I’ll let you into a secret: I can’t swim. Which is crazy considering that I live on an island, and that I grew up on an estuary (or Thames Delta, as it’s coming to be known). But here’s another secret: I love the water – or maybe I should say the sea, I love the sea.
Recently me and the angel of my better brain have taken to driving across to the Welsh coast as often as possible and diving in. She swims like a mermaid, you wont be surprised to find out. Me? Not so much. I flounder. I gasp. I bob with the waves and skip-float crablike with every crash of saline. But I still love it.
‘Sometimes people don’t need to be strong, but to feel strong…’ states Jon Krakauer in Into the Wild, talking about testing yourself against the ocean waves. There is something to that, but for me I’ve always felt the opposite experience to be just as true: I give myself up to the waves knowing that they’re bigger than me, knowing that they can hold me or tumble me just as easily.
‘Did you know they found water on Mars recently? Waaay too salty to support life, though…’
But still – it changes things.
It’s a sin to live in Wales and not visit the coasts. I’d almost venture as far as saying the same for Britain as a whole. These uptight, bureaucratic & buttoned-down islands of ours are an Atlantic archipelago, struck out like a hand into the cold north-western waters, each finger pointing a sea-road around the globe. We get visited by Whales and Basking Sharks, Jellyfish and Salmon, Ospreys and Puffins, geese that have waddled over the Siberian tundra or the Alaskan territories. I often wonder what the UK looks like – how it feels to these other travellers as I’m bobbing up and down in the waters and looking either to the greying edge of the horizon, or the black basalt spires and stacks of the coastline. A respite. A home. A cornucopia. A challenge.
Birds and fish aren’t the only ones who value these coastal ways though – the Welsh beaches in summer are a magnet for sun-worshippers of all types. As we splash in the waves or draw art on the sand, we are regularly sharing this space with holidaymakers and travellers, the old and young alike, as if we all drawn to be humbled by the wilding edge of the sea. Having done my time as a (very) amateur anthropologist this is also fascinating to me – not that this is a ‘space’ where ‘actors’ seek to play out or ‘recreate’ their social identities – but instead the reverse: they come to cast aside their inland identities before the one force that cares not a jot what our titles or job descriptions are, or what arrangement of limbs, feathers, or fins we have.
There is a reason that water has always been associated with purification, absolution and transformation. The sea is a complete and immediate bodily experience, not carefully negotiated, confined or regulated as behind us inland.
Life gets all a bit looser along the coasts. A few miles above us lies Aberystwyth, often cited as one of the happiest places in Britain – and I personally believe it’s that long golden beach and open promenade: it provides a space where people come together and pay homage, in their own various ways, to the mother ocean.
Some tell me home is up,
in the sky?
in the sky lives a spy-eye-I,
I wanna be more like the Ocean,
no talking man, all action.
I know that what we’re doing is a ritual of sorts. To come here to the edge of the land and look out at the edge of forever, to be washed and remade anew by the waters. It’s like a return to true, reawakening all of those millenia of aquatic biology hidden in our cells. You think you are this landlocked, cloth-bound thing, when you are not…
And as I bob and crab-skip to the swell and pull of the waves, I’m also thinking about the future with a capital F- that water they found on Mars, and I wonder if one day there will be other aquatic creatures up there, bobbing about and wondering whether to crawl up onto land yet.