Caught by the River


Malcolm Anderson | 30th April 2015


by Patrick Barkham
Granta, hardcover, 368 pages. Out now

Review by Malcolm Anderson

The boundary between land and sea for many of us is a place of attachment; we all have some connection, some memory, whether good or bad, to the thin strip of sand, shingle, mud and rock that stretches 3000 miles around England, Wales and Northern Ireland (sorry Scotland, in this instance your beautiful 6000 miles+ is not covered).

In Coastlines, Patrick Barkham takes us on a journey around the coast; not only in a nature writing, geology, fauna and flora kind of way but also by exploring the way our national psyche has been shaped and shaped by the coastline we know and love.

The book was conceived in part to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the National Trust’s Neptune campaign, which in the spring of 1965 began raising funds to purchase and protect in perpetuity the coastline of England, Wales and Northern Ireland from inappropriate development. What started out as a temporary fundraising campaign turned out to be so successful that it has now resulted in 742 miles of coastline being in the care of the National Trust and the places visited through the book are all linked in some way to the story of the National Trust and the story of Neptune.

What could have ended up as a dry pat on the back for the National Trust has, I’m pleased to say, managed to end up as a complete page-turner and through a series of themed chapters that include passion, war, work and art Patrick effortlessly educates and entertains as he visits places as diverse as Durham, Blakeney Point, Plas Newydd, Brownsea Island, Strangford Lough and Penwith. Each story tumbles through natural and human history in well researched, beautifully written prose that conveys Patrick’s obvious personal love of our coastline with a lyrical style and a wry sense of humour. Throughout the 346 pages there’s a real sense of the pleasure Patrick takes in writing the book and in meeting the people that live and work alongside the fragile border between land and sea. From conversations with Norrie Dougan about Elvis to the moment where Grant Lohoar on Orford Ness warns Patrick not to stray from the marked paths due to unexploded ordnance and the dangers of exposed tidal mud, ‘We don’t care what happens to you. It’s about not causing irreparable damage to this valuable coastal habitat’.

In some ways I was expecting to feel Patrick’s personal connection through his writing, having read one of his previous books Badgerlands I knew that the man could write, but what I wasn’t expecting was for the book to trigger such a personal response in me as I read. For the book reminded me, time and again, of things I know and places I love yet at the same time challenged that knowledge and made me re-evaluate my personal connection with the coast.

Knowing the undercliff between Lyme Regis and Axmouth as well as I do Patrick’s descriptive journey from Lyme towards Rousdon had me right there with him, immersed in the ‘Botanical weirdness of Brazilian proportions’. Patrick’s skill as a narrator, neatly describing the links between the undercliff and the story of John Fowles and his most famous creation, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, had me for the first time really understanding a side to the dense foliage choked landslip zone beyond the rope swings and fossil laden beaches of my youth. The last few lines of that particular section made me pause for a good five minutes before I could move on ‘We try to mend broken things but the glory of the undercliff was that it couldn’t be fixed and that this permanently unfixed state was what gave it life. Wild things are much tougher than us. Most of the time, the things we break are what we make, hold or possess: hearts, for example.’

In essence I suppose I could sum up with saying that the book has earned its place in the short list of books that I enthuse about to strangers in late night bars, it’s that good. An absolute pleasure to read; from start to finish.

Coastlines can be bought from the Caught by the River shop at the special price of £15.00

Patrick will be among the guests appearing on the Caught by the River stage at Port Eliot Festival in July. He can also be found, alongside Mathew Clayton and Anthony Atkinson, at Rough Trade East on Thursday 11 June. The theme for that evening will be coastlines and islands.