We emerged from inside, towels tied over swimming costumes and trunks. We crossed the garden, slid down steps and headed for the estuary. I was hesitant, tempted to return to the sluggish warmth of bed. Here it was crisp, a bite in the mud beneath my feet. For a last minute I lingered, offering a single toe to the water. Early morning stillness was broken by dad as he flung his towel over a grounded canoe. He waded along the partially submerged jetty and crouched down into the water. I followed, shivering but determined.
There is always a moment before yielding to the cold when everything feels foolish. There is a barrier to cross, a line between land and sea. But when it is broken, and the far-off town seems to be floating on the horizon of soft water as you swim, it is entirely worth it. More than worth it – worthy of celebration, of being alive. Submersion allows the world to be seen from a different perspective, sky and shore framed by every stroke. The boat anchored several meters out is now a target to be reached. Planks rear up and away from the water and frayed rope is passed whilst arcing back to land.
Dad and I were swimming in Suffolk. It was the third day of our family summer holiday and we were feeling brave. We reveled in the smell of salt and the smooth, fabric sheen of the estuary. Coffee and bacon waited back in the barn. It had been rented for the week. We were marking our brief territory: in the sand that returned with us on our feet and in our hair; in the books and papers we scattered on sofas; in the toothbrushes in the bathroom. My parents had decided to return to an area they had loved and visited when they were newly married. The names of towns were remembered and revisited: Aldeburgh, Snape Maltings, Southwold, Orford.
The last on that list offered the location for these photos. Orford Ness is a shingle spit sitting a short ferry ride away from the coast. It is some ten miles long, with a striped lighthouse crowning the outermost edge. It is an otherworldly place combining beauty with extreme bleakness. Desolation may be traced to the spit’s tangled military history. It used to be property of the Ministry of Defence, with the site used to test radar methods during WWII and, in the Cold War, atomic bombs. Echoes of this heritage are not just gleaned but actively amplified –explanations offered in the information center, with most of the original buildings still in place. Many are out of bounds, but their presence is enough to unsettle. The National Trust has left them to decay. Roofs sag and moss grows as entropy eats at history. As brick and metal subside, visitors follow the carefully marked paths around the island. We spent several hours exploring. Where soldiers and scientists had trod we now followed. Charcoal clouds were overlaid with sunshine, light and dark co-existing in much the same way as the stories of the spit. See Robert Macfarlane's piece for further meditation on the place.
Across from Orford Ness sits Shingle Street: a coastal hamlet we had already visited one evening. While there, we had noticed the glow of gaslights through the windows of a lone house on the beach. It was a pilgrimage – a return to the place we had stayed at twice when I was first baby, then toddler. It had been easy to be washed to sleep by the sound of waves on stones. I have little memory of the place beyond the yellow swimming costume I wore to paddle in. Dad filled gapped recollections with accounts of the walks, the writing, the laughter that had taken place there. It was a location rife with the resonances of extended family – of my grandma joining us on holiday, of my uncle (who died before I was born) spending time there with my dad in the late eighties. Together they had sought out the best food in Suffolk. We followed similar routes this time, with plenty of googling and research leading us coffee and lunch all over the county. Pump Street Bakery ranked high on the list, while numerous flat whites were tried in the course of the six days. The week was full of golden moments: hiring bikes and coasting through the countryside, walking along the paths that criss-cross the mud flats, wrapping newly bought smoked fish and cheese to carry in backpacks, taking photos, eating freshly cooked Thai food in a pop-up street café. We created our own memories and moments. The images we hold of Suffolk now have double exposures: new overlaying the old.
The outfit is best summed up as impromptu - merely being what I had decided to wear on the day of visiting Orford Ness. All items were second hand, dug out of my suitcase as I was being told off for not being ready sooner. But in some ways I rather love the way that the landscape took precedence over the outfit. Dramatic colours and shapes were not needed when facing the expansive, extraordinary location.