It is a cold, dark mass pressing at Britain’s back. In our wake, out of sight and out mind for many, for me certainly. The romantic, jagged, forward-looking west coast taking most of the attention. West is in front, east is behind.
A landscape of wide flats and off-colour beaches.
An image of the North Sea had been flickering in my mind some time before actually seeing it. A pastiche of things. Forgotten photographs, literary descriptions, films, a watercolour jigsaw of Whitby, imaginings of plighted fishermen stoically sailing out in a harsh, grey-brown sea to scratch out what might be left alive. An image that had some potency, as though it was alive, another possible life. When I thought of it I wandered if I would have had a different relationship with the sea if I had grown up with that one, not my one.
I had wondered if, when standing on the coast of Co. Durham, my curiously powerful mental image would be realised or rejected.
When you travel often you form images of where you are going, most of the time they are so wrong it’s laughable in retrospect. This time it was close.
Seas have a feel. Just as everything does, land, animals, people, trees. A holistic sense of what or who they are. It lets you know if you’re compatible. I try to pay attention to this but I don’t know if I entirely trust it.
It seems it is most likely just a whir of complex, unconscious cognitions of small things, rushing though idiosyncratic preset grooves of past experience and predjudices, too fast to be sensible. The computations of a complex processing machine from which an answer slides out in black and white. Like or dislike. First impressions. What if it is right? Even if it isn’t then perhaps it is worth paying attention to. Or not.
It is a sea of industry. It gives the impression of being devoid of life. Comes across as scarred and unclean, traumatised by the last 200 years of overfishing and heavy commercialism. The beaches seem deserted and great iron tankers sit guiltily off the coast, waiting in sullen groups to sidle into the now relatively minor ports of Sunderland, Hartlepool or Middlesbrough.
The North Sea is one of the most heavily fished areas in the world, as well as one of its busiest shipping routes. A spider web of constantly moving freight trankers and trawlers barging through it at all hours everyday. Felixstowe to Antwerp to Rotterdam to Bremerhaven and Hamburg, some of the largest ports of the world. All carrying things, leaking things, carving up the sea bed, trawling for cod. All the nations that hem the North Sea are busy pulling millions of tonnes of fish from it each year. The stocks of cod got so low in the 00’s they nearly failed entirely. Since restrictions were put in place they have slowly climbed back to sustainable levels but those levels are still low and there are real fears this small and slow victory will be washed away by the unsure tide of Brexit.
I find overfishing and general degradation of the seas such a miserable topic its hard to write about. A topic that also feels submerged, sailed over. You have to fish about for a mention of it. I didn’t take much pleasure from the unseasonable warmth of recent weeks, instead I have been filled with gloom about insect life disappearing at alarming rates, at realising how I don’t see ladybirds, millipedes or slow worms anymore, that the spiders – my great interest – seem less numerous now, how the rockpools in Cornwall don’t have the same abundance or diversity as they did when I was a kid.
This gloom was worsened stood on a brown mud-sand beach strewn with old bricks, dogshit and plastic. Darkening further as I turned over the rocks at mid-tide to find nothing but dead seaweed, twisted iron and bottle caps. Descending further still as I put my hand in a cold, angry sea the colour of murk, eyeing the skulking tankers at anchor in the bay.