The sun hung pallid; hiding behind a milky film. The sand was warm and soft underfoot. Occasionally a moment would flutter past, whereby the sun would burn holes in the low cloud cover, causing short bursts of glorious sun to bronze our skin and blind our eyes.
It was silent. No peewit cries nor screech of seagull intruded upon the shifting of sand, as it sieved its way between the marram grass and sea holly. It was a bank holiday, but we felt like the last survivors in an apocalypse. A world away from this world. Resolute in our aim of enjoyment, surrounded by death.
These was the Theddlethorpe dunes in Saltfleetby, near Mablethorpe, part of the Lincolnshire National Nature Reserve. The salt sodden sand is a dull yellow; some say on account of the clay. They also say the dunes were made in the 13th century. Obviously, though, the coast always existed, but legend has it, this was when a great storm threw up the seabed creating striations and ridges – each year these are shaped and coerced into different configurations by the wind. The whole 8km is protected for the wildlife, but it is also littered with the ruins of human conflict.
If you pull into the National Trust carpark (for free) you can see the World War Two pillboxes from the car. The whole place was mined to defend against an invasion – but I don’t think the explosives are still there, lurking in the mire. Until recently this was a bombing range, the venture was then moved up the road to Donna Nook. Whispers online speak of blunders like the 25lb flash bomb that accidentally got wedged in the toilet of ‘The Prussian Queen’, a nearby pub, not quite on the flight path.
We walked the short, sand swamped path from the car to the beach, dodging mines of a canine sort. Their unknown owners derelict in their duty. Shame on them. I guess they figure they can get away with it, seeing as this place is infrequently visited.
We’d packed a picnic – nothing special – food that’ easy to hold piled ibti a cooler box we plugged into the back of the car. This was subsequently turfed into a carrier bag to get it down to the shore without the weight. We dragged this, and backpacks and a flask of ice water, with camping chairs in shocking shades of cobalt and lime down past the dunes to the beach.
It was just my little family: mother, grandfather, sisters. Books packed for seaside snacks, although most of us lost energy after a while and caught Pokémon instead. Eventually, as with all seaside trips, we descended into nothing more strenuous than staring at the minutiae of the sand. Pulling out cockles, clam and scallop shells, long bereft their owners – a trinket from the seaside – a tombstone for crustaceans. Soon, even that became a struggle and we snoozed, sun-dozed, in the dunes, waiting, anticipating, the heat of the sun; cosy under coats to survive the shady lulls.
Another dip into the picnic basket though, and we were up and away. Running through flaxen flats of rippled sand towards the water’s edge. Here we pulled out more exotic carcasses; those from sea anemones and oysters. My sister held aloft a crisp starfish – a corpse in beige, and we imagined its glory days in apricot hues. Its bottom most legs were crushed and twisted in the indignities of death.
I don’t know why, but the place did not feel living – everything was dead. Was this climate change or a melancholy mind?
I wandered away from the lacklustre lull of brown waves on a brown shore towards the marram grass and sea buckthorn. Towards the little hidey-holes and dips created in the peripheries of the land. Ammophila arenaria (marram), is classed as a xerophyte (along with cacti) as it possesses inwardly folding waxy leaves with minimal surface area i.e. it’s made for dry places. Its roots densely matt the dunes together, helping to encourage the colonisation of the ground by other plants and stabilise the shifting sands. It was traditionally used to make roofs, nets and even shoes. It was the wonder plant of the shore.
In Scotland, in the 17th century, however, the crop was over-harvested and entire coastal villages drowned in sand blown inland. The government wisely judged this as dangerous, and in one of the first examples of environmental management, banned its harvesting in 1695 by Act of Parliament. I image houses shovelling out the rooms, buckets of sand thrown fruitlessly into the wind – only to return on the surface of cabinets and floors moments later. In Mongolia, the plant is used to stop the encroachment of the Gobi Desert; there are pictures of it planted in strict square formations, but in New Zealand and South Africa its devastating local habitats.
I remember running through sandy dunes as a kid; no shoes, climbing barbed wire fences sunk so deep into dunes we could hop over them. We’d regularly have a beach day for gym and we’d all go running towards the horizon. Marram grass would stick into my soft pink feet. My teacher told me it would toughen them up. I’m not sure that was true.
It would grow in our garden. Instead of a lovely lawn. It made it wild and boggy; the marram grass was just impossible to dig out. In the summer we’d strip the tops bare of seeds – feeling them disintegrate in our little hands and throwing them out to the wind, or else we’d strip back the green bark and pull out the foamy insides in a mindless ritual.
More worryingly was when it grew over claggy bogs. As children we would start walking over these fields, only to feel the very ground wobble under our feet. We lived in fear of plunging through the matt of roots into the quagmire below. Sometimes I dream I’m back there, and I awake with a start as I fall.