4.5 out of 5 stars
The Atlantic Ocean has shaped us as an island nation as much as the North Sea did. As the petrel flies there are 800 miles between the tip of Cornwall to the very northern point of Shetland, Out Stack. This coast though is not straight by any means, as that short distance of our planet is a complex blend of beaches, cliffs, inlets, coves caves, headlands and makeup around 10,000 miles of staggeringly beautiful coastline.
The communities that face this mighty ocean rely on it for income and livelihoods and have grown used to its changing moods from balmy summer days to the fiercest winter storms that pummel the coast. The best way to explore these places is on the water and that is exactly what the historian and nature writer David Gange sets out to do over the course of a year. He wasn’t there to just to paddle it over the shortest routes, rather he wanted to experience the coastlines, feel the swell of the Atlantic, explore the towns and villages along the shore and soak up some of the histories along the way.
Being that close to the sea all day paddling slowly past and sleeping wild on the shore means that Gange develops an intimacy with these places that he passes, so much so that he starts to become one with nature. He sees countless seabirds, giant basking sharks, countless seals and watches otters from his kayak many times. As well as the swell that comes of this ocean, he occasionally feels the full power of the Atlantic storms as they hit the coastline. Where this really works for me as a book though is the in-depth knowledge of the history of places that he writes about as he passes them.
His journey begins in Shetland just as spring turns to summer. He sits watching the sun gleam off the back of fulmars as it barely dips below the horizon. Three hours later he is awake and being watched by a skua. He first journey is across the water to Out Stack with the North Sea on his right, turning left he is going to be at the mercy of the Atlantic now. It is not a constant journey, rather fitted in via work and other commitments, so his next journey is past the Islands of Orkney in late summer. It is here too that he starts to see the power of the ocean, taking photographs of waves that would warm a surfers heart.
Later September finds him in the Western Isles as he paddles down from the Butt of Lewis to Barra Head, stopping in at Taobh Tuath to get a feel for the history of Lewis. The journey from Balnakiel to Ullapool take him past the magnificently named Cape Wrath and onto the mainland of Scotland for the first time. December’s forecast had promised storms, so the journey headed inland for the first time, heading from mountain to Bothy whilst savouring the wildness of the landscape. The New Year finds him paddling around the beautiful Isle of Skye. This was much more geared to the tourist than he had so far been used to, and the weather was beginning to worsen. It wasn’t until Gange got to Argyll and Ulster that it fully turned and he was hit with snow.
It takes two separate journeys to paddle the West Coast of Ireland and it is here that he considers just how much we rely of the sea to provide for us as a species and just how little with know about the secrets of the deep. The next journey is technically in the Irish Sea, but going from Bardsey to the Bristol Channel is still facing the Atlantic, before returning to the ocean for the last stretch along the Cornish coast.
I really enjoyed this book about our Western seaboard. Gange’s writing doesn’t feel that you are jumping from one subject to another, rather he has has a way of neatly wrapping the layers of history, natural history and travel up in his prose. It also shows that history and life do happen outside the south-east and London and always has done. It doesn’t feel rushed either, the important thing about this book is the places he passes on his journey. Time spent Life at the pace of a kayak means he can absorb the seascape and mull things over as he bobs about. This book has the best maps I have ever seen in a travel book. Why can’t every travel book have them this well produced? Glad to see some photos in the book, but there are a lot more of his journey here.