Half a mile offshore, walking on silver water, we found a curved path that extended gracefully and without apparent end to our north and south. It was a shallow tidal channel and the water it held caught and pooled the sun, such that its route existed principally as flux; a phenomenon of light and of currents. Its bright line curved away from us: an ogee or line of beauty whose origin we could not explain and whose invitation to follow we could not disobey, so we walked it northwards, along that glowing track made neither of water nor of land, which led us further and still further out to sea.
If you consult a large-scale map of the Essex coastline between the River Crouch and the River Thames, you will see a footpath – its route marked with a stitch-line of crosses and dashes – leaving the land at a place called Wakering Stairs and then heading due east, straight out to sea. Several hundred yards offshore, it curls north-east and runs in this direction for around three miles, still offshore, before rolling back to make landfall at Fisherman’s Head, the uppermost tip of a large, low-lying and little-known marshy island called Foulness.
This is the Broomway, allegedly ‘the deadliest’ path in Britain and certainly the unearthliest path I have ever walked. The Broomway is thought to have killed more than a hundred people over the centuries; it seems likely that there were other victims whose fates went unrecorded. Sixty-six of its dead are buried in the little Foulness churchyard; the bodies of the other known dead were not recovered. If the Broomway hadn’t existed, Wilkie Collins might have had to invent it. Edwardian newspapers, alert to its reputation, rechristened it ‘The Doomway’. Even the Ordnance Survey map registers, in its sober fashion, the gothic atmosphere of the path. Printed in large pink lettering on the 1:25,000 map of that stretch of coast is the following message:
public rights of way across maplin sands
can be dangerous. seek local guidance.
The Broomway is the less notorious of Britain’s two great offshore footpaths, the other being the route that crosses the sands of Morecambe Bay from Hest Bank to Kents Bank by way of Priest Skear. As at Morecambe Bay, the Broomway traverses vast sand and mud flats that stretch almost unsloped for miles. When the tide goes out at Morecambe and Foulness, it goes out a great distance, revealing shires of sand packed hard enough to support the weight of a walker. When the tide comes back in, though, it comes fast – galloping over the sands at speeds quicker than a human can run. Disorientation is a danger as well as inundation: in mist, rain or fog, it is easy to lose direction in such self-similar terrain, with shining sand extending in all directions. Nor are all of the surfaces that you encounter reliable: there is mud that can trap you and quicksand that can swallow you. Morecambe is infamously treacherous, its worst tragedy being the death in February 2004 of at least twenty-one Chinese cockle-pickers, illegal immigrants who were inexperienced in the lore of the estuary and insufficiently aware of the danger of the tides, but who had been sent by their gangmaster far out onto the sands to harvest cockles.
Unlike the Morecambe Bay path, whose route fluctuates and whose walking therefore requires both improvisation and vigilance, the route of the Broomway seems to have been broadly consistent since at least 1419 (when it is referred to in a manorial record). Conceptually, both the Morecambe crossing and the Broomway are close to paradox. They are rights of way and as such are inscribed on maps and in law, but they are also swept clean of the trace of passage twice daily by the tides. What do you call a path that is no path? A riddle? A sequence of compass bearings? A death trap?
The geology and archaeology of the Broomway are disputed and shifting. Various theories have been proposed to explain its existence, including that it sits on top of a durable reef of chalk. Certainly, it takes its name from the four hundred or so ‘brooms’ that were formerly placed at intervals of between thirty and sixty yards on either side of the track, thereby indicating the safe passage on the hard sand that lay between them.
Until 1932, the Broomway was the only means of getting to and from Foulness save by boat, for the island was isolated from the mainland by uncrossable creeks and stretches of mud known as the Black Grounds. For centuries, hazel wattles were bound and laid as floating causeways to enable safe passage over the Black Grounds and onto the weight-bearing sands. These causeways were analogous in technology and principle to the Sweet Track in Somerset1. At some point the wattles were replaced with jetties of rubble. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, coach drivers would muster in the tavern at Wakering and drink while waiting for the tides to be right for the ride to Foulness. Several of them died on the job, befuddled by weather, or alcohol, or both. In the aftermath of the North Sea Storm of 1953, when floodwaters killed hundreds of people along the English east coast, the Broomway was the only reliable means of access to Foulness: army vehicles raced back and forth along its firm sand, evacuating the dead and injured. The island is currently owned by the Ministry of Defence, which purchased it during the First World War for ‘research purposes’ and which continues to conduct artillery-firing tests out over the sands.
