Tuesday, December 31, 2013
The persistent December rain has meant that orchards and fields, hillsides and woodlands have become sodden quagmires, almost impossible for walking. When I proposed to the family that the final walk of the year needed to be a rain-soaked coastline trek on sturdy pebbles, to blow away the Christmas cobwebs, my idea was met with dumb incredulity. Only the dogs seemed interested: but the short-legged one is Scottish and stubborn and I knew he would renege on his word as soon as he felt a stiff breeze; the long-legged one will go anywhere, in any weather, if it means being out of the house and getting sight of a sausage-flavoured dog treat; so only he made the cut. Luckily, he cannot understand the shipping forecast: “Thames, Dover, Wight: southwesterly gale force 8 increasing severe gale force 9 imminent; rough becoming very rough; rain or squally showers; moderate becoming poor.”
With trees blown down, homes flooded and power out in a host of places, there is much for people in south coast counties to worry about. If the litany of the shipping forecast can usually make the threat of force 12 hurricane winds appear benign, getting Alan Bennett to read it on Radio 4 this week was a masterstroke of panic management. His soft Leeds cadence made it sound as though we will never know fear again, even if the forecast was one from October. The roll call of sea areas – Forties, Cromarty, Forth…Sole, Lundy, Fastnet…Shannon, Rockall, Malin – is poetic balm to soothe the soul.
My plan was to start early on Cooden beach, in sea area Dover, and walk far enough west until I was in sea area Wight. If a trans-sea area walk seemed ambitious, the location of the boundary between the two, at Sovereign Harbour in Eastbourne, made it a reasonable round trip of 10 miles. But when I arrived at Cooden, it was high tide and the gale forecast for the coast was already battering the beach. The strip of pebbles between the crashing waves and the coastal road was so narrow that I thought the dog might be swept away or run over; but we made it through to the safety of the broader beach.
There is something strangely attractive about a coastal walk on a wild winter day: the lowering sky, the salty sea-spumed air limiting the vision, and the lack of any other people all make it a beautiful but desolate experience. And this morning’s Beaufort scale force 9 gale, although not quite full in the face, made westerly progress slow; even a solitary gull struggled. But we carried on past the caravan parks of Norman's Bay - as deserted as cemeteries - and the residents of beach-front houses, peering out anxiously at the turbulent swell.
I felt exhausted as we neared Pevensey Bay, but a fortifying glimpse of brightness between the clouds spurred me on. The tide having receded a little, we were able to walk on the more compacted surface nearer the shoreline and the dog even attempted a frolic or two. But as we left Pevensey, the coast curved southwards and the relentless gale became a headwind. With the return walk in mind, my resolve deserted me and, a mile from the harbour, we turned around.
With the wind behind us, we veritably sailed back to Cooden; and, of course, by the time we returned the weather was abating: “Thames, Dover, Wight: southwesterly 5 to 7; moderate or rough; rain then showers; moderate becoming good.”