On Sunday 18th January, I had the pleasure of attending the private viewing of Frank Watson’s Soundings from the Estuary at the M2 Gallery in Peckham. A fairly low-key event, there were a small number of images taken from Watson’s new publication of the same name and a spoken word performance from Germander Speedwell, a previous collaborator of the project. Soundings from the Estuary depicts the somewhat marginal landscapes of the Thames estuary, particularly from sites of abandonment around the Hoo peninsular. The eerie scenes of dereliction and decay amongst the waterscapes of the Thames immediately made me think of similar spaces that I had encountered along the East Anglian coast, especially that of the coastline running between Shingle Street and Bawdsey in Suffolk.I visited this area last October along with a fellow lover of marginal spaces , Rupert Griffith, where we walked and explored the heavily fortified beaches and cliff tops that ran between these two villages.
The coastline running from Suffolk down to Sussex was perceived as being the most vulnerable to invasion during the Napoleonic wars and so saw the construction of 103 Martello towers within this period. These huge, concrete cylinders have a certain proto-brutalist aesthetic about them. Standing some 12 meters high, the walls are around 2.5 meters thick and bear features. The towers generally consisted of three floors with a mounted gun positioned on the roof. Less than 50 Martellos remain standing in England, with many of the existing towers being converted into residential properties (shown below).
It is not only the remnants of 19th Century fortification that exists along this stretch of coast, however, the area is littered with pillboxes, observation towers, batteries and anti-tank defences. Many of the pillboxes have made their way from the eroded cliffs into the sea and are now only accessible at low tide. Still, seeing fragments of these defences jutting out from the corrosive slate grey surf is an experience in itself. We were lucky enough to see the structures as both partially visible and in their entirety later on during low tide.
Further along the coast is the former site of RAF Bawdsey, which functioned as a radar station up until the early 1990s. Again, this space demonstrates the importance of the Suffolk coastline in maintaining Britain’s defence, further highlighting the perceived vulnerability of this particular section of the Anglian Coastline.
The triptych of defensive architectural styles that can be seen here allows one to reflect not only on the historical threat to these shores but on a more general continuity in the imagining of the coastscape as a marginal edgeland. As Watson’s photographic work demonstrates, much of the spaces around the southern coasts have, over time, become littered with the detritus of military, industrial and residential waste, serving as expansive dumping grounds for everything that is undesired; sea forts, trolleys, burntout cars, concrete barges, condoms, nappies, chemicals, plastic bags. The huge blocks of concrete, crumbling steel and cement towers that have been allowed to remain in situ along this stretch of coastline are but further reminders of the scarring that many of our coastal spaces have endured as a result of their being peripheral.
“He rises from the blackness And races through the lanes To reach the lonely estuary track And sneaks along the sea-walls The saltings and the flats With no-one but the wind to call him back”– Martin Newell, Black Shuck As a child I was terrified by the tale of ‘Old Shuck’, the ominous phantom hound reported to roam the coastal paths and backroads of Norfolk and Suffolk. I remember my grandparents telling me stories of the many sightings that had taken place and the grim demise of many of those who had claimed to of seen him. I first heard about the Shuck from a collection of Norfolk ghost stories I had been given one christmas in the late eighties and of all the eerie tales this was the one that had scared me the most. The legend of Black Shuck was (and remains) terrifying for two reasons; firstly, Shuck is a gigantic ghostly black dog with glowing red eyes the size of saucers. Secondly, seeing the hound is often said to be ominous of one’s own death or that of a near relative. Leaving to return home from the beaches of the North Norfolk coast in the waning light of autumnal evenings, I would sit in the back of the car with my eyes firmly closed for fear of seeing the Shuck. Recently my grandmother told me of her own encounter with the phantom black dog; she spoke of having met a gigantic shadowy hound in the middle of the road one night when returning from a craft evening in a nearby village. Breaking hard, the dog failed to move until the last second when suddenly it leapt before the bonnet and darted into the darkness of the surrounding woodland. ‘Certainly’, she said, ‘it was Old Shuck’. It would appear then, that not all meetings with Shuck are followed by misfortune. In fact the fisherman of Sheringham and Cromer are said to believe that the presence of the dog indicates a great storm and so refuse to sail after a sighting has been reported so as to ensure the safety of the crew (Kingshill and Westwood, 2014). Sightings of ghostly black dogs are common throughout Britain and are a staple of its folklore; Yorkshire is menaced by the Barghest or Padfoot, Hertfordshire by the Leandog, Lancashire has The Grim, Linconshire is haunted by ‘Hairy Jack’ and Devon the Yeth Hound. Other black dogs are said to roam the counties of Bedfordshire, Surrey and Wiltshire. Wales and Scotland also have their own wealth of spectral hounds. But of all the tales of all the dogs, it is Shuck who is the most infamous and indeed the most terrifying. The tale of the Shuck is often attributed to the villages of Blythburgh and Bungay in Suffolk. According to local legend, Shuck first appeared in 1577 when he attacked the parishioners of Bungay, breaking into the church during worship and killing two men before fleeing to the village of Blythburgh where the beast left scorched claw marks on the inside of the church’s door. It is said that the markings can still be seen today. Numerous other sightings have been reported all over East Anglia; in 1970 Shuck made the headlines when people claimed to have seen an unnaturally large black dog bounding across the beaches of Great Yarmouth. A decade later and there was another reported encounter with the dog, this time from a mother who was out walking her son near the fenland town of Wisbeach.
