Swanage from a new angle

bits from the far end of the beach

We hadn’t meant to go so far, but on Wednesday morning early Helen and I walked northwards through Swanage and onto the shore path, past the beach huts, the sun shining brightly on the sea, slightly behind us to our right. It was, perhaps a slightly late, dog-walkers’ time, a little after seven-thirty, and, as we stepped further from the house, I knew that we wouldn’t be back in time for Morning Prayer, as we were drawn further and further to explore the full length of the beach, as far as it is possible to go, to the rocks below Ballard Down.

We had been told that there is a track at this point, near the white cairn, that finds its way through the scrub and trees up onto the coastal path. We knew of the alternative route - of the steps at the far end of the groynes, at the foot of Ballard Estate - and had been on them a number of times in both directions, but this far along the beach, still within forty minutes of the rectory front door, was somewhere we hadn’t been.

As the sand peters out, the stones turn from the mixed brown and grey colours of wet shingle, which appear here and there, and they become entirely the chalk-white of the cliffs, best known at Old Harry and The Pinnacles, before dropping down to Studland Bay. We duly added a stone to the cairn and searched for the way up the steep hillside, which joins the beach to the spectacular stretch of the South West Coastal Path high above us.

Eventually we found it, but, poorly shod as we were - having intended to have no more than a short town walk when we started out - the mud defeated us and we retraced our sandy steps back to the promenade and home. As we went by, the cafe owners were opening up; enticing menus hung on weathered doors; a list of ice-cream-flavours met a tub of plastic spades and coloured nets halfway, against a wall; strategically positioned boards placed at doggy height, reminding them to leave the sand here and there and stay on the concrete which skirts the huts and slope behind.

Swanage was properly on the go by the time we reached the town centre; St Mary’s Church clock, two minutes fast, chimed the hour of nine; I emptied my pockets of white stones, sea glass and their associated memories, lifted the lid of my laptop, and, with that modern gesture of work begun, found e mail, news and the forecast of sunshine to come; wind too and a percentage-by-the-hour reckoning of the chance of rain ahead.

If we could measure happiness by the yard and beauty by the mile - which we can’t - Swanage would score high on such a simple scale; instead, and more deeply, we breath its air and listen; the waves upon the shore, in all moods and in each variable chink of time - of light and wind; in sun and rain - and we hear a profounder story; of others who have stood and felt like us, and held in those moments what is immeasurable - and let it run through us, as we must, like sand trickling from fingers spread open in a gesture of receiving; knowing, as with the manna from heaven, we may experience, but not store-up, what is offered to us in love.

John Mann