Notes on Pegwell Bay

Cliffs and caves

I park by the Viking ship, its dragon head bow grinning as I follow the path to the bay. I go down the concrete steps, dodging rivulets of seeping water, inexplicable in the unseasonal warmth. The water collects at the bottom, leaching across the asphalt to the abandoned metal hover port staircase and the forlorn bridge, which has been left broken and clutching at the air- a bridge to nowhere. Plants submerge the tarmac, with creeping waves of moss, then stone crop, then ivy, and finally buddleia, luxurious in a gathering crescendo of foliage. The colonisation in the launch pad cracks stitches the seams of cast concrete together. A heady aniseed scent, fragrance of fennel and chamomile, where parakeets are wheeling, vivid green, circling the cracked parking bays and the landing strip. I follow cats eye sockets, old markers, bollards, and eroded posts. Dog roses and old man’s beard abut car park conifers, and the roundabout is now a jasmine oasis. By the soaring, unruly trees, I find shards of red shale, Samian-like, terracotta warm, scattered between an orchid army in the cliff face hanging gardens of vegetation. At the water’s edge, where the asphalt meets the sea, there are oyster reefs tentatively embedding at this unlikely union, white shells on bitumen black. I leave the tarmac and head north towards the chalk cliffs.

 

In my hand, I have a postcard from the Tate Gallery. It shows a painting of figures scouring a beach, looking for unknown treasure amongst the sand, mud and shingle. I am using the card to locate the position of the creamy, sagging cliffs in the background. The painter has hinted at caves and there are other figures in the picture scrutinising these too: there is also a pile of chalk suggesting a cliff fall, whilst another cave entrance has been fenced off. 

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I can’t find the exact location: the cliffs have crumbled further in the 160 years since William Dyce painted “Pegwell Bay, Kent- a recollection of October 5th, 1858”. But the landscape is just as compelling and I too find myself walking with head bent downwards, trying to find traces of the historical and geological events that have converged on Pegwell. The figures in Dyce’s painting –his family- are looking for fossils on the beach, just as Darwin himself had done just prior to Dyce’s painting. In fact, the entirety of Pegwell Bay seems to be a fossil, a time capsule for travelling through millennia backwards. 

I pick up a lump of chalk from a cliff-fall, or rather, a crumbling cake of creamy chalk pieces held together with sediment: an amalgam of tidal disturbance in a painter’s palette of delicate white hues. The sunlight hits the cliff faces and they dazzle with their whiteness: I have to turn my eyes seaward.Egrets are moving busily through the samphire at the edge of the water; their wistful cries might be a commentary on the muddy debris of seaweed tangled rubbish and the stench it exudes which forms a compacted, human, strata between beach and marsh. Sanitary plastics and rusting metal intermingled with concrete and stone. I am hurtled back from the Cretaceous to the Anthropocene with a visceral jolt.

 

There are still caves within the cliffs, silent chambers with eroded carved messages in awkward runic handwriting: lost loves and forgotten unions weathering slowly above smoothed sand mingled with pebbles and flints, rubber and chalk. In one cave, there is a rusting bed head, its corroded metal bars encrusted with barnacles. Lumps of masonry are dotted along the beach at intervals. Improvised ropes hang downwards on the cliff face, suggesting feeble attempts at scaling the chalk. Trees cling tightly to the top, awaiting their inevitable descent to the beach.  Walking back towards the hover port I see traces of a steep, eroded earth path to a cave with a brick facing set in the cliffs. There is a scrappy tree half way up that I hold onto so that I can scramble up. I enter. It is a tunnel, not a cave-I can dimly discern light at the far end. I start to walk along and suddenly I am immersed in blackness, I can’t see what I am walking on, and I have to move hesitantly on the rutted surface I feel beneath my feet. Eventually light filters in again, and I emerge out into an explosion of rapeseed and hawthorn blossom. A landscape hidden behind the cliff. The tunnel track continues, snaking away along the field edge. There is no obvious reason for this tunnel, another obsolete human intervention at Pegwell.

The comet

I am at the beach, stooped, looking downwards.  I don’t know what I am actually looking for, I am just hoping to find something intriguing. I am mesmerised by the different textures and shapes of stone glinting with the residue of tide on them. I strike lucky almost immediately and spot a micraster, its perfectly etched five-point star chalky against the grey-blue of the stone that has taken its form. It could be 85 million years old.I am taken back to Dyce’s painting, withDonati’s comet trail in the middle top of his painting. The second brightest comet of the nineteenth century, it was the first comet to be photographed and made its nearest approach to earth on October 10th, five days after the date Dyce ascribed to his painting. The Tate Britain display caption tells us that “The barely visible trail of Donati’s comet in the sky places the human activities in far broader dimensions of time and space”. Dyce himself was reminding us of the confluence of time on this beach, a place of landing points which seem so significant to our written history, but so insubstantial in the geological time zone of the beach. Christianity landed here with St Augustine in 595, a century after Hengist and Horsa, led Angles, Saxons, and Jutes in an invasion. Romans had invaded in the 1stcentury BC, all this in a window of seven hundred years. A millennium and a half has passed since then, but twenty one centuries are barely noticeable in an eighty million year span. 