I have for years wanted to walk the Broomway, but have been deterred from doing so by its reputation. Then a friend put me in contact with a man called Patrick Arnold, who had been born and raised on Foulness, and who knew the Broomway better than anyone living. Patrick kindly offered to accompany me along it, and we agreed to walk the path together on a Sunday, when the Ministry of Defence would not be firing, and when the tide times were right.
The Monday before that Sunday, a letter arrived. I recognized Patrick’s handwriting on the envelope. ‘With sadness,’ the letter began stiffly, ‘I must withdraw my offer to guide you along the “most dangerous road in England”.’ I felt a rush of disappointment. Patrick went on to explain that his elderly mother, for whom he cared, was too frail for him to leave her ‘for many hours without being exceedingly anxious about her welfare’. However, he continued, and here my heart rose – he thought I might ‘navigate the Broomway alone, without suffering any mischief’.
Along with the letter, Patrick had sent the following documents: a hand-drawn map of the coastline between Wakering Stairs and Foulness showing the route of the Broomway and its tributary causeways; a numbered list of observations concerning appropriate clothing to wear on the Broomway; and some points of advice as to how best to avoid dying on it.
Patrick owed his life to the Broomway. ‘Let me tell you,’ he explained to me the first time we spoke. ‘There was a man called Mr William Harvey, and one day in 1857 he set out with a coach and horses to cross the Broomway. Well, he never arrived, and so they went looking for him. Of the horses no trace was found. The coach was discovered upside down in the sands, and there was William’s drowned body lying dead on the flats.
‘Well, after she’d done with her grieving, William Harvey’s widow went on to marry a Mr Lily, and of that congress was born my great-grandfather. So while the accident was Mrs Harvey’s great loss – and indeed also Mr Harvey’s – it was eventually my great gain. In this way, do you see, I am grateful to the Broomway, and so I have devoted myself to walking and researching it.’
Patrick spoke with precision, and with faint hints of Victoriana. He had worked onshore as a form-maker and carpenter until his retirement, but he knew the sea well and held the speed record for rowing single-handedly from London to Ostend. He told me stories about the Essex coast: about the great fleets of collier-tugs that would assemble in the mouth of the Thames; about the dangers of easterlies blowing big ships onto the lee shore; and most often about the Broomway, of which he spoke respectfully but fondly as ‘an old friend’.
Patrick had read almost every available account of walking the Broomway, and he relished the grisly melodrama of its past. Whenever we spoke he would have fresh tales for me, dredged from Broomway lore: a nineteenth-century coroner’s deposition of the difficulty of identifying bodies once the crabs had been to work on faces and fingers, say; or a survivor who had written in a letter to a friend of the ‘sheer panic’ that he experienced as the rain fell around him and he wandered the sands in search of the right route.
‘He was convinced he was walking towards the Mouse Lightship,’ said Patrick, ‘but, in fact, he was walking out to sea, towards his death, and he was saved only by the accident of stumbling into a fish kettle – copper-nailed so as not to rust – which he knew had to have its closed point facing out to sea, and its open mouth gaping perpendicular to the shore, such that fish would become trapped in it during the retreat of the tide. This gave him the orientation he needed, and he made it safely back along the path. He was a lucky man.’
Until hand-held compasses became available to walkers, the safest way of walking the Broomway in bad conditions, when it was impossible to see from broom to broom, was with stone and thread. Walkers carried a 200-foot length of linen thread, with one end tied to a small stone. They would place the stone next to a broom and then walk away in what they believed to be the right direction, unspooling the thread as they went, until they could see the next broom. If they went astray, they could trace the thread back to the stone and try again. If they went the right way, they hauled in the stone and repeated the action. It was slow and painstaking work, but in this manner people could notionally walk the Broomway in safety, whatever the weather.