Norfolk’s own Shuck tales tend to be geographically focused on the coastline and particularly around the land and coastscape between the villages of Overstrand and Sheringham. Alleged sightings of Shuck were said to be so frequent in Overstrand that the ghost was included in the old village sign and as legend tells, an old section of the coastal path called Tower Hill Lane is affectionately referred to by locals as ‘Shuck’s Lane’. One story states that after hearing the sounds of panting, howling and claws scrapping at the floor, a petrified witness fled only to turn back and see the glowing paw prints of a hound scorched into the tarmac. The paths that lead along the cliff tops from Overstrand to Sheringham are treacherous even without the Shuck to roam them, the heavily eroded cliffs are rapidly moving inwards as they are forced to peel back from the corrosive waves of the North Sea. Shuck is said to roam these paths during storms, forcing onlookers to negotiate the crumbling cliff tops in the darkness as they are pursued by the thundering bounds and howels of the phantom hound. Shuck’s presence on these cliffs is connected to the landscape itself; legend tells how the dog rises from the depths of the nearby Beeston ‘Bump’, a grass covered hill that looms over the nearby village of Sheringham, before making his way along the ridgeway through Cromer and on to Overtstrand where he paces the streets before leaping into the churchyard and disappearing.
On visiting Overstrand at the end of the summer I immediately noticed that the village sign displaying Shuck has been replaced. Having spent quite some time in Overstrand, I now understand this as symbolic of the changes that have taken place in the village in general, an influx of holiday home owners replacing the local community and with it an erasure of the legend of the great black dog. I stopped to ask a number of people about their knowledge of or encounters with the Shuck, the majority of them were not local, having recently moved to the area or owning holiday homes along the coast. From twenty two people asked only two were lifelong residents and only one of these was aware of the tale of Shuck’s Lane. This person alleged to have witnessed the Shuck running along the beach away from Overstrand and made his relief over seeing the dog heading in the opposite direction very clear to me. The man provided me with directions to the so-called Shuck’s Lane, joking that if I happened to see the dog then he would happily take my camera off my hands: “Got no need for a camera if you see Old Shuck, boy”, he laughed.
I followed the man’s instructions to a narrow, cottage lined lane that was barely wide enough to fit a car along. The tarmac ran out after about twenty meters, leaving the car in dusty lay-by to make the rest of the journey by foot. I followed the lane as it turned into a hedge enclosed trackway, the wind blew heavily gushing through gaps in the hedge and sending twigs and leaves cutting across my path. The trackway went on for some twenty meters before turning to the right and opening up onto the edge of a field. I stopped to see a dead rabbit laying before me, partly disemboweled with a raven pecking at what remained of the eye socket. Startled, the raven left his grisly business and fled upwards into the mercy skies. I soon realised that the lane had led to nowhere; to the right of me lay fields and to the left and beyond was the edge of a steep cliff drop into the sea. I suddenly felt very alone and all too aware of the precarity of the situation; standing on the edge of a cliff top with biting winds now blowing about me, forcing me to back away from the edge. The grey skies made the space seem yet more desolate and after capturing some site photos I quickly turned to head back, the discomfort of being in that place was really quite unnerving. As I reached the end of the lane and started back along the road an elderly couple were unpacking groceries from the boot of their car. They were obviously curious as to where I had come from and what I might have been up to lurking about in the fields. I said hello and asked them about Shuck and whether they knew the story of Shuck’s Lane, which now appeared to be more ghostly in its absence than I might have imagined. Shuck’s Lane, they told me, had been lost to the sea sometime in the 1920s when the road disappeared over the edge of the cliff. Shuck’s Lane was as spectral as its ghostly canine namesake; I knew then that there was of course nothing to see as the lane was no more but still there remained an element of danger in returning to look for the traces of it. I didn’t go back to the cliff top.
The tale of Shuck is not to be taken lightly, the hound is indeed ominous and whether or not he exists in spectral form will have to be determined in the mind of the reader. But the point remains that as a folktale, Black Shuck serves to provide a warning to those who mean to treat the coastal paths lightly. Like the sea that serves the coastal communities, Shuck too is a transgressive entity, at once moving in and out of places. Shuck’s mobility mirrors the instability that surrounds both the spatial and temporal elements associated with the sea; the movement of and reliance upon the tides, the daily cycle of gaining and losing land to the saline waters and the erosion of the landscape proper. The low-lying land of the inner parts of the county, and of East Anglia as a whole, as well as the constant threat posed by the sea in these parts, is made manifest in the tale of Black Shuck in that the ghost acts as a conduit for the anxieties that have been and continue to be present in communities around this part of the country.
The above is a contracted version of two pieces of research I am currently working on; the first is Grey Area, a collaborative project with London-based artist Clare Parfree which uses a mixed methodological approach to examine the relationship between landscape and folklore. The other is an article on folk memory and the eerie geographies of Black Shuck. More on both projects to follow.
For more than a decade we – photographer Jason Orton and writer Ken Worpole – have documented the changing landscape and coastline of Essex and East Anglia, particularly its estuaries, islands and urban edgelands. We continue to explore many aspects of contemporary landscape topography, architecture and aesthetics, and in 2013 published our second book, The New English Landscape (Field Station | London, 2013), the second edition of which was published in 2015 and is now out of print.