Tuesday, 7 June 2016

The Frayed Atlantic Edge: Learning Life, History & Nature on the Coast


This blog was set up two years ago as a means of recording journeys to the coasts & mountains of the North & West of the British Isles. These ventures have been part of my lifestyle & working habits for over a decade, but this year, thanks to a couple of big new projects, they're taking on a significance I'd not previously imagined. In a few days I'll be signing a contract with Harper Collins for The Frayed Atlantic Edge: a Historian's Journey from Shetland to the Channel, a book that's built on a vastly-extended version of the journeys & writing on this site. This post introduces a few aspects of that new project. In fact, it's almost a kind of heart-on-sleeve mountaincoastriver manifesto: I'm hoping it'll draw responses from others with interests in these coasts & mountains (please feel free to get in touch by either email - d.j.gange@bham.ac.uk - or twitter - @david_gange - I'd also really appreciate anything anyone is willing to do to circulate this).

As anyone who has read this blog before will know, I'm a historian of modern Britain which means I spend countless hours reading & writing. And I've long found the outdoors the most productive place to assimilate ideas...
...or to try & produce thoughts of my own. This often entails nights with history books on mountain tops…
…or includes dawns, exposed to both the watery deep & the distant stars, on skerries or small islands:
It usually involves a few close encounters with creatures (sometimes while moving but most often while sat still):
…and occasionally, the animals that appear are ones I’d never normally encounter without hanging around in strange places, such as this long-tailed skua & little auk:
The need to work like this might be a sad commentary on my failure to focus when surrounded by everyday things, but there’s no doubt that, for me at least, extended time outdoors works wonders for the ability to learn. Alongside all the usual gear (except a stove: I’ve never shared many people's desire for hot food & drink outdoors) I carry an 11 litre drybag, usually filled a third with history books, a third with poetry & a third with yellow waterproof notebooks to write in. 

Over the years I’ve been doing this, my habits for staying outdoors have changed. From carrying a North Face Westwind tent (weighing a huge 4kg)…
...I moved to sleeping in a little Terra Nova Jupiter hooped bivi… 
…then to no tent/bivi at all, just a Mammut Shield waterproof sleeping bag (one of my favourite possessions):
In this, without the rustle of loose goretex that comes with tents & bivis, I tend to sleep far better than before. The lack of complete cover also makes me more aware of nearby animals. Even the most innocuous of sleeping spots, like this forest edge, can involve awaking to a sudden shock of being watched…
...and the feeling of coming round while totally (mind-bendingly, time-stoppingly) absorbed in an inscrutible animal stare is utterly unforgettable. Waking up like this can also mean opening bleary eyes to find that a flock of barnacle geese or fieldfare has landed silently around, or that a raven is proclaiming its lordship over my belongings…
With this set-up my total sleeping gear weighs just 1kg (it’s only expanded to provide full enclosure at the height of midge season). Because of that reduction in weight I can carry things like a rope & helmet, allowing exploration of cliff faces, ledges & the hearts of the mountains in pursuit of an ideal - not to pass through places but to sustain immersion in them:
Yet most of the time, the books I’ve carried have had little to do with the landscapes I’ve moved through. I’d be reading histories focused on towns & cities, so the outdoors was an office but not a laboratory: travel was not itself part of the research process. Reading great writing like Rachel Carson’s seashore trilogy, Rebecca Solnit’s books on movement or Norman MacCaig’s poetry could only be a pastime rather than something truly central to life & work. The absorbtion in place was incomplete.

This year, all these things have changed. Becoming more immersed in geographies, natural histories & life on coastlines, I slowly realised that I had to find ways to prevent these interests clashing with the everyday research for my history books: I had to become a historian of these coasts. I began to conceptualise a huge research project, which will take at least a decade, about coastal temporalities - perceptions of time on Britain’s coasts - from the end of the seventeenth century to the present. I’m currently champing at the bit to swap my usual archives – metropolitan buildings such as the British Library – for collections like the Orkney Sound Archive. My university was kind enough to let me spend a year, with a month in Brazil...
...and a month in Japan... 
...discovering how different disciplines & cultures treat concepts of time, and collaborating along the way with some wonderful philosophers, biologists, neuroscientists & literary scholars. 

At the same time, I began to craft short pieces of nature writing, which Earthlines Magazine & Dunlin Press were generous enough to publish. And a huge slice of good fortune arrived when Adam Nicolson, author of one of my favourite outdoors books, Sea Room, and his agent, Georgina Capel, saw the MountainCoastRiver blog & set about helping me hone the blend of history, geography, travel & nature writing I’d been trying to experiment with (their involvement has been the crucial ingredient for making this shift plausible - so thankyou both).

