If you stay on the Bristol city train travelling north-west till it runs out of track, and time, you’ll find yourself at Severn Beach. The train stops there, and then – after a short, confused pause – it starts to move backwards, returning the way it came.
It’s a miracle the train comes that way at all. Severn Beach was a resort town in the twentieth century. ‘The Blackpool of the West’, they called it, optimistically, ignoring the yards of mud where a beach ought to be, and unloading trains full of day-trippers to play and eat ice creams. The resort died as the century went on, like most seaside towns. And yet, even when Austerity Britain cut train lines to other resorts – Clevedon, Ilfracombe, Minehead – and indeed slashed the trains to more popular places, this little line has survived. To this flat place, where there’s almost nothing to see or do.
I arrived in Bristol in January 2022, with my dying cat in tow, and noticed the mud immediately, in those first few dazed pale days. There was so much of it. I went down to Clifton Suspension Bridge and looked into its chasm, where water made sharp fanning tracks in the mud, silver-smooth as mucous. I set off to find us a new home, me and the cat, and Severn Beach was the first place I looked. There would be space for us both there, I thought. Most people got off at Shirehampton or Avonmouth; few clung on till the end of the line, unless they had bikes and binoculars, bundled up for a day seeking birds. And, I thought, I could swim. It was a beach.
You can’t swim at Severn Beach. Beyond the shingle, thick mudflats keep you apart from the water. They’re not joking, those mudflats: they seize you immediately, up to the ankles. The water isn’t truly the sea, either: it’s the Bristol Channel. You can see Wales on the other side. But I looked for a house for us there because I liked it anyway. The pristine, empty flatness of the shore, which you can never step into, only watch from the edges; no one looking back at you, no figure breaking the horizon line. Flat spaces like that make me feel safe, and thrilled, and full of ideas.
I viewed some houses. There was one with Astroturf in the garden and ceilings so low I found myself flinching as we climbed the stairs. Another had a garage stacked high with empty reptile tanks. The estate agent and I looked at each other, and an awful giggle fought its way out of my throat. In the end we stayed in Bristol. Many reasons. The cat got sicker and sicker; Severn Beach was a long way from her vet. Sometimes I visited that vet twice in a day, walking forty minutes each way past the vintage shops and restaurants, carrying a vial of her urine for testing. Imagine doing that from the neighbouring county: waiting at the end of the train line with my little pot of piss.
By September, the cat was dead. It was the end of everything good. I had nothing to do, and nowhere I needed to be. I could go on day trips, pointlessly. In February, I went back to Severn Beach, taking the train from Montpelier, where now I lived without her.
The mud came into view once we had passed Sea Mills. Towards Shirehampton, more mud, shining along the banks of the river. Impossible to reach the water, let alone get into it. At Severn Beach station there was a poster of a smiling young woman in sepia, one hand on her hip, the other holding a ball in the air. MEMORIES OF TIMES PAST: HERITAGE TRAIL. The railway came to Severn Beach in 1901, the poster said. Before this it had been a handful of farms and cottages, below sea level, flooding regularly. But when the railway arrived, so did the amenities. They built a swimming pool called The Blue Lagoon; they brought sand in to hold back the mud. You could hire a deck chair for 2d, and buy refreshments from a bicycle sidecar. You could ride a donkey.
But beach resorts started to go out in the 1960s, the poster continued dolefully. People bought cars and drove them to destinations that weren’t on the railway line. Maybe places with less mud. So the authorities demolished the Blue Lagoon and shored up the flood defences instead. I could have swum at Severn Beach, once; I was just six decades too late.
The single road leading down towards the beach was quiet: terraced houses, a Union flag in one garden, blue railings running past Shirley’s Café on my left. I knew the café from previous visits. It was the only busy place I had ever seen in the village, the place where you got everything: chips, and jars of chutney, and flags, and second-hand books, and bowls made of driftwood. Every table was full and shouting, and the queue up to the counter weaved and split and hovered, not sure where to put itself. A shelf offered Heritage Trail pamphlets; I pocketed one and then left, just about managing not to hit anyone with my backpack.
