With every morning tide, we feel the sense of purification, of a clean start.
We’re an island race but that does not quite explain why living near water is such a balm for the soul, and an excellent investment, says Kit Hesketh-Harvey.
The proximity of water is a need so ingrained in man, so elemental and atavistic, that we can but yield to it. From Eastern doctrines of Feng Shui to the Arabic gardens of Allah; from St Michael’s Mount and Lindisfarne to Charlie Dimmock and her little water features, the sound, sight, smell of nearby water is something that humankind craves.
And no more so than in Britain. We are an island race. Coton in the Elms, in Derbyshire, is apparently (at 70 miles) the furthest point in the United Kingdom from the sea. But even there, tidal Newark is a mere 40 miles away and Derbyshire itself is drenched in streams and lakes. Water runs through our arteries like blood. Whether we descend from Jutes, Angles, Saxons, Normans, we had to traverse water to get here.
“The sound, sight, smell of nearby water is something that humankind craves”
I have been lucky enough to build a house within sight and earshot of the north Cornish coast at Trevose Head. My first night spent there, lulled by the roar of the Atlantic as the breeze carried it through the little bedroom window, remains one of the most miraculous of my life. The murmuring, rhythmic crash of distant waves is as much a lullaby as that of our mother’s pulsing blood as we lay curled, unborn. Like salmon, we feel the pull of rushing water beckoning us back to the element of the sea creatures we once were. With every morning tide, we feel the sense of purification, of a clean start.
Our coastline is as ragged with inlets as the Norwegian fjords, and deep in our tribal subconscious is the contest between the reassurance of safety from attack, and unease that the waters may once again reclaim our strongholds. To appease the gods of water, we have to accord them their importance.
To the native Celts, the proximity of a fresh spring was a religious imperative, built into the rites of the pre- and early Christians. Hermits lived by holy wells, essential for drinking, cleansing, symbolic purification.
“Water runs through our arteries like blood”
John Betjeman wrote of the Cornish saints in their rushy cells, and to visit any early sacred site means hearing the sound of tumbling rills nearby. Even Stonehenge has its associated wells, although their sound is drowned out by the blasphemous roar of traffic on the A303. Its avenue is said to begin at the River Avon about 1.5 miles from the stone circle and is intricately associated with healing springs. Last year, another such spring was discovered a mile away, at Vespasian’s Camp at Amesbury.
But water serves as a provider, too. W.B. Yeats’ “mackerel-crowded seas”, Ely’s meres and marshes teeming with eels, the pools of brown trout in the Scottish Highlands, all meant plenty, and security from hunger. Sea views, or the wildlife associated with the riverbanks, the traffic of pleasure-boats at Marlow or the straining of oarsmen on the Cam and the Isis, all provide as constantly changing a panorama as that of a cruising yacht. They reassure us that life will continue, and that our individual part in the universe is not of any consequence that need trouble us unduly.
The builders of our great houses knew this too. Monastic fishponds, whose traces are sometimes all that remain of the pre-Cromwellian network that knitted our islands; the moated strongholds of Edward I’s castles and the manor houses that formed the chains of domestic defence: these gave way in the eighteenth century to the dammed streams that formed tranquil expanses in which the new mansions could stand gloriously reflected. To Capability Brown, no park was complete without its lake. Humphrey Repton formed chains of locks and weirs for otter hunts. Every decent shoot kicked off with its wildfowl pond.
“Those lucky enough to be able to afford a stream, a salmon beat, a marsh will happily pay for the privilege”
The Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century, and the global British Empire at its full flood, saw water transforming the landscape. The great canals of the Midlands and the North fed the newly built wharves and docks at their outlets in a chain of waterborne commerce that remains a high watermark of engineering. The buildings and landscapes associated with these endeavours were confident and long lasting.
Although industrial, their proud infrastructures have remained, even though the cranes have fallen silent. It took a while for hard-pressed providers of homes to see their potential, but today the warehouse conversions and the newly built flats around the inner lagoons constitute some of the most sought-after housing stock in our cities.
The cleaner water has provided a latter day haven for returning wildlife, and from Wapping to Wolverhampton the constantly changing light plays across lofty ceilings and tranquil towpaths.
“Whether it be a croft on a private island, a Martello Tower or a lock-keeper’s cottage, our imaginations are instantly drawn to what it would be like to live in such a building”
However much the suburbs are forced to expand away from the water sources that formed the centres of our conurbations, the sense of their elemental attraction survives. Waterside properties command an astonishing premium. A sea view can add half as much again to a house’s value. Those lucky enough to be able to afford a stream, a salmon beat, a marsh will happily pay for the privilege. Of course it can backfire. The swells which two winters ago devastated the north Norfolk marshes, or brought the Dorset cliffs uncomfortably close to the maritime inhabitants, reminded us that water wields a power that is in the end insuperable. The very engineers who wrought such commercial marvels at Gloucester Docks or along the Chelsea Embankment, would have been aghast to see the railway line at Dawlish succumb to the waves.
Whether it be a croft on a private island, a Martello Tower or a lock-keeper’s cottage, our imaginations are instantly drawn to what it would be like to live in such a building. Can the madding crowds and the turmoil of this century be blotted out? Will our creativity, in constant dialogue with the murmuring waters, take wing? Virginia Woolf thought so: her eponymous lighthouse becomes a potent symbol of what is more worthwhile, more lasting, than our cluttered modern existences.
Nor need it be unattainable. Wapping may nowadays be out of our financial reach, its elegant Georgian riverside squares a reproachful reminder to contemporary architects of volume housing to accord the view proper respect. Lord Archer’s Thameside pad at Vauxhall, with its majestic penthouse views of the river stretching from Tower Bridge to Fulham, may not be in our price range.
But head for the North Sea coast in Northumberland and the Borders, or for those dunes above Aberdeen; seek out the breathtaking Atlantic coastline of Pembrokeshire rather than Padstow; find the lapping waters of new reservoirs such as those of Rutland and Midlothian, rather than those of costlier Sussex, Keswick and Beaulieu; head for the marshlands of Morecambe Bay rather than Blakeney, and you, too, may find a deeper repose of sleep.
The poet John Masefield had it right:
“I must go down to the seas again,
To the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship
And a star to steer her by...”
Kit Hesketh-Harvey is a screenwriter, cabaret performer, opera director and translator, broadcaster and columnist. He lives in Norfolk with his wife and two children.
This article comes from the latest edition of Barometer. View the digital version.
More articles from Barometer...