Before I’d ever set foot on Happisburgh beach I’d seen it from the air, a gentle curve of watery brown where the sea met the land. This was in 2004, when I was new to the area. I had taken to the skies in search of my father, who had died three years earlier from a heart attack. In the 1950s he had ploughed the Norfolk skies in cold war jets and I suppose I’d hoped that there would be some understanding to be gained, some clue to the unanswered questions that every life leaves behind, by chasing him up to the heavens. It was over Happisburgh that I experienced a moment of vertiginous terror. As I peered out of the side window of the high winged Cessna I recall becoming acutely aware of the great chasm between the little wheel on its strut, close enough it felt to lean out and touch, and the small sea-pressed settlement below.
The vantage point to which the name of Happisburgh refers cannot be appreciated from the air. What I discovered from flight, more than any understanding about my father, was how the land flattens out as you ascend, spreading out as a 1:1 scale map. In One Way Street Walter Benjamin argues that “the power of a country road is different when one is walking along it from when one is flying over it in an aeroplane” using this as an analogy for the differing experiences of copying out and reading a text. Likewise, any real survey and close reading of a place must be made on foot, and it wasn’t long before I found myself compelled to visit the village which had induced such a sickening vertigo.
It was written Happisburgh but pronounced Haysbro by locals. No happy. Only haze. The sea mists, the long horizons. Blurred. Sea seeping into sky. Land bleeding into sea. Chalets perched on the edge.
The etymology of the name comes from Hæp-ingas and burg, but all this requires some untangling. Hæp referred to a personal name, perhaps an important leader, and ingas is a word denoting the earliest Anglo-Saxon settlements. Burg is the old English for town or dwelling-place but has its roots in the Anglo-Saxon beorg, meaning a defence, which has deeper origins in the proto-German word burgz, meaning a fortified elevation. Almost impossible to distinguish from the air, the gradients in the topography, although not dramatic, become more apparent from the ground. From the beach car park the lighthouse is clearly visible, the fields reaching up to its gentle promontory, and in the other direction the church tower rises over the village, set at a minutely higher altitude than the houses.
The churchyard of St Mary’s was three hundred metres inland, though it was easy to forget the sea was at hand. The adjacent fields of ripe barley seemed to slope toward the sky. Victorian headstones, half overgrown with grass, stood at angles. The church tower above it, flinty, strong, was visible for miles. Here and there were mariner’s graves and memorials to wrecks. The sea view was blocked by a caravan park, edging onto oblivion.
A low grassy hummock in the church yard marked the site of a mass grave containing the bones of some of the four hundred seamen whose bodies washed up on the shores in the days and weeks following the sinking of HMS Invincible. It had hit a sandbank, Hammond’s Knoll, on the 16th of March 1801, and despite the crew’s desperate attempts to save the vessel, by cutting the masts and pumping out, it succumbed to the waves the following day. Whether it was as a result of encountering these monuments to many hundreds of drowned men, or some aspect of the churchyard itself, its isolated position which brought to mind the BBC’s 1970s adaptations of the ghost stories of M.R. James, I felt a giddiness and unease similar to that I’d experienced when flying over the same spot two years earlier, and retreated to my car.
In 2013 the work of the waves uncovered, in the silt layers on Happisburgh beach, the oldest known evidence of human habitation in Europe. The fossilised footprints were 900,000 years old, a date so far back in the story of humanity it is almost impossible to comprehend. When the news of this broke in 2014 and I read of how these marks would have been left in the mud of a river bed by homo antecessor, who lived a hunter gatherer existence on a vast flood plain long vanished beneath the North Sea, I wanted to go in search of these traces, go beachcombing for our antecedence.
Rusty iron jutted skyward, boulders were piled head high, rock-armour, positioned on the beach to break-up the full force of the waves, to scatter the impact on the crumbling cliffs. I roamed the narrow strip of beach between the defences and the cliffs, the sea somewhere to my right. I could hear the slop of its rise and fall. Low tide. The horizon was dimmed with mist, but between the structures I could glimpse the white stalks of the wind farms and the grey indistinct shape of a slow-moving cargo boat.
The sand was strewn with the remains of bungalows and gardens that had slipped into the sea. Lumps of concrete, gas pipes twisted into elaborate shapes, and shattered roof slates littered the beach. Old service pipes jutted from the soft sands and sticky clays of the cliff. A course of bricks worn smooth by the waves, sat half submerged in the sand. The tiles from a mantelpiece, still attached to the remains of the fire surround lay close by. Overgrown gardens and abandoned dwellings teetered above, a few winter storms away from destruction, and, perhaps most outlandish of all, the intact remains of a Second World War pillbox lay upturned on the beach.
In this apocalyptic landscape I was unable find the footprints. I was either not looking in the right place, or they’d already been lost to the sea, and only existed as a plaster cast memory, carefully preserved in the vaults of the British Museum. As I turned back, uncertain whether or not to press on in my search, I noticed that I was parallel to the church tower, and I was struck by the realisation that one day it too would slide into the sea, joining the lost church of nearby Eccles below the waves, and that the mass graves would release the bones of the mariners, to be drowned once more in the cold northern waters and submerged in the silts and sandbanks. It occurred to me that the source of my unease on that flight some ten years earlier was the vertigo of deep time, the giddiness induced by standing on the edge, gazing back into the wrecks and footprints of the past, knowing full well that one day I too would step off into the void.