Origin story: coastline

Every so often, it happens: someone assumes I’m Australian. Since moving from England to Ontario about 15 years ago, it must have happened dozens of times. I don’t mind, although I’m not Australian. I’m not from New Zealand either, which surprises people who want a second guess.

This only really seems to happen in Canada. It’s usually not a big deal, although a VIA train concierge once didn’t seem quite ready to accept my denial:

Concierge: “Are you Australian?”
Me (not Australian): “No.”
Concierge (suspicious): “…but your accent!”
Me (still not from Down Under): “I’m pretty sure I’d know if I was Australian.”

A distinct whiff of disappointment. A moment later, the drinks trolley was gone.

Adam Barnett | Dread Pirate Robots

Where am I from, anyway? Growing up, we moved around too much for me to jab a pin down on the map and say: “this right here is the source of me”, so instead I bring a few places with me, always. The Cotswolds, the Rhein valley, North Norfolk, and others.

My Dad grew up in and around Wells-next-the-Sea. Although it doesn’t claim me, this unique strip of English coastline has been part of who I am since before I can remember.


My grandparents took me on the little steam train from the quay out to the pinewoods. Bucket and spade. A blanket over our knees and grins on our faces.

Digging in the sand, building towns and towers and bridges and lakes. A moat, every time. Seashell battlements; winding channels delayed by frantic repairs to a dam; glorious sandy chateaux. In a few hours, the tide will overtake it, but for now it’s a world.

A 99 flake. Mini golf, and a little train ride back to town. Fish and chips. Croquet and asparagus. Fairy cakes and Countdown. Dinner table stories, old comic books, and deep salt air sleep. Summer holidays thirty-five years over my shoulder.


The Wells Harbour Railway is gone now, although not before my own children got to enjoy it in its final seasons. Perhaps one day we’ll track it down in its new home in Cornwall.

Here, now, one foot in front of the other, by myself. Olanna and the kids are at the playground. I’ve asked for an hour to walk alone, with no agenda other than to be here.

I stride away along the East Quay, past the chandlery, the old pub buildings, various slipways and staircases, and the sailing club.

On further, past neatly stacked crab cages and fading signs painted before I was born, beyond the harbour commissioner’s shed and the shipyard, and out onto the coast path.

A venerable floating dock breaking apart year by year, with every strange surface uniquely crooked.

Common sea lavender holds aloft creamy clusters of whelk egg cases. Prickly gorse provides a home for anxious birds.

I continue east towards Stiffkey, nodding to the occasional dogwalker, otherwise luxuriating in solitude.

When I know it’s almost time to turn around, I shimmy down the sea defences to the gorse and mudflats. The tide is coming in, but I can afford to stay for a few minutes more.

My world is small again. Seashell fragments. Sea wormwood. Marsh mallow. Lax-flowered sea lavender.

A wooden post sunk deep into the marsh mud as a foundation for a a weather-beaten bunch of flowers, placed here with purpose and love by someone left behind.

Plenty of samphire here, succulent and alien, glowing emerald above the harsh rust patina and hard-baked crevasses of the inter-tidal mud.

Samphire, a salt-tolerant succulent, grows out of orange cracked mud on the English coast.
Adam Barnett | Dread Pirate Robots Samphire.

A sun-bleached crab shell is suddenly floating, and the marsh channels are filling rapidly. The sea is pushing me, and my family pulls me. Olanna and the kids will be bored of the playground by now. I scramble up the bank to the path, and retrace my steps back towards the town.

One last glance across the marshes to the distant East Hills, where my grandparents’ ashes are scattered. As I pause, the clouds part. Platinum rays of a brilliant sunburst, just for that moment, just for me.

Leave a Reply