Blue sky hung over the edge of the railings as I approached the shore, and clouds dipped below the line of the low concrete sea wall which split the coastal path from the beach. And when I stepped up on to the wall, held the grey railings with both hands and stared over, the sky closed around me. The dark grey line of the horizon, where Wales was, made a sure smooth band I could feel around my body, holding me. The first look was the best, I knew. The long release of breath I didn’t know I was holding, as flatness stretched out on every side. And the noise in my head flattened too, let out like air.
“The dark grey line of the horizon, where Wales was, made a sure smooth band I could feel around my body, holding me. The first look was the best, I knew.”
The bright sky printed itself on the mud, glowing, and on the sea crawling up to the line where the mud stopped. Grasses made mossy patches, holding themselves more lightly on the shining surface than I could tread. And all around, birds had pricked themselves gently in patterns, like shortbread. Their footprints turned to pockmarks in the wetness.Over on the right was the howl of the Prince of Wales Bridge, fanned with white suspension cables, ferrying trucks and cars from England to Wales: its boom of traffic was like the boom of wind or sea, and the bare back of the landscape absorbed it without trouble.Mud says: leave me alone. It says: come no further. I wanted to touch it, but it didn’t want to be touched. Not by humans: only by plants, and water, and light, sure-footed animals. That was all I wanted, too. My cat’s fur against my face, like soft grass. Straight ahead of me, on the water, birds were sailing: black-headed gulls with their confident, perked tails, unreachable.
Arriving at the shore from Shirley’s Café, you can go either right or left along the beach. That day I started by going left, making my way down the concrete slope to the shingle, and towards the water, till the ground started to pouch and glisten warningly. The mud on this side is mostly grassed over, dotted with chunks of wood washed up by the tide, turned to grey fossils by the salt wind. I tried my weight on a grassy patch but it sank beneath me, almost taking my boot. I pulled it back out with effort. The grass sailed by me, half rooted, half buoyant.
What’s good is to take your time: to walk up and down the shingle and look at stones. In the deep south-west, the fossils grow big and gnarly. I’d seen some in Exeter Museum: ancient thick curling shells larger than my two fists together; the blank eyes of a crocodile creature so flat and hard it looked like a child’s drawing. Severn Beach is out on the fringe of that region, but even there you can find fossils. Dark rocks with little discs inside them, notched white tubes. Sea lilies, perhaps. I picked up a couple, but they were like ones I had at home already: I let them drop.
Instead I found myself picking up other stones, as I did so often. Hard to know why particular things draw you on a particular day. This time it was ones with a single white band: curled right round like a ring, clean or craggy against the smooth dark rock. I’d loved a girl once who liked the striped stones. It was a long time ago but I picked them up anyway. In her poem ‘The Pool’, the early twentieth century poet H.D. watches a pool of water with awe. She asks it questions; she experiments with ways to touch it, very lightly. The very last line shows her no closer to knowing anything about it: ‘What are you – banded one?’
I didn’t miss the girl, not anymore. But I missed having someone to fetch and carry for. To bring stones to. Someone to ask, in my awe and my distance: what are you – banded one?
I traced the bands of the rocks, over and over again, and let some fall and put some in my pocket, without being able to explain what I was doing. There was no one to explain to.
The shingle gave way to straw, and I got bored. I turned round and headed back the way I’d come, pausing to investigate a piece of tree trunk that was lying on its side with both ends in the air, like a happy seal. Something was growing there: white fungus, like discs of chewed gum, with thousands of tiny holes bubbling through the centre. I passed the place I’d started and carried on walking. When the shingle ended, replaced by wide concrete steps up against the sea wall, wet and slippery with tidal water, I hopped up and made my way carefully along, staring down at the mud below. Lots of things half-lost, come to a stop, down in that mud. A piece of machinery with three wheels. BLAKEBOROUGH AND SONS LTD. VALVE MAKERS. BRIGHOUSE. A pair of scissors, sunk by the blades, handles leaning back over the mud’s meniscus: too tired to go on. A metal gate, its thin railings half-sieving the mud in which it was sunk.
