The Road Not Taken

The millions of pairs of feet that in normal times would already be striding out for Rome or Mecca, Benares or Mashhad are stilled today while so many patient pilgrims are waiting for the tide to turn on the pandemic. But the imagination is a fine thing and this morning I ventured virtually along the coast of Norfolk and Lincolnshire with Amanda, who had planned to walk the Camino this spring, with the goal of arriving in Santiago de Compostela for Easter. In early March, seeing the coronavirus storm clouds gathering, at the very last moment she and her husband decided against travel to Spain, choosing instead to walk from home in Suffolk, to Durham. 

When we set out, Amanda and I had only just met (via our newly vibrant on-line neighbourhood networks) but over the course of 90 minutes of sharing a landscape of fens and tidal sands, seal sanctuaries and caravan parks, like any two walkers who fall into step together, we soon relaxed into each other’s company. It was exciting to see this stretch of coast through Amanda’s eyes, and in particular, the tiny holiday chalets of Humberston Fitties, near Cleethorpes, which she kindly pointed out.

The local tourist information page tells that ‘fitties is a local word meaning ‘salt marsh’ and that after WWI, families were drawn here in the summer by the fresh air, so essential to health at a time when most power and heat was generated from coal and toxic smog sent thousands to an early grave.

Soon more and more holiday makers arrived at this little haven, setting up their summer homes in caravans, buses and old railway carriages. As the area developed holiday chalets were built on wheels and stilts because the area was prone to flooding. In 1938 the land ownership was passed to the local authority which preserved it from commercial development.

Like her planned pilgrimage to Spain, Amanda’s pilgrimage to Durham had to be abandoned after ten days or so of walking as the true scale of the COVID pandemic became apparent. But there is something very special about taking a diversion from a planned route and, as in this case, seeing at first hand unique places such as Humberston Fitties. But wandering off the beaten track can also bring you face to face with less quaint seaside scenes, such as the bleak emptiness that marks many coastal towns out of season. Places like Cleethorpes and Mablethorpe, Cromer or Skegness that are closed in winter come to life when spring arrives and visitors flock for the ‘bracing’ sea air that passes for warm weather on these islands. But what if those visitors cannot come, as is the case now? 

On our virtual journey today, I was reminded of Norman Lewis’s book Voices of the Old Sea in which he describes life in a fishing community on Spain’s Costa Brava that was wholly dependent on the seasonal sardine catches. Written before the advent of package tourism to Spain, Lewis tells of a single failed season, when the sardine shoals changed their course and never arrived, with the consequence that the community was plunged into desperate poverty. We cannot allow that to happen here, in the 21st century. We need a national campaign to support our coastal communities in the aftermath of this crisis – one that will drive slow, low-carbon, visitors along the ‘road less travelled’ and, as Robert Frost reminds us, that will make ‘all the difference’.

Suffolk coast – image V.Preston
Cromer Pier – image V.Preston

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