The first day started at thein . Its huge awning would have been good shelter if it had been raining, but is very exposed to the winds!
and I had spent the night at , which is just opposite the , a very special tiny hotel with six rooms, each sumptuously furnished, and miniature cafetière as well as the standard kettle and teabags and … a tiny tin with doll-sized in it. I’d meant to take them to try on the journey, but forgot 🙁
A few more family and friends gathered and, after customary photos and checking that the, which had arrived the previous day, was picking up and set to track me, we set off. As the start/end of the is at (where I’ll get to first thing Saturday morning, there is no obvious ‘starting here’ point when you pick it up in the Bay, so we opted for the directly by the water side in front of the , a sculpture that is both boat hull and face.
A few folk needed to leave nearly straight away, but 1., , , and were walking with me for a short while. We had only gone perhaps ten minutes, when I realised I didn’t have the unit. After searching pockets, we retraced our steps back to the area, for more scouring of ground and emptying of bags. The security folk at the even put my rucksack through their scanner in case I’d slipped it in, but to no avail. The procurement folks at had gone to great lengths to get it to me on time (despite me asking very late!), so sad not just at the lost value, but for their wasted effort.
So, starting with a minor disaster, but if that is the worst that happens during the journey I will do well.
So, albeit a little deflated, I said farewells to family, andand I set off together. was one of the team who had recced the path over several years, so it was marvellous to spend the first day’s walking with him. As we went along he could tell me of the compromises, planning issues and occasional bureaucratic barriers that meant that the idea of the best route of the path was not always where it goes. In particular the takes a long detour inland along busy city streets as it has not yet been possible to negotiate a route through the city docks.
When you first hit the sea it is near the city sewerage farm and at an inlet beached with broken bricks and the detritus of an industrial past. This is the past of only maybe a half century, but there are signs both inand (and I’m sure in when I go through and ) of the fact that this area was once the industrial heart of the world and and (and earlier) fuelled global engineering.
As we crossed thewe were met by , an ex- pupil, a couple of years ahead of me. As we’d been delayed by an hour by the fruitless search, he must have been waiting ages (sorry, ), so could only join us for literally a few hundred yards before leaving for a meeting, but wonderful to meet with another ex- .
It makes me think of thein , inundated on a stormy night, when the drunken revellers left open the sluice gates. The dinosaur bones suddenly become the bones of the giant cattle of those half-faerie times, washed by the relentless waves; and I wonder about that future for this endless fight with the sea, hubris in the face of global warming and rising sea-levels.
If ais eventually built (and I recall plans for this when I was a child), then this area will change dramatically. The environmental damage will be incalculable as habitats of sea birds will be destroyed, but if projects like this do not go forward then these habitats will be equally destroyed, albeit over a longer timeframe, and with them the lives and homes of millions across the world.
We are a people who always live at the edge, on the margins. Our cities bead the ocean fringes, clustered in flood plains and river deltas, likechallenging the tides, the elements, the very earth. retreated when his feet got wet, but globally it is more like those who were trapped on the some years ago; the seas are coming and they will overtake us.
I’m afraiddid not get a relaxed day’s rambling (sorry, ) as it was going to be a heavy day and doubly so after the early delay. But we were kept going by the promise of tea and cakes at the . As we neared it I remembered that it had been weeks previously that had offered this when I asked to pop by and talk, and I had meant to mail back over the last few days to confirm when I was coming. Would she have remembered, or would there be no-one there and I had driven stoically on with no reward?
The lighthouse appears at first a small white dot along the line of the dyke, one of two either side ofguiding ships into , no rocks to crash against, but thick mud that will drag a ship just as terminally.
Even from the outside it is a magical place, with a small summerhouse/playhouse in the garden area, its own tiny light a-top.
As we made our way to the port-holed door, a smiling face was at the window, replacing screws in the heavily storm shuttered windows. This turned out to be, the co-proprietor. He had no idea of who we were, but welcomed us in anyway and , who sadly we did not meet as she was ill with a cold, told him where to find cake; "she never gets cake for me", he said.
