On Chesil Beach

Raymond Friel

I must begin with these stones as the world began.
Hugh MacDiarmid

From the car park, the duckboard angles up
like a runway to the overcast distance –
but soon you’re back on solid earth,
or rather shingle which yields and crunches underfoot.
Behind you, the canter of the downs
has come to an abrupt and nervous halt –
as if it knows its own limitations.
The rolling landscape of copse and village
gives way to the elemental –
monotonous sea and muggy, misted sky.
In between, this shelf of shingle, miles long tombolo –
hinge between us and the implacable forces.
At this point, it is humped and dips steeply into the sea –
innumerable cretaceous pebbles, flint and chert,
quartz and chalcedony worn by waves to rounded handfuls,
small in the palm, ideal for the chuck and catch of five stones;
rarer still porphyry and magnetite, lodestone, not known here
but spilled perhaps from the luckless hull of Dorothea,
beached broadside in 1914.
The camber of shingle is almost sand-coloured, taupe;
the sea harder to pin down – dull as ditchwater
until sunlight opens up a slick of silvery blue.
The waves don’t get much of a run at the shore –
folding, hushed, at the last moment,
but still they make inroads and still reluctantly
withdraw, drawing a painful sigh from the stones in the dragback.
Some life has – taken hold in this shifting ground –
sea campion and sand couch, sea pea and bindweed.
The rest is migrant, like the Canada geese which winter over,
or ourselves, so unsuited to this ground of slip and pull,
here for a few hours to gather into a thought,
if we will, the impressions of the day, or what is exposed
by this sudden distance from the parochial.
Behind us, high on its slope and solitary, the church of St Catherine’s,
like the last thought of God to cling to the land.
Here all is forgiven, or forgotten: the dragon’s teeth
bared to meet the invader, the tilted pill-box,
the white sails in line across the horizon,
the monster, half fish, half giant, the annals record
off this shore for centuries. The shore-anglers cast
and pull in their lines, landing bass and mackerel.
Heads thrown back in are washed ashore, gleaming.
Gulls swoop and grab and veer off with their catch.
We are made creatures on this bank of time,
longing to hear the voice of the creator –
I have counted every hair on your head.