Country diary: Seascape and saltmarsh make a feast for the senses

Warkworth, Northumberland: Redshanks and breaking waves provide a perfect soundtrack in crystal clear air

This saltmarsh has a slow, rhythmic pulse. Twice daily, the conjunction of the moon’s gravitational pull and the Earth’s rotation draws saltwater into the Coquet estuary, sending it creeping along brackish, muddy channels, through Spartina grass, between sand dunes and fields.

It’s low tide. A little egret, waiting for the first trickle that will coax crabs to sidle cautiously out of their mud burrows, keeps a wary eye on us as we pass. The last spring tide left a broad ribbon of reed straw, driftwood and moulted seabird feathers – from gulls, waders, even a few from geese and swans – along the edge of the dune, all the way to the high point that overlooks Amble on the far bank of the river.

Gaunt ribs of wrecked wooden vessels, festooned with wracks, lie half-buried in ooze, where curlews probe for worms. Desolate alarm calls of redshank and distant rapping of halyards against yacht masts are the soundtrack to a mournfully beautiful landscape, conducive to quiet introspection.

Not so, though, on the seaward side of the dune. The sound of breaking waves grows louder as we climb the sandy path, flanked by the last sky-blue flowers of viper’s bugloss and yellow hawkweeds.

Viper’s bugloss, found on chalk grassland and sand dunes.
Viper’s bugloss, found on chalk grassland and sand dunes. Photograph: John Turp/Getty Images

The energy of the seascape that unfolds before us is exhilarating. A chilly, autumn north-westerly brought crystal clear air today. The horizon is drawn with razor-sharp clarity. White surf breaks on honey-coloured sand along the curve of the bay. Seashells – razor shells and tellins – are clues to life that lies beneath. Oystercatchers, in immaculate pied plumage, patrol the shoreline and chase retreating waves for whatever the incoming tide exposes.

Expanses of this shore are so broad and flat that water never completely drains away at low tide, creating a mirror glaze that reflects clouds scudding overhead; a strange, dizzying, disorientating sense of sky moving overhead and underfoot. Gaps between clouds piling in from the north grow smaller, bands of sunshine and shadow sweep over us as we head along the beach, in exuberant mood, towards Alnmouth.

Two seascapes, separated by towering sand dunes perhaps 50 metres wide, emotionally affecting in such contrasting ways. No wonder so many people love this coastline.

• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary


Phil Gates

The GuardianTramp

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