‘It’s a weird world out there on the flats,’ Patrick said. ‘Nothing looks the same as normal. Gulls can seem as big as eagles. Scale and distance change. It’s very easy to lose your bearings, especially at dusk or dark. Then it’s the lights on the Kent shore that often do it. People think they’re walking back to the Essex coast, when in fact they’re walking across towards Kent and so out into the tide. The mud’s the thing to watch, too; step in the wrong places, and it’ll bog you down and suck you in, ready for the tide to get you.’
Two days before I left to walk the Broomway, my Alaskan friend James helpfully recommended that I take a small sharp hatchet with me. ‘That way, if you get stuck in the mud with the tide coming in, you can cut your legs off at the ankles and escape.’
Patrick had a final warning. ‘The Broomway will be there another day, but if you try to walk it in mist, you may not be. So if it’s misty when you arrive at Wakering Stairs, turn round and go home.’
It was misty when I arrived at Wakering Stairs early on a Sunday morning, and the air was white. It wasn’t a haar, a proper North Sea mist that blanked out the world. More of a dense sea haze. But visibility was poor enough that the foghorns were sounding, great bovine reverbs drifting up and down the coast. I stood on the sea wall, looking out into the mist, feeling the foghorns vibrating in my chest, and wondering if I could imaginatively recategorize the weather conditions such that I could disregard Patrick’s final warning. I felt slightly sick with anxiety, but eager to walk.
With me, also nervous, was my old friend David, whom I had convinced to join me on the path. David is a former scholar of Renaissance literature, turned antiquarian book dealer, turned barrister, turned tax lawyer. He is probably the only Marxist tax lawyer in London, possibly in the world. He likes wearing breeches, likes walking barefoot, and hopes daily for the downfall of capitalism. He is six foot seven, very thin, very clever, and has little interest in people who take it upon themselves to comment without invitation on his height and spindliness. We have covered a lot of miles together.
The air at Wakering Stairs was warm and close; thick like gel in the nose and mouth. The tide had recently turned, and just offshore the exposed Black Grounds were steaming: a brown mudscape of canyons and buttresses, turgid and gleaming, through which silver streams riddled. Sandpipers and oystercatchers strutted in search of breakfast. The surfaces of my body felt spongy, absorbent. The creeks and channels bubbled and glistened. Two big black-backed gulls pottered the tideline, monitoring us with lackadaisical, violent eyes.
Where the road met the sea wall, there was a heavy metal stop barrier, tagged with a blue graffiti scrawl. A red firing flag drooped at the foot of a tall flagpole. Beyond the stop barrier was a bank of signs in waspy yellow-and-black type and imperative grammar, detailing by-laws, tautologically identifying themselves as warnings, indemnifying the MoD against drownings, explosions and mud deaths, offering caveats to the walker, and grudgingly admitting that this was, indeed, the beginning of a public right of way:
warning: the broomway is unmarked
and very hazardous to pedestrians.
warning: do not approach or touch any object
as it may explode and kill you.
Away from the sea wall ran the causeway, perhaps five yards wide, formed of brick rubble and grey hard core. It headed out to sea over the mud, before disappearing into water and mist. Poles had been driven into the mud to either side of the path, six feet tall, marking out its curling line. There were a few tussocks of eelgrass. The water’s surface was sheened with greys and silvers, like the patina on old mirror glass. Otherwise, the causeway appeared to lead into a textureless world of white.
Three oystercatchers flew overhead with quick-flick wingstrokes, piping as they passed. We climbed the ramp to the summit of the sea wall, stepped over a scatter of beer cans and walked down towards the start of the causeway. I stooped to gather a handful of white cockleshells from among the shore rocks. I subdued the alarm my brain was raising at the idea of walking out to sea fully clothed, as only suicides do.
