Coastal dwellers living at the edge
PUBLISHED: 11:06 05 July 2016 | UPDATED: 11:06 05 July 2016
Ruth Dugdall, a seaside dweller, seeks out some of the people who live and work between the land and sea
Some people love the buzz of a city, the energy of the hive. Others long for the calm of the countryside. And there are those who are drawn to the edge of the land, to the coastline, where the wind is a constant companion and the sea serves as a reminder that we live on an island. All along the Suffolk coast are people who live and work by the sea, whose daily life means navigating between the water and the land.
Not everyone could work in a lighthouse. For Toby Rowe working as an installation supervisor can mean two-week stretches away from family, living in what he calls a `rock tower` and sleeping in a `banana bed`, nicknamed because of how the beds are built into the curve of the circular wall, rather like an opera box.
“And you can’t always walk around,” he says. “It can be claustrophobic.” Toby’s official base is the east coast depot of Trinity House, an organisation dedicated to the safety of shipping and seafarers since being granted a Royal Charter by Henry VIII in 1514. Toby spends half of his time in other locations along the English Channel and when we spoke he was at a lighthouse in Gibraltar. “Until recently the lighthouses were driven by diesel engines, so we’re doing a lot of re-engineering work, solarising them so they have less of a carbon footprint.”
He is unromantic about the sea, despite sailing around the world for seven years. For him it’s a road, a way to get about and see things, rather than a calling. “I respect rather than love it,” he says, “it can be scary.” Especially when waves are so high they can knock panels from the heli-pad, and the lighthouse shudders. The sea is omnipresent, the constant soundtrack to the engineering work. The lighthouse can feel cosy, at least when the weather is clement, but when he isn’t working the sea no longer calls him and he dedicates his time to family.
And that means staying on land. But for some people it was their family that took them out to sea…
Turn left between rows of red-brick terraces on Langer Road, Felixstowe, and you come to an unlikely sight – the formidable bulk of a Martello Tower, now used as a watchtower. Smart in his uniform, Alan Peck has been a watch keeper for ten years, dedicating his free time to observe the waters, usually alongside two colleagues, ever attentive for problems.
“I like it best in the winter,” says Alan, “when the wind is high and I’m safe and warm in here.” I can see what he means. The control room is high up, and cosy. It feels rather like the cabin of a boat, with a screen showing the movements of all vessels in the coastal waters, radio transmitters, and tidal maps. But the work is far from cosy and vigilance is crucial.
“There was an incident last year when a man fell from his kayak and couldn’t get back in,” Alan tells me. “We looked at the bearing he was on, and knew the tide was about to turn. He wouldn’t get back in his kayak.” The man struggling in the sea didn’t know it, but the watch keepers had already swung into action, radioing the RNLI at Harwich, and guiding them to where he could be rescued.
Alan has always had a calling to the sea. After leaving school he joined the Navy, working as a hydrographic surveyor, a job which took him into deep waters. In 1972 he became a civilian, using his computer training on land. Thirty four years later he heard that coast watch needed volunteers.
“When I first came up here I was amazed at how much I remembered,” he said. “All those years, and I hadn’t forgotten.” I look through Alan’s binoculars out to sea, wondering about the people whose work takes them further from land…
Prince Michael of Sealand
Six miles out to sea, in international waters, is Sealand. Illegally built during World War 2 as a `fortress island` and designed to defend against potential German invasion, it became redundant in the decade after the war and was eventually abandoned. On Christmas Eve 1966 Roy Bates decided to take it over. The following September he declared it a `sovereign principality`, making his son Michael, then aged 14, a prince.
When he’s inside his fortress island Michael says he could be anywhere in the world, with the everyday comforts of a fitted kitchen and living room. But the backdrop is the radio room generators, humming away.
Sealand is surrounded by sea, but it can only be heard when it’s a screaming force 10 or 12. “But when the weather is like that,” he says, “there is security knowing no one can come near the place.”
There are many days of cold calm in the winter and warm balmy days in the summer. The sea separates Michael from the rest of the world but he likes it that way.
“There aren’t many places in the western world where you can look up in the night sky and see the sun reflecting off satellites without the ambient glare from surrounding towns.”
