Seeing the Light
St Marys Island, Northumberland
We lived on the second floor and viewed the sea through windows misted with salt. At night the beams from the lighthouse swept my ceiling.
I was seven when we had the worst winter for a century. The seaweed went stiff with rime and even the tide pools froze. A Greek freighter was driven ashore to perch upright and drip rust on to the rocks.
Snow drifted in an arc right up to my bedroom window and, if Id had the courage, I could have slid down to the ground. Dad dug a tunnel out from the front door and carried me to school on his shoulders through a deep trench, and only I could see the surface of the sun-dazzled snow. For a few weeks we lived at the North Pole and I expected Father Christmas to sleigh round the corner at any moment. Then the myth melted, the streets turned to soiled slush and Santa, I suppose, was out of the question.
The following summer we walked to Currys Point at the northern edge of Whitley Bay, where I lived. Two hundred years earlier I would have heard the clanking chains on the gibbet, where the corpse of a murderer, Michael Curry, hung until it disintegrated. From the Point was a causeway leading to St Marys Island, where the lighthouse stood.
The 120-foot tower was the first really big thing I had ever seen close up, an immense rocket ship, white and wonderful. Inside, there were no cosy rooms with curved walls, just a hollow with a staircase spiralling around a central abyss. At the top, encased in a wilderness of prisms, was the lamp, like a crystal from another planet, able to incandesce and brush aside mere earthly darkness to explore my bedroom two miles away. The four-and-a-half-ton lamp floated on a lake of mercury and the slightest nudge from my finger would have made it revolve.
Lighthouses have shrunk a little since I grew, but I still love the big, clean, white ones, vertical and virginal yet audaciously erect, signals to sailors and signposts to God.
Whitley Bay was the last resort on the north-east coast of England. It squatted beside Newcastle, to which it was unnecessary to carry coal in those days. The words Whitley Bay were on every visitors lips as they sucked the sickly, lettered rock. Everything then seemed designed to damage your teeth: the rock, the candyfloss, scuffles outside the boozer. The cautious often removed their teeth as closing time approached.
The first time we went on holiday it was to Scarborough on the Yorkshire coast. As far as I could tell it was exactly the same as Whitley Bay, a land of leaky pails and broken spades and sandcastles that succumbed to the tide. I peered into the pools and collected red rubbery lumps in the hope they would blossom into anemones.
We stayed in a dishevelled hostel masquerading as a guest house. It was painted hospital white on the outside, boarding-house brown within. The landlady was firm but fair and had a face you could have abseiled down. It was cheaper if guests brought their own food for her to cook. You paid extra for a warm breakfast and a partial view of the sea, but you were locked out until teatime, even when it rained. We knew how to enjoy ourselves in those days.
Although I didnt know it then, this was where the British love affair with the seaside had begun and in a most unlikely way. In 1660, a local doctor had published a book extolling the virtues of sea water for gout or drying up superfluous humours, and preserving from putrefaction . . . and all manner of worms.
In France, medics forecast that sea bathing led to immediate death, but Scarboroughs beaches became infested with scrofula sufferers and imaginary invalids, and bathing certainly lightened the load for those suffering from the effects of dirt. Later books extended the menu of afflictions amenable to salt-water cure to include ruptures, rheumatism and madness, as well as phrenzy and nymphomania.
Copyright 2006, Trevor Norton. Reproduced with permission of the publisher, Da Capo press. All reights reserved.
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