We walked along the rubble and sea-cracked hardstanding, out along the causeway and over the mud. A man with his dog paused on the sea wall to watch us go. Here and there we had to wait for the tide to recede, revealing more of the path before us. I peered over the edge of the causeway as if off a pier, though the water to either side was only a few inches deep. A goby in a pool wriggled its aspic body deeper into the sand.
After three hundred yards the causeway ended for real, dipping beneath the sand like a river passing underground. Further out, a shallow sheen of water lay on top of the sand, stretching away. The diffused light made depth perception impossible, so that it seemed as if we were simply going to walk onwards into ocean. We stopped at the end of the causeway, looking out across the pathless future.
‘I think there’s a sun somewhere up there, burning all this off,’ said David brightly. ‘I think we’ll be in sunshine by the end of the day.’
It seemed hard to believe. But it was true that the light had sharpened slightly in the twenty minutes it had taken us to walk to the end of the causeway. I glanced back at the sea wall, but it was barely visible now through the haze. A scorching band of low white light seaward; a thin magnesium burn line.
I could hear the pop and bubble of the revealed sand, beautifully ridged, its lines broken by millions of casts, noodly messes of black silt that had been squeezed up by ragworms and razor shells. The squid-ink colour of the casts they left was a reminder that just below the hard sand was the mud. I took off my shoes and placed them on a stand of eelgrass. For some reason I couldn’t overcome my sense of tides as volatile rather than fixed, capricious rather than regulated. What if the tides disobeyed the moon, on this day of all days?
‘I’m worried that if we don’t make it back in time, the tide will float off with my shoes,’ I said to David.
‘If we don’t make it back in time, the tide will float off with your body,’ he replied.
We stepped off the causeway. The water was warm on the skin, puddling to ankle depth. Underfoot I could feel the brain-like corrugations of the hard sand, so firmly packed that there was no give under the pressure of my step. Beyond us extended the sheer mirror plane of the water, disrupted only here and there by shallow humps of sand and green slews of weed.
We walked on out over the mirror. I could hear the man whistling to his dog now far away on the sea wall. Otherwise, there was nothing except bronze sand and mercury water, and so we continued through the lustrous air, out onto the flats and back into the Mesolithic.
In 1931 a trawler called the Colinda was night-fishing around twenty-five miles off the Norfolk coast, in the southern North Sea. When the men pulled in their nets and began to sort the fish from the flotsam and rubble that had also been trapped, one of the men found, part embedded in a hunk of peat, a curious object: sharp and shapely, clearly an artefact, and about twenty centimetres long. The man handed it to the trawler captain, Pilgrim Lockwood. Lockwood passed it to the owner of the Colinda, who passed it to a friend and in this roundabout way the object at last reached an archaeologist called Muir Evans who was able to identify it as a harpoon point, made from antler and with barbs carved on one side.
The Colinda Point, as it is now known, was one of the first archaeological clues to the existence of a vast, lost and once-inhabited landscape: a Mesolithic Atlantis that lies under the southern half of what is now the North Sea. Even to conceive the possibility of such a landscape’s existence – unaided by the technology that assists contemporary archaeologists – was in the 1930s an audacious thought experiment. To imagine much of the North Sea drained away? To imagine what is now seabed as dry land? To imagine what is now the east coast of England as continuous with what is now the north-west coast of Germany and Holland? To imagine a Mesolithic culture existing in this vanished world?
The drowned land that the Colinda Point – dated to between 10,000 and 4000 bc – helped bring back to light is now known as Doggerland, and thanks to the collaborative work of a remarkable group of archaeologists, geologists, palaeobotanists and Dutch and East Anglian fishermen, our knowledge of the region is extensive.