The result is that while I complete existing projects on nineteenth-century history, I’m beginning the most exciting project I’ve ever undertaken – something that’s making me feel like a PhD student again, with all the enthusiasm & nervous energy/tension (or, to put it another way, blind fear & imposter syndrome) that entails. This is a book that’s part of the research process for my project on coastal temporalities, and will be the first big thing to come from this change of direction. The Frayed Atlantic Edge: A Historian’s Journey from Shetland to the Channel involves lots of kayaking & walking, covering (bit by bit) the Northern Isles, the Outer & Inner Hebrides & the West coasts of Scotland, Ireland, Wales & Cornwall. It's an exploration of these regions, of the nature of our coasts, and of the potential of travel as part of doing history, whether that travel be walking (the once-familiar 'archive of the feet') or the less common practice of splashing along forgotten coastal routes. The book was pitched to several publishers in March, and after interest from Bloomsbury, Atlantic, Penguin & others, I’ll be signing in a few days with Harper Collins. That process was quicker than expected, so I have the luxury of a little extra time: I can spend the whole of July kayaking the Shetland Isles, North to South, and researching Shetland history, nature & culture along the way. 

That’s ridiculously exciting, but also pretty serious stuff. I do love rough seas. Some of my best ever kayak experiences have come in nerve-fraying conditions, such as this whale encounter off Rubha Hunish (the northernmost point of Skye, where some mighty tidal streams do battle – it was idiotic to take my hands off the paddle for long enough to get these photos, but I’m SO glad I did):
Or becoming surrounded by dolphins just as thick sea mist cleared on the inner sound (between Rona & Applecross/Torridon). Here's Llinos wondering where our horizons have gone before the sudden emergence of dolphins from dispersing cloud:
But when the surf is really up…
…I’ve stayed onshore. For this journey I’d need to get used to launching, landing & covering distances in ferocious conditions. So in mid-May, Llinos & I travelled to the North coast of Cornwall to practice surf kayaking – learning to relish the challenge of big seas & to take pleasure in precarious interactions with the ocean's force. Here she is, scaling, then sliding down, white foam ridges:
In doing this, we got excellent advice from the utterly astounding Andy Howlett (who even let me abuse his Mega Bullit surf kayak for a while). And we took on a long trip, including Land’s End itself, as practice for dealing with tide races & swell.
I also started attending everything I could to do with coastal history or outdoors writing, and made sure I got out in the kayak or up in the hills at every one of these events (was visiting Dundee a good enough excuse to nip across to Orkney? Not sure, but it happened). I went to a wonderful coastal history conference hosted by the University of the Highlands & Islands in Dornoch – full of people with diverse intellectual interests, brought together by a love of the coast. This offered plenty of opportunity for coastal kayaking among the eider, long-tailed ducks and geese of the Moray Firth:
Then came that trip to Dundee to talk about historians’ use of the outdoors as a research space at another wonderful event: Traversing the Field. Next was a visit to the deliciously eccentric Essex town of Wivenhoe to speak at the launch of Dunlin Press’s book of Migrant Waders and to kayak from the Naze amongst little terns & bar-tailed godwits:
There were different godwits - black-tailed - and different terns - common - on the Dorset coast a few days later:
I then spent a night, between days paddling the Llyn Peninsula, sleeping on the rocks at Porth Ysgo, awaking to dolphins in the reddening halflight, and finding creatures at the end of all of the region's famous tide races:
 Having a big publisher behind me has allowed me to acquire a few things I couldn’t have otherwise. This includes a 2kg boat I can keep in the bottom of my rucksack for loch crossings & floating downriver, but, more significantly, includes the vessel I’ll do sea journeys in from now on, a 17.5 foot Explorer-HV expedition kayak, with plenty of room for food, a fortnight's gear & the contents of a whole bookshelf, not to mention the capability of cruising through bigger seas than I’ve ever dared so far. 
And every time I find a patch of clear calm sea over the next few weeks I’ll be practicing my roll, until I’m really comfortable donning goggles and capsizing deliberately when there are things I want to experience beneath the surface - subverting the divide between myself & the teeming water-world beneath.

