A little bit of history lost in surge - Stuart Aylmer on West Norfolk’s tidal surge

Thornham Harbour Wreck

Thornham Harbour Wreck

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Who would have thought that the passing of Thornham’s old, wrecked, wooden boat could have prompted such emotion as it has? Who would have anticipated the sense of loss? How forlorn the space it has left now feels! An era really has come to an end.

It was a widely known, even famous landmark. The most photographed boat in Norfolk perhaps.

A magnet for photographers and artists, for walkers too. And a siren for those whose curiosity was not tempered by knowledge of the returning tide. How many visitors found the waters rising beneath their boots, sending them scampering away in a panic? Yet despite its familiarity to so many no-one seems to know her name, or how long she had been The Wreck, or what she had been before. Even the old boys don’t know her story, only that she had been there on the marsh for as long as they remember, 40 or 50 years at least. Yet she wasn’t made to be lost. She was crafted as a working tool, a means by which a man could earn a living for himself and feed his family. Sawn, glued, hammered, planed and painted into life by persons unknown so that she could preserve the life of those she carried and bear the weight of whatever trade they had mustered. Even so, this living, purposeful part of her journey seems less alive and poignant than the stillness which followed.

Who knows when ‘the boat’ became ‘the wreck’, or why? But perhaps it was during this static epilogue that the real character and life of the boat was formed, when she stopped moving in and out of the creek with the restless tides, when she finally breathed out and settled deep into the mud and let glorious Norfolk circle around her. In stillness a presence grew. No longer blown this way and that.

A meditation on the ceaseless ebb and flow.

Her changes were slow, incremental, like the face of a friend that shows no trace of the passage of days but reveals the years at a later date. Each season more lichen, less paint. Each year more peeling, more splits and shifted angles in the mud. Bits fell off. Bits blew away. Her hull filled and emptied ten thousand times, and the dead weight of a dead engine forced her tight into the marsh.

She was not immortal, of course. None of us are. Who will resist the passage of time, the force of nature, the ceaseless, restless, power of the sea?

Often it is said that change is the only constant. Yet change itself is not constant. For years, decades or centuries a stability holds sway. Change may be continuous but imperceptible. A theory that survives the drip, drip, drip of contradictory evidence; a species whose evolution appears static.

Until out of the blue an overwhelming event forces rapid, revolutionary, even catastrophic change.

The night of December 6, 2013 brought the biggest tidal surge to the North Norfolk coast for 60 years.

The force of water and wind was unleashed and it cut through the dunes and sands of the coast like the hand of God.

And at some point during this fury the wreck was taken. A wrath embraced her broken bones and she was taken back to the open sea.

And this time there will be no coda, no romantic postscript to ponder.

When it’s gone it’s gone.

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