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.
I have said that white buildings can denote power, but they also have more uplifting associations. When I think of sleek white modern designs I picture them against an azure sea or a cloudless sky: catamarans and cruise liners, Concorde and Cape Canaveral. In Sussex, white is the colour of the Art Deco terminal building at Shoreham airport, opened in 1936, and the low white curve of Saltdean Lido, built further along the coast in 1937-38. Entering these we leave behind the heavy confusion of daily life and experience clean, light spaces that connect us to the elements of air and water. The cliffs have this quality too.
Sometimes when I am in the city an unexpected glimpse of clouds drifting behind a sunlit wall can recall the sensation of looking up at the cliffs. The eye is led into the sky and for a fleeting moment the white concrete side of an office block or a municipal library building provides the feeling of transcendence experienced before the Seven Sisters, bright with the light of the sea.
In recent years I have been visiting another modernist building in Sussex, the De La Warr Pavilion, which lies like a low cliff above the beach at Bexhill. Its interior walls are painted white, in keeping with its latest role as an art gallery. Such rooms are like the white backgrounds photographers use to make their subjects stand out, which have the poetic name ‘infinity coves’. It is a paradoxical term, suggesting enclosure in endless space, or an inlet where the cliffs reflect each other like mirrors. At its simplest, the infinity cove is a white wall and floor, with no visible join. There is a similar effect here at the Seven Sisters when high tide reaches the foot of the cliffs and the sea reflects their surfaces, so that a swimmer beneath them is bathed in white light.
Frozen Air is on sale here in the Caught by the River shop, priced £10.
Read Ken Worpole’s review of the book here.