Around 12,000 years ago, during the most recent glaciation, so much water was locked up in the ice caps and glaciers that the sea levels around Britain were up to four hundred feet lower than they are today. Doggerland, then exposed, would have been harsh tundra. But as global temperatures rose, melting ice sent freshwater rivers spinning through that tundra, irrigating and fertilizing it, such that it developed into a habitable, even hospitable, terrain. We know that there were trout in the rivers of Doggerland, wild boar and deer in its oak and ash woods, and that stinging nettles grew among its grasses. Using seismic-survey data of the seabed acquired from an oil company, archaeologists have been able to back-map an area of Doggerland around the size of Wales. Like early colonists, researchers have christened the features of this rediscovered world. The Spines is an area of steep dunes, probably running down to a river which, at its peak flow, was almost as big as the Rhine is today. The river has been named the Shotton River in honour of the Birmingham geologist Fred Shotton (who, among other distinctions, was dropped behind enemy lines to analyse the geology of the Normandy beachheads before the D-Day landings). Dogger Bank – a name familiar from the Shipping Forecast – is an upland area of plateau in north Doggerland, and the Outer Silver Pit is a giant basin flanked by two huge sandbanks, almost sixty miles long.
As temperatures increased further and more land ice melted, Doggerland was gradually inundated. Dogger Bank would have survived as a large island, before it too disappeared around 5000 bc, and the flooding of Doggerland was complete. The creep of the sea level across the land – up to one or two metres per century – would have been noticeable in a generation, but is unlikely to have taken people by surprise. As such, the Mesolithic retreat from Doggerland represents one of the earliest sustained human responses to climate change. Considering Doggerland now, it is hard not to think forwards as well as backwards. To those living on the vulnerable east coast of England, drowned Doggerland offers a glimpse of the future. Around the coasts of Norfolk and Suffolk, the land is being bitten back by the ocean. Graveyards are shedding their dead and their headstones into the sea. Dwellings that were once miles inland are now cliff-edge, and on the point of abandonment. Eccles Church on the Norfolk coast vanished into the sea in 1895. Anti-aircraft batteries and pillboxes built on cliffs in 1940 are now slumped on beaches or sunk offshore. Roads end in mid-air. Footpaths that once ran along the coast have crumbled. Consulting historical maps of East Anglia, you realize that substantial areas of the region have already joined Doggerland: coastlines have become ghostlines. In places such as these the undertow of the past is strong – liable to take your legs from you and pull you down without warning.
At Dunwich, an entire town was swallowed by the sea over several centuries. Nothing of it is now left, though late-nineteenth-century photographs exist of its last towers standing crooked on the beach. Historical data about Dunwich is sufficiently profuse that maps have been made of the former outline of streets, buildings and churches, and their positions relative to the current shore. In this way, swimming off the shingle beach, you can float over invisible streets and buildings: the further out you go, the further back in history you’ve reached. Once, unaware of the ebb tide that was ripping round the coast, I crunched over the shingle and swam to around 1842 before I realized that I was being pulled rapidly out to sea, and struck out in panic for the present day.
It is likely that, thousands of years in the future, when the temperature cycles have turned again and the world’s water is once more locked up in ice, Doggerland will be re-exposed; filled this time with the wreckage of an Anthropocene culture – a vast junkyard of beached derricks and stranded sea forts, botched pipes and wiring, the concrete caltrops of anti-tank defences, fleets of grounded and upended boats and the spoil heaps of former houses.
Out and on we walked, barefoot over and into the mirror-world. I glanced back at the coast. The air was grainy and flickering, like an old newsreel. The sea wall had hazed out to a thin black strip. Structures of unknown purpose – a white-beamed gantry, a low-slung barracks – showed on the shoreline. Every few hundred yards, I dropped a white cockleshell. The light had modified again, from nacreous to granular to dense. Sound travelled oddly. The muted pop-popping of gunfire was smudgy, but the call of a cuckoo from somewhere on the treeless shore rang sharply to us. A pale sun glared through the mist, its white eye multiplying in pools and ripples.
The miniature sandscapes of ridge and valley pressed into the soles of my feet, and for days after the walk I would feel a memory of that pressure and pattern. The ripple-line of the ridges was recapitulated wherever I looked: in small bivalves between whose parted shells poked frilled lips, and in serpentine channels, apparent because they caught and returned the light differently to the shallower water. All these forms possessed the S-shaped double bend that William Hogarth in 1753 christened the ‘ogee’, exquisite in its functionless and repetitive elegance; a line that drew the eye onwards.
