From The Moment:
S. and I go to Morston to see the grey seals, which have started breeding on the Point formed of sand and shingle drifting up from the eroding eastern shore. The sky opens up beautifully when we reach the coast on the bus. Most of the passengers are looking at their phones.
Morston and its neighbouring village, Blakeney, used to be big seaports, but the harbours and river valley have silted up, in part due to the reclamation of the salt marshes, leaving room only for small boats. The seal tours are the main business now.
Quay sounds. Ropes creaking against poles, halyards clinking against masts, sea-spray spattering the staithe—a local word from the Norse for wharf. Our boatman, a retired lobster fisher, tells me he’s seen the spit lengthen in his lifetime and the fishermen move to wider harbours to the west. The tides transform the coast here daily: the sea is drawn far out then surges back in, sometimes flooding the quay and the car park. At low tide you can walk all the way to the Point, where the seals feast on exposed sand eels.
Back on land, we walk to Stiffkey through green, brown, and grey saltmarshes broken up by pools and streams. The path is lined by tough, weather-beaten gorse with delicate yellow flowers. You can eat the flowers, says S., here, try. It tastes like coconut. Hundreds of stub-faced geese, newly arrived from the tundra, have gathered on the marshes to honk about who knows what.
We stop and look out over the spit through S.’s binoculars. Once you would have been able to walk here from Denmark. This coast was connected to the continent by a land mass, Doggerland, a rich habitat of wetland and wooded valleys navigated by nomadic hunter-gatherers who followed game and fish in seasonal patterns. If you’d stood on this spot with binoculars in that deep Mesolithic past, I imagine, you might have seen smoke from their fires here and there on the horizon. As temperatures rose and melted the northern glaciers, Doggerland flooded and Britain was cut off from mainland Europe. The people who were left on this island continued their nomadic way of life, burning scrubland and felling trees with flint tools to make temporary settlements, from which they tracked and hunted animals. In the Neolithic era they were displaced by migrants from the continent who brought wheat, barley, sheep, and goats, and who began to root themselves in the region, building enclosures and burial mounds. In the Bronze and Iron Ages, farming intensified. More forests were cleared by the Celts. Norfolk was settled by the Iceni, who surrendered to and then rebelled against the invading Romans. The collapse of the Roman Empire led to even more movement and migration: Germanic people from Anglia, on the shore of Jutland, arrived and built villages with open field systems, integrated with the Romanised Britons, and founded the kingdom of East Anglia. When the Danish Vikings invaded in the ninth century and themselves intermingled with the East Angles, they may have started digging for peat as they had done at home. Under Norman rule, Norfolk became the most populous and most farmed place in the country. It developed overseas trade links and later took in thousands of refugees from the Low Countries, the so-called Strangers, from whom many contemporary locals descend. By this time the rising sea had flooded the vast peat pits dug throughout the Middle Ages and was slowly shaping the landscape that became known as the Broads.
Years ago, when I first started exploring the Norfolk countryside, I recognised many of the village names. The county is dotted with Danish place names from the time of the Danelaw, many mixed with Old English words. They made me feel less of a stranger. But whose home is this in any case? Flora, fauna, history, and geology: all seem as provisional here as the shifting sands of the coast itself.