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Authors: Robert Macfarlane

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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 account 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 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 back along the path. He was a lucky man.’ Patrick sounded faintly disappointed that the death sentence of the Broomway had been, in this instance, commuted.

Until hand-held compasses became available to walkers, the safest way of navigating 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 way people could notionally follow the Broomway in safety, whatever the weather.

‘It’s a weird world out there on the flats,’ said Patrick. ‘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 in 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 set off, 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 around 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 re-categorize the weather conditions such that I could disregard Patrick’s final warning. I felt mildly sick with anxiety, but eager to walk.

With me, also nervous, was my old friend David Quentin, who 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 britches, likes walking barefoot, and hopes daily for the downfall of capitalism. He is 6' 7" tall, 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 streams riddled. Sandpipers and oystercatchers strutted in search of breakfast. The surfaces of my body felt porous, absorbent. The creeks and channels bubbled and glistened. Two big 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 jay-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 bye-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 hardcore. 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 wing-strokes, 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 cockle shells 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, 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 300 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 out 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 to seaward; a thin magnesium burn-line.

The sand was intricately 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 was a reminder that just below the hard sand was the mud. I took my shoes off 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 unconsolingly.

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. I thought of the lake of mercury that allegedly surrounds the grave of the First Emperor Qin in the unexcavated imperial tombs at Xian in China, where the Emperor was buried in a grave complex a square mile in area, at the centre of which was his own tomb hall, a bronze vault designed to replicate in miniature the space of his empire. Jewels were embedded into the tomb’s ceiling to symbolize the sky; the streams, wetlands and oceans were simulated by the lake and by the rivers of mercury that ran from it.

We walked on. 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 walking through the lustrous air, out onto the flats and back into the Mesolithic.

In 1931 a trawler named 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 the nets had also trapped, one of the men found, part embedded in a hunk of peat, a curious object: sharp and shapely, about eight and a half inches long and unmistakably of human workmanship. 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, and over which hunter-gatherers probably ranged. 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 the north-west coasts of Germany, Denmark and Holland? To imagine a Mesolithic culture existing in this vanished world, rather than using it only for passage?

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 fisherman, our knowledge of the region is both extensive and detailed.

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 400 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 shipping forecasts – is an upland area of plateaux in north Doggerland, and the Outer Silver Pit is a giant basin flanked by two huge sandbanks, almost sixty miles long, that resemble estuarine or
lacustrine
features.

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 inundation 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 – even those who had established rudimentary settlements. The flooding was something that could be foreseen and adapted to, if not mitigated or resisted. 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 bones 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 collapsed into the waves in 1895. Anti-aircraft batteries and pillboxes built on cliffs in 1940 are 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 ghost-lines. 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.

BOOK: The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot
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