L’anglaise et la mer

I grew up on an island. A reasonably sized island, a country, where we eat fish but don’t necessarily live by the coast. (Indeed, even when I was taken to the ‘seaside’ as a child, it was often the Blackpool-Southport area, where the tide goes out so far that you can’t even catch a glimpse from the prom. And trust me, you wouldn’t want to jump in there!) Of course, I have fond memories of beach holidays, of the one where we found a beautiful little bay with the disadvantage of hundreds of steps to get back up to the town, or a stunning, totally deserted, windswept, freezing cold and totally exposed bit of Irish coast where a cup of hot Vimto was a more appropriate post-swim treat than an ice cream. But the sea is the sea is the sea. It’s big and salty and cold and full of grime and hazards.

At least, that’s what I spent three landlocked months in Bolivia saying. For a country that had a coast and lost it in a disastrous war (and one that has considered buying or creating an offshore island and building a tunnel under the sea and neighbouring Chile to have access to it), the blue stuff seems pretty special. Documentaries have been made showing elderly people being taken to see the sea for the first time in their lives. A multi-million pound development project is being proposed for the nouveaux riches and wealthy expats in Santa Cruz (unless, that is, you believe the rumours that it’s just a money laundering scheme, but we won’t go into that here…). Excessively emotive posters are displayed around La Paz’ Plaza Avaroa showing a little girl running along a beach with a Bolivian flag streaming behind her: an impossible dream. The country may have an ongoing case in the International Court of Justice at The Hague, but anyone even slightly realistic knows that it isn’t getting a coastline any time soon.

I went to Chile, to a part of the northern coast that was lost by Peru in the same War of the Pacific. And the beach was dirty and covered in broken glass, the slog up to the top of the big hill revealed a lovely view of the industrial port and its lorries, and it took nearly 24 hours to get home. Overrated, I assured the Bolivians. You’re not missing anything.

And then I came to Anglet. The only place in Western Europe with more red flags than Oxford. Where gusting winds blow your laundry onto tourists’ heads and the lifeguards get more practice at keepy-uppies than swimming. Where clinging too tightly to your umbrella might get you swept away, Mary Poppins style, and you can easily get three pairs of shoes drenched in one day. Yes, this is the French Atlantic coast.

My landlady is the world’s biggest fan of Anglet, and should probably have a job working for its tourist board, (or, considering the amount of time she spends lauding its many wonderful qualities, perhaps already does). And while I may not always agree about its preeminent position as ‘the best place on the Atlantic coast/ in France/ north of Australia/ in our galaxy’ (delete as appropriate), one thing is for certain. Its beach is amazing.

It was, in fact, the first thing I discovered, when I dropped my bags off and went to explore. I followed the path north, as far as one lighthouse, and then I came back and went all the way south to the cliffs and the lighthouse at the other end. And there, all the way along, are the rolling waves and the clouds and the limitless horizon that stretches off into the distance of roughly-where-I-was-a-while-back. It is not, like Biarritz, all sheltered in little bays and coves and with rocky things that break up your view and add twee little touches to your photos. There are no little pools for small children to fish for seaweed in, there is no diving area, and there is definitely no dolphin. I’m not even sure if there’s an ice cream man, although, this being France, there are a million and one places to get a coffee and/or a glass of wine. The sand is rough and pebbly and simultaneously massages and rips the skin off your feet. The areas you can actually swim in are strictly limited, because nasty currents (or possibly angry raisins) threaten to whisk you far out to sea or dash you against some unforgiving rocks. And looking inland, the view consists of a golf course and a few new holiday apartment buildings. It’s not exactly picture postcard material.

And you know what? I don’t care. I leave the house, cross the road and am at the beach. I head down to the water, attempt to wade through the first wave, fall over and get a face full of salt, and that’s it, I’m giggling and splashing and like a small child again. I dig in my feet and wait for the footprints to fill with water. I forget to hold my nose as I dive through a rising wall of water, and surface spluttering. I bob on the waves, floating on my back with my eyes screwed shut against the spray, the sun making patterns on the backs of my eyelids. I twist and turn and duck and dive. It is a million miles from the lengths that I swum in the municipal swimming pool of Paris. And, as I float there, waiting for the holidaying families to head home for baths and team and leave me with the soothing almost-silence of the wind and waves, I realise that there is something innate in human nature that draws us to the water.

Human history is marked by the ocean. Any ‘discoveries’ that have been made, any great explorations of the past, the Drakes and Raleighs and Columbuses of our world, involved great sea voyages. We are drawn to stories of the sea, from Hemingway’s Old Man to the Titanic (in factual or Hollywood form), the Life of Pi or the Pirates of the Caribbean or Darwin and the Beagle. I cannot help but feel that what draws us to the shore and across the ocean, onto a boat and away from the port, is in fact all of the reasons that should keep us away.

The sea is not safe or comfortable or familiar. Standing on the shore, you can rarely see the other side, and almost never your destination, and thus, by definition, heading out into the sea is stepping into the unknown. Tales of navigating by stars, or of accidentally discovering a continent whilst looking to get to another, or simply of vanishing, become ever more enticing as we increasingly know everything about everything. We have little chance to get lost any more, but a look out of an aeroplane window on a transatlantic flight is enough to remind you of just how big the ocean is, and how easily it could and can swallow up a simple human life.

A town, however beautiful, will only ever exist on a human scale. We can control it, understand it, tame it even. But the sea, and those clouds and the wide, rolling expanses of open water and sky and a horizon that merges those many shades of blue, is vast and out of reach, and will ever be so.

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