The vastness and apparent emptiness of Morecambe Bay is overpowering. It has 310 sq km of intertidal sandflats and mudflats – the most extensive in the UK. There is a large tidal range; on one day in March 2016 the tide rose from 0.27m at 6.30 am to 10.10m by midday. Local lore warns that the tide comes in ‘faster than a horse can gallop’. An ebbing tide can fall back 12km, revealing seemingly endless expanses of sands, meandering channels and tidal pools.
The Cumbria Coastal Way is a well-used long distance footpath around the edge of the bay. On the eastern shore of the Furness Peninsula is Sea Wood which is designated ‘Ancient Semi Natural Woodland, Planted’ and is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). It belongs to the Woodland Trust and is a rare example of mixed broadleaved woodland thriving on boulder clay overlying limestone. It is a regionally important geological and geomorphological site covering 23 hectares. Sessile Oak, Ash, Sycamore, birch and Wild Cherry shelter ferns, lichen and fungus and in season, carpets of Bluebells, Wild Garlic and Wood Sorrel. Huge mossy limestone boulders are a constant and comforting presence inside the wood.
I moved here about 40 years ago so that makes me still an incomer – or an ‘offcomer’ as we are all referred to – since historically everyone would cross the bay on foot or on horseback, arriving here off the sands. A lovely example of sense of place where language and locality are intertwined. During my first coastal walks, I found it astonishing to encounter oak leaves and fresh acorns alongside seaweed at the high tide mark on the beach. An unexpected juxtaposition.
South of Sea Wood, between the villages of Bardsea and Baycliff, the limestone pavement is not evident. Instead, soft friable cliffs are fringed with Hawthorn, Hazel, Alder, Holly, Elder, Blackthorn and impenetrable Bramble thickets, which offer safety to Rabbits. Arable fields above slope steeply and drain in increasing torrents to the beach below. Could this be current farming practice or simply the pattern of more frequent heavy rainstorms? Long fingers of fresh water stretch out constantly into the bay all year round and freeze in winter. Incessant rains during autumn 2004 brought coastal erosion to these unstable cliffs and started a train of events.
Here’s a story…
A Hawthorn tree slips ten metres down to the beach, roots and all and lands elegantly and still vertical. It continues to flourish and becomes the centre of a rumour trace and controversy for the next ten years. With a trunk no more than 15 cm diameter and a height of about 3 metres it would need an expert to judge the age of this tree that had been growing in salt air and sea winds. Yet its survival needs to be marked and celebrated. Nothing less than a Tree Dressing will do.
Plenty of flotsam and jetsam to hand, so I initiate the first few small installations, picking up scraps of marine litter, mainly monofilament fishing net discarded at sea, and push handfuls into the Hawthorn which are held secure against the coastal winds by its thorny twigs. Their clumps of sky blue, yellow and green are harmonious and eye catching. Torn cockle bags, originally red and orange, now faded to pink and apricot, add to the palette. In this task I feel I am drawing attention to the fact that the sea is full of plastic rubbish. All around the oceans animals, fish and birds are becoming entangled in debris, suffering death from injury, choking, toxicity and starvation. Here on the Cumbria Coastal Way I wait for responses. Public art by stealth.
Walkers on the coastal footpath pass everyday. During the next few weeks word gets out about the intriguing Rag Tree as it has become known, and they search for it along the shingle and cobble shore. Others discover it by chance. Many walk straight past without noticing, busy chattering to their companion, or on their smartphone, or jogging past on a blinkered mission to get fit.
Responses fall into four categories: some walk off in a huff, objecting to the nasty plastic, many take photographs and others pause, take a closer look and clearly understand the implicit invitation. They look around for something to contribute, snatch a few bits and hastily add them. Finally there are those whose imagination has been captured. They settle in to search the beach and spend time creating textured assemblages of their found objects – a spent bullet case, a fluorescent cigarette lighter, the left boot of a Barbie Doll … which they would delicately connect and balance in ingenious ways.
In 2006 a second Hawthorn tree slips down the bank and lands alongside the first, so naturally it receives the same treatment. The daily delivery of marine garbage continues with each tide. Over the next few years the rag tree becomes a feral artwork in its own right, which I discreetly curate, reluctant to promote anything with a glaring logo or brand name.
The prevalence of scraps of baler twine or frayed polypropylene rope means that objects can be attached and dangle from the branches. One lonely walking boot with a sturdy sole hangs from its bootlace whilst its uppers turns green with mould, an iron door hinge swings in the breeze and a plastic paintbrush handle minus its bristles stands to attention. The activity of looping strings around the branch of a tree and standing back to see the effect feels pleasurable and purposeful. The rusted innards of a ringbinder office file, whose cardboard cover has long since dissolved in the sea, takes on the suggestion of a sinister trap – maybe a device for torturing small mammals? Silver and violet party balloons appear, forlorn and wrinkled. Then a turquoise plastic comb and broad black loops of rubber, cut by fishermen from car tyre inner tubes for some strategic purpose, many knotted into figures of eight.
Has this become a place of pilgrimage or an aberration? Some regular holidaymakers to the area tell us that they could never complete their annual stay without a visit to the Rag Tree – particularly the teenagers. What is this about? Memory? Superstition? Touching base with something outside of oneself – maybe like throwing a coin in a fountain or a wishing well? Despite the burden of all these gifts, the trees continue to flourish, to produce delicious young leaves in spring, foaming blossom in summer, then berries in autumn. The Rag Trees have become something beyond the rubbish. Transformation at work.
Inshore Rescue Officers, making their annual survey along the peninsula to check that access routes to the shore remain open, drive past on their quad bikes. They stop at the Rag Tree, remove every item and stack it in a neat pile below. Needless to say it is re-instated at first light next day.
Lost at Sea
A couple of winters on and the first Hawthorn falls backwards in a landslip and by summer it is overtaken by a bramble thicket and vanishes from sight. Storm surges at the end of 2014 are intense. Strong waves come up the beach pushed by a SW gale, higher than has been seen in years. Considerable damage is caused along the peninsula; the coast road is breached in a couple of places. An iconic timber cabin that stood for over 50 years three miles to the south, is smashed to pieces and its shattered planks, door and broken window frames end up in the field across the road. I am not there to see it but I witness it on Facebook when dramatic wobbly footage, taken on some reckless person’s phone, is immediately posted for all to see. High up over the bedrock the Beach House on stilts stands undamaged.
When everything is calm, I realize that the second Hawthorn is gone – washed away in the storm. I put out photographs and messages on social media to colleagues across the bay, asking them to look out for it and to treat it kindly. I am amazed to register the number of people from all over the country, many city based, who hone in on this tiny event. Notwithstanding, there are no sightings. There is no rescue.
Somewhere out in the vastness of the Bay, the Rag Tree is lost.
Sea Wood originally belonged to Lady Jane Grey who was Queen of England for 9 days, then charged with high treason, imprisoned in the Tower of London and beheaded in 1554. It was planted to produce ‘Navy Oaks’. After a hundred years, they were to be felled at high tide and floated up the Bay to provide timber for ship building.