“At Maunston Quay” – chapter 1

The sea is the only constant. Grey waves indulge a brief white collar when they curl and fold inwards, foaming as they stretch up the shallow incline of the beach, striving to reclaim the land. Accompanied by the rhythmic pummelling of the shore, theirs is an onslaught that fears nothing in its perpetual motion. The bay waits, then surrenders just a little to each wave. One might stand and watch the cycle forever, every breaker unique, every moulding of the beach and its contours imperceptibly different. And because the threshold here is made of sand and not shingle, the transformation is almost invisible, indescribably subtle.

From both the top of the modest dunes that partly frame the beach and a similarly modest headland to your right, a promontory perhaps no more than fifty feet high, the gentle arc of the shoreline stretches towards you. Dressed in rough scrub and bushes made hardy by the wind and the fret, the cape is a darker green than one might have anticipated. The headland – known locally as Simon’s Crag, though for what reason even the locals cannot seem to say – turns slightly away from you and inland a little where its profile falls. There you see the first of the few trees which lead to a small copse near its base. From here, only their canopy is visible, the bulk of their trunks hidden beyond a false horizon, one bookend to the next parcel of land. There are rocks at the seaward base of Simon’s Crag, but these soon give way to the sand which eventually peters out further to your left in an untidy accumulation of more rocks and less significant, unnamed outcrops. End-to-end, the bay is perhaps little more than a quarter of a mile long.

Halfway between its two extremes and just to your right where the beach is at its shallowest – perhaps a hundred and seventy or eighty yards deep at most – the finger of a jetty points itself towards the sea. Although the tide has begun to recede now, two thirds of the jetty still has its feet in the water. Even at low tide it is rare that more than half the jetty’s foundations might be considered dry. The wooden steps up to it from the landward end are never quite submerged; the tide, even at its fullest, being unable to get that far. Visitors to the bay – were there ever any of great number – might stand here and watch the sea for hours and remark how little the tide moves. They might compare this phenomenon with other places – such as Weston-Super-Mare or Morecambe – where the distance between high- and low-water can be measured in the hundreds of yards if not in the significant fractions of miles. But precisely here, on a completely different coast, that traverse is perhaps thirty or forty yards at most. It is as if the sea and the land have agreed a truce and are simply going through the motions, expending as little effort as possible. Such an accord could only exist through the benevolence of the water, for there is yet a sense that in this small, quiet engagement, the sea could yet be all-consuming should it wish to be.

From where you are standing at the top of the dunes, you can make out vague paths down to the beach – as much as sand will allow the definition of anything as specific as a path. The rough tracks downwards from the top of the headland are, however, more clearly visible, as if the land has been roughly gouged by some narrow implement, a palette knife taken to the green. The path from the top forks about a third of the way down. The left-hand track zig-zags towards the beach and the rocks behind which it seems to disappear, though that is just a trick of perspective. The other seems to fall almost arrow straight until it is met by the concrete plinth upon which a short terrace of three cottages sits. This structure, guarded by low railings, is punctuated with steps down to the sand. You could be forgiven for imagining the dwellings were located there in some Canute-like challenge to the elements, and that, by remaining there still, were proof of successful defiance. They are small, unremarkable whitewashed cottages you might easily lift and transpose to a myriad of other locations on almost any coast; and yet they seem to be perfectly set just here, facing the small bay, overseeing the empty jetty, waiting for something to happen.

The cottage at this end of the terrace is extended to its side with a large outbuilding whose wooden doors, closed at this moment, not only face the sea but a small slabbed ramp which leads down to the beach. This rough slipway, which immediately gives the impression of being inadequate or under-used or both, also serves to delimit the extent of the dunes, and if you were to walk across them from where you stand, perhaps traversing twenty yards to your right, you could easily find your way onto it. That an old green Land Rover is parked immediately outside this sombre panelled extension offers a counterpoint which suggests the structure on which the cottages stand is less shallow than first appears from the level at which you are viewing it, perspective again playing tricks with your eyes. If anything, when you pause to take all these clues into consideration, they only serve to embellish a notion that the cottages represent an end point, the full extent of the tentacles of something else.

Having part-way turned from the sea to examine the cottages, if you continue to rotate clockwise you can make out two small flat roofs which, though indistinct from here, are in fact the tops of the waiting rooms at Maunston Quay station. The dunes being where they are, it is easy to reconcile how the beach and the railway feel mutually exclusive, neither one visible from the other. Of course, wherever you stand, the sea betrays its presence through the sound of the waves upon the shore, and making your way along the path towards the station (a path of increasingly clear definition as you head away from the beach), you can still hear the tug of the tide; a sound which is only trumped by the passing of a train every hour or so. After very little distance, the dunes’ elevation falls and the sand gives way to a roughly made tarmac path. 

Having now dropped to a companionable altitude, you can see the composition of the station more clearly. There are two platforms, each housing a small open shelter made from the same white-painted wood panelling as that which goes to make up the fencing at the rear of each platform. Other than these constructions, the station is bare, the only ornament being a mechanical signal at either end, one of which is currently in the ‘off’ position suggesting that a train is due to pass through soon. You may be surprised that these have not yet been converted to modern electric signals, but perhaps on reflection you sense this may be fitting and in-keeping with the general ambience of the place. It feels something of a backwater, a station the rest of the network has forgotten about, or even worse, one that should have fallen under Beeching’s terrible axe in the sixties. 

But that would be to jump to an erroneous conclusion. Ten years prior to the day on which you are observing Maunston Quay station, trains would have been stopping here regularly throughout the day; at least hourly in each direction, sometimes every thirty minutes. As time passed, however, the railway company recognised that fewer and fewer people were embarking and disembarking here, and so the frequency of the trains’ stopping was reduced to once every two hours, and then perhaps three times daily. For the last two years, Maunston Quay has been a request stop, its few regular users (regarded as ‘commuters’ only in the very loosest sense) being a handful of people from the village who work part-time in the towns both up and down the line. In the summer, when the weather is good, small handfuls of holiday makers occasionally take the train to be able to access the beach (as there is no convenient parking nearby), but such people seldom return as the absence of facilities almost always sees them cutting their day short and returning from whence they came not a little frustrated by the whole experience.

Arriving at street level where the path from the beach meets a narrow pavement, you are within just a few yards of the nearest platform. And it is here that you notice three things. The first is that the platform signs which announce “Maunston Quay” are immaculately painted in burgundy and cream, and are spotlessly clean. The second is that, to your left, there are a pair of level-crossing gates. Being of the wood-and-mesh variety, these are perfectly in keeping with the era of the station’s signalling. They are also – as if to support the validity of the ‘off’ signal already noted – closed, though whether to protect passers-by from the train or vice versa you are suddenly not quite sure. The third thing you notice is that there is a car waiting at the gates, and as the car is pointing away from the sea it can only have originated from outside one of the cottages. Perhaps at this point you might instinctively look over your shoulder and back toward where you now know the narrow road ends. If you did, you would see part of the first cottage’s extension, and part of the frontage and most of the roofs of all three. That you cannot now see the entirety of the terrace surprises you a little, as you did not realise that the dunes intruded inland quite so far. Nor did you realise that they were quite so high, that the road from the station curved subtly to the right, nor that the distance to the cottages from the station is as far as it now appears.

These are easy mistakes to make when taking in a place for the first time. But you are oriented now, and so the scene is set. 

*

“At Maunston Quay” is available here:

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