The ideal beach is often assumed to be somewhere hot, with inoffensive azure waters lapping on sandy shores. That sounds nice, but the beaches I hanker after are British. I want them wild and windswept, with crashing waves, fossils and rock pools lively enough to hold the attention of David Attenborough.
The preference comes from childhood summer holidays spent on the north Norfolk coast, dodging jellyfish and shivering at picnics. Looking back, I seem to have spent hours in the sea, perhaps because – after the shock of entry – it was warmer to be there than on the beach. Getting out meant exposure to a biting easterly wind and a painful sand-lashing. I preferred to loll in the water, watching my family from the sea and thinking how it was strange that they kept moving to the left while I was holding my position steady. I would pretend to be a mermaid visiting from an underwater kingdom where my sea god husband was furiously demanding my return. Hans Christian Andersen, for all his sadism, had clearly made an impression.
L P Hartley’s 1944 novel The Shrimp and the Anemone powerfully evokes for me that stretch of the Norfolk coast and the lost world of childhood. I first came across Hartley at around fourteen, that age when you realise with relief that it’s possible to choose your own books and not just those recommended by teachers or parents. F Scott Fitzgerald, Lynne Reid Banks and Carson McCullers were all teenage discoveries. The Go-Between (1953), also set in Norfolk, is Hartley’s masterpiece, but for me The Shrimp and the Anemone offers faster transportation back to that time in childhood he memorably identified as ‘a foreign country’.
The novel – the first in a trilogy – opens with a scene in which Eustace, nine, and his older sister, Hilda, watch an anemone devouring a shrimp in a rock pool. Their attempt to save the half-eaten shrimp results in the disembowelment of the anemone, so both creatures die. It’s a metaphor for the relationship between the domineering Hilda and poor Eustace, who is not only a bewildered child but also an absurdly anxious one, perpetually worried about causing offence or inconvenience. His diffidence can seem annoying, and not only to the reader – even his nanny warns him against too much ‘conscience-scraping’. While Leo in The Go-Between is an innocent ripe for sexual enlightenment, any such information might be the end of fragile Eustace.
Yet Hartley makes the interior world of this nine-year-old, with its fears and fantasies, its wild surmises, completely believable to an adult reader. The reasons for them are unobtrusively revealed: Eustace’s weak heart has prompted his family’s overprotectiveness, and his mother recently died while giving birth to a younger sibling. We see how early events shape character, how fear embeds itself and how suffocating families can be, despite their best intentions. Eustace’s dependency on Hilda is understandable, but it may be dangerous and could actually be his undoing (readers who continue with the trilogy will see this portent played out).
Hartley is a master of character, but never at the expense of plot or pace, and it is rare to find a novelist so skilled at all three. I particularly admire how his careful observations build up tension. The Shrimp and the Anemone was in fact only his second novel, but almost twenty years had elapsed since the first, and by then Hartley was forty-nine. What had looked set to be an unpromising career took off at that point, with many more novels and stories to come.
The setting for The Shrimp and the Anemone is Hunstanton, called Anchorstone in the novel. Our patch of Norfolk was further to the east and in my childhood it still felt remote and old-fashioned. The beaches were often empty and most of the houses belonged to people who lived there. I remember visiting a fisherman whose garage floor was a mass of scuttling crabs. Later that coast became a place to walk with my father, a Norfolk man whose family had lived in the region for six hundred years.
You might be forgiven for finding the north Norfolk coast featureless. Pirate boats didn’t founder there; Romans, Saxons and Vikings found it pretty easy to invade. Compared to the dramatic cliffs and dark blue water of Dorset or Devon, the pale sand and skies of Norfolk, the dunes covered in marram grass, seem to have had all the colour wrung out of them. I was once gullible enough to believe a friend who said the Norfolk sky had been scientifically proven to be bigger than skies elsewhere.
There’s more colour at Holkham, where a forest grows close to the sea, providing a sensory experience that mixes sweet-smelling pine with salt and seaweed. My father and I used to walk from there across the salt marshes to Burnham Overy Staithe, spotting oyster catchers and seals on our way. If we stopped to pick samphire – and even if we didn’t – my father liked to quote from King Lear.
Come on, sir; here’s the place: stand still. How fearful
And dizzy ’tis, to cast one’s eyes so low!
The crows and choughs that wing the midway air
Show scarce so gross as beetles: half way down
Hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade!
A dreadful trade, but delicious to eat and a quintessential Norfolk delicacy. ‘Samphire’, incidentally, is a corruption of ‘Saint Pierre’, St Peter being the patron saint of fishermen.
Not many teenagers relish the prospect of a long family walk and I probably more often accompanied my father out of duty than pleasure. But walking begets a love of nature and our parents’ proclivities often stick, however strenuous our rebellions. Nowadays a long coastal walk, one that hurts your ears and makes your eyes water, sounds to me like the perfect way to spend a day. In north Norfolk, it is also a way to revisit that time in childhood when the world still seemed mysterious and adulthood a daunting prospect.