Sunday, 17 May 2009

Sunday by the Sea

When you live near the sea, it's easy to take it for granted. Especially, if you have no interest in getting it all over you, whether by swimming in it (in the Solent? Are you mad?) or sailing on it. However, several of my colleagues live here for precisely that reason, and even do certifiably mad things like sailing across to France at night, which -- given the English Channel is the busiest commercial sea lane in the world -- is about on a par with running across a motorway at night.

But today was a classic sea-watching day: strong south-westerly winds, plus some spring-time sunshine and showers. We went down to a favourite spot, Hill Head on the Solent, with fine views south across to the Isle of Wight, west to the Fawley oil refinery, and east down the coast to Gosport and Portsmouth (enemy territory for native Southampton people, and inhabited by so-called "scummers"). The tide was high, and the whole Solent was moving around in a lively way. Indeed, despite our best efforts, we did get some all over us: a choppy Solent has the churning unpredictability of a slopping bath.

As it happens, Hill Head and nearby Titchfield have a generally unremarked Shakespearean connection. This is where Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, had his estates. He was Shakespeare's first patron, the dedicatee of The Rape of Lucrece, and a front-runner for the "young man" of the Sonnets. It is quite probable that Shakespeare visited Titchfield and may even have written some of the Sonnets here. In Elizabethan times it was a proper small port, but shifting gravels and serious competition from further up Southampton Water finished off this trade.

Sonnet 80

O! how I faint when I of you do write,
Knowing a better spirit doth use your name,
And in the praise thereof spends all his might,
To make me tongue-tied, speaking of your fame!
But since your worth, wide as the ocean is,
The humble as the proudest sail doth bear,

My saucy bark, inferior far to his,
On your broad main doth wilfully appear.
Your shallowest help will hold me up afloat,
Whilst he upon your soundless deep doth ride;
Or, being wrecked, I am a worthless boat,
He of tall building and of goodly pride.
Then if he thrive and I be cast away,
The worst was this: my love was my decay.

The Swan of Avon at Titchfield Haven?

Amazingly, in recent years, submarine archaeologists have discovered evidence of human settlement on the bed of the Solent which dates from the Mesolithic period, just before the post-glacial inundation that separated Britain from Europe. Flint tools and the bones of Ice Age fauna are frequently dredged from the North Sea, where a land bridge referred to as "Dogger Land" once lay, but this is somehow more extraordinary, as you would have imagined the strong currents, shallow water and frequent passage of large cargo ships would have scoured away anything so ancient a long time ago. It's strange to think of the remains of those prehistoric settlements still rolling around under the Solent waves.

The main thing missing from these images of our afternoon at Hill Head is the sheer noise. Not just the crash of the waves, but the incessant ringing, clanging and banging from the rigging of the yachts moored in Titchfield Haven marina, rattling in the wind. It has an aeolian, aleatory musicality that adds an extra element to the experience, rather like the cow bells that would reliably send me into an afternoon trance on our holiday in the Auvergne last summer.


Kent Wiley said...

You mention the noise, which I can hear courtesy of your description. But what about the odors? I expect they too are quite potent, in a sea that is as turbulent as you have pictured them to be.

Mike C. said...


Quite right, I imagine the Solent stinks like a chemistry set, but it's a world closed to me -- I have practically no sense of smell, a condition I believe is called "anosmia" (Very Old Joke: "My dog's got no nose. How does he smell? Terrible")

Next time we're down there I'll get my son (who, if anything, is "hypernosmic") to describe the smell!