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Feather's Miscellany: The Sea

“The sea runs in every Briton’s blood,’’ writes John Waddington-Feather.

The sea runs in every Briton’s blood no matter how far they live from it. It flows through our literature, art and music to grip our imagination. We are an island race and the sea reaches to the very heart of our land through our estuaries, our rivers and our upland streams. Men and women who live miles from it inland are called to serve on it in our navies across the world.

I was born and raised seventy miles from the sea in a small Pennine town called Keighley. Though the town itself was very industrial, we enjoyed vast tracts of countryside and moorland all around it; yet annually the townsfolk headed not to the countryside but to the sea for their holidays. Their they spent a week there cleansing themselves spiritually and mentally from the muck and grime they worked in the rest of the year.. To breathe ozone at the seaside was an elixir which gave them new life.

In earlier generations, some people, my grandmother among them, never saw the sea. She was a hill-farmer’s widow and was chained to the land like all her kind. Farmers never went on holiday, and one of them remarked to me once, “What’s the point? I’m on holiday all the time on my farm.”

Even well heeled folk rarely went to the seaside, which certainly in Shakespeare’s day was regarded as the place where ruffians lived – seafarers and their kind! Only in the 19th century when cheap rail travel enabled travellers to reach the sea did seaside resorts become popular; places like Blackpool, Morecambe,
Southport, Scarborough, Bridlington and Whitby in the North. There in summer townsfolk migrated in their thousands for their week’s holiday by the sea.

Right from the start, the sea plays a large part in our literature. An Old English saga, “The Seafarer”, written about the 8th century, is set against the background of the sea. Its central character is an exiled sailor condemned to sail the ocean homeless the rest of his life. The poem becomes a moralistic sermon, but the opening catches conditions in the single-sailed longboats of those days.

“Dread were the heaving seas, where often I kept
the perilous night-watch at ship-prow,
when it crashes against the cliffs.
Afflicted by cold, my feet were frost-fettered, cold-clammed;
yet hot around my heart sorrow sighed,
and an inner hunger plagued my sea-weary mind.
The man who lives prosperously on dry land
has no idea how, careworn, I’ve wintered in exile,
forlorn of kinsmen, on the ice-cold sea,
where icicles hung and the hail flew in showers.”

And from the 8th century to the present, novelists, poets and playwrights have written about the sea. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Defoe, Stevenson, Conrad and many other writers all incorporate the sea in their work. The Bible, too, is crammed with references to it and, indeed, Christ worked one of his miracles while at sea, stilling the wind and waves.

However, I’d like to mention something about the part the sea-faring played in my own life; when the merchant navy braved Nazi submarines and dive bombers to bring food supplies to beleaguered Britain during the Second World War.

I was never a good seaman, yet I started my teaching career on board a very disciplined merchant navy officer-cadet training ship, H.M.S. “Worcester.” (The H.M.S. was a courtesy title) Moored off Greenhithe, Kent, and rigged out with masts as a 19th century man o’ war, it was in reality a floating school, The Thames Nautical Training College, established in the mid-nineteenth century initially to provide officers for the Port of London merchant fleet. It was living and teaching on board that ship that I picked up the skills of teaching in the class-room, for in those days a first-degree was enough to let you teach.

It was through teaching those young cadets in their mid or late teens that I learned much about the nature and character of merchant seamen, what made them tick. I hope they contributed as much to the making of myself as a teacher, as I may have given them a command of the English language and a love of its literature.

J.B.Priestley in one of his wartime broadcasts, Sunday, 16th March 1941, pays a glowing tribute to the merchant navy. He’d been reading through some formal documents written by ships’ masters describing what had happened to their ships under attack from Nazi submarines and warships; documents which described tersely yet accurately what had happened to their ships. As he read, there unfolded before him the terrifying drama of the merchant navy in wartime, as our merchant ships sailed in convoys across the Atlantic or through the frozen Baltic Sea to Murmansk, attacked all the way by submarines and dive bombers.

“Somehow it made everything else in wartime – yes, even the two-mile high combats above the Channel, the bombing of London, the evacuation of Dunkirk, or the desert thunderbolt of Wavell’s army – seem like tuppence. I don’t know why, unless it’s because these men had to meet their dangers just trying to do their ordinary job, without any special uniform or training. They signed on for a voyage and found themselves in roaring hell.”

Merchant seamen these days may not find themselves in the roaring hell of wartime, but they still have to face the natural hazards of the sea; hurricanes, typhoons, mountainous waves – hazards so graphically caught in Joseph Conrad’s novels; and more recently merchant ships have had to cope with the scourge of piracy in several parts of the world, notably the seas off Somalia.

Despite bulk air-carriers and the increased volume of goods transported overland, it is the merchant navy which still carries the vast amount of cargo into Britain to feed us and help our industry and commerce tick over; and now added to sea-borne traffic is the growing industry of leisure cruises which are growing more popular by the year. The sea is indeed part of the very fabric of our national life - even to holidaying on it.
John Waddington-Feather ©


[ Quotations are from “Visions in the Winter dark. Three Old English poems” translated by John Waddington-Feather and introduced by Professor Walter Nash. Published by Feather Books. Shrewsbury. “Priestley’s Wars” by Neil Hanson, Published by Great Northern Books, Ilkley]

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