On a bright Sunday morning I set out to run to the end of the Blakeney Spit, about 3 1/2 miles from where you can leave a car, across the marshes from Cley-Next-the-Sea. It was a classic North Norfolk scene: huge blue sky stippled with clouds headed for Holland on the westerly wind, whitecaps on the water. The spit is a narrow shingle-pebble bank piled up by waves, a hundred or so feet wide, pushed by the longshore current from the shore into the sea to the east-northeast, it is land building seaward. Between the spit and the coast are marshes, whose vegetation laps the top of the stone ridge, which then drops steeply towards the sea.
The going is trying: the pebbles are rounded, impossibly hard, and slick; my feet slide and slip and plunge into soft spots. It is hard to walk, Sisyphean to run. I steer my track down the slope, searching for harder substrate. Nearer the water line the ebbing tide has left the shingle glistening wet and even more treacherous. Mid-slope, there are finer particles, smaller pebbles, and glimpses of sand. Here is better footing, harder, and more stable, but it occupies a narrow and shifting line. The trick is to follow it, but it isn't perfectly visible, and not continuous. My eyes give a hint, but my feet the proof: sinking in, giving way, ankles betrayed by soft spots; occasionally and briefly, pavement as good as a sidewalk. The land, if it can be called that, is like a sponge, suppurating, giving back to the retreating North Sea.
Gradually the pebbles get smaller and there is more and more sand in the mix. The fleeing tide reveals sand flats at the base of the shingle bank, widening as the spit extends away from the coast. There is a beachy litter: jackknife clam shells, crab carapaces, feathers, and plastic trash, mostly bottlecaps, like another genus of bivalve shells. Wind scallops the sand flats into a tessellation of tiny dunes and valleys. Gulls pick at the remains; terns dive beyond the surf line; two seals surface in it, watching.
To the south and west the Norfolk coast is fronted by low marshes backed by higher forested dunes, with the square flint towers of Norman churches nine centuries old protruding above even more ancient villages – Cley, Blakeney, Stiffkey (pronounced Stewkey). To the east it rises into soft cliffs at Weybourne; beyond I can just see the town of Sheringham; the bigger town of Cromer lies unseen beyond on the cliffs' edge. There, the sea, instead of building out is cutting in, taking back the coasts of Norfolk and Suffolk at a rapid rate. Residents there may become the first modern climate refugees in Europe, as the rising sea reclaims land their ancestors drained over the course of centuries with oxen and windmills.
This is geological process in real time, the ground moving beneath our feet. It has always been like this, but it’s getting worse, fast. Out to sea, a line of white windmills is faint on the horizon; beyond them are unseen oil rigs of the North Sea fields. The machines are in sharp dialog, full of recrimination, two industrial canons, modes, totems and tools of different belief-systems. Both speak of a past, and a future, at-odds, competing over the path of the present.
On land, little has changed outwardly in generations. A crazy-quilt of hedged fields enfolds villages of flint-walled houses characteristic of the region, which has almost no stone besides glacial till; the square-towered Norman churches were built the same way. The lines on the ground are ancient: the historical geographer H.G. Hoskins showed that "nearly every village on the map of England today – except in certain industrial districts – existed by the eleventh century and is described in Domesday Book."
Now, the narrow, jerking lanes are crowded with Range Rovers – hulking, guzzling, aggressive, blingy, redesigned by the company's American owners for a rapidly Americanizing British haute bourgeoisie. They are too wide to pass safely on these paved cart tracks, and always going too fast. Shaky at driving on the left, I am over and over nearly forced into a ditch. North Norfolk is the UK's Hamptons: call the posh villages Burnham Market-Hampton, Brancaster-Hampton, Blakeney-Hampton. Maybe there is irony in the fact that the village-and-field landscapes of eastern Long Island, New York, now real estate catnip irresistible to Wall Street hedge-fund guys in Range Rovers, were made in the 17th century by people from East Anglia – from here. Aspiration come full circle in a Chelsea Tractor.