"I never could get the hang of Thursdays" was the lament of 'Dent, Arthur Dent' in the very first Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Much quoted by me over the intervening decades, it resonated at the time because I, too, couldn't get the hang of Thursdays.
In my case it probably had a lot to do with the fact that (too young to be doing so) we'd have spent the Wednesday evening in The Oak Tree drinking as little as we could get away with, because we had no money for more, which was still more than we were used to…and the fact that first lesson on Thursday morning was double-English with the uninspiring one of our two teachers, who was trying to cram us in Chaucer.
I'm prepared to believe that The Wife of Bath's tale is funny. Until I get around to reading it again for myself (unlikely) I'll have to take it on trust. For me it just confirmed that Thursdays were the day you somehow had to get through to get to Friday. It was a feeling that five years of university and post-grad and thirty years of work had somehow failed to remove. Thursdays have always been the worst of the week.
So when I was given the great gift of being able to cut back on my day-job hours, I opted to take Thursdays & Fridays out of work and into the weekend.
So now if I can't get the hang of them, I've only got myself to blame. For the first year of my semi-freedom (hard to believe it has actually been a year) I did not grasp the true notion of extra time. In a sense it had been pre-committed to study, to the work I was struggling to let go of and other prior commitments. It has taken all of that year to get to where I am now, commitments met, and the diary cleared. So I am now freed up – to quote another of my NCIS TV heroes – to Go! Learn things!
So: on a mild-but-weather-uncertain day in October I head up to my beloved North Norfolk Coast. I've been putting it off for some time, caught in a mind-set which says if I'm not up at the crack of dawn and out the door by 8, then half the day will be wasted in getting wherever, and not enough time left to enjoy. It is of course rubbish.
My reliance on public transport and the vagaries of un-related timetables means getting there is not always simple. It will take longer than if I could just jump in a car and drive. But I still hold there are as many pluses as minuses to being car-free. It isn't a complaint; just a consideration.
The thing is: I have no need to get home early. In essence I have no need to get home at all. I could always just check into the nearest hotel… that kind of random is part of what I'm looking for.
Not today though. Today is a simple 'proof of concept' trip to ease myself into the idea that if I don't get there till lunchtime, that still leaves me, even in the depths of winter, three to four hours of daylight for walking and exploring. Travelling home in the dark is no big deal.
I also remind myself of Mam's mantra that the 'holiday starts when you close the front door'. The travel is part of the trip: the journey as well as the destination. Not convinced about this whole idea, I head out anyway determined to enjoy the train ride and the bus ride – and if there is time to do nothing else when I get there, I'll just eat chips on the harbour-side and head home again.
There is time.
Not only that, but the weather has decided to collaborate in convincing me…and so here we are: Wells-next-the-Sea.
As I head out along the mile-long sea wall from the town to the open coast, the sky is summer blue and the water returns its azure salute. Launches and sail boats ride the high tide in the creek that leads to the harbour proper. The wide expanse of marsh hides other inlets, where other yachts bob and chink: sail-chain music haunting as a bird's cry in the quiet of the water ways.
A failed up-ended anchor appears to be crawling toward the beacon tower in a last ditch call for help.
At the creek mouth, the headland across the water could double for some play-boy's paradise island, or provide a flashing light to take us back into the Fitzgerald's era of improbable people and impossible parties.
Onto the beach though, and it could be nowhere but England. Candy-striped beach-huts, sheds on stilts, echoes of Victorian bathing machines, commandeered for a more laissez-faire approach to life on the sands. The most recently renovated are evident not just by their paintwork, but by the regulation 10-steps to the door, raised against the coming shifting sands. Older, less attended, refuges, once themselves such lofty perches, rest at ground level, or wait to be dug out of the encroaching land. All of the Norfolk coast is on the move. In places it is crumbling into the sea, being washed away. Here some of that load is deposited, washed and blown in, as with the erosion it no longer happens in incremental inches, but in feet at a time. A single storm that washes away a bank somewhere will deposit it somewhere else. The drier sand, like shifting desert dunes, makes it way along the pine break enclosing the saltmarshes of the Holkham estate, and will soon overflow that barrier into the flats behind.
But I'm not for the trees today…I'm for the beach, the mudflats that mark the creeks through which the incoming tide will swirl, making it imperative you keep one eye on the sea. People are caught here every year on the sand banks as a rushing tide crosses the flat beach at speed and takes the short cuts you'd know about if you paid attention to where you were putting your feet.
I'm in luck though. The tide is ebbing. There is time.
Much of Norfolk is best appreciated in close-up, but here you need the wide panorama. Especially at this time of year. As balmy as the weather is – and it is barefoot, short-sleeve, warm – the season is over. The holiday makers have gone back to work, the children are in school. The beach is the preserve of the few – the elderly, who don't venture very far from their claimed seats on the groynes (ignoring the 'do not climb on the structures' signs which clearly mean children not old folk – anyway we're not climbing, just sitting); and the lovers playing hookey for the day, and the solitary with their camera, their metal detector or their dogs. Out in the shallow surf young race-horses are being put through their paces. A group of students are camped out at the edge of the dunes drinking beer and scattering philosophy and gossip in time-honoured fashion of the young.
I could envy any of these. Except I am one of them. Feeling the planet through the soles of my feet as it shifts from the hard-ridges of compacted water-sculpted flow channels, into the unpleasant squelch of channel mud, back through clear shining water to be warmed in the shifting dryness of the high banks, I walk...and walk…aimless, joyful…heading generally westwards, but out to the tideline to meet the waves and back to the dunes, and out again. There is space here: wide open vistas drawing you skywards and seeking the horizon. There are miniature landscapes, natural ziggurats with no man-made engineering. Marram rattles in the wind. Like the child I still am, I pick up shells purely for their colour, being particularly pleased to find a fully intact razor clam, it's meat long gone, but both halves still hinged and undented…using my slung shoes as a makeshift collecting back, I wonder how many will make it home unbroken.
It doesn't matter, because days like this, perfect days – which continue through sunset train-rides back to the city – are not about what remains of them afterwards. They are simply for being, and breathing in.
So yes, it took a walk and a train and a bus…and yes, it was late lunch before I arrived, and dark before I got home, but with about ten miles walked (all in), half of it barefoot, with the brain in neutral but for that weather-eye on the tide…I'm beginning to think that I might get the hang of Thursdays after all.
© Lesley Mason
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