Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Capturing time

Over the last twelve months we have gone from a major drought to the wettest summer on record. Newcastle upon Tyne, capital city of north east England and thirty miles south of Druridge Bay, has endured three separate spates of  flash flood. The wet summer has spun out the oil seed rape's fluorescent monopoly on the arable fields inland from the dunes for weeks longer than normal and now much of the winter wheat has been washed out. There is a sense of deeper change, shifting rhythms undercutting the familiar seasons. Hard to be sure, year to year. Druridge Bay bears witness to much more substantial change. Walk out onto the beach at Hauxley, head south along the dune front and you will soon see a dark, fibrous mat layer of peat. Beneath lies a blue-grey boulder clay, ground to a fine grained plastic. Above sit the modern dunes with occasional lines of shell and iron pans. Tree trunks and branches jut out from the peat, whilst occasional stumps and roots hook into the boulder clay below. The peat is the remains of wet woodland, the older layers dating back to 4500 years ago, the youngest to 2800, finally succumbing to the invading sand dunes. The peat is rich in pollen, varying through time but starting with wet woodland rich in Alder and Oak, then Birch. The trees succumbed to rising water tables as the land first became a mire then was over run by sand dunes driven before the encroaching seashore. The dune face is a compressed history, time squeezed like a rarefied gas until solidified in front of our eyes. The Hauxley peat beds are a highly unusual and significant site, telling of the North Sea’s expansion and how much the familiar can change. Not much consolation in the face of the floods, but a striking reminder of the difficulty we have capturing a sense of time and scale.

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