With so few orientation points and so many beckoning paths, we were finding it hard to stay on course. I was experiencing a powerful desire to walk straight out to sea and explore the greater freedoms of this empty tidal world. But we were both still anxious about straying far from the notional path of the Broomway and encountering the black muds or the quicksands.
Patrick’s directions said that we should reach something called the Maypole, a sunken telegraph pole with crosspieces that marked the south-eastern edge of a tidal channel called Havengore Creek. But we were not paying sufficient attention to our pacings and distances. We became confused by other spars, sticking up from the mud here and there: relics of wrecks, perhaps, or more likely the mark points of former channels long since silted up by the shifting sands. At last we reached what was surely the Maypole. It looked like the final yards of a galleon’s topmast, the body of the ship long since buried in those deep sands. At its base, currents had carved deep warm basins of water in which we wallowed our feet, sending shrimps scurrying. We took an onwards bearing and continued over the silver shield of the water.
My thoughts were beginning to move unusually, worked upon and changed by the mind-altering surfaces of this offshore world and by the elation that arose from walking securely on water. Out there, nothing could be only itself. The eye’s vision fed on false colour values. Similes, metaphors and illusions bred. Ideas of opposition felt outflanked, melted away. Gull-eagles dipped and glided in the outer reaches of the mist. The sand served as the water’s tain: ‘tain’, from the French for ‘tin’, being the lustreless backing of a mirror which makes reflection possible but limits the onward gaze, disallowing the view of a concept or idea beyond that point.
Walking always with us were our reflections, our attentive ghost selves. For the water acted as a mirror line, such that we both appeared joined at the ankles with our doubles, me more than twelve feet tall and David a foot taller still. If anyone had been able to look out from the shore, through the mist, they would have seen two giant walkers striding over the sea.
Several years ago the sculptor Antony Gormley buried a full-size iron cast of his own body upside down in the ground of Cambridge’s Archaeological Research Institute. Only the undersides of the iron man’s feet show on the surface. Two days before coming to walk the Broomway I had slipped off my shoes and socks and stood barefoot in the rusty prints, sole to sole with that buried body. Now that act of doubling had itself been unexpectedly repeated out here on the sands. Everywhere I looked were pivot points and fulcrums, symmetries and proliferations: the thorax points of a winged world. Sand mimicked water, water mimicked sand and the air duplicated the textures of both. Hinged cuckoo calls; razor shells and cockleshells; our own reflections; a profusion of suns; the glide of transparent over solid. When I think back to the outer miles of that walk, I now recall a strong disorder of perception that caused illusions of the spirit as well as of the eye. I recall thought becoming sensational; the substance of landscape so influencing mind that mind’s own substance was altered.
You enter the mirror-world by a causeway and you leave it by one. From Asplin Head, a rubble jetty as wide as a farm track reaches out over the Black Grounds, offering safe passage to shore. As we approached the jetty’s outermost point, the sand began to give way underfoot and we broke through into sucking black mud. It was like striking oil – the glittering rich ooze gouting up around our feet. We slurped onwards to the causeway, the rubble of which had been colonized by a lurid green weed.
I walked alongside the causeway rather than on it, finding that if I kept moving over the mud I didn’t sink. I passed through miniature cactus forests of samphire and between torn chunks of ferroconcrete. The surface of the mud, a gritty curded paste, was intricately marked with the filigree of worm tracks and crab scrabbles. In the centre of the causeway, where the mud had dried and cracked into star patterns, there were many wader footprints – sandpipers, oystercatchers and gulls. The slithery clay offered pleasure to the foot, and mud curled between my toes with each step, oily as butter. By the time we reached the sea wall, David and I both wore diving boots of clay. We washed them off in a puddle, and stepped up onto a boat ramp. We had made landfall.
