Sea Journal by Lisa Woollett
Published by Zart Books. 168 pp, paperback. Out now.
Review by Malcolm Anderson.
I’ve spent much of my life by the sea. I’ve surfed frigid Portstewart with April snows covering the sand and bathed in Indonesian seas so hot that my freckly Celtic skin blistered regardless of factor fifty sunscreen. I’ve spent days on a small fishing boat in a force six in Lyme Bay and walked miles along Cornish coast paths in the dark wearing waders chasing Sea Bass. I’m comfortable with the sea; confident in my knowledge of currents, waves, riptides, geology and why chips taste so much better from newspaper on rainy seafronts.
But then Lisa Woollett’s beautiful book Sea Journal landed on my doormat and almost as soon as I started reading I realised that my knowledge was very one sided. It seems I’ve spent almost all of my time, with the possible exception of rock pooling as a child, looking out to sea and away from the foreshore. Studying waves, looking for fish, daydreaming of escape.
In Sea Journal however Lisa takes us on a part factual, part personal exploration of the coast over a twelve month period, and her photographers gaze is drawn to the close-up every day detail of objects and creatures she finds throughout the littoral zone which exists between the High tide line and the watery shallows exposed at low tide.
“The shore changes as I get further from the beach. There are deeper pools and gullies now, and hollows shaded by wrack-draped overhangs. Most life out here is hiding, waiting out the vulnerability of low tide in all the nooks and crevices of this wonderful rock. I push aside curtains of weed, and half-seen things scuttle back into the darkness. A goby darts behind a stone, the red eyes of a velvet swimming crab withdraw beneath a ledge. Catching movement at the edge of my vision, I see a periwinkle lurch drunkenly to one side: a hermit crab folding itself inside its borrowed shell. Then all is still, as if the pool might hold nothing of interest.”
Lisa expertly weaves a mixture of gentle prose together with well researched fact, taking us with her on her journeys from the massive swells of a Cornish winter storm, via pebble-strewn Devon and Dorset shores, through to The Shetlands and The Isle of Sheppey.
With a subject as broad and diverse as a macro view of the British coastline it would be very easy for the book to be swamped by fact, but like the best of school teachers she slips the knowledge in subtly, almost without us readers realising that we are learning.
Lisa holds our hand as we walk with her along shorelines and the facts just keep on slipping in: Mary Anning, Fossils, Charles Darwin, Barnacles, Lego dragons, the sex life of Slipper Limpets & Angler Fish, mermaids purses and how the shape of grains of sand can give clues to their age and distance travelled.
A new world is exposed by her words, a world of detail and one bursting with life, all backed up in glorious colour by the beautiful photographs that pepper the entire book.
“I roll up my jeans and wade out into the shallows with my camera. Unlike further out, the waves here are gentle, running in over sun-warmed sand. Ankle-deep, the warmth of the water is delicious. Now and then, in a rush of new cold, a wave rises around my calves and then retreats, not mixing at once but leaving fingers of warmth in its wake.”
For me however it’s the glimpses of Lisa’s life hidden in the book that I most crave as I read. I want to know more about her son’s first day of secondary school – how did the bus journey go? These are the moments that make Sea Journal more of a personal diary and less academic textbook. It’s in these glimpses of the woman behind the keyboard that her obvious passion for the shore shines and shimmers through. It’s her unpretentious almost childlike curiosity and her obvious joy at being surrounded by the ever changing coastline which lifts the book into the category of being something really rather splendid.
Anyone who has ever stood transfixed by crepuscular rays picking out white horses dancing under a dark cloud out to sea, or peered into hidden corners of a rock pool cannot help but love this book. I’ve already told my friends and family to buy it.
If nothing else, impress your children with how worldy-wise you are next time you find a mermaid purse washed up on the shore, I know I will.