A Visit From The Olympic Flame. Filey. June 18th 2012.

There is not a lot which happens for the first time in our small seaside town. Plenty happens, in its own quiet way, but not for the first time. Visitors come to the beach to walk their dogs, let their children dig in the sand, ride donkeys, eat ice creams, drink tea, eat chips, and wander aimlessly. They all look remarkably like the people who were doing just the same things twenty or thirty years ago, and the retirement community which now lives in the rows of little bungalows, puts on their anoraks and pulls their shopping trolleys down to the shops has replaced an identical one which did exactly the same things all those years ago too. Nothing changes much and people like it that way. It’s that kind of place.

 BUT this week we had something which was a real first for the town, a first which is also quite likely to be a one and only. The 2012 Olympic flame was carried through the town. It’s the closest to the London Olympics that most of us are likely to get so balloons, whistles and flags were bought and the traffic was stopped. Quite a lot of us turned out to watch the cavalcade of sponsored lorries, buses and runners come through. We cheered the outriders, the policemen looking cool in shades on their motor bikes, and the man who jogged inexplicably round the roundabout on his own (after booing him when he took a short cut by accident the first time round and turned back) and we were all very pleased with ourselves, full of goodwill for each other. The Olympic flame itself, when it arrived, was carried through the streets by a local PE teacher, Robert Reid, who has done many good things for sport in the area. The real Olympic flame that is. Sadly it was only carried around a couple of roundabouts rather than along our magnificent beach in Chariots of Fire style and it didn’t stay in town long but it was here and it was real. Yes it was tacky, over sponsored, over-hyped, and ultimately nothing more than a manufactured event to earn money but we liked it.

If only a single runner could have taken it right into the town alone, and along the beach, while people cheered without being told to, as a tribute to the individual effort and achievement which so many athletes all around the world have put in to prepare for the competition of their life it would have been incredibly moving. As it was all that we were really cheering was a commercial opportunity (not least for those torch bearers who have paid £199 to keep their torch and then sold them on the internet) but somewhere hidden in there with that commercial opportunity was the Olympic ideal, and a lot of well justified pride and honour. That had to be worth a shout.


Thoughts from the cliff top.

All human life is there when you look down from the cliff top onto the beach here in Filey on a sunny day. Sounds and feelings float up towards you as you sit there unseen. The tiny moving figures down below have no idea that another person is watching them and wondering. They are fair game for all kinds of observations and speculations. They have no idea that their lives are being carried away on the wind towards a stranger while they enjoy themselves, all unaware. Each perfect little reproduction of a full size human being runs, walks, digs, hits, swims, sleeps, plays and talks, living its life out in the open in full colour. From far above their actions seem repetitive, and universal, rather than the unique actions of a living breathing human being. They represent all of us, as well as all those who have gone before them and those who will come after.

That precious child whose mother is watching as she runs back from the sea carrying a full bucket of water is just one of many who make their way up and down the sand every summer, one of the many who have made that small but important journey ever since children first saw sand and were given a spade to dig it up with.

That grandmother who is slouched down in her deckchair facing the sun with her toes in the air was probably one of those children once. She would have carried her coloured metal bucket down to the water, watched by a grandma who had most likely lived through two world wars. The beach still carries the scars of that time, in the shape of decaying pill boxes and scraps of aluminium from aircraft shot down out at sea. The relentless waves and the shifting sand took it all in their stride.

That father who is allowing his son to bury him after a game of football has not given a moment of thought to the fact that that he is taking part in an honourable tradition of mock burial in the sand. If you laid out all the bodies of the fathers who have been buried alive with surprising solemnity by their children down the years (nobody ever seems to find it funny) they would stretch all the way round the whole sweep of the bay, reaching as far as Bempton, and beyond.

From up here I can see ghosts. I can see the ghosts of friends and family who no longer walk the beach, but above all I see the ghosts of myself. I can picture the small child, alone and friendless, walking slowly with her head down as she searches for fossils. I can see myself flying along at a fast canter down the sunlit sand on a skewbald pony in the early morning. I can see myself huddled next to my mother as I read William Golding’s sea trilogy with a warm pasty on my knee and a bottle of lucozade sitting by my deckchair. There is a small blue kite flying above us, tied to the strut and my mother is writing postcards. I can hear myself declaring lines of dialogue into an empty beach while I learn a part, the headphones of a walkman clamped to my ears. I can feel the wet nose of my retriever Hal as he nudges my closed hand while I walk along, knowing that I have a biscuit waiting there for him. I can see myself coping with love, loss, joy and hopelessness down there and finding renewal as I look out to sea, grim faced, through the roaring waves of a turbulent life. I know every inch of it better than that little girl collecting fossils would ever have thought possible. It is a kind of home.

The beach is a world outside time. People go down to the shore, protect themselves from the wind and face the sea in order to do what they have always done. Time passes, people come and go, and little changes. Even the shouts which arise from an instant of excitement carry an eerie delay by the time they reach me as I listen. Their moment has already ebbed away before the disembodied voice reaches my ears. Whole snatches of conversations can be carried down the beach in that way, lost to the wind who takes them without hearing or understanding and allows them to fade into nothing.