We sat on the out-slope of the sea wall, eating sandwiches and talking. David took a photograph of the MoD sign that read: photography is prohibited. The sun was fully out now, and barely a wisp of the early-day mist survived. The clay dried fast on my legs, crisping the hairs and tightening my skin so that I felt kiln-fired – a mud-man. To my joy, three avocets rose from the salt marsh and flew screeching in circles above us, before rocketing back down into the sea lavender. I thought of the curlew I had seen in numbers out on this coast earlier in the year, their curved beaks and heavy bodies distinctive in flight, and about how the paths of birds and animals were really the oldest ways of them all: aerial migration routes – bringing geese to this shore from Siberia, peregrines from Scandinavia – scored invisibly into the sky over millennia and signed by magnetic forces. Staggering recent research into avian navigation has revealed that, by means of retinal proteins called cryptochromes, birds can actually see magnetic fields. Magnetic-force structures are visible as darker or lighter forms, which are superimposed on the conventionally visible landscape, and so help to guide the birds to their destinations.
Beyond the causeway’s end, the shining sands stretched to a horizon line. One of Foulness’s farmers, John Burroughs, has spoken wistfully of coming out onto the sands in late autumn to hunt wigeon: he brings a board to use as a shooting stick and, leaning against it, feels that he ‘could be on the far side of the moon’. That felt exactly right: the walk out to sea as a soft lunacy, a passage beyond this world.
In his weird way book of 1909, Afoot in England, W.H. Hudson described being on the Norfolk coast under similar conditions to the ones David and I had experienced that morning on the Broomway. The tide was low and Hudson was far out on the blond sands watching herring gulls, when a ‘soft bluish silvery sea-haze’ began to build that caused sky, water and land to become ‘blended and interfused’, producing a ‘new country’ that was ‘neither earth nor sea’. The haze also magnified the gulls until they seem no longer ‘familiar birds’, but ‘twice as big as gulls, and . . . of a dazzling whiteness and of no definite shape’. Hudson’s prose registers the experience as mystical: a metaphysical hallucination brought about by material illusion. The gulls temporarily appear to him as ghost-gulls or spirit-birds that merely ‘lived in or were passing through the world’, presences made briefly visible by the haze. Then, in a brilliant reversal, he imagines that he himself – ‘standing far out on the sparkling sands, with the sparkling sea on one side’ – is also dematerialized, ‘a formless shining white being standing by the sea, and then perhaps as a winged shadow floating in the haze’. ‘That’, concludes Hudson, ‘was the effect on my mind: this natural world was changed to a supernatural.’
Felt pressure, sensed texture and perceived space can work upon the body and so too upon the mind, altering the textures and inclinations of thought. The American farmer and writer Wendell Berry suggests this in a fine essay called ‘The Rise’, in which he describes setting float in a canoe on a river in spate. ‘No matter how deliberately we moved from the shore into the sudden violence of a river on the rise,’ writes Berry, ‘there would . . . be several uneasy minutes of transition. The river is another world, which means that one’s senses and reflexes must begin to live another life.’
We lack – we need – a term for those places where one experiences a ‘transition’ from a known landscape onto John’s ‘far side of the moon’, into Hudson’s ‘new country’, into Berry’s ‘another world’: somewhere we feel and think differently. I have for some time now been imagining such transitions as border crossings. These borders do not correspond to national boundaries, and papers and documents are unrequired at them. Their traverse is generally unbiddable, and no reliable map exists of their routes and lines. They exist even in familiar landscapes: there when you cross a certain watershed, mountain pass, treeline or snowline, or enter rain, storm or mist, or pass from boulder clay onto sand, or chalk onto greenstone. Such moments are rites of passage that reconfigure local geographies, leaving known places suddenly outlandish or quickened, revealing continents within countries.