Inside, the lighthouse is even more magical, a mixture ofand nautical paraphernalia, a , (signed by ), rooftop hot tubs, wonderful views, and glimpses of romantic bedrooms, with beds on platforms to give uninterrupted sea views (they are registered for marriages!).
‘s glorious lemon cake and ‘s tea and coffee refreshed tired feet, and told us a little of the move to the derelict lighthouse, over twenty years previously, escaping the rat race of and a faltering record industry, that did not know how to meet the changing times, even then before the rise of internet downloads, and . He told us of the work they did together, a job of massive proportions, and of the raising of the new light (this time with professional help!), copper and glass suspended above the spiralling staircase.
Some of their guests come from abroad, flying in fromto spend a single night in a real lighthouse, before flying back the following day. Hundreds, maybe thousands of miles, for a night they will never forget.
[the following added 13th April, 2014 — nearly a year on! …]
Reluctantly we left the magic of the lighthouse and set our feet once more towards. My original plan had been to get to the , to talk to people there before it closed at 5pm, but it was already well after four, so there was no hope of that now. As I would increasingly find in the days and weeks ahead, my plans for when I would reach where were always widely optimistic.
Theis a miracle of engineering. I had often seen it from a distance, two pylon-like towers straddling the , with a high bridge-like connection far, far above the water and land. I think I had assumed that this was a raising-lowering bridge, but in fact it is no bridge at all, but more like a giant version of a ski-lift. Below the bridge-like structure, suspended by cable and chain, is a gondola, the size of a small landing-craft-style ferry. When the ‘bridge’ is open this shuttles back and forth taking half a dozen cars at a time across the river.
We pass through the nether reaches ofand come to the . It is, as we expected, closed, but from the notice it sounded as if it hadn’t opened for the year yet even though it was well after . Even not in operation it is impressive, painted bright blue metal and woodwork, like a bandstand, the gondola sits at eye level while the support bridge towers above.
After the, and I part ways, he to the railway station to take a train back to , and I to continue my way to the other side of the , so close, but so far. When the is in operation it is an official part of the , cutting several miles of road walking from the journey, but I must travel up the river bank to the new concrete arched road bridge.
The banks of theare littered with the remains of old wharves, massive timbers and rusty bolts, rising like tangled architectural forests from the thick grey estuary ooze I am so familiar with from the and rivers of . It has an austere nostalgic beauty and one can almost hear the creak of ships against timber, barrels rolling along docksides and the shouts of longshoremen winching cargo into rat-dark holds.
My reverie of the past had to give way to the present as I was due to give a radio interview by telephone and wanted to get to a landline in, another five miles or so. I’d said I’d be there by half past six, but as I crossed the river bridge, heavy with end-of-day traffic, then walked a long road through an industrial estate to get me back to the east side of the , I realised I was not going to make it.
The path along the east side of thetowards runs through a narrow band of woodland area only yards from breakers’ yards, oil tanks and wind turbines, and yet seeming a world in itself. Beside the path the top of a thick upright branch has been carved into a mushroom head, the wood still fresh white and a chipping lying amongst the grass, a guerrilla sculptor only recently passed.
In the end I gave the interview on a rough wooden seat, cut from old railway sleepers. I had to admit that I had started in this direction as I felt it was likely to be one of the least interesting parts … although I was willing to learn otherwise. The interviewer, alass, forgave me my ignorance and assured me that was in fact one of the best places in , although I’ve a feeling slightly tongue in cheek.
I had arranged to meet in for dinner at 7pm, and got there just a little ahead of them, so I just had time to look around the church with its flood mark at head height, despite being several miles inland., and at the
And so, with a good dinner inside me and dropped at my bed and breakfast, my first day ended.
- The morning after now, and I have double checked my pack overnight, I will need to buy another along the route and rely on back] ‘s track in between, although that cannot be as fine grained because of power drain.[
- The date is back] by modern reckoning, but at that time the year end was , , so it was counted as until then.[
- A year later, I am still amazed that I never learnt about the back] in school as it was such a cataclysmic event for and , and following a winter of widespread coastal flooding a salutary reminder of the power of the sea.[