Michael told me that one of the strangest experiences was hearing the drawing, tortured breathing of a large creature nearby. “It was a pitch black, but glassy calm that night. I can only assume it was an injured whale.”
On Sealand, racing pigeons are a daily messy visitor, and porpoises and seals visit regularly.
“I love the sea,” Michael says. “We also own commercial cockle boats at Leigh on Sea. When I travel I snorkel or dive, always dragging fins and a mask around the world. I was invited as guest of honour to a wedding in La Paz, Mexico on the sea of Cortez recently with my beautiful daughter, Charlotte, where I met and made friends with one of my childhood heroes, Jean Michel Cousteau. All this through Sealand. I was brought up spending much time in our beach hut at Thorpe Bay, Essex, winter and summer, rain or shine, as we had no garden at home.”
Which is a shame, because a garden is a beautiful thing . . .
The Victorians were firm believers in the restorative benefits of sea air, and it was then that Felixstowe Spa Gardens were designed and created. The gardens are now returned to their previous glory, thanks to a restoration funded by a Heritage Lottery grant.
Designated a Garden of Specific Historical Interest, much of the original planting remains and the walkways follow the same routes as those enjoyed by ladies with parasols in full-length gowns and men in suits who would later take to the waters in bathing machines. The dripping well was a great attraction then, and on the day I visited a small group were enjoying watching the spring water feed into the pond. Further along is a sign for Black Sal’s Cave, purported to be a smuggler’s cave. Tiny lizards seek the sun within the red crag cliffs. The area is now has neat and well-lit, the ponds are clear and fish are thriving. The plants and shrubs are indeed a rare feast for the eyes and as I blinked in the sunshine I spoke to Martin Stewart, one of the team responsible for maintaining such beauty, whilst he worked on one of the ponds.
Martin has been working on the landscape of the gardens for seventeen years, so he has seen many changes during that time, plants that persist and others that perish. “We always say, here we are working in a southerly bay on the East of England so we’ve got our own weather. Felixstowe has its own microclimate.”
That weather can be unpredictable, and just a few days before he had worked bathed in sun, only to battle hailstones as he arrived back at base, down on the docks. But the price is worth it, the kilometre long stretch of eight different garden areas provide a varied working day surrounded by beauty. And who doesn’t like a beautiful view?
Who will pay the ferryman?
Luke Jeans looks out of his window and sees the same view he enjoyed as a boy – the black huts distinctive to Walberswick, the kissing bridge where children come to catch crabs, and the mouth of the river where he rows the boat across to the Southwold side, a pleasant row if there is no undercurrent but on other days the task means going in to battle with the fast flowing river, and Luke is left exhausted. “It’s a great workout,” he laughs.
Though Luke was born in the village, he moved to London to pursue his ambition to work in the television industry and was there for 30 years. I asked if he always knew he’d return to Suffolk.
“If you are born within sight or sound of the sea, I think it will always have that hold on you,” he says.
Luke’s roots are here and they run deep; his grandmother bought the deeds to the land he now lives on in 1920 and the sea wall is named the Jean’s Wall on Ordnance Survey maps. Moving back in 2001, Luke spent many years planning Tow’s Cabin, named for the fisherman who had a home on the plot in 1920, and the house has recently been completed. In July it will be featured on Channel 4’s programme Homes by the Sea. “The first night I spent here I looked out to sea and thought, I’m home.”
As for the ferry, this is a Walberswick tradition that also spans five generations, owned and run by the Church family, who employ six ferryman, including Luke. One of the boats would be receiving a telegram from the Queen if it were human.
“We work a rota now. But in the old days David Church would come into the pub and say, “Who fancies a row tomorrow?” That’s how I first got into it.”
The ferry season starts in Easter, is open on school holidays and daily from June to September, closing in October. A long season, with some days as smooth as butter but others the undertow is strong and the ferryman has to fight against the tide to stay on course. Luke once found a colleague after the end of his shift still in the boat, seized up after the slog of rowing. “Days like that,” Luke says, “The best thing is a hot bath. But it’s a great workout.” w
Ruth Dugdall’s latest novel, Nowhere Girl, can be purchased via Amazon or from all good bookshops.
Prince Michael’s book, Holding the Fort, can be purchased via the Sealand website.
Home by the Sea, featuring Tow’s Cabin, will be aired on Channel 4 in July.