The Edge of the World: How the North Sea Made Us Who We Are

Michael Pye
How the North Sea Made Us Who We Are



1.The invention of money

2.The book trade

3.Making enemies



6.Writing the law

7.Overseeing nature

8.Science and money

9.Dealers rule

10.Love and capital

11.The plague laws

12.The city and the world



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Cecil Warburton went to the seaside in
the summer of 1700: two weeks at Scarborough on the east coast of England, north of
Hull and south of Newcastle. He was not at all impressed.

He was a northern gentleman, son of a
Cheshire baronet, and he did what gentlemen do at a spa: he drank down five pints of
the famous waters almost every day, waters that smelled of ink and tasted of acid,
and his system was duly flushed. He refused the full cure his companions took, which
was four quarts a day. He wrote to his brother-in-law: ‘I was in hopes I might
here have met with something would have made my letter diverting to you, but I find
myself disappointed for I yet can see nothing but coarse hooks and drying fish which
is all the furniture of both in and out side of their streets and houses.’ The
streets were littered with ‘garbage of fish and Cods Heads … I wish
you find no ungreatful smell inclosed, for I think it impossible any thing can go
hence free from it.’

He’d chosen the town where the
idea of seaside was starting, where the first changing huts were about to appear on
the beach, where people came to flirt and be seen; he did not want reminders of all
the uses of the working sea. People, ‘Nobility, Quality and Gentry’
according to the guide for 1733, were flocking to Scarborough: earls and baronets,
misses and marchionesses. They drank and ate and drank, knowing the waters would
wash them out and keep them well. They went swimming in the cold sea and horse
racing on the long, wide sands and dancing in the evening.

They chose to see the spa and not the
working town, not the castle that had fired on enemy ships only fifty years earlier
when the Dutch and English were at war, not the fishing fleet of maybe three hundred
boats or the harbour, the only practical refuge in foul weather between the River
Tyne to the north and the River Humber to the south. The town was a reminder of the
web of connections over
the water: food,
trade, war and all kinds of arrivals and invasions, including the invasions of

Cecil Warburton, like millions after
him, had no interest in all that. He had more immediate worries; as he complained in
a letter to his sister: ‘am still as fat as ever …’

This new idea of seaside came between us
and the story of the sea.
The seaside was becoming a
destination, not a harbour on the way to somewhere else over the water; and it was a
playground, not a place of work and war. It was hard to imagine that there had once
been a world that centred on the sea itself. Over the years even the coastline was
fixed in place as it never used to be when high winds could make a storm out of the
sand, and high tides could break deep into the land. Stone and then concrete made
sea walls, promenades, esplanades, a definite squared-off boundary between man and
sea. Behind them, seafront hotels and villas could stare out with perfect
indifference at the sea, which had made them so desirable in the first place.

That was just beginning in
Warburton’s time. In Scarborough, a whole catalogue of grand persons paid
their five shillings and signed the book to use the two rooms built on the beach for
drinks and company and dressing and undressing. They came north from London by the
York coach, or else by way of Cambridge for the sights, but only if they could
tolerate the country inns. Otherwise they paid a guinea for passage from the docks
at Billingsgate to Scarborough on one of the coal boats going back empty from London
to the Tyne.

The women bathed discreetly with the
help of guides. A local poet complained that ‘A spreading Vest the nymph
secures / And every prying glance defies’. The men could either ‘retire
and undress at some distance from the company, or … push a little off the
beach in boats’ and then ‘jump in naked directly’. The sea was
considered safe enough for brisk exercise or medicinal baths. Indeed, the anonymous
author of
A Journey from London to Scarborough
insisted: ‘What
Virtues our Physicians ascribe to Cold Baths in general are much more effectual by
the additional Weight of Salt in Sea water, an Advantage which no Spaw in England
can boast of but Scarborough.’

Seawater, like spa water, was meant to
cure sickness. Doctors were immediately and deeply worried; water was a rival to the
medicines they prescribed. There
was an obvious need for ‘more careful analysis of spa water’, as Dr
Simpson wrote in 1669, a ‘chymical anatomy’ to show what chemical
medicines it happened to contain; only then could the sea be approved and annexed by
the medical men. When the analysis was done, in the 1730s, it became a matter of
civic pride and general interest, something important about the friendly trivia of
the seaside: Scarborough, tourists and residents, all went to public lectures about
exactly what they were drinking.

