of the mighty container cranes. The beach to our right was then more mud-flat than beach and there we saw redshanks, a curlew, a flock of sanderling and several little ringed plovers. Turning round, we walked back to a point where it was possible to get onto the beach. We stopped for a while there just looking at the expanse of beach and sea and sky. One of the things I've noted during lockdown is that there are few opportunities for city dwellers to really look into the distance - apart from the few occasions when I walk up to Alexandra Palace which sits on top of a hill, I'm looking at things close-up whether it's the interior of my flat, the shops across the street, or even my local woods - nothing is really distant and there is no perception of an unbroken horizon. So we just stood for minutes, looking north and east at as little as possible.

Once we had taken in the expanse of nothing, we focused once more at what was close and found ourselves in a bizarre miniature landscape of canyons, crevasses and buttes which must result from the geology of the Naze, The cliffs of the Naze are composed of several layers with the bottom, and beach level where we were, being London Clay. The layers above this are more sand-like Red Crag and Pleistocene deposits. As these sandier layers have been washed away by the tides they appear to have carved out their own small scale badlands.

The clay surface proved to be a perilous pathway - it looked like rock, but gave way every so slightly when stood on and as can be expected with wet clay, it was incredibly slippery. As we walked at beach level back towards the Naze tower the signs of erosion were move obvious with fallen trees at intervals and two or three concrete military installations dumped now on the beach rather than solidly on raised ground and reminiscent of the buildings and structures that we had seen the previous day among the marshes at Rainham.


This stretch of land is just a bit to the south of the East Anglia coastal path where W. G. Sebald set his book The Rings of Saturn where the narrator walks recounting history, memories and encounters in a meandering, melancholy and sometimes humorous discourse. And walking along the beach with its decaying cliffs, seeing fallen trees whose dried exposed roots were bleached white like bone and wartime defences stranded and useless except to nature, it was difficult not to think of the phsychogeorgraphy evoked in Sebald's book that spoke of transience and decay.


The last trip out in the car before returning it was to the local dump (refuse and recycling centre) to deposit a television that had been broken during the Christmas holidays by my daughter throwing her iPhone at the screen. This television has been the subject of some artistic experimentation which, while not exhaustive, had reached a point where the possible forms of artistic expression were outweighed by the space it was unnecessarily taking up in our flat.


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