Two Beaches

It is the hottest June on record.

We heard it over and over again on the radio as we worked. We scraped back layers of wallpaper, mopped dust into fluffy tide lines, filled holes, and painted everything white with undercoat. They seemed happy to be back in the town where my dad grew up, to have this house to work on together, to unpack and rearrange their lives into. The heat made us dizzy as we chatted and made slow progress, until our conversation came unstuck and drifted in thick air between us making sense in the shortest intervals.

When the paint ran out and we gave in to the languor that comes with heat, I drove straight to the closest bit of sea, on the edge of town.

At the end of the slag bank a boxy lighthouse calls out signals unseen into the bright evening and a pebble beach drops steeply towards the sea. Nearing the water, the ground stops shifting under my feet: the beach here is set hard by veins of slag that run down the shore and into the sea in ribbons. ‘Slag’ is an amalgamation of metals and rock, a byproduct of steel-making, that here fills each crevice and freezes the beach in place; fixing it like a photograph of itself from a day in nineteen-fifty- something, when the slag was dumped. Seventy years of tides have smoothed the slag ribbons into undulating, porous, pebbly lumps that feel good on my feet, hot in the sun and warm still under cool water. The water is so impossibly clear, with no sand to lift into it, so that when the light hits it at the right angle it all but disappears.

As we painted my dad told stories from his childhood in the town, and here and there the stories would get lost or merge into each other in sentences that drooped or evaporated, as we sweated over a scraper or wilted into the single-mindedness of rolling white paint. He talked about my granda making bikes for all the kids out of bits of old scrap, and about the newsagents where he had learnt to read. It was nice to hear him drifting through family stories, finding himself in the town again, locating through them, as they melted into each other, one to the next.

It’s maddening to think that some foundry owner could just choose to do this to the shoreline, but time has worked softly
on it and naturalised these strange combinations into myriad complex habitats and a beautiful palette of rusts, ash-whites, and jet black. And with the passage of time the vandalism seems somehow romantic, kind of enchanted and transportive to a different moment for the town, and for the world. An archive of industry that dates back hundreds of years is set solid on the beach, where black sand from collapsed Victorian coal mines hems and connects platforms of slag poured in the fifties, littered with bricks and parts of rail lines from works that closed in the eighties, and between these are set lumps of sandstone from the Permian, millstone grit from the Carboniferous, and so many shapes of shells grown on the backs of molluscs. A crab undulates sidelong across the mounding pebble-photograph- floor of the sea.

All afternoon my mum sorted through countless boxes, deciding what to keep, where to put it, and what should really stay packed away, to go to the attic, the dump, or the charity shop. Her overwhelming task of arrangement reminded me of the little museum nearby in the town, that we came to a few times growing up. It’s one of those old Victorian collections, curated only to the criteria of one person’s interests and affinities, and to no apparent system or plan. Drawers and drawers are filled with beetles and butterflies, there’s mourning jewellery made from human hair next to ivory carved into battle scenes, next to bubbling igneous rocks and blown blue eggs. It’s Chris Marker’s ‘over-generous museum’ 1, one that tries to capture all of life and in so doing makes each thing absurd and alien in relation to the next, and it always seemed gloomy and magical. I could tell that she was tired, but I think she’s finding a lightness in the move, in letting go of so much weight of things, and finding new configurations.

The top of the frozen beach is hollowed into dimples that catch water as the tide recedes, leaving pools that glow orange with iron ore from the not-quite-rock. I could be on a distant planet, at a break-through find of water and life elsewhere: this strange new place where liquids glow a neon shade, black shifting silt rings solid, greedy earth that gathers objects into it, as though standing still for too long would let the slag seep and set between your toes to keep you there.

Light glances off the water as I squint out to sea, out to a wind farm and beyond it the Scottish Borders. To the left is St. Bees Head, square, red, butting into blue, and beyond it Sellafield nuclear plant. To the right are the wilder Solway plains and Mawbray, a vast deserted beach that we visited all the time as children. My brother and I loved it, were enchanted by it, because it was never the same twice. Once we found a sunken boat, its wood blackened and set deep into the sand, that you could pull apart with your hands like cake—and we did, for hours, wrenching this ship apart. After that we looked every time for it but never saw it again. Striations in the sand would appear, one day like handwriting, the next stretching out in bubbling lumps, surreal ground made from the underside of mammatus clouds. Once the sands stretched out to sea so far that we could hardly make out a line of blue cutting through the space between us and Scotland. That day the beach was humped in long bands so that we walked dipping in and out of trenches. Seen from the houses up at the top of the dunes we must have appeared and disappeared, appeared and disappeared, all the way to the thin sea.

The water isn’t as cold as I need it to be, to take the heat out of my body. Looking straight back to shore the slag bank rises up obscuring the town, white like the cliffs of Dover or some weird moon rock, undercut in places with hoods of chalky ground making crumbling caves. The steelworks here produced railway lines on an unimaginable scale, lines that snaked outwards and covered the globe, connected it, with materials from this ruined, redundant, and beautiful landscape. And though beach and bank seem frozen, they too are joining with a hyper flow of movement as they silt and sediment, move with ocean currents, travel the globe as the landscape softens. Daisy Hildyard, via Timothy Clark, talks about a ‘derangement of scale’ 2, where the smallest instance or object can send minds spiralling into enormity. Like really thinking about a lump of plastic, or precious metal, or this industrial waste; projecting your mind backwards and forwards with the object, holding it, moving with it. And my mind spirals outward like this, over and over, from the materials of this shoreline. I bring it back, to the here, to the small, to the moment of water lapping my chest, arms, legs pushing forward, moving parallel to the land, while I squint at the light rebounding everywhere around me. I duck my head under and feel coolness close over my crown.

I’ll stay in town until next weekend, until the house starts to feel like it’s theirs and until I know my way around the place of my dad’s childhood.

I climb out of the sea and onto a boulder made from hundreds of individual bricks, fused and rounded into this weird new thing that looks like only a glacier could move it. I think it must have been the shoulder of an old blast furnace. I read someone describe how brick enters at accelerated speed into the ‘techno-archaeosphere’ as a material that is already-fossil, already hardened and preserved, before it encounters any length of time or pressure. As I walk up the fossilised beach the horizon line of dunes wobbles and wavers in the heat as though it could melt, like the bleached yellow could slide and mingle with the black and orange shore. Water drips from my legs all the way up to the car, sending the heavy ozone smell of petrichor up from the slag with each step.

  1. Carol Mavor, Black and Blue: The Bruising Passion of Camera Lucida, Sans Soleil, and Hiroshima mon amour (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2012), p 72
  2. Daisy Hildyard, The Second Body (London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2021), p 32