The Quest

Fractured sleep, battered and tossed in the storm of dreams, at sea. Dreamt I was stumbling about on a sandbank, looking for something or someone who eluded me. I woke up in a panic, like a landed fish, agitated, my head full of the dream images, struggling to make sense. Lying in the dark, I heard a voice distant and deep inside me, speaking with quiet authority, stating the rules of the quest. I listened, in a trance, strangely calmed. As the voice became more distant I reached for my pen and wrote down as much as I could remember. I think there was far more, I even felt that the voice was still intoning somewhere out of my hearing.

This is the challenge, accept it if you desire.

What you seek is to be found within the tides, on the sands of Pegwell, of Sandwich, and of Goodwin. Use only what can be found in these sands for your quest.

Fetch Goodwin water in a sieve. Convey it in a wagon with no wheels, in a boat with no keel. Contain the water in vessels of Pegwell mud, dug with no spade. Paint the sands with the ink of the sea. To tie the winds, bind Sandwich stones in knots, and make a rope of Goodwin sand. Let three tides pass over it.

Then you will see what is hidden. You will gain mastery of the tides.You will acquire charms to enchant or drive away as you will. Your way will be clear.

Pegwell Bay 1

Scouring the bottom of the cliffs for Darwin's fossils. The dazzling white of the chalk around me is echoed by the egrets moving busily through the samphire marshes, their eerie cries breaking into my reverie: the purity of this palette disrupted by the muddy debris of seaweed tangled rubbish and the stench it exudes. Sanitary plastics and rusting metal are intermingled with weathered brick and old pottery shards. At the abandoned hover port, by the forlorn staircase and bridge to nowhere, there is a wilderness of what was once standard municipal planting: conifers , roses, buddleia, camomile and fennel intermingle incongruously in a wild cacophony. Overhead the parakeets are screeching and complete the dystopian panorama before me.

Pegwell Bay 2

We walk across the bay to the sea. On our 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. The men still seem way off but we keep trudging warily through the mud towards a chair positioned close to a section of cable. Empty. 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 in the mud. 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 to the beach.

Pegwell Bay 3

I had parked up by the Viking Ship and a couple walking their dog helped me carry the sledge down the steps onto the Hover Port tarmac.I suspect they soon regretted this act of generosity, as it was incredibly awkward manhandling it down the narrow staircase, and it seemed to get heavier by the second. The Viking ship and the ghosts of the hovercrafts watch over my struggles with my sledge, another obsolete mode of travel. I drag iit from the tarmac onto the sands and it almost seems to glide on their firm, dry surface: but as I wade out onto the mudflats the sledge starts to sink and stick, as do my feet. When I look back at my footprints they have an odd optical effect in the sunlight and look as though they are turned out of, rather than into, the mud.

I decide that this is as close as I want to go in discovering the "treacherous bogs" in the guide to Pegwell Bay. I take the tools I made at Sandwich Bay out of my box and scoop up small quantities of the mud. 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 I hope this is bitumen residue rather than sewage, which its strong smell suggests it might be. I place it in my box. I decide that this is enough, as the challenge didn't state how much mud I needed. I sit on the sledge for a few minutes, catching my breath and watching an oyster catcher, marvelling at the length of its beak, then I stir myself to begin my slow journey back across the flats. 

Goodwin Sands 1.

On the Lady Grace. We circle the Terscelling so that Jason the cameraman can fly his drone and get better documentation than he did on the approach. The boat sways gently, at ease with itself, the captain joking with the archaeologists' two boys, unperturbed by our location above the Ship Swallowers. Jason is finished, Caroline catches the drone and it is packed away. We move off. The waves hitting the Sands seem to glitter more than the sea elsewhere, there is a silver quality to the water, punctuated by dark dots denoting the heads of seals bobbing up and ducking under the water. Gannets fly alongside us and the water surf flies up exhilaratingly as the captain accelerates away from the Goodwin. We strain to see the last suggestion of sandbanks and return to the cabin where the archaeologist shows us the plastic bag she is holding. It contains silver coins retrieved from the Rooswijk. 

Goodwins 2

Back on the Lady Grace. Matt, the captain, looks doubtfully at the sledge on the quayside. I assure him we can lift it on and off without jeopardising his boat. We heave it aboard. The boat rocks and Matt grimaces. I inwardly curse the sledge's weight and unwieldiness.

The sea is calm and we make good progress. I sit in the cabin with Matt, and watch the map readings on his screen. The Goodwin appear, and I feel excited and apprehensive. I am amazed at the extent of the sands, and their emptiness. Matt steers into the shallows and drops anchor. He tells me I have an hour and a half, and I clamber out of the boat, jumping unsteadily into the water. Boots submerged, but the sand is firm beneath my feet. Matt pushes the sledge over the boat towards me and I pull it awkwardly down onto the sand. He then passes me my boxes and basket, and I pile them onto the sledge and haul it away, self-conscious in his gaze, aware that I must look ridiculous.

The adrenalin of having arrived at my destination kicks in. An odd elation. The sands stretch out before me, sand lapped all around by sea. And it is seal land: the domain of those who can exist in both elements. But I cannot be distracted by the seals today.

The sledge is heavy and cumbersome: but my determination to reach the far tip of the North Brake, the closest point of the Goodwins to Pegwell, energises me, and the sands are enchanting. There is a watery sheen in areas, residual tide, which reflects the sky so I am walking in the sea, in the sky. Shifting spaces-submersion, emersion. I pull with renewed vigour and after 15 minutes arrive at what I believe to be the east end of the Brake.

I pull out my sheet from a box. I will draw the sands. I pour cuttlefish ink on the sheet, and blot the sands with it. Ghostly impressions appear, marking the rhythms caused by tide lines. I take my tools and excavate sand, scooping it frantically in the small quantities my ill-formed implements allow. The sand seems finer than usual, softer and devoid of shell fragments and stones.

Finally I scoop sea water awkwardly into my tiny clay vessels, nestling in the lumpen basket I found at Sandwich Bay. I realise it is easier to wade into the sea slightly to fill them but as I start doing this a tremor of fear runs through me. I think of Arthur Durham Divine's German saboteur, left marooned on the Goodwins watching the boat disappear, the boat he had commandeered to take him to Belgium. I check my watch. I am in good time, but I now urgently want to be back on the Lady Grace.