Spirit of the sea – art, music and glass

There are few sounds more magical than the sound of the sea. Whether it’s the slow, breathing cadence of the beach at Aldeburgh, with the North Sea washing the pebbles up and down the shoreline with each wave of the swell, or the thunder of the storm waves hitting the breakwater at the Cob in Lyme Regis, sending a plume of white into the air, I find the sound of the sea compelling. Sadly I am rarely successful at taking photographs of the sea – in the time it takes for my eye to see the image, by brain to send instructions to my finger to press the shutter release, and the camera to respond, the scene has moved on, and the moment is lost. Writing about the sea is hard too, with words often feeling too solid to convey something so mercurial and transient.

Paintings can be more successful at evoking the sea – I am especially admiring of Maggi Hambling’s sea paintings (there’s a video here where she speaks about ‘painting the sound of the sea’, with images from her exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge in 2010). Music can do it too, and for me the most moving examples are by Benjamin Britten (his Four Sea Interludes from the opera Peter Grimes) and his teacher Frank Bridge (his symphonic poem The Sea). Britten lived and worked in Aldeburgh, on Suffolk’s North Sea coast, and when I walk on the quiet beach there the soundrack in my head is his first sea interlude (On The Beach: Dawn).

My love of the sea is not sentimental. I was brought up on or near it, and I know all too well how its moods can change, and the destruction and death it can cause. It’s not all blue, bathing beaches and bobbing boats. The sea demands respect, and takes revenge on those who trifle with it. It’s also merciless to those who are in the wrong place at the wrong time, those who have to make their living on it and risk their lives doing so. For me, the heroes of the sea are the volunteer lifeboat crews who set to sea in the worst of conditions in order to rescue those for whom they are the last resort. Yes, the sea is beautiful, but it is also powerful and cannot be tamed by humankind.

The British coastline is shaped by that power. Breakwaters and sea defences notwithstanding, the sea has created – and continues to create – a dynamic coast. Erosion and encroachment by the sea (to stick with the North Sea examples, think of Happisburgh which is being ‘lost’ to the sea at a sometimes dramatic rate) is balanced by the creative forces of deposition (for example the giant and ever-growing shingle bank of Orford Ness).

There has been much concern, and rightly so, about the amount of plastic debris being washed up on our coastlines, and the effect of this on wildlife and the marine ecosystem. But there is something else which is regularly washed up on our beaches, which to my mind is a great example of the power of the sea at work to create something beautiful from the cast-offs of our past. I think of it as a kind of recycling, the forces of nature reworking the mundane into unintended gems. I’m talking about sea glass.

Sea glass is formed when pieces of waste glass are abraded by being tumbled in the sea for extended periods of time (sometimes decades or centuries), their sharp edges eventually ground down into a frosted smoothness and pleasing pebble shapes. I have collected sea glass for some years, and there is a vast network of collectors around the world – Instagram is a good place to see their finds.

Sea glass can be found on beaches anywhere – as with any beachcombing, the best pickings are often to be found at the first low tide after a storm, when all manner of interesting things can be washed up. Some parts of the UK coastline, however, seem to yield more glass than others – I have found a lot in the North West, and also some on beaches in North Devon and East Anglia. I hear that the North East of England is a favourite location for collectors, due to the presence of several bottle works in the 19th and 20th centuries – the largest in the country was at Seaham – which dumped their waste glass into the North Sea. I have included a few photographs from my collection, most of which I display in a large glass vase, although the best way to see sea glass and the way it plays with light and colour is to handle it. The blue pendant is a gift from my partner, who found this unusual aqua-coloured and very large piece of sea glass at Lynmouth in North Devon (other people’s partners give them gemstones. Mine gives me sea glass. I am very lucky!).

Sea glass pendant

Most sea glass is a magical pale aqua colour, but some is white, a lot is green, and other rare colours include amber, blue, orange and (most prized of all) red. As most sea glass originated as glass bottles, the abundance of any colour depends on how common the bottles were – blue, for example, started life as medicine or poison bottles, while amber bottles held spirits. Glass bottle tops are sometimes found too, as are the glass marbles which formed the stoppers of early carbonated drinks. Keen collectors have researched the origins of sea glass, which is in itself a social history and archaeology of glass. Occasionally I am lured into researching a piece – for example the reinforced glass incorporating rusting metal wire grids which occur on Crosby beach on Merseyside, which are part of the debris from buildings destroyed in WWII air raids on the city of Liverpool which was dumped there. Mostly, though, I collect it because I am enchanted by what the sea has made from our thoughtless waste. The power that destroys coastlines and wrecks ships has formed something which, in its colour and ever changing reaction to light, is a kind of echo of itself. Have nothing in your homes, said William Morris famously, that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. Sea glass, I believe, is the most beautiful thing in my home.

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Liverpool – impressions

I’ve recently moved to Liverpool – quite a change from rural Somerset!  I had been visiting regularly for a while, so I realised that my Honda CR-V, while perfect for yomping across Exmoor and tackling fords was possibly not the idea vehicle for parallel parking in the city.  So I test drove a range of ‘normal’ cars, which all felt like driving a go-cart by comparison, eventually settling on a middle-aged VW Golf.  Moving to the city has increased my car insurance by roughly 60%.  Cars up here seem to be much newer, much more likely to have chrome and tinted windows, and there is a conspicuous absence of mud…I am going to have to get used to the idea of spending money at the car wash if I’m not to be horribly conspicuous in my road-grimed car…

Today the sun was shining and I could justify playing hookey and going into the city centre.  Public transport here is the best in England outside of London, but I am driving most of the time at the moment as it’s a great way to familiarise myself with the geography of the city.  Today I parked near the Anglican cathedral, and walked down Duke Street to Liverpool One, passing the great gate or paifan of China Town on the way.  It’s the largest outside of China, as befitting the oldest Chinese community in Europe.  Nelson Street is garlanded with red lanterns in preparation for Chinese New Year this weekend.

Next stop was the Tate, on Albert Dock, where I wanted to look at the Tracey Emin/William Blake exhibition.   The red brick of the older buildings in the dock area glowed warmly in the winter sunshine, and despite being off season there were still tourists from all over the world – in a few minutes I’d identified Korean, Japanese, French, Spanish and German being spoken.  I love the cosmopolitan vibe in this city!

I had some Christmas gift vouchers to spend, so from the Tate I walked the short distance to Liverpool One and indulged in a little retail therapy.  Midweek in January is an excellent time to shop – lots of sales, but relatively few shoppers.  It’s fair to say that am not an enthusiastic shopper, but it’s a much more pleasant experience when it’s peaceful.  To celebrate having successfully tracked down all three items on my list, I carried on up the hill to Bold Street in search of lunch.  Bold Street is a hub of ethnic restaurants and quirky shops.  To be honest, I generally feel a bit old and un-hipster when I go there, especially at today’s trendy lunch venue: Leaf.  I’ve been there for tea before, but not for lunch.  I opted for Moroccan chicken sandwich with broccoli soup on the side, and it was not disappointing – full of flavour and fresh ingredients.  A nice touch is the tap water (I was being stingy).  It comes with a tang of fresh mint, dispensed from a giant glass jar with a tap, which is on the bar so you can help yourself to refills.

Twenty minutes’ walk took me back to where I’d left the car, and I drove home in the sunshine, feeling glad to be in such a beautiful and vibrant city.  There is so much more to explore: the range of world-class museums and galleries, the library (to research my father’s family who came here from Wales in the late 19th century), and the constantly changing panorama of the River Mersey.