Far From the Sea

By Kath Aspinwall

Until I was ten, every summer, we went to Heacham on the side of The Wash in Norfolk. This was because my great aunt Florence, Aunty Flossie, had a houseboat there. Actually houseboat is a bit of a misnomer. At one time it had been one of about a dozen actual houseboats but as they became older and leakier they had been brought ashore from the small river that now ran behind them and more extensive wooden bungalows had been built on top. Some of the boats had obviously been rather small and flat and were no longer really visible. One, The Victory, had an enormous hull and the house part was accessed by a long flight of stairs. Ours was sort of middling and it was always exciting to creep into the spidery shadows under the veranda to the black boat crouching underneath. When I was very young I once caught a net full of small fish and hid them there to keep them out of the sun. I was very upset later when I went to collect them and found that they had inexplicably died.

I remember quite a lot about those holidays, playing with my King’s Lynn cousins, trying (without success) to catch eels on the river, chasing seagulls, hearing skylarks singing high over head and sometimes finding their nests, small hollows of woven grass, hair and leaves hidden on the ground in the wiry grass. I remember walking over the stony beach in bare feet and paddling in the odd sandy pool. But I don’t seem to have many memories of swimming in the sea, although there are one or two photographs that show that I did. This is probably because a lot of the time the tide was out and, when the tide is out in the Wash, it is truly out. It retreats over the far horizon leaving behind an expanse of brownish wavy sand as far as the eye can see. You spend a lot of your holiday in the peculiar position of being on the coast but far from the sea.

My main memories of actual contact with the ocean are the occasional shrimping expeditions. The small brown shrimps had to be caught when the tide was on the turn so a conglomeration of grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles and cousins would set off carrying two large pulling nets to, ‘catch the tide’. We walked for what I am sure I remember being told was a mile over the sand in search of the far off sea. Every now and then our feet would sink into the blackest and most glutinous of mud. It looked and felt like melted dark chocolate. The older generations told us children that when they were young there had only been pure sand but the efforts to improve drainage in the Fens led to the three big rivers, The Welland, The Nene and the rather wonderfully named Ooze, sweeping all this mud into The Wash to be mixed with the sand.

When we at last caught the sea we would all take hold of the ropes holding the nets and tug them energetically round until we had filled our buckets with shrimps. We would then go back with the tide which came in at walking pace and cook and eat them. I remember them to be delicious but that extracting the edible bit required quite a struggle and prickled fingers and that at the end there was an awful lot of stuff left over; heads, shells, legs and bits, all to be disposed of.

I associate my great aunt almost entirely with the sea side. She had a very strange way of speaking which fascinated and puzzled me. It was very breathy high and squeaky. I remember once announcing, ‘Auntie Flossie talks like a cockle’ because I decided that her voice sounded a bit like the sibilant whisper cockles make when they slide themselves back under the sand to hide. She went to Heacham most weekends even in winter but, fortunately, she decided not to go at the end of January 1953 because the new interior sprung mattress she had ordered had not arrived. That weekend there was a dreadful flood in which she would almost certainly have drowned. The houseboat was washed away and damaged beyond repair. Auntie Flossie replaced it with a caravan but somehow none of us ever really took to it. Instead the next summer, aged seventy, she went to stay on the shores of the non tidal Mediterranean, swimming there for the first time. This adventure was more unusual for septuagenarians then than it would be now. I wonder how it felt to her to have her first holiday in which she was never very far from the sea.

Read more about Kath HERE


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