 

I am thinking about tidal time as a temporal register. How the word tide comes from the old English, tid, which denoted a season – perhaps this season being marked by the rise and fall of the sea. And how the German form of tid changed into zeit = time. There are, of course, watery metaphors for time: current, running in Latin, the present moment. The curved waves on the beach can run forwards and backwards, whilst the wet sand records the retreating tide. Or stagnancy- the settled water in the rock pools. Stone is thought of as permanent but is worn by the waves and turned to sand in geological time. The meandering tide line is fleeting, and will be rapidly erased with the next incoming tide, suggesting imminence, even when the sea is distant. Humans and other creatures use the beach, criss-crossing the space purposefully: a multiplicity of times. 

 

Katie Paterson in her show “A place that exists only in moonlight”, Turner Contemporary 2019, has a necklace of fossils. It consists of 170 fossils carved into spherical beads, described as a “string of worlds” which each bead representing a major event in the evolution of time. Part of me baulks at the grinding uniformity of each bead, the fossils carved to an anonymous sphere, but part of me marvels at the thought of this talismanic piece of time travel, transporting the wearer through millions of years.

 

Mud

A visit to Pegwell Bay, with Chloe. We walk across the bay southwards to the sea. On the horizon, we can see a line of cable and men working. The mud is dense and sucks at our feet: we do not have boots on, so now we sport muddy leggings and saturated shoes. When I look back at our footprints they have an odd optical effect in the sunlight and look as though they are turned out of, rather than into, the mud.

The men still seem way off but we keep trudging warily, conscious of the “treacherous bogs” referred to in the guide book, towards a chair positioned close to a section of cable. The chair is empty. It appears that Canute has been successful in turning back the tide here: in the opalescent light the sea seems as though it is a mirage and is far, far away.

Finally, a workman comes over, curious as to why we have trailed out this distance across the flats. He is not working on the archaeological excavation we had hoped we would find here. It is the last stage in the laying of a power line being connected to England from Belgium, a new invader in the succession of those who have landed here. We thank the workman, and turn and head back towards the beach. 

We want to collect clay, and have been told that Pegwell mud has a strong clay component. We chose a spot to dig. The mud is curious. It is mid to dark brown for a few centimetres, then below becomes thick, black and treacly. In places, it seems like a rich tarmac and as we dig, its strong smell suggests something unsalubrious. However, when I take a piece and roll it between my fingers into a circular shape, it retains the primitive torc shape I have made- which suggests that the mud is/contains clay, and can be worked. We excavate a quantity and take it back to Margate, where Clayspace agree to process it for us to make sure it is suitable for firing. 

Later, we collect this cleansed clay and make simple shapes-I make crude thumb pots, and pointed teeth. Then we return our hoard to Clayspace, where they are pre-fired. A week later, in a garden, we dig a pit. We wrap our pieces carefully in seaweed parcels and stack and bury them. We place newspaper, then wood on top and burn them. When we take our objects out, and have cooled them, they retain the gentle marks of the seaweed, scorched onto the ceramic: human, fire, sea, plant and earth united in a tiny hand pinched pot.

Flint

The beach constantly yields flints, the molten heart of Thanet. Held to the light, small shards are luminous and seem to depict strange glassy landscapes. Roger Caillois called stones “l’orée du songe”, the shore of dreaming, which seems to succinctly define my experience. I, like him, wonder at the cosmic time they reveal; some have the appearance of arrow heads and I scrutinise them for the sign of human marks shaping them. I collect them, along with weathered pieces of wood which could be eroded handles. I want to conjoin them, and make my own arrows and tools. In the studio, I try drilling the flint, to make holes for attachment. It is unyielding and my drill slides off, so I resort to wax and cord. I make a set of arrows: they might appear in a dreamscape, suddenly revealed as useless for purpose. One has a rubber handle which makes it wave, when held, like a divining tool. One has two points on the flint rather than a sharp central apex, and one has a handle so weathered it is about to crumble. But they are arrows nevertheless, pointers, suggesting possibilities, and marking a new direction.