Sunday, 1 June 2003

Beyond the Bounds

The week after Easter brings the chance of a favourite pilgrimage.  The A17 can be a bit of a slog, but after King’s Lynn we give the roads their names – coast road, common road, beach road, cockle road – and each transition moves us closer to ‘The Moorings’, 55 The Beach, Snettisham.  Getting there is the main pilgrimage which then makes possible the more intimate mini pilgrimages that flesh out the enjoyment – a walk in Sandringham woods, touring the charity shops in Hunstanton, cream tea at Bircham Windmill – the itinerary varies from one visit to another but there is one element that I must include at least once – a trip to the benches …
The chalets form a long line between The Wash and the gravel pit lakes.  They are constantly evolving – some falling into disrepair or disappearance, but most being upgraded – being added to piecemeal or totally rebuilt.  Put them anywhere else and many of them would look ridiculous but here, by the sea, they are fascinating no matter how dishevelled.  On my bike I pass the last of them and continue alongside the bank that hides the bird reserve.  I pass the remaining piers of the derelict jetty where in years gone by all the gravel was shipped away across The Wash.  Still a way to go yet …
The three benches form a convex arc, each looking slightly away from the others in a general westward direction out across The Wash.  They are solid and sun-warmed, which is reassuring because at this particular spot nothing seems easy to grasp.  There is a vastness that goes beyond words; it seems to exert a pull on the whole field of sense threatening it with breakdown. This is a meeting place of salt marsh, mudflat, grassland and sea with the little Babingley river flowing into their midst beneath an almost complete hemisphere of sky.  In fact the sky is so big that the horizon on the Western side seems even lower than it possibly could be. It is a place that accommodates to the mind more easily in memory than in the present moment.  I remember being here with Jemima, when the tide was at a yearly high and the wading birds, having been pushed all the way back by the rising water at last had to take to the air en masse.  The dense whirling clouds of them twisted this way and that and the reflection of the early morning sunlight was switched on and off by the synchronised altering of their angles.  Then they did a ‘fly past’ solely for our benefit, peeling to left and right just over our heads – a display of unmatchable scale and exhilaration.  I remember bending down to look into the face of a tiny scarlet pimpernel – its infinitesimal perfection the exact inversion of the vaulted blue above. 
I am brought back to the present moment by a single gunshot, for an instant it fills my mind but after only seconds it remains as no more than a pinprick in memory.  Looking around I can make out the horizontal line of the chalets and the vertical line of the spire of St Mary’s, Snettisham but the distance robs them of their substance.  In the opposite direction a few cows seem to float on a haze just above the flood plain meadows.  I watch the swallows following their own invisible lines then close my eyes and listen to the call of the black headed gulls which is half cry, half buzz.  I feel the warm tingle of the sun on my eyelids, the breeze playing cool on moistened lips.  Then a skylark starts raising its own invisible spire of diffused music in the air above my head.
To remain in the present but somehow anchor myself against the dissolving vastness I turn my attention to the benches themselves.  The second is dedicated: ‘Michael Bounds 1917 – 1999’ and the third ‘Ada Bounds 1917-1994 “Rest here awhile”’ – commemorated in a place without bounds.  The boundaries of their existence recorded like empty vessels that contained so much that was precious.  Their lives overlapped entirely except for those five years for Michael on his own. Now even that is past and their respective benches sit side by side just angled apart, suggesting a slightly different perspective on a common view; easy companionship with not the slightest trace of confrontation – a good legacy of years spent together.
I always think it would be good to spend a day here – perhaps bring a picnic.  We never have yet.  In fact I never stay for very long before moving off again.  Perhaps a quick visit to the wildfowler’s cabin.  A houseboat that was beautifully equipped and cosy before the owner stopped using it and the vandals arrived.  Now only the swallows move in for a short stay each spring.
Time to return to the moorings.  “This time I’ll write down what I’ve felt and try and make some sense of it that way.”  And so you can perhaps glimpse it too.  But there is nothing quite like being there.