A moment of summer solitude on the Sussex coast with ‘the lonely sea and the sky’ raises some deep thoughts. We are on the edge of an immensity of ocean here. Richard Jefferies will have walked on this beach too.
Sussex By the Sea
There is a calm sea today as silken clouds lazily drift out to sea and skylarks sing over the wheat field next to the beach. This is a precious piece of open farmland, preserved from developers, where Sussex meets the sea. The curved horizon of the sea reminds me I am on the edge of a huge ocean covering much of this planet. This is an exhilarating moment of ‘aloneness’ with not a soul in sight. Except for a handful of sailors in a few passing sea-going vessels in mid Channel, there’s not a human being between here and the coast of France. Out there to the South West is the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean. This sea is washing coasts all over the globe:
it keeps eternal whisperings aroundFrom ‘On the Sea’ by John Keats
Desolate shores, and with its mighty swell
Gluts twice ten thousand Caverns….
For a time the 19th century nature writer Richard Jefferies lived in a cottage less than mile from here in what is now called Jefferies Lane. He came here looking for better health, but sad to say, his life ended prematurely at 38. Writing the introduction to his own ‘Nature in Downland‘ while staying in this very house, W.H.Hudson lamented that, had he lived, Richard Jefferies would have produced some of the best nature writing about the Sussex downs and coast. But the rest of his lovely legacy of nature writing does remain for us today. His grave in Worthing Cemetery is well visited by followers of his writing. There is a flourishing Richard Jefferies Society.
Richard Jefferies writes of wandering along the beach at the water’s edge to see what things the tide has brought him,
‘wet and gleaming, up from the depths of some unknown past, where they nestled in the root crevices of trees forgotten before Egypt.’
The sea awakens us to the awesome spread of the oceans and the hidden brooding mystery of their depths- the vast unexplored part of our planet. There used to be kelp forests along this coast before the age of uncontrolled deep seabed trawler fishing which has scalped the sea bed. But, squid and cuttlefish (photo below) are still to be found and you can often see discarded cuttlebones on the beaches along this coast.
How many are your works, Lord!From Psalm 104
In wisdom you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
There is the sea, vast and spacious,
teeming with creatures beyond number—
living things both large and small.
The sea needs to be treated with respect. Beyond our control it makes us feel our insignificance as mere passing shadows on a vast planet.
Just a few miles west of here at Atherington beach the sad landscape at low tide tide reminds us that this part of the Sussex coast has long suffered from erosion. Most of the hamlet of Atherington and all of the nearby village of Cudlow disappeared beneath the sea in the 17th century. Cudlow was a small port in the Middle Ages, and even contributed a couple of ships to a royal fleet in 1343, but eventually it succumbed to the waves. The last record of someone living there comes from 1620.
But though it occasionally takes away, more often the sea is friend not foe. We are an island people ‘set in a crystal sea‘ that has been a great blessing to our nation.
I love the sea; she is my fellow-creature,From ‘Delight in God Only‘ by Francis Quarles (1592-1644)
My careful purveyor; she provides me store;
She walls me round; she makes my diet greater;
She wafts my treasure from a foreign shore:
But, Lord of oceans, when compared with Thee,
What is the ocean, or her wealth to me?
Later in the year, on a different day of cold and mist, the same sound of the eternal rhythm of the waves as they caress the beach relaxes and invigorates my mind. They have been lapping these shores for millenia, bringing the ‘immemorial music of the sea’ all along our coasts. We often come to this invigorating place. Alone with the lonely sea and the sky the presence of the ‘Lord of Oceans’ is unmistakeable here.
O Lord, the sea is so big and my boat is so small…’From an old Breton fisherman’s prayer.