We reached Cley yesterday afternoon just as the light was running out. It was a grey, overcast day when all of Norfolk seemed to have gone brown (though if you looked carefully at the hedgerows that turned out not to be true: there were red berries everywhere). As we turned towards the beach a huge flock of birds suddenly started into the air, turning and twisting and making those astonishing fleeting patterns that lead mathematicians to work out flocking algorithms. And they headed seawards and were gone from sight, almost as quickly as they had appeared. We parked under the shingle bank, now much reduced since its glory days, and prepared to get out for what we imagined would be a brisk walk. But then I opened the car door the wind promptly forced it shut again, so it was clear that something more than a brisk constitutional was on offer. Something that required firm resolve — and serious outerwear. So we opened the boot and, in the shelter of the lid, dressed as for the South Pole.
When we got to the top of the bank, the full force of the wind hit us. There was an angry brown sea, with a heavy swell and sizeable waves pounding against the shore. Interestingly, they were coming in at an angle of about fifteen degrees to the line of the beach, so suddenly one saw how this coastline is constantly being reshaped.
We turned into the wind and began to walk. It was eye-wateringly cold, with the wind scything through anything (like trousers and hats) that wasn’t comprehensively windproof. And yet the strange thing was that the beach was dotted with tiny, pyramidical structures which, on closer inspection, turned out to be tented bivouacs, each one containing a fisherman who sat there, staring intently at a massive fishing rod, resting on a tripod support, and each at the end of a line which had been cast far out into the raging surf. It was absolutely surreal, and made one wonder what it is that induces people to undergo such discomfort in pursuit of private obsessions. And then to marvel at it, for it is what makes us humans so interestingly perverse.
But much as I admired the fishermen’s fortitude, mine wilted in the teeth of the gale, and we turned back and sought the shelter of the car and, later, the blazing fire of an hotel. Ernest Shackleton would not have been impressed.