What might we call such incidents and instances – or, rather, how to name the lands that are found beyond these frontiers? ‘Xenotopias’, perhaps, meaning ‘foreign places’ or ‘out-of-place places’, a term to complement our utopias and our dystopias. Martin Martin, the traveller and writer who in the 1690s set sail to explore the Scottish seaboard, knew that one does not need to displace oneself vastly within space to find difference. ‘It is a piece of weakness and folly merely to value things because of their distance from the place where we are born,’ he wrote in 1697, ‘thus men have travelled far enough in the search of foreign plants and animals, and yet continue strangers to those produced in their own natural climate.’ So did Henry David Thoreau: ‘An absolutely new prospect is a great happiness, and I can still get this any afternoon. Two or three hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a country as I expect ever to see. A single farmhouse which I had not seen before is sometimes as good as the dominions of the King of Dahomey.’
The American writer William Fox has spent his career exploring what he calls ‘cognitive dissonance in isotropic spaces’, which might be more plainly translated as ‘how we get easily lost in spaces that appear much the same in all directions’. Fox’s thesis is that we are unable to orient ourselves in self-similar landscapes because we evolved in the dense, close-hand environments of jungle and savannah. In repetitive, data-depleted landscapes with few sight markers ‘our natural navigation abilities begin to fail catastrophically’. Fox visited the Antarctic, the American deserts and volcanic calderas in the Pacific to explore such monotone spaces – but David and I had stumbled into one a few hundred yards off the Essex coast.
We walked back along the causeway to the point where the invisible Broomway began, and there we turned into the wind and returned along the route by which we had come. With the sun now fully out, each sand ridge carried its own line of light, running along its summit like an inlaid wire, and in each pool burned a tiny version of the sun, a bright borehole to the earth’s white core. Our shadows were with us now as well as our reflections: the two of us had been four on the way out to the island, and we were six on our return.
Perhaps halfway back to the Maypole, emboldened by the day, we could no longer resist the temptation to explore further across the sand flats, and so we turned perpendicular to the line of the land and began walking straight out to sea, leaving the imagined safety of the Broomway behind us.
We did not know where the sand would quicken to mud, and yet somehow it never felt dangerous or rash. The tide was out and the moon would hold it out, and we had two hours in which to discover this vast revealed world: no more than two hours, surely, but surely also no less. The serenity of the space through which we were moving calmed me to the point of invulnerability, and thus we walked on. A mile out, the white mist still hovered, and in the haze I started to perceive impossible forms and shapes: a fleet of Viking longboats with high lug-rigged square sails; a squadron of feluccas, dhows and sgoths; cityscapes (the skyline of Istanbul, the profile of the Houses of Parliament). When I looked back, the coastline was all but imperceptible, and it was apparent that our footprints had been erased behind us, and so we splashed tracelessly on out to the tidal limit. It felt at that moment wholly true that a horizon might exert as potent a pull upon the mind as a mountain’s summit.
Eventually, reluctantly, nearly two miles offshore, with the tide approaching its turn and our worries at last starting to rise through our calm – black mud through sand – we began a long slow arc back towards the coastline and the path of the Broomway, away from the outermost point. There was the return of bearings, the approach to land, a settling to recognizability. As we returned to shore, we laid plans to walk the Broomway again, later in the year, but this time at night.
Mud-caked and silly with the sun and the miles, a pair of Mesolithic tramps, we left the sand where it met the causeway near Wakering Stairs. There at the causeway’s frayed end, on the brink of the Black Grounds, were the marker poles, and there – perched on the top of their stand of eelgrass – were my faithful trainers. I put them on and we walked out of Doggerland, or whichever country it was that we had discovered that day, off the mirror and onto the sea wall. For days afterwards I felt calm, level, shining, sand-flat.
1The wooden road laid across the spongy Somerset levels during the early Neolithic, to permit passage between areas of higher, drier ground: the hills of the Mendips and the hummocks of Glastonbury. Precise pollen dating allows us to know that at Shapwick, near Westhay (place names which sound as if they should come from Shetland, not Somerset) in the spring of 3806 BC, rods of alder, hazel, holly, oak, ash and lime were bound and laid in a track, like a slung walkway, across the levels, along which Neolithic walkers bounced and floated as they traversed the bogs.
Photograph © Phil Nevard