The Cliffs

We went for a coastal hike yesterday on the northern face of the headlands. This completes a linking series of cliff walks that we have done over some weeks, taking us right around the North Devon peninsula from Saunton Sands to Ilfracombe, some 100km or so.

The cliffs in these parts have something about them that I’ve not felt before. All cliffs are huge and inspiring of course, that is their nature. These ones though have a jagged angular violence has been imprinted deep into the shape of the rock. There are dragons teeth that emerge dark and wet from the foam of the sea. Broken slate shards pile up under the crags as though they had come raining down in sheets. Dark fissures split open the cliff face. We saw a cove where rock ridges ran in lines across the shingle, like the black spines of some reptile that slept beneath.

Within the sedimentary rock there is colour and texture. A corduroy layering emerges in bold lines from the sea. The stripes rise up in diagonals that echo in successive and opposing cliff faces. Slate, granite and quartz are compressed into lines of pink and black and glittering crystal. But then the symmetry ripples and buckles, and you know that this stone mass was once spun and twisted in some huge pressure furnace like hot glass. There is suppressed energy throughout this landscape. Immense elemental pressures have played out here, and antagonistic forces remain locked in counterpoint, frozen within those misshapen bubbles of stone. There is a feeling of interrupted motion. At some point the rocks will surge upwards again. They will grind and thunder as they erupt: ripping out tree roots; showering boulders like rain; throwing nesting sea birds screaming into the air.

We leave the National Trust pathways wherever possible and slip onto the sheep paths that undulate through the gorse and ferns. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The tracks take you back and forth, criss-crossing through wind-stunted greenery, lulling you with smooth lines that rise and fall with the topography of the headlands. False trails peter out deep in the gorse, or lead you suddenly out onto limestone overhangs that could erode at any point. You wander how many sheep ambled along this path at night to suddenly find themselves on the edge of the precipice. Does some instinct pull them back? Or do those woolly coats sometimes catch a gust of wind, and then they are tumbling through black space, bleating wildly? You shiver and pull back from the edge.

I find that my thinking slows on these walks. I listen to my breath. I catch myself trudging up the escarpment muttering out simple rhyming word associations to myself, senseless poems to punctuate my footfall. Jurassic, bombastic, we lack it, eclectic (disrespecting), drastic, classic, smash it! Be enthusiastic!

We climb down to an empty beach where the surf beats onto the boulders. The low thunder sends us all gradually into a frenzy and we shout and run. We throw stones and jump off boulders and splash our way blindly through rock pools. We hold crab claw tokens and cowrie shells in our sweaty hands as we climb back up the rocky path again.

Sometimes you emerge over a hill top to find yourself unexpectedly on a vantage point where you can see the full line of cliffs undulating away into the distance like a folded ribbon of dirty grey. Perhaps there is a lighthouse in the distance, certainly there are birds wheeling in the sky. The sea is bottle green, flecked with sunlight and white horses. The wind whistles around, buffeting you back away from the edge.

Boulder, golder? (more gold?), hold her, quiet smoulder, cold shoulder, eye of the beholder.

Up on these massive granite slabs you can get hit by a sudden sense of your own smallness. A squall of futility blows up around you, borne on the sea wind. What are your puny ambitions and dreams lined up against the permanence, the gravitational mass, the sheer indifference of the rock? What flicker of time can you offer up against his eons? We pilot these towers of bone and muscle forwards over the headlands, spindle legs scissoring, furiously pumping blood down through branching tubes, breaking down matter deep in our guts. This pulsating mess of us all wrapped up in downy veined skin. We totter our towers onwards as though we will topple when we stop. We cover them around with bright materials and we shout out from the top: about our plans and schemes, and what we feel, and what we will do with life. As though it mattered.

Granite, tannic, magnetic, peripatetic! We say. Dead gannet, red planet, dormant, titanic.

As is the way of all small beasts, we disdain even smaller creatures, we care nothing for their worries. The world belongs to us alone. We are unaware that we are just mites creeping unnoticed along the shoulder of a sleeping giant.

But then I suppose he is unaware that in his way he too is small; that he lies on a larger rock which swings silently through space, circling an insignificant star that is hidden somewhere out on the far-flung spiral arm of a galaxy. One single galaxy among many.

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