RICHARD WILLIAMSON: At the edge of the ocean, the wildness begins

editorial image

I stood for an hour on this week’s walk watching the traffic.

Not the sailing boats or the cars in the park, but the birds.

The edge of The Winner is the edge of the ocean.

Here is a completely different world to the inner harbour.

I was in full view, but the birds took little notice of me.

There was no sound except for rills of water trickling from the tidal pools.

In summer they are warmed by the sun and you can lie in them as in a bath.

In winter, you have a mental hot bath.

I was hoping first to see sanderlings. These tiny white waders travel almost pole to pole down the seashores of the planet.

Sure enough, I heard a hoarse squeak and two joined me, looking not much bigger than a pair of white mice.

They thought I was just part of the scenery, an old groyne post, or a lump of flotsam perhaps.

They were too busy anyway, poking about in the sand grains and razor shells for a sandhopper or seaweed fly larva.

They could be in the Coto Donyana by now, or Casablanca.

Looking southward, I could see the ocean’s curve.

You find your mind so easily connects to distance here.

Then two specks appeared under the halo of the sun, coming up channel and quite close by.

They were fish divers, with thin beaks like herring knives, and their heads were white as flint arrows.

I thought they were going to be mergansers, but no, a couple of great crested grebes.

They were sharp and hungry-looking, though well-fed for they’d been fishing offshore in the Wittering shallows where a million fry of mackerel, mullet, flounder and herring swarm sometimes.

No sign yet of their dandified Elizabethan ruffs with which they will soon be making extravagant passes to each other in the gravel pits.

I waited for an hour. A Mediterranean gull floated past, trips of dunlin sped to Pilsey, a cormorant or two lumbered by with that gross look of overfed Café Royales on their grinning beaks and scabby necks.

Then came the prize of the day. A big black cross like a crucifix dug from a Roman archaeological pit, or was it a pterodactyl?

This violent thing was flying from the harbour back to its proper place, the empty quarter of the ocean.

Of course, this is why weekend sailors go out from the Sussex shore, to see the wild places.

Gannets like this young one that flew past me live out there among the barbarous waves and you could almost say to yourself that you are anywhere in the northern latitudes, with a dolphin, a whale, or a wee shark for company even, never mind all the ocean birds like skuas and great northern divers for company.

I had my feet on dryish land, but on this great bank of sand just for an hour I was down to the lonely sea and the sky and it felt supreme.