Richard Jefferey’s Bevis learnt to sail a raft on a mysterious lake in Wiltshire; the Swallows and Amazons were taught to sail dinghies on glorious Lake Coniston, adventures which were the envy of a post-war generation of children; the real Eric Tabarley went to sea in his father’s yacht along the wild Breton coast. I boast of a reedy fen in Suffolk, across the road from Southwold pier .
In 1953, it was no more than an expanse of brown water, a mere wandering off into a reedy marsh, much of it drained since then, that spread inland at sea level along the north edge of Southwold town. The great East Coast floods, whose 60th anniversary was commemorated in 2013, had been six months earlier; the lake and the marsh had been inundated and were still draining. The water was brackish and the banks were of mud held together by seagrass and great fields of reeds. In the lake were several small islands, and on the lake, at a hire rate (I think it was) of 6 old pence (2.5p) an hour, were a dozen tiny flat-bottomed dinghies, 7 feet long.
Each had a bamboo pole for a mast, stuck through a hole in a thwart (a transverse bench), and a red canvas sail hung from another bamboo pole tied to the top of the mast. The sail was controlled by a piece of cord held in one hand and tied at the other end to the corner of the sail nearest the back of the boat – the clew of the sail, as it is properly called. There was a rudimentary tiller and rudder. On the shore, looking after the boats, was an elderly man with a weathered face, wearing a dark blue reefer jacket and a short-peaked cap. I have the impression, though I cannot remember why, that he was a retired fisherman; perhaps he was very kindly, perhaps he had too few customers to occupy him, perhaps both: he spent hours teaching me to sail.
It doesn’t matter how crude the boat and its rig are or how small the pond. There is nothing as important when starting to sail as learning a natural consciousness of where the wind is, what it is doing to the sail and how that interacts with the boat. The old fisherman stood on the bank, calling out advice on where the wind was coming from, and instructions to pull in the sail or let it out as the boat’s heading changed. Once I had a rudimentary grasp of the basics of tacking, reaching and running, he told me to sail continuous figures of eight round little islands in the lake; and figures of eight I did every day for the best part of a fortnight, in all sorts of winds, fluky and light or strong and vicious, till I knew where the wind was and where the sail should be. It was no simple matter to sail towards the wind in a flat bottomed boat without any form of keel or centreboard to stop it sliding sideways, tacking it along the narrow gaps between the islands and the shore. But I wangled enough sixpences to get it right.
I first went back to look at the little lake, I think it was in the early 1980s. Two dull squares of water had been carved out of the mere near the pier as rowing and model boat ponds a century ago, and were still there, just as they appear on Edwardian postcards, with a little wooden tearoom close by. The much bigger mere, including the little islands, had been left wild, and boats were not allowed on it any more.
By a shed was a pile of tiny flat-bottomed sailing dinghies, stacked upside down, one on top of the other, the wood dried out and the seams between the planks bursting; these were the remnants of the fleet from 30 years before. No doubt they made a good Guy Fawkes bonfire soon after.
After just as long a gap, I happened to be back there again for a walk along the shore, tempted by the thought of a fresh crab to be bought at the fish shop on the harbour wall, to be eaten while watching the boats go by. I was expecting this time to see very little left of the muddy mere: Southwold, once run down, is now a prosperous and expanding town, home of the successful Adnam’s brewery, and the most popular tourist destination on the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts. Had the marsh been drained and was the mere still there?
The pair of municipal ponds behind the pier, one with tiny pedalos for children, and the other a blank square of water, empty of model boats, were unchanged, with a muddy arm of the old mere extending between them. I could see, though, glimpses of water stretching into the distance, and great beds of pale reeds. It was April, before last year’s straw-brown stems had fallen and this year’s shoots had grown, and the reeds were still waving their crests of seed heads from the summer.
I followed a path on a low raised bank that led away from the holidaymakers’ car park and the shore, meandering round the reeds; there were tentalising glimpses of open water, which had shrunk dramatically, as the reeds expanded their territory. Most of the islands seemed to have succumbed to the embrace of the reedbeds, but two or three were still there, though smaller than I remember.
Back home, I cheated, just as we do on modern boats packed with electronics, by looking at a satellite picture from Google earth. It shows several islands that are no longer easily visible, so must have been snapped from space a few years ago: the reeds are still advancing over the water, creating more and more secret spaces for birds and animals. I prefer now to see it as a nature reserve than as a boating lake but, peering through the reeds, I began to see again a mysterious mere, surrounded by marshes and impenetrable reedbeds, pushing back the desolation of the great flood.
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