But with only six weeks to go before the first leg of the Atlantic journey, I’m currently using all my spare time (around marking hundreds of essays, finishing chapter 3 of my last nineteenth-century history book & teaching postgrads) to read up on the places I’ll be visiting. From Shetland literature and Orkney prehistory to poetry from the Western Isles & the social history of Wester Ross, this entails discovering a vast range of great writing produced over more than a millennium. These texts will soon make up the reading list of a new course for third year undergrads, currently entitled 'The Human Shore: People & Nature on Britain’s Coasts, 1750-2050' (although the title might need changing so I’m not borrowing so flagrantly from the legendary John Gillis). I wonder what kind of field trips I can persuade the university to let me take the students on...

What feels promising about this moment is that suddenly all my most intense interests seem to be flowing into a single channel – a confluence of parts of life I’d once thought separate. There are many frozen nights & battles with ocean swell to come, but the idea of learning this most spectacular of coastlines, from its northern extremities…
…to the point at which it stutters into nothingness in the South…
…via its inumerable caves & arches, each utterly unique...
...along with the mountains that line it…
…with their panoply of atmospheric effects…
…and the richly varied communities of the coast…
 …and its billions of animal inhabitants
…seems like a project I ought to be able to throw myself into with unwilting, long-term enthusiasm. Amidst the current growth of environmental humanities, in which the sciences, social sciences & arts are brought ever closer together, it seems like time for coasts - the most fragile & transitory of landscapes - to gain more intense attention. Historical perspectives belong here just as much as ecological or geological viewpoints.

And coastal travel both on foot & by kayak can offer things that historians are desperately in need of. Despite the work of some excellent exceptions, too much modern history is still focused on a few inland urban centres: mainstream British history does little justice to geographical diversity. It’d be hard to imagine places with histories & cultures more different than, say, Shetland & Lewis, yet to many people these places might as well be interchangeable and neither is likely even to be mentioned in a history book with ‘Britain’ in its title. Travelling this coastline ought to make it possible to comprehend & articulate the intense particularity of such diverse localities - to understand (and defamiliarise) Britain in unique ways. 

It is worth remembering that the prevailing vision of Britain today - with its focus on the South & centre - is still a relatively recent development (it is not all that strange, for instance, that the island of St Kilda, now habitually presented as fiendishly remote, was once among the most thoroughly documented rural communities in Europe). Metropolitan culture tends to take today’s geography for granted, despite the fact that Britain was turned outside in by roads & rail. The mainland’s arteries – the M1, M6, and even the West Coast Mainline – now run through the spine rather than along the external sea-roads that predominated before the railway boom of the 1830s. Coasts & islands therefore carry different meanings than they once possessed: associations with remoteness/emptiness have replaced links with commerce/communication. As this implies, travel in the past was far more watery than it is today - filled with fords & ferries before industrial booms in road-bridge building. At the same time as many places have hidden their rivers in grim concrete furrows at the bottom of supermarket car parks, water travel– whether coast, river, fen or marsh – has been disciplined out of our geographical experience by technologies like suspension bridges & jet engines. Extraordinary literary effort has been put into discussing the act of walking, yet self-powered travel on water has seen almost nothing in comparison, even from historians (who ought to be among the most interested)     

I'm hoping to speak, over the coming months & years, to as many people as possible who use these coasts - for work, play, study, artistic inspiration or anything else. I'd love to hear from anyone with such interests.  

Anyway, I’d better get outdoors…

6 comments:

  1. What a glorious post. Very sorry to have missed you at the Moray Firth conference (I was only there for the excursion). I'm currently writing a book about Eynhallow Sound in Orkney (microcosmic compared to what you do).

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  2. Fantastic David! You must be so excited by this, it's great news. Valerie x

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  3. Wonderful post and gorgeous series of captures. You have a lovely blog. Thanks so much for sharing, and warm greetings from Montreal, Canada. :)

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  4. Stunning photos, as ever, and brilliant news re your book. Well deserved and I look forward to reading it. Dave

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  5. What a fantastic project. I'm a walker (definitely not a paddler) and have learnt such a lot from my coastal walking. It seems to me that the coast used to be the front line of our civilisation - used for trading, travel, industry - but its importance has become both lost and forgotten.

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    1. Thanks all! I agree completely, Ruth - something attested to by the scale of industrial sites on the coast that now seem isolated because there are no roads near them (e.g. Porth Wen on Anglesey), the number of lost coastal industries (kelp, tangle, ware, not to mention hundreds of kinds of fishing), and the everyday use of sea trading routes (often strange to hear people talk about medieval religious centres on islands being set up as escapes from the world, when many were actually at major trading crossroads). I think that reimagining the role of coasts in British life is one of the big steps we need to take in trying to see how people who lived in this region before 1800 would have understood their world.

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