It’s a cold mass swirling about 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, the odd film, 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 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, the 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 entirely trust it.
Its most just likely a whir of complex, unconscious cognitions of small things, rushing though idiosyncratic preset grooves of past experience, too fast to be sensible, a complex processing machine from which answer slides out in black and white. Like or dislike. First impressions. What if its right? Even if it isn’t then perhaps it is worth paying attention to.
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 industry. 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 the busiest shipping routes, a spider web of constantly moving freight and trawlers barging through it. 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 our cod. All the nations that hem it 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 have been in place they have slowly got 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 and 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 and twisted iron, as I put my hand in a cold, angry sea the colour of murk, eyes on the skulking tankers at anchor in the bay.