At the edge of England the land ends suddenly in high chalk cliffs. From the beach at Cuckmere Haven, they stand like frozen air, silent above the waves that are gradually undermining them. Here the landscape seems timeless, reduced to its basic elements: rock, water, air and sunlight. But the cliffs have a remarkable history and an uncertain future. They continue to inspire painters and composers, photographers and filmmakers, poets and nature writers. In his book Frozen Air, a sequence of short linked texts and photographs, Andrew Ray explores the Seven Sisters to consider the meaning of this extraordinary landscape.
Haven Brow dominates the view when you stand on the beach at Cuckmere Haven. It takes longer than you would think to reach it as your pace is slowed by the grey drifts of stones. Approaching this huge weight of rock, a natural sense of physical insignificance is heightened by the intimidating blankness of its dead white surface.
Centres of power are usually concealed behind such high white walls. Surely many of them have been consciously or unconsciously designed to resemble cliff-like structures. In their different ways, buildings like St. Peter’s Basilica, the White House and the Bank of England are all descendants of the Acropolis, a citadel built on a cliff. ‘Acron’ means ‘edge’ and so the Acropolis was the city on the edge.
In London I often walk past the blank walls of the Ministry of Defence, which tower silently above you, their small grey windows arranged in lines like flint strata. Seagulls scavenge in their shadows and pigeons alight on the building’s green roofs – rock doves that found a new home in the city.
An arbitrary power resides in cliffs. We know that rock will fall, but we do not know when. We still stand under them though, reasoning that the chances of injury are slight. Immanuel Kant saw overhanging and threatening rocks as an example of sublimity, all the more attractive for being fearful. A cliff challenges us but, through reason, Kant thought, we can establish our ‘pre-eminence over nature even in its immeasurability’. We see things differently now, suspicious of aesthetic pleasure that may arise from a subconscious desire to subjugate nature. Reason, we hope, will devise ways to limit our own power over the increasingly vulnerable landscape.
Frozen Air is available here in the Caught by the River shop, priced £10.