On Boxing Day, Sussex went into Tier 4 — which is pretty much a third lockdown for us. Non-essential retail closes, as does most hospitality. We're back into a “stay at home” order — with exemptions for a few purposes, including exercise. The police have even been at the local tip, checking that people's visits there were “essential”. Stay home. Save lives.
So, for much of the UK, the post-Christmas walk becomes one of the few recreations out of the house we can still safely (and legally) enjoy.
And where's the best place to exercise, if you live by the sea? That's right — the beach. And late yesterday afternoon, Shoreham Beach was busy with people doing just that. Amongst them were, of course, the more focused sports people, with the kit and the skill to make the most of the sea:
For the rest of us, the more shore-bound folk, it was just a chance to stroll, run, laugh — and soak up some much-needed Vitamin D. Although the link between low levels of the vitamin and the most severe cases of COVID19 is still unclear, there's plenty of evidence to suggest that higher average levels are good for all of us. So, let's grab even those weak winter rays where we can.
The Beach Calm after Storm Bella
In the aftermath of Storm Bella yesterday, that Vitamin D-generating light was rich and surprising warm for late December. The seas were still stormy enough to attract some surfers, but the wind had dropped and walking was pleasant.
For reasons best known to them, it was all surfers, not kite-surfers, which is unsual. This small stretch of coastline is a pretty major hotspot for the sport, but clearly the weather conditions weren't conducive to getting the kites aloft. Just 24 hours before, the sea had been full of them. But not yesterday.
It was just warm enough that some people sat and chilled on the shingle a while, watching the waves tirelessly crashing onto the beach. And a few brave, and dry-robe equipped, souls were actually enjoying a cold water sea swim. I salute them. I envy them. Maybe next year…
A new face of an old friend
Storms like Bella reshape shingle beaches. Oh, their broad contours stay the same, but the details are all rearranged, like an old friend with an unexpected facelift. Just a few weeks ago, we had trucks on the beach, shifting the shingle around to counter longshore drift — and leaving deep tracks behind.
All evidence of their passage was finally gone, smoothed away by wind and sea in a matter of days. Instead, the beach was back to its normal sparse winter glory. The colourful plants that dot the beach in summer have long retreated to their winter somnolence beneath the shingle. The summer sun-worshippers were home in the warm of the fire and the radiator and the TV.
The beach is left to us, the hardy winter walkers and sportspeople, and the birds. And it is glorious.
Tier 4 Fears
We're going to need its glory. Tier 4 — an effective, if not national, lockdown — stretches before us into the future. There's no clear sense of when we might leave it. With a new variant of the virus spreading rapidly thought the south east, it's possible that we might be in for months of staying home.
It looks, in fact, like the UK's cycle of restriction will last over a year. A year since I last went to London. A year since I saw my brother and his family in person. A year since I've done work from anywhere but home. Yes, I know that I'm lucky. Nobody in my family has got sick. Not everyone is lucky enough to be able to work from home. Not everybody is lucky enough to have a beach on their doorstep.
But, wherever we live, we've been forced into a deepened relationship with place. We live not unlike our ancestors of only a few generations back: rarely straying from our county. Some people have found this an unbearable restriction. Some people have decided that they hate where they live and it's time for a change.
I've slowly come around to feeling liberated by it. I feel like I've been given permission to truly dwell here, on Shoreham Beach. To get to know it, to feel it changing with the seasons around me. And I hope, when mass vaccination finally ends this pandemic, that I don't lose that permission. I hope I can resist the pressure, the FOMO, that drives me to try to go elsewhere; to travel, to rush.
Some of the nature writers I most admire have a deep connection with their landscapes. They walk them with an intensity I'm slowly learning. A year is long enough to break habits — and make new ones. This is the new one I'm working on.
And so, I'm trying to look at Tier 4 as a gift; a few months to truly complete my bond with the place where I dwell. To forge a connection with it, one that will survive the freedom that 2021 will eventually bring.