The British are, indeed, spoiled for choice when it comes to their seasides. There are thousands of miles of coastline containing ‘record-breaking topographical variety’ so how does one write a compact book about such a vast topic? Barkham limits his geographical focus to the 742 miles owned by the National Trust in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but this doesn’t diminish the imaginative reach of his wonderful volume.
He begins in childhood and wonders why we first fall in love with the seaside. He looks back to his own adventures on Scolt Head Island and writes sweetly about his children’s shoreline encounters. Perhaps it is the freedom of the place that wins us over, or the sociability, or the fact that hours can pass by unnoticed because we are ‘completely absorbed in the present moment.’
Whatever the reason, our attachment to the coast loses none of its power in later life although, as Barkham explains, salt air can stir up a staggering array of emotions. The coast can be a site of passion: the ideal place to bend the rules of sexual behaviour or to write dark literary tales. There is also menace stemming from the long memory of war and invasion. Barkham takes us to the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle and offers pithy history lessons about the medieval conflicts between England and Scotland. He takes us to Orford Ness, for which ‘nothing and no-one can prepare you,’ and reports on how this hostile landscape was ‘ruled by nuclear scientists and American spooks’ through most of the twentieth century.
By this point, some light relief is required, and Barkham writes passionately on the coast’s ability to inspire art. We learn all about the Newlyn School, the creative processes of the always fascinating Maggi Hambling, and the solitary poetic labours of R S Thomas. This demonstrates how the coast can be a workplace, but how some jobs are tougher than others. The book continues with splendid sections on the history of fishing, mining, and the less noble professions of smuggling and luring ships to their doom on local rocks.
Patrick Barkham is proving himself to be one of the finest writers of his generation. He can move from humour to earnest reflection without the reader even noticing the transition and, at its best, his prose has a restrained lyrical quality that invites envy. In Coastlines, these skills are most conspicuous in the chapters on Lundy and Brownsea.
Being able to write well is rather less than half the battle, however. You also have to know how to devise a satisfying structure. This is always the hardest part but it apparently comes effortlessly to Barkham. He makes fine decisions about what to discuss and gets away with lengthy detours into everything from The French Lieutenant’s Woman to the role of Romanticism in reinventing the British understanding of the coast. He goes off track all the time, but the you hardly ever notice. This is a rare gift.
Early in the book, Barkham challenges the idea that we are a maritime nation. As it goes, most of us are lousy on boats. We much prefer to look out to sea from firm land with sand beneath our feet. We are, therefore, a coastal nation, and this continues to matter throughout our lives.
By the end, Barkham is wondering why so many elderly people find comfort in moving to the seaside. He quotes Joseph Conrad, who observed that the sea never looks young. It has been there forever so how could it not elicit contemplation? It threatens and reassures in a single glance.
Coastlines will teach you about saint-rich Bardsey Island, the industry-scarred landscapes of East Durham, and the stunning coastal walks of North Cornwall. It will make you appreciate the efforts of the National Trust and convince you that installing robust coastal defences is one of our highest national priorities. Above all, it should make every Briton feel happy to live in a country that is ‘more edge than middle.’ I was born by the sea and have never felt at ease in a landlocked place. Thanks to this superb book, I now know why.
COASTLINES: The Story of Our Shore by Patrick Barkham, Granta, £20 (hardback)
This book review was published in the April 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine