I drove down the east coast from Edinburgh to North Yorkshire yesterday afternoon. It was a stunning spring day; clear, with good visibility for miles. I love the parts of the journey after Dunbar, beyond Berwick (upon-Tweed) and just south of Sunderland, near Peterlee. Those are three of the spots where the North Sea comes into view and I silently shout out, ‘I see the sea!’ Doesn’t everyone do it? We have done it for as long as I remember in our family, largely at one specific location. I come from the seaside town of Portrush on the north coast of Ireland. Approaching Portrush from the south – on a road we call ‘the Ballymoney line’ – there is a certain hill, and only when you hit the brow of that hill do you spy the sea, at which point it is only about half a mile away. That’s when you yell, as loudly as you can, ‘I see the sea!’ We’ve never outgrown it. About ten years ago my poor father nearly crashed the car when two of his thirty-something offspring, quietly harbouring their competitive spirit, determined not to remind each other so that they would ‘win’, ended up yelling, ‘I see the sea!’ in unison at the top of their lungs. The sedate and pleasant journey back from the airport had been shattered, along with my father’s nerves. “Jesus,” my father prayed, in not the most prayerful voice, “I thought I’d hit something. Do not ever do that to me again.” “What do you mean don’t do it again?” M. asked, “Sure we have been doing it for 35 years, we can’t stop now.”
That’s how it is for me: I can’t stop now. When the ocean takes a peep out from across the rolling fields of the Scottish Borders, or merges into the far promontories of Northumberland, or waves to me from beyond the industrial chimneys of Hartlepool, I say hello. I was raised beside the stormy, wild, untamed, dangerous Atlantic, and I am happy to see its near relative to the east. The North Sea seems darker, flatter, deeper, quieter – none of which are probably true, but to me it has a different quality about it to the Atlantic. At least once a year, my father, a schoolteacher, would sombrely address school assembly with a serious missive on the power of the sea; the danger, fickle, changeable, capricious nature of the ocean, how the waves could snatch you, overcome you, pull you down before you knew it. Beware, caution, stay alert – it was drummed into us. Our school was perched on a cliff, and it was his ever-present fear that children might perish on the sea, the rocks, the waves. It was not an unfounded fear. Irish poet, Derek Mahon wrote this about my hometown:
‘North Wind: Portrush’, by Derek Mahon
“I shall never forget the wind
On this benighted coast.
It works itself into the mind
Like the high keen of a lost
Lear-spirit in agony
Condemned for eternity.”
Yes, he’s right, to me the wind and the sea are synonymous; the still days are few and far between. Many years ago I sat with G. in Ballintoy, a stunning harbour on the Causeway Coast of County Antrim. We stayed in the car for safety, well back from the sea as a storm raged and the sea churned. We just watched, hypnotically, and I remember him saying that he did not have sufficient words to describe how he felt about the sea and irrepressible waves, the intensity, the magnificence, the passion.
Yet when it falls calm and silent it can be a different sort of magnificent sea. I have a vivid memory of walking the East Strand in Portrush in thick fog; it was the most eerie experience. Besides not being able to see more than ten feet in front of me, the fog deadened the sound, then captured it so that only near sounds were audible. None of the usual gulls squawking could be heard, just the soft rumple of small waves breaking on the shore. I love to hear the sea. I love to smell the sea. Occasionally I even like to jump into the sea and feel it (brrrr!) accidentally gulping saltwater with the shock of the cold. Most of all, though, I like to see the sea.