A couple of weeks ago I decided to go to my favourite local beach cove for some alone-time. Most of this summer has been spent either working or in a whirl of socialising and while it has been a lot of fun, I also realised that I needed to take a bit of time to just sit quietly by myself for a few hours.
It is a clear, bright and sunny afternoon when I arrive at the beach carpark. I am pleased to see that there are plenty of spaces empty, as this means that it is easy for me to park and also that the beach will not be too crowded. Along the edge of the carpark runs a small river with steep banks on either side. On the carpark side the bank is covered with wildflowers and bushes, but the opposite bank is full of trees. As soon I as I step out of the car, I am distracted from my intention of heading to the beach and find myself crouched on the ground, gazing at some yellow snapdragon flowers, some of which appear to have ants trapped inside them. I wait for what feels like ages to see if the ants emerge on their own and when there is no sign of them leaving of their own accord, I gently lift up the top part of one of the snapdragon flowers and see the ant inside move as if to seize its chance and escape. But then it turns around and goes right back in again. I let the flower close up and leave the ant to go about its business, guessing that it probably knows its own way out.
There are several large rocks marking the boundary between the carpark and the riverbank. I sit on one of these and gaze down at the lower slopes of the bank and the river bubbling past at the bottom. Above, the sky is clear and cloudless. I hear grasshoppers or crickets rasping away in the bushes and the sounds of other visitors arriving or leaving in their cars behind me. I see cabbage whites flickering to and fro and what might be red admirals delicately perching on flowers and slowly opening their gorgeous wings. When their wings are closed, they seem to vanish and it takes considerable focus to keep my eyes on them until they choose to open them again. There is another type of butterfly I don’t know the name of, even bigger than the red admirals but with similar colouring – and their large size makes it even more startling when they, too, vanish and re-appear again moments later. I wonder whether there are fish in the river. This is later confirmed when, out of the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of a fish flipping over and flashing its belly at the surface, several metres downstream. I notice purple fluffy-headed thistles next to the rock I am sitting on and spot raspberry bushes further down the bank in front of me. I am only a few dozen metres from the beach, but I can’t hear the waves at all, only the murmuring of the river as it flows over and around the large stones wedged into its bed. The sound is so gentle, it feels as though the river is deliberately keeping its voice down, so as not to unduly disturb the peace.
I decide to move further down the river to see if I can spot more fish and end up sitting on another rock, right next to the water’s edge. The water is so clear, I am able to spot a fish flicking round in the shallows near the opposite bank. I look up at the bank and notice an enormous scarlet butterfly on one of the flowers. It occurs to me that I should be more bothered about my lack of knowledge regarding plant and animal identification, but I am too content to just sit and observe them to let this worry me. I hear male grasshoppers or crickets tentatively chirruping in the undergrowth nearby, with a pause in between each sound, as though they are not quite sure whether they really do want to attract a mate. I see bees buzzing round the thistle flowers beside me. There seem to be two types, one has a few black and pale yellow stripes on its thorax and a black abdomen, which is trimmed with a barely-visible fringe of golden hairs. The other type has thick black and yellow stripes on its thorax and many, thinner stripes on its abdomen. Their quiet buzzing is both echoed and overpowered by the throaty roar of a car engine from the nearby road and later by the flat drone of an aeroplane. I realise that, if I’d come here sooner, I could easily have spent all day here, just sitting and observing. Despite being the sort of person who uses social media frequently throughout day, out here I am somehow not in the least bit bored.
My girlfriend phones me to tell me that she will be home soon. I decide that I should probably get down to the beach for at least a few minutes before I leave, so I climb back up the bank and walk down to the shore. There are several groups of people spaced out at intervals along the beach – older couples, parents with their kids, people walking their dogs. I sit down close to the sea and then lie back on the pebbles. They are pretty hard and unforgiving, but I wriggle my head and back until I am nestling between, rather than on top of, the sharper stones. I pick up a couple of pebbles and feel their warm, comforting weight in my hands as I close my eyes. I turn my head towards the sun and see an intense whiteness behind my eyelids. It occurs to me that if I fell asleep here and then awoke suddenly, I could unwittingly be blinded. This thought prompts me to sit up again after a minute or so, as I am well aware of my propensity to fall asleep anywhere I am vaguely comfortable. I watch a man skim a few stones along the water and am tempted to do the same, but it would require standing up and carefully selecting stones and it frankly feels like too much effort right now. I idly throw a few pebbles in the sea, deliberately trying to create the biggest “splosh” possible. There is something enjoyably pointless about returning a handful of pebbles to the sea. I listen to the rhythmic clinking of the pebbles as the sea pulls them back towards the water and savour the feel of the warm breeze on my skin, well aware that soon this balmy weather will be over, not to return for another eight or nine months.
Just before I leave, I take out a slim notebook from my rucksack and write a few notes, hoping this will help to embed the experience in my memory and not spoil it by over-thinking things. Later, when I realise that I somehow only took one rather poor-quality photo the whole time I was there, I will be very grateful for these rough jottings, which allow me to re-experience the afternoon and ensure that it will not be forgotten.