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, one of our two Books of the Month for October, Andrew Ray explores the Seven Sisters to consider the meaning of this extraordinary landscape.
The word Albion may derive from the word for white, in which case it could have been given to the country by sailors, sighting these cliffs from the sea. Bill Brandt described in a letter the magical appearance of the Seven Sisters from the cross-Channel ferry. ‘About an hour before Newhaven the Seven Sisters appear like a Fata Morgana on the horizon, brilliantly white in the afternoon sun – the sun always shines. England then looks like a small fairy island. It is an unforgettable experience and again and again a surprise for me.’
When the conditions are right for a Fata Morgana, the brilliant sea glitter at the horizon is projected into the sky to create cliffs of pure light. They resemble walls of ice, frozen at the limits of vision. Nineteenth century arctic explorers were misled into thinking they were distant landmasses. Sailing towards them, they found the cliffs never got any closer but remained always ahead of them, out of reach.
‘The Imaginary Iceberg’ is the subject of an early poem by Elizabeth Bishop. She pictures it as a ‘cloudy rock’ on a sea of moving marble. A year later, in 1936, the poet and clergyman Andrew Young used a similar metaphor in a poem about these Sussex cliffs. They were so white they seemed like ‘frozen air’. He looked up at them from the beach, where there was little to shade him from their ‘blazing height’. Like the Fata Morgana they can seem to be both ice and light. If Bill Brandt saw these cliffs in the distance as the walls of a fairy island, Andrew Young, standing up close, felt himself blinded by them, like ‘a soul strayed in paradise.’
Frozen Air is on sale here in the Caught by the River shop, priced £10.
Read Ken Worpole’s review of the book here.