“There’s something about being near the ocean”, said the taxi driver. He was a retired police officer, a sturdy, almost gruff fellow – he hardly seemed the sentimental type. But the sea does something to us all. “I can just sit and watch the waves, and feel content”, he said, sounding surprisingly wistful. This is precisely how I felt, which was why I’d travelled down to the Suffolk coast.
I had come here to switch off. Figuratively and literally. My life was so packed with tiny pieces of information that I had brain fatigue. Social media was a big player – checking emails, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter had become an automatic reflex. The soundless buzz of constant information had begun to permeate the air I moved in, until I felt like I was having to swim through it. And I wondered if I might eventually drown.
But as the saying goes, the cure for anything is salt water – tears, sweat, and the sea. Oh, the sea. In my mind, the remedy was simple. I wanted a walking route. Wild coastline. A lighthouse. Fish and chips.
I got me a ticket to Aldeburgh.
The taxi from the station took me straight to the beach, so my only glimpses of Aldeburgh (pronounced Ole-borough) were of Moot Hall, the historic town hall built in 1520 and still used for council meetings; and the little wooden fishing huts along the seafront selling an array of freshly-caught snacks. (Apparently some of the country’s best fish and chips are to be found in Aldeburgh, which obviously means I will have to come back.)
Once on the beach it was simply a matter of following the hem of the ocean for some 16 miles or so. I had no map, nor did I have GPS. I’d switched off my internet, and hopefully I would switch off my mind. All I had to do was walk.
I wasn’t surprised by how good it felt. What surprised me was realising just how bad my habits had become. There were moments when I found myself reaching for my phone to tweet a random thought or something I’d observed – (I longed to announce “I am by the sea!”). Other times I robotically went to post a photo on Instagram (here is a picture of the sea!). Each time the twitch of my hand reminded me just how much I needed this walk.
Obviously, I’m all for the internet. How else would this blog exist? But I had lived online too long, and forgotten how to be in the moment. Having no means with which to share my scattered thoughts with the world wide web, being free to let my mind wander aimlessly and to exist unwatched… I felt a fabulous sense of relief.
And of course, was lovely to explore a slice of Suffolk; it was somewhere I’d never been. It’s a beautiful part of the country, even from the small section I wandered through: from Dunwich (where Henry James used to write) with its clifftop medley of yellow gorse and purple heather; to the constant pebbly beaches that make a walker’s legs ache, but which are so wild and pretty it’s immediately forgiven.
There were moments when I trailed inland, never entirely sure if I was going the right way, but I just kept the roar of the distant waves to my right. I hurried passed the imposing dome of a huge nuclear power station, and followed ghostly paths through sand dunes. I wandered through a vast nature reserve, where twitchers ambled through the tall plants donned in their multi-pocketed vests and carrying large binoculars. I walked through woodland, past farms, along the cliffs and across the beaches. I stopped only occasionally, for a scotch egg and to drink from my flask of tea.
You cannot beat a good walk and a cup of tea. Fact.
That evening, weary and windswept, I arrived into the pretty town of Southwold. Here in 1672, after the Battle of Sole Bay, locals were paid a shilling for every dead body they recovered from the beach and buried. This seemed like the perfect place to dispatch of my old habits.
The pretty little main street was lined with shops and bakeries – alas most of them closed now, being a Sunday – but I picked up a few supplies and arrived at my hotel with the Sunday papers tucked under one arm, a bag of fish and chips under the other. There were tea and biscuits in my room. I had everything I needed right here! For now, the world wide web no longer included me.
I was still internet-free the next morning as I sat on the waterfront, near the lighthouse, eating a scone from the local bakery and watching old ladies having a swim in the wild waves on the beach. After a stroll along the waterfront, past the brightly-coloured beach huts, and along the pier, I had a pot of tea overlooking the ocean. I had long since stopped reaching for my phone.
It was once I was on the train back to London that I logged back into the online world.
Good god, what a lot of noise! I realised I hadn’t missed it – and what’s more, the internet hadn’t missed me either.
I switched off my phone again and poured another cup of tea from my flask.