It is not only people who are alive to sights and sounds of the beach of course. There are the birds, who live apart in another world of their own, looking after themselves and taking what they can. There are the donkeys who have been carrying human cargo pointlessly back and forth down there for generations, carving out their path in the sand with quiet resignation. If there is no child to carry they will walk it again anyway behind their companions, accepting their lot, putting one foot in front of another with quiet dignity. Finally there are the dogs, and there are many of them, as there always have been in Filey, running, leaping, and barking, marking out enormous circles of joy as they revel in the freedom of the open space. Their time in the sun will be shorter than that of the people around them but they abandon themselves to the moment, throwing themselves into the sun, sea and sky as if there was no yesterday and no tomorrow. They have the right idea.

Filey Bay.

This is my bay, and my beach. I say my bay, but of course I don’t really own it. Only in the sense that I owned Vermeer’s The Milkmaid when I stood there in the Royal Academy looking at it for so long that I began to see the milk that she was pouring move. It is mine because I have been spending time on it for almost all of my life. For the past twelve years that has meant about eight hours a week with my dogs. My house is close by so I am rarely far away even when I am not standing on it.

I first saw the bay when I was about eight years old. You could hire and ride horses along it then and my early holidays were spent saddling up and taking other visiting children up and down the beach on a leading rein all day after two hour rides cantering through the surf. It was magical- although my heart sinks now at the thought that I did it all without even a riding hat. When I wasn’t on horseback I was walking around with my head down looking for stones, shells and fossils. I would find tiny jellyfish and watch them glow and vibrate as they swam their way around my bucket. If it was a very low tide I would search out my dad when he was digging for bait and steal a razor clam to set free. They would put out their white foot to dig, slowly tip up, and shoot downwards into the soft sand like a sinking ship. I spent hours reading in a deckchair next to my mother, huddled up against the wind and never got bored down there once. These family holidays continued to be part of my summer right up until the time that I eventually came to live here and I never wanted them to stop, no matter how many other places I saw and loved.

This beach is a fine place for sorting your head out, especially when it is big and empty at low tide. I have gone down there, upset, angry, grieving, rejoicing, uncertain, excited or in love and I have always found myself working my feelings out along the waters edge. There is something very soothing about the calm straight line of the horizon and the restless, repetitive movement of the sea. One of my favourite poems by e e cummings sums it up perfectly. “Whatever we lose, like a you or a me, it’s always ourselves that we find in the sea.

I’ve seen the bay in all weathers during the years that I have lived by it. When there is a thick fog at low tide I can’t even see the cliffs if I walk out to the surf. There is only sand and sea, the world fades to grey in every direction around me. To be out there alone on a sharp bright winter day under a huge expanse of sky with cloud formations rushing over your head at different speeds is breathtaking. On a wet blustery day I can see that I am going to get soaked long before the approaching storm cloud reaches me as I watch it circle round out at sea with a soft shadow of rain under it.

The light changes through the day too. In the early morning, if I am lucky, the sun sparkles on the water and lights the clouds from behind as if they were a stage set for the seagulls. All day the light constantly changes and shifts on the sand and the water to give endless variety. The cliffs glow pink at sunset and after dark I can watch the flashing of Flamborough Light and Brigg End Buoy and admire a pale trail of moonlight on the water. The sea responds to the weather and the sky. It can be still and welcoming, or full of breakers rushing in at speed with white horses out in the deep water catching the light, dark and grey or a light shimmering blue. Even the sand has its moods, soft and friendly making a perfect summer playground or vicious and wilful, stirred up by a winter wind, whipping round my legs and stinging my face.

In autumn, winter and most of Spring I am usually down there alone, free to amble around looking at the flotsam and jetsam, turning round slowly or staring into space. Sometimes if the beach is dry and clear I run with my arms out and my eyes shut, just because I can. On busy summer weekends when the sun gets out I have to behave myself and fight my way through several hundred people who park themselves on the sand with tents, windbreaks, digging equipment, inflatable dolphins, endless amounts of food in polystyrene containers and hunker down while their children forget how sophisticated they think they are and lose themselves in digging, paddling and running. There are ice creams, chips, strange dogs who can’t believe their luck, balls, bats, random shouts, even whole conversations carried away on the air, rugs, kites and towels. All this is swept away come October and the wading birds are safe to march up and down again, reclaiming their territory. The dogs and I do the same. It is my beach after all.

Death on the Beach. January 2010.

This month the beach was covered with dead fish, large silver grey fish the size of dinner plates with tiny rows of dramatic teeth snarling out. Slowly, as the seagulls pecked out their eyes and time decayed the silver from the surface of their scales, they began to melt into the beach and lose their identity among the flotsam and the rubbish. Seaweed wound itself round their bodies and the tide slapped at them twice a day, lifting them up and throwing them down into new distortions of what they once were. A few were picked up by fishermen and marvelled about while they were still sleek, silver and bright eyed but most of them were left alone to stare out with empty eyes, only remarked on quietly by people as they passed. They wondered about them, complained about them, and finally forgot their idle curiosity as they went home, simply remarking that the beach was a mess. In time the waves grew weary of toying with them. The sea claimed their bodies back for itself when an early morning tide swept what was left of them back into deep water and uncovered a clear sunlit stretch of smooth sand, a fresh wind and a new beginning.

The fish were Rays Bream. They swim in shoals down on the south west coast where the water is warmed by the gulf stream. A big storm had pushed them along the English Channel and they had swum north, up the east coast into colder water. Uncomfortable and disorientated by the cold they had headed towards the warmer shallower water at the edge of the sea. Because of their large flat bodies they then found that they didn’t have enough depth to swim upright as they needed to and they were washed ashore by the wave action of a rough sea and grounded, alive and gasping.

It’s a harsh world out there for some of our fellow creatures.