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Memento Mori

Memento Mori

We live within sight of the sea.  Indeed, our view of the sea happily fills every window at the front of the house.  We also row twice a week on that same stretch of the ocean: beyond Dawlish and back, to Budleigh and back, or upriver when the gods of the deep are in a stroppy mood.  So we kid ourselves we’re on handshake terms with this stretch of coastline.  How wrong we were.

Nothing could have prepared us for the last week or so.  First  the traffic jam of weather systems emerging from the storm nursery off Nova Scotia, then thundering east,  gorging on the jet stream, deepening by the day, until they arrived in the Western Approaches, took a final vindictive breath, and helped themselves to great chunks of the coastline. 

Images on the internet, and across the media, at first beyond belief, have become the small change of daily life.  Cars half-submerged.  Drain covers dancing on plumes of raw sewage.  A torrent of brown water coursing down streets towards the town centre.  Ice cream kiosks at drunken angles.  Exposed footings on the new seawall.  Seafront shelters half-destroyed.  The wooden steps from the Harbour View café reduced to matchwood.  And now the railway line into Cornwall.  Gone.

We joined the other gawpers on Tuesday night, timing our arrival on the seafront to co-incide with high tide.  The roads had already been closed, flashing blue lights reflected in every window, but you could still wade through the floods to get close. 

From a distance, seen from the length of Alexandra Terrace, the prom appeared to be under shellfire:  huge gouts of wind-driven spray, three, four, five storeys high, that same creamy-brown.  Pavements – a hundred metres inland – already   ankle-deep in seaweed, driftwood and miscellaneous plastic.  And the raw physical shock of each new wave, a shuddering thud you could feel in your bones.

Then, stepping out of cover, the immense shock of the wind, a wind I’d never felt before.  Minutes earlier, a guy on telly had warned of 92 mph gusts recorded off Berry Head.  You can see Berry Head from our front window.  92 mph?  On TV it sounded deeply promising, like news of a new theme park ride, but out here in the flesh you began to wonder. You listen to the voice inside you counselling prudence.  But in the name of history, of living to tell your grandkids the tale, you soldier on. 

The police weren’t keen on letting us anywhere near the seafront.  A cunning detour took us through one of the back routes.  Either way, that same Tuesday night, we emerged at the bottom of Victoria Road.  Bent double against the wind, I found the shelter of the new – as yet unfinished – restaurant beside the docks.  From here, judging your moment, you could see the whole curve of the seafront, a blur of towering explosions.  One look was enough.  That same evil colour, the churning tide, the spume torn to rags, the howl of the wind.  The sea we know and love (knew and loved?) was eating everything.  An animal on the loose, madness made visible.

Back in front of the telly, we towelled ourselves dry.  The weather is evidently jammed in storm mode. Another traffic-jam of low pressure systems queuing up, ready to burst over Exmouth. And Dawlish.  And Torquay. And Porthleven. And the dozens of other coastal communities hastily recalibrating their cosy rapport with the ocean.

This is getting personal.  There’s lots more to come.  God knows what we’ve done but it must be truly wicked.