It’s curious when I don’t have a strong response to a place. Few places are neutral, after all, apart from the bland designed by the bland for the well, bland. How superior that sounds, and yet I’ve spent far too many hours in bland hotels and bland conference rooms and bland waiting rooms. But almost never do I have that kind of response to an outdoor place.
The day Anita and I went to the Undercliff was hot. That kind of very-hot-with-no-air-stirring that happen so rarely in this country and even more rarely by the sea. In fact there was a bit of a breeze near the sea, kind of. I also started the day slightly cross with myself because exhaustion had won over paying proper attention to the start of this project, and I should have left home at 5.15 in order to get there by 7.00, or at 4.15 (even better) to get there by 6.00 when nature is at her liveliest best. In high summer, some animals may have already gone to bed, and some may yet to stir, but even at this most silent time of year the birds will sing their attentions to you. But by the time we got there, the sun was high enough for it to feel enervating. The heat already cloying.
We walk up past chalets that belong in a different era. It’s rare these days, or at least in these parts, for anyone other than the wealthy to have this kind of access to the seashore and the sea view. But these are almost like hand-made shacks, the product of generations of families adding bits here and there, embellishing with a few annuals, new curtains, a lick of fresh paint for the season. The public footpath winds through this hamlet, feeling intrusive, as if you’re walking through someone’s living room. The school holidays haven’t started yet, so many are empty, curtain drawn against the instrusive eyes of the world.
The Undercliff is a section of land that, explosively one feels, simply fell off the hillside some hundred or so years ago. This was not a gentle fall: field and trees and animals all fell at once, landing so flat against the ground that it is as though this land had always been there. There is little evidence of the violence that created this place: trees, including many that survived the fall, reach out and create a dense canopy, as if to deny the usurpers trying to compete with them any hope of light or sustenance. The path is narrow, root-bound, dry and caked. I don’t know how wet and muddy it gets under this dense canopy, although in the end the leave-less trees must not be able to protect from a dense, sticky, slidy, limb-threatening mud. Glimpses of the outside world are occasional, as if this place were competing to feature as a set for some kind of Lost World movie from the 1930s. The English jungle of Borneo.
“Many people” Anita said “are bothered by the claustrophobia. I’m a very claustrophobic person, and what that means for many is not the fear of enclosure, but the fear of an inability to escape. Here you know that if you walk long enough, back from whence you came, there will be daylight. This is not an enchanted forest (perhaps it was before it fell off the cliff’s edge), the trees have lost their ability to reach out and grab your or your children. The path does not move, or disappear. You know there is always a way out, even though it may feel simply tedious to get there.
In enjoyed our conversation, I enjoyed the cup of tea brewed so beautifully for us by Tim, Anita’s partner. I enjoyed vicariously the adventure of spending all those days walking and responding to the entire coast path. How excited that seemed compared to the rather monotonous landscape in which we were enshrouded. As a sound artist, this was the worst time of day in the worst time of year in the worst kind of weather. No birds sang, no wind rustled the trees, no rain pattered onto the dense canopy. There was silence.
Even on my own, casting aside any requirement for social engagement, I found nothing here. I must find a different place by the sea to enlighten me. Somewhere like this…
Richard Povall, 28 July