Wandering along the shoreline is one of my favourite pastimes. I was born at the edge of the Peak District, as far away from the crashing waves of the shoreline as possible in the UK. I’m not sure if that explains the feeling that pulls me to the sea, to the edge of this island, where the legends and tales are saltier, the winds a little wilder. My husband hails from the long coasts of Norfolk and regales me with tales of boats, bridges, coastal erosion and longshore drift. He talks of waves and tourists and the sea as a constant. It is another world to me, a child of peaks and plains. When we visit, we park up, eating chips in the car, watching the blink of ships miles out to sea in the inky blackness.
Now we live in Yorkshire, with wild moorland, rocks, peat and those liminal spaces, but again, far away from the coast. The occasions I get to travel to the beach are special, and I roll up my trousers and wander amongst the froth of breaking waves until my toes are numb and raw pink from the cold.
On the beach, I look for treasure. Sparkly sea glass, shiny shells, even a coin or two after a storm. Maybe even real treasure – eye to the ground, eyes open to the possibility of a doubloon or two sparkling under a pile of drying seaweed. Who knows?!
Anything can be treasure, though, on a beach. I love the different seaweeds, although am no naturalist and can never remember the names. The big horsetails, with their sturdy roots and giant fronds. Long, string-like pieces that whip back and forth in sea breeze. Familiar bladderwrack, interspersed with nameless chunks of yellow or lime green, slime, plastic, rope, and the occasional dead crab. The unmistakable tang of low tide.
Last visit I spent time spotting the most vibrant pink seaweeds, contrasting starkly with the dull brown lying along the tideline. Pink seaweed! Another piece, and another! I collected them in my hands, slimy and wet, and laid them out on a nearby rock. For me, that day, pink seaweed was the best treasure I could find.
My husband picked up an old pulley, washed up by strong winds and huge waves. Orange brown rust bloomed all over, tiny shells and stones sunk into the metal. We wondered where it came from – a ship, a small boat, part of a cargo? Was it broken and thrown into the sea somewhere miles from land? Was it lost by a local fisherman bringing in the catch? The pulley stained our hands orange and made rusty mess everywhere, but we still brought it home, to wonder over.
The coastline is wild in a different way. Finds can be from anywhere in the world transported by the currents. Shells and animals from deep below the waves, places humans haven’t yet discovered. A beach is a place of meeting, of the known and unknown, earth, water, air. A place of treasure, always.
The winds blow the sea into crashing, foaming waves. Rain drives pin pricks into faces, clothes soaked through, feet in the sea-froth and alive, alive, soul singing in this tempest. One foot in front of the other along the shoreline, wild smiles as wide as the horizon. The rain falls harder, smashing into crowns on the wave tops, thundering from rock and headland, in our ears and eyes and souls.
Later, I comb the tideline, for after the storm is the best time for seekers. I collect plastic rope and crisp packets, chocolate wrappers from far away, shards of who-knows-what now broken down into coloured, sea-bleached pieces. But alongside the plastic, I also collect treasure.
First is driftwood, a small piece, lighter than air, dry and salty and filled with holes. A mermaid’s purse – two, in fact, one small and brown, the hole in the casing showing where new life began a journey into the sea. The other is huge, black, glistening and intact – I lie it gently in the shallows and let the waves take it away.
Oily seabird feathers lie scattered and I pick a small one, white with a streak of brown, to remember the wind that still ruffles the tops of the waves and ties my damp hair into salty knots. As the tide slowly recedes I comb the shining pebbled sand for sea glass. First one piece, translucent and glittering. Then another, and another, as my eyes tune into the spaces between shell and stone. Soon my palm is full and I grasp tightly to the pieces, feeling them scrape against each other as I secrete them safely in my pocket.
Finally, seaweed to bind. A long piece that reminds me of a shoelace – I hold it to the air and it whips back and forth in the sea breeze.
Days later, at home, I lay my finds out and begin the sea totem. A small piece imbued with wind and sea and wildness. Carefully, I wrap old rope and seaweed around the driftwood, attaching feather, egg case, sea glass. Elements of a place, of time, become one. Next time I visit I will release it, undo it, return each piece to the place where it belongs, but for now it stays with me, bringing that wild place home.