Saltburn

I had to take the car into the garage today to have the brakes fixed so, since the garage  is half way there, we took the opportunity to go to Saltburn pier and spend a few hours by the sea. There is the statutory amusement arcade but otherwise the pier is simply a long, unadorned bridge to nowhere.  There’s a car park, a kiosk that sells chips and a coffee shop all within spitting distance. Everything you need if you want to do nothing and enjoy yourself doing it, which is precisely what we did.

Here you can sit for hours, drinking tea, watching people, watching the sea and the ships as they pass in the middle distance on their way to  the freight terminal a little further up the coast. An elderly couple in overcoats who could have been drawn by Raymond Briggs were walking away from us across the beach towards the water’s edge. The sea was relatively calm: a handful of surfers, their wet-suits pulled down to their waists, were strolling along the seafront talking animatedly about merits of various boards and the great waves they’d ridden. With minor alterations, their enthusiastic conversation could have been that of a group of cyclists, motorcyclists, rock climbers or, indeed, any group of enthusiasts. A tall, thin man  with a grey beard and a multicoloured, knitted hat was walking a Jack Russell. Two Japanese  teenage boys were stood, queuing to buy fish and chips. I found myself intrigued by the sound of their (to me) incomprehensible conversation. A heavily tattooed man in bare feet was walking two dogs, a rottweiler and a Yorkshire terrier. His jeans were rolled up to his knees and a pair of black Doc Marten boots dangled from his waist. Someone started up a blue and white scooter and wove their way slowly on it in and out of the other passers by.

Visitors  do tend to congregate  around the pier,  taking in the pier itself,  the beach below it and the seafront. If you sit and stare,  as we did today, the same people tend to recur as they move from place to place. Two dogs,  the woolen hat, the couple in their overcoats.  The effect is not unlike  a complex piece of music in which certain phrases recur in slightly  different  contexts.

We walked out onto the pier and sat on a bench, watching the seagulls circle over the beach below us. Then we headed back towards the car park. On the way, we joined the queue at the fish and chip kiosk and bought ourselves a bag of chips. We sat in the car looking out to sea to eat them. In the next parking space the surfers were busy packing their kit into the back of a car. I spotted the elderly couple again: having walked down to the water’s edge, they were now walking to the end of the pier.

 

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A Walk on the Moon

Occasionally, I while away sleepless nights turning the pages of Zdeněk Kopal’s A New Photographic Atlas of the Moon. I discovered it in a second hand bookshop on the Isle of ManIt’s an intriguing book,  packed with full-page photos of the lunar surface, photos  dating from the earliest unmanned Russian missions to the Apollo programme. Especially interesting are the images of the elusive far side of the moon. (One cannot  help but be reminded how much the Russian space programme achieved where the moon is concerned,  despite the fact that no cosmonaut has yet set foot on it).

Reading it at night, on the verge of sleep, it is easy to imagine yourself dropping into the pages and walking on the surface, trecking, for example,  across the floor of the crater Ptolemeus, towards its distant,  mountainous rim, or traversing the uncanny,  double-walled basin of Schrodinger on the far side. Since the gravity of the moon is one sixth that of the Earth, it seems reasonable to assume one could cover, roughly,  six times the distance on a moon walk as one could walking on Earth.

However,  despite the fantastic landscape and the starlit sky, there is something missing from my moon walks.  They lack something I inevitably encounter on my real walks across the earth’s surface: signs of human activity.  It strikes me as interesting that,  although I seek out wild places,  there is a satisfaction to be found in encountering faint paths, ruins, the traces of earthworks and so on.

Thinking along these lines, I happened to pick up Robert  Macfarlane’s book, The Old Ways and read this quote from Emerson:

All things are engaged in writing their history… Not a foot steps into the snow, or along the ground, but prints in characters more or less lasting,  a map of its  march.  The ground is all memoranda and signatures; and every object covered over with hints.  In nature,  this self registration is incessant,  and the narrative is the print of a seal. 

Perhaps when out walking I’m seeking not wilderness but a wildness where my species’ presence feels not overwhelming but proportional, like the presence of  one species among many. And perhaps, although history can seem nightmarish when written or spoken about,  perhaps there is comfort to be found in the unspoken history, the traces. It strikes me that,  whether  or not I care to admit it, were I walking on the moon in real life,  even though I had travelled through space for days to get there,  to encounter the landing site of a probe or an Apollo mission would be a highlight of the trip.