You reach Fairlight cove by walking round the cliffs from Pett Level. The village itself is on the top of the cliff and there’s no sea access. The beach stones are packed loosely and shift beneath your feet, so you feel you are never on solid ground and your legs have to work twice as hard. The cliffs tower above you and it’s wise to stay away from the base of them. The chunks of fallen rock that already lie there are huge, like sandstone obelisks. Embedded in the shore, like islands in the shingle, are big flat tabletops of rock. They shine wetly, beautiful patterns that display the layers of sediment in all their intricate detail. Jumping from one to another makes for quicker progress than sliding over the ever shifting shingle.
The further we go away from the long walkway at Pett Level, the quieter it gets. Few people, it seems, are prepared to sink and slide to make just a few paces for so much effort. Soon, the beach curves round to hide the beginning of our walk and the shore dips inwards into a cove. Fairlight cove.
A whole regiment of black rocks banana along the beach, closing in the sea where it meets the shore, protecting the land from the monster power of the sea. The tide is starting to go out and we can get round the barricade at one end by walking along just above water level. Up on the cliffs houses perch in the distance, looking emptily out and down at us, so tiny on the shore below. The beach is rocky, the sea is rocky. Huge slabs of black shining stone just out like fingers into the sea and erupt from the white water that crashes around them.
There is no one else around. I’m too keen and I try to enter at the closest point. The rocks are huge and hidden beneath milky water, the depth plummeting then rising back up to my ankles as I step up onto them and down the other side. It’s slow progress, and frustrating as the water is getting into my bones before I’ve had the chance to fully immerse myself. I trudge on, feeling forward gingerly, making sure of the placement of each step before transferring my feet.
Finally, I am out deep enough to swim, though I still keep my hands out, questing ahead of me as I kick. The welcome cold rises to fill my chest. The sun is low in the sky above the village on the cliff and it leaves a pale blue and yellow trail along the water. I swim toward the sinking ball of light and enjoy the mellow shading it flicks across the water.
I have to stay aware of the rocks, and I’m grateful for the protection of my wetsuit, but it’s freeing to be back in the ocean. The air is nothing like as cold as it has been and the water feels almost friendly. As the tide sucks back and forward the water fizzles and pops, the sound amplified by the silence everywhere else. The sound of carbonation fills the air, only interrupted by the solitary call of a gull. I swim along to the middle of the bay. Looking back to shore, I can see it is sandy here, flat. Less of a desperate entry point. Next time I will know.
It is so utterly deserted it feels foreign, like a twin landscape on the moon. The scenery is rugged and strong, full of power and secrets. Birds overhead are the only company, wheeling and diving on the wind. I sit on a shallow plateau of stone and let the waves rock me, so tiny, in their fizzing white bubbles.
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