Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Heartland Walks #1

The River Ouse and its floodplain is Newhaven's lifeblood. 
It is an in between land; a little-tamed, wild hinterland; the heartland. 
Everything flows from here.

Laying in bed at night I often hear a coarse purr rising from the port of Newhaven. It carries along on prevailing winds through the bedroom window. Our house overlooks the flat levels of the lower Ouse estuary, Newhaven’s heartland, sculpted by the migrating river as it snaked and carved its course through the millennia. The view stretches southwards to the sea and inland past the quays which line the river. Visible through a gap in houses opposite are damp pastures and arable fields surrounded by open drains, some of which may be remnant creeks that once snaked like eels through tidal mudflats, others dug in straight channels from the sixteenth century, when the river rediscovered its ancient route to sea by Castle Hill. The purring sound comforts me. Rather than disturbing or delaying my sleep, it ushers it on. It is the sound of home, of familiarity, of safety. I recall that same sound forty years ago when, as a child, laying in bed on the other side of town, it would purr its lullaby. I sometimes wonder whether the source is a discrete activity or just the sound of the town resting after a tiring day of work, its heartbeat.

The purr reveals a fact about the town: it is a place of work, where work is done. The narrow ribbon of quayside activity which lines the river has pulsed daily since the first fishing boats and barges carried goods to and from the port, inland to Lewes and beyond or along the coast, working around the tides. At any time today one could hear the deep bass roar of the ferry as it arrives and leaves or the crash of waste transfer stations, whirring roof-mounted fans and a thousand other sounds. But when the white noise settles down for the day, the purr is still there. Piecemeal  changes might mostly have gone unnoticed, yet the town has seen a multitude of activities come and go in this small parcel of land, some influenced by local need, others by the relentless march of progress, all punctuated by the repossession of those places by nature before it is again evicted for the next endeavour. The pulse of change seems to have quickened during recent decades. Decisions taken by a few people with narrow interests, inconsiderate of the wildlife and the town’s character, have attracted the townsfolk’s ire.

Not everyone is bothered. To wave away change as inevitable and legitimate is to miss a vital truth about any place. Sense of place is not really about the physical characteristics found on the surface geography; it is an intricate tapestry of things threaded into the collective memories and experiences of a population. It is temporal as well as spatial, geography of the collective mind, and it raises a further truth: how can it be expected that a developer or a town planner or anyone who does not share our rootedness understand the catastrophe of change in a place? To those naysayers who don't think so much of Newhaven’s wild heartland and its history, I offer the example of the current East Pier, which during the last 125 years or so has become a cherished feature within the town's character (an east pier of some sort has been there since about 1670, by the way). There are memories surrounding the pier. There was the occasion of the steam dredger, surrounded by the town’s fishing fleet as it dredged silt, fish and shellfish alongside the pier. I imagine it every time I walk along the East Side beach at low tide and find the shells of Mactra stultorum, the Rayed Trough Shell, resting on the sand, where its community still siphons mud at the river’s mouth as it must have since the river first cut its way through to the sea here. Purple Sandpipers sit out the high-water on the little pier and wait for the tide-washed parts of its skeleton to be revealed. Many birdwatchers have told me this is where they first saw a Purple Sandpiper. Fishermen cast their lines today in the same arc as previous generations, hoping to lure the fish which follow the tide out and in. Eric Ravilious painted the pier on several occasions from the quayside or from his room at The Hope Inn. People once waved off little boats from the pier as they sailed out to rescue troops stranded at Dunkirk.  These stories are etched into the heart of the town’s identity and the hearts of the townsfolk.

The east pier is nearing the end of its time, soon to be replaced by a deep water berth and the protective embrace of a new sea arm, which no doubt will itself find its way into our hearts. Many locals will mourn the passing of the old pier though. The upset is caused not so much the harsh fact of change, but more as a result of many small acts of vandalism, this one included, which corrode Newhaven's character. These are irreversible acts occasioned upon us, the locals. No developer or decision-maker will consider the cumulative impact of these acts upon us, or care about where the sandpipers will be displaced to, or even whether the impact upon the ray shells will be catastrophic. They won't care if they bury beneath tonnes of aggregate the place where we once sat on sandy towels with long departed loved ones, or where a couple had their first kiss. These things have no value to them, only us. We are the ones who mourn the loss of these things, the familiar patterns of place. Our map – the one in our collective consciousness – has depth and emotion which is lacking from the physical, unsentimental statement of ownership spread across the developer’s desktop. Rather than sharing a cold geography, we are in fact a series of diverse threads embroidered into a psychogeography which forms an intimate knowledge and shared sense of community.

Change can be positive when it is made considerately, but it is important to remember and provide witness to past changes in order to inform how best to do it now and in future - to place them in a collective memory, where experience and feeling take precedent above physical geography. In this way we can be agents of positive change tomorrow by knowing what is important today and yesterday. As the shadow of change now looms over parts of this heartland and I am denied the right to explore familiar places once accessible, I resolve to explore this small hinterland between The Buckle and Newhaven’s East Quay and inland to the Drove and beyond to the most northerly influence of the town, keeping to the floodplain all the way. I'm interested in the Seahaven hinterland and the blurred line of where Seaford ends and Newhaven begins. This line has shifted with the course of the river throughout history. Seahaven is the perfect compromise. This is no wasteland, no forgotten place; it is the artery, the lifeblood. It is its energy which has made it difficult to be tamed by people. Natural processes have shaped this land above any other influence and created what we see and walk upon today. I will try and collect a snapshot – a word-map – of this place as I find it now and as we have known it and placed it on display in our collective memory.

The purring sound drifting through my open window over from the port may one day cease. It might be drowned out by the acoustic creep of industry. It might be replaced by another familiar noise. Its passing may not be noticed, but its lullaby may be remembered when its absence disturbs my sleep.

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