I retrace my childhood steps, as I have done countless times before, and head for Langney Point. In years past the shingle, pot-holed, dirt track was hard work on my bicycle. Today, new roads and a car make the trip simple. I stand upon the rock-strewn shore, face the heavy pre-dawn waves, and breathe deep the untamed sea.
A warm wind flies through me from the wild tossing surge. The waves rise and fall in heaving sighs and spume flicks from the tips as if shaken from some sunken hand. The Royal Sovereign Lighthouse sweeps the waves with her warning light.
My lure plunges the depths where silent silvered beasts stalk the darkness. My rod bends against the current as I feel for the slightest knock on the line. The simplest movement that foretells the electric energy that follows a take on the lure.
The sun breaks the dark. First winking at me beneath the churning troughs then, slowly, lighting the horizon. Eastbourne rises, like Atlantis, from the depths of night. First the seafront hotels glow orange, then the church steeples of All Saints and St Saviours next. South Cliff Towers rises amongst the thundering surf. Behind lies the green softness of the Downs capped in gentle mist, contrasting the dark brooding sea nibbling at its base.
Cormorants shriek at the dawn. Terns spiral down into the emerald green like javelins thrown by invading hoards. Up they come, their dying prey swallowed alive to face the dark death. No screams in that black, silent, gasping.
All creatures of the sea seem to prey on the helpless whitebait that huddle together, shoaling like silvered sunken clouds only to be picked off from above and below.
Fishing boats rise and fall. Sometimes just their mast lights showing as they pitch and roll, throbbing out from their moorings at Sovereign Harbour. They fight their way onward to their different fishing grounds. The low boulders of the Geenlands. The mud and pebbles of Shingle Bank. The sand and rock of Coppar Shoal where the Robin Huss, Cod and Turbot roam.
The rocks of the Gullivers or the rough ground of the Bushes where the Bull Huss and Skate feed. I see the Clar Innis, named after a tiny Scots Island, with her twin hull and long, low back, point toward the horizon and ploughs her way to the deep grounds where the large wrecks hide Tope and Conger eel.
The Relentless, originally out of Ramsgate, pauses over the sunken boiler stacks of the sunken SS Barnhill that was bombed by Germans off Beachy Head in 1940. Its back broke off Langney Point as it was being towed to harbour. Only visible at low-tide, the black barnacled boiler stacks poke skyward, all that is left of the once-proud vessel.
Fishermen brave the sea, as did their forefathers, in hope of food for table and pocket. The hard unforgiving life at which they labour–making a living–sometimes. Not one of them would swap their precarious unforgiving toil to become a landlubber. Not one would change the slippery rolling deck, the lashing sea, the danger and the complete fulfilment of their souls, for a safe, warm office.
A bite! Sharp, electric, shuddering.
The rod bends and the line rises in the surf slicing the sea like a cheese wire as it lifts, tightening from rod to fish. I scramble over the green weed-scattered rocks. Slipping … pain!
Rod held high, bending, juddering, I regain my feet. I feel a throbbing down my leg. I know I am cut but I am in a battle. An ancient battle between man and beast.
Primeval instinct prevails. As the hunter-gatherer I fight on. As does my adversary.
I reach the shingle. Safe, loose footholds now. I wind and play the wild creature. It kicks and runs. First left, then right. Up and down. Swords drawn against the great Cyclops now rising fast on the horizon we battle. I catch my first glimpse of the fish as it lifts from the surf. It is a beauty.
I back up the beach. The waves crashing down and spraying me. I feel my leg sting as the fresh salt bites into the new wound. My wrist that took the full force of the stumble, aches. But I fight on.
Now comes the most dangerous place to lose a fish… the surf.
I time the last long pull to coincide with the incoming wave that rises like a leaping beast, crashing down and greedily clawing back the gravel like a greedy gambler at a card table.
There he is. A perfect wild bass. Around two pounds in weight. A king-in-waiting. Master of his environment. He lies on the shingle, gills gasping for life, exhausted. The unblinking wide-eye staring.
I grab my cloth and carefully wrap it around the bee-sting spines. I remove the hook. It fights once more, now in a foreign land of air and earth.
I watch its gills open and close, its mouth gasp. In its moment of attack the hunter became the hunted. Its prey, now captor, a shiny Abu 18 g pike lure.
We face each other. The conquered and the conqueror. Does it think? Does it know that I hold its life, this beauty of the wild oceans? Quickly I bring out my camera.
One picture that is all I need and back to the sea.
As I move closer to the surf the bass feels its element and fights once more. I wait, counting the rollers and, after the seventh, always the largest, I throw it back into the receding wave. A slap of the tail and it is gone, back to the mysterious world I will never know.
As hunter-gatherer I no longer kill these beauties for food. I am surrounded by stores stuffed with more food that my ancestors could dream of. Farmed fish from my local chippy on a Friday night, soaked in salt and vinegar, tastes as good as anything I have ever cooked. And yet the primal urge still pounds in my veins and draws me to the hunt.
I sit on the wet shingle and pull up my trouser leg to see the damage. Blood trickles down in three places. Bruises will follow, pain, stiffness and, finally…, just memories.
I stand and stretch. My neck hurts, my back hurts, my leg hurts and my swollen wrist won’t make the smooth motion to wind the reel. I decide it is time to head home.
During battle dawn has broken. Warmth from the sun dries the wet stones and bright colour fills every pore of my world. I scrape my way up the steep shingle bank, heavy, hard work that was once so easy in my youth.
One last time, breathing heavily from the toil, I stand as I had done so many times, since a child, surveying the scene that only a god could make.
The great sea that surrounds our island, that pounds in our veins. The sea that shaped our nation of seafaring islanders, that took us to the four corners of the earth in exploration and conquest. This one small island that left its mark on the whole world.
Eastbourne has risen, bright and busy. The sky is blue. The sea is green. All around there is movement. People walk, run, cycle. There are cars, buses and noise. Not the early, natural, noise of my dawn but man-made noise.
I walk awkwardly to the car but I have to turn once more. I must have a last look, one last peek. One more picture to take with me to the old people’s home for when I close my eyes in years to come. I breathe deep.
Home. I bathe my damaged limbs, eat. With my pain the battle returns, fresh to my mind, and a smile follows. How many times I have fallen, tripped, ripped and broken in my life? Would I change one single time? Never.
One more war wound, one more battle.
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