I’d taught a class about mud, in an MA course on elements in literature. Mud hangs about in flat landscapes, because flat places are usually – in Britain, at least – a compromise between earth and water: water held back precariously, or only sometimes. Beaches, marshes, bogs, wetlands. Mud is one element turning into another: always on the way in or on the way out, as elusive as the moon. Mud makes promises it can’t keep: a place to stand, solid ground underfoot. Without my cat, I had nowhere to rest myself any longer. No footing. And everyone else was on the other side, on the blue water, sailing like birds. Whenever I took a step closer, I sank.
Back on the main path above the beach, the rocks were shocked with rings of yellow lichen, like overlapping flowers pressed into them. And nestled between two rocks – bizarrely – was a bunch of purple tulips; the sort you buy in the supermarket. I had some back at home, in a glass carafe: candy-striped and yellow, £3.89 from Aldi. You can buy yourself flowers if you have no cat to eat them and get sick. Mine had just started loosening their thick mouths. The purple tulips balanced, still and sheltered, as the wind blew over the rocks. In Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, the lonely adolescent Rhoda imagines the gesture of gathering flowers and presenting them as a gift. She doesn’t know yet who to; she has no one she loves. But she feels the desperate severing force of love without an object:
To whom shall I give all that now flows through me, from my warm, my porous body? I will gather my flowers and present them–Oh! to whom?
And then later, when her friend Percival dies, that gesture gives shape to her grief. Rhoda picks and binds a bunch of violets, and goes to Greenwich, to the river, where she makes an offering:
Now I will relinquish; now I will let loose. Now I will at last free the checked, the jerked-back desire to be spent, to be consumed… Into the wave that dashes upon the shore, into the wave that flings its white foam to the uttermost corners of the earth, I throw my violets, my offering to Percival.
I left the tulips behind – someone’s offering to something, or to nothing at all – and moved on: under the Prince of Wales Bridge, its large echoes milling among pale green supports. Towards the village were motionless trees in the sunlight, blown into a tilt by forgotten wind. They’d been planted on the edge of the old boating lake, long since drained and filled.
At the end of the shore path is a bird reserve. It was closed off that day – more flood defences being built. Holding the water back is work that never ends. But as I approached, I could see a figure climbing over the railings, coming from the forbidden side, long supple legs stretched out. I couldn’t make the figure make sense because it seemed to be an old lady. It was an old lady. She sat down on the bench on my side of the fence, where a bicycle was propped, apparently waiting for her, and got out some dark bread and a jar of jam.
I walked past her to the railing, clambered up and hooked my legs over. I wasn’t as brave as she was: I wouldn’t go right over. I just stared across the mud, at the small glittering birds dabbing themselves in the distance.
‘I’ll be off this bench in a minute,’ said the old lady, pointedly. ‘If you want somewhere to sit down.’
‘Oh no,’ I said. ‘Don’t worry. I’m sitting up here because that’s where I want to be.’
I laughed, but the old lady ignored me. Her skin was very deeply grooved, in even lines. She went on eating her bread and staring out across the sand, thin legs in mud-coloured corduroys. That, I thought, was how I would like to grow old: my skin folded as sharply and cleanly as the slats of a blind, close against my face. But only white people, with their thin skin, take that tortoise shape. My face would undergo – was already starting to undergo – a shift far more tectonic. Things slid, and thickened. The tide dragged itself out one day and never came back in, and the pockmarks dried firm.
I reached into my pocket for the orange I’d brought with me, peeling back its loose skin, dropping its dry strings on to the path.
‘I just came to get some seaweed,’ the old lady said, unexpectedly.
‘Oh? To eat?’
‘Of course not to eat,’ the lady said scornfully. ‘Imagine eating the seaweed from around here. No, it’s for my allotment. Seaweed rots really well.’
She stood up and started cramming a bulging sack I hadn’t noticed into one of her bicycle panniers. It gave her some trouble
‘I’ll see you later,’ I said, and I slid down from the railing. ‘Good luck with your seaweed.’
‘It rots well,’ said the old lady, already behind me, as I headed back up the path.
On the way back to the station I saw a black cat in a house window, on the sill just inside the glass, sunning itself. Its legs were stretched right out, its eyes shut and its head back, and it did not move as I came up to it, as I spoke to it through the pane. The next thing I knew I was back on the train. The announcer was calling for Sea Mills. My body had taken itself home.