Now waters had once been a matter of
another kind of faith: holy waters, holy springs and wells, found by saints and
other amateur hopefuls. Scarborough’s spring was first found, or so a Dr
Wittie wrote in 1667, by a Mrs Farrow, who was walking on the beach in the 1620s and
noticed that stones had been turned russet by a noisy, bubbling spring at the foot
of ‘an exceedingly high cliffe’. She liked the taste of the waters. She
thought they would do people good.

Word spread.

Dr Wittie wrote a little book to make
sure that it was doctors who prescribed them. He already believed in bathing because
that was what the English did at spas: they drank the waters, but they also bathed
in them, unlike the Europeans, who thought drinking was quite enough. He told men
with a taste for port wine to go swimming in the sea because that was how he had
cured his own gout, ‘frequent bathing in the Sea-water cold, in Summer
time … after which I take a Sweat in a warm bed’. The summer months
were the best; Dr Wittie was quite shocked that ‘in German spas, they drink in

He knew that ‘many go to the spaws
not for necessity but for pleasure, to withdraw themselves a while from their
serious imployments and solace with their friends’. But pleasure, too, was
going to be the business of doctors: a modern profession staking claims on as much
of life as possible. Swimming itself was no longer simple exercise. Dr Robert White
wrote on the ‘Use and Abuse of Sea Water’ in 1775 to warn that
‘they who are in full health and strength should not sport with such
recreations so freely’. They could perhaps bathe early in the day, but the
more nervous cases should wait until ‘a little before noon’;
‘nobody should continue above a minute in the water’. Seawater
might be less of a shock than the stone
cold of spring water, but even so Dr White felt obliged to warn of the ‘Fatal
Effects of Bathing in Healthy Persons’. He told how ‘a man, about 40
years of age, who had lived a sober and temperate life, was induced to bathe in the
sea’. The man didn’t think of himself as a patient so he went into the
water without being bled and without being purged, and without a doctor’s
say-so; the consequence, so Dr White says, was ‘violent pain which shot
through his head, great dizziness and a fatal Apoplectic fit’.

The sea was ‘useful’ against
leprosy, he thought, ‘of great use’ against epilepsy, and able to take
away jaundice. The sea could also cure gonorrhoea, which might be a comforting
thought for randy gentlemen but no consolation at all for the next person they
bedded. Even so, he reckoned people were not careful enough with ‘so general
and popular a Medicine’ because ‘the Stomach and Bowels are kept in
constant agitation’ by it. He recorded ‘the propensity which people of
all ranks have discovered towards Sea Bathing’.

It was not only the English. The Dutch
went walking on the beach in the seventeenth century, the boys throwing the girls in
the sea at Scheveningen every spring, everyone drinking. Their prince-like
had a sand yacht with sails and wheels to bowl along the
strand. The spas brought people to the seaside, but the seaside took on a life of
its own: there were beaches that did not need a doctor’s licence, a new kind
of resort like Norderney on the German North Sea coast, like Ostend and Boulogne,
like Doberan on the Baltic, places you went simply for pleasure. Anyone could flirt
with the water, visit and go home when they wanted. They turned the waves and
currents into a backdrop for very urban ideas of how to be well, stay fit, look good
and be amused. The old business of the sea was hidden away and the new business was
holiday. The harbour at Visby, on the Swedish island of Gotland, had been famous and
hustling for a thousand years, but in the nineteenth century the town faced only
stagnation and oblivion unless it installed a bathing station, a place for bathers
to change clothes and take a drink; or so the promoters of the bathing station

Reality was screened off behind the
bathing huts and seafront attractions and later the piers and donkey rides and fish
and chip
shops, behind archery stalls and
bowling greens (as at Blackpool) and music halls and bright electric lights. The
secret was secure. By the late nineteenth century Mr Baedeker’s
for Travellers
, usually so meticulous on artworks and the cost of
transport, did not seem to notice what was missing. His guide to the Netherlands
gets after a while to Middelburg in the coastal region of Zeeland, and all the
excursions possible from there.
He noted the omnibus which ran
twice daily to a ‘small bathing place’ called Domburg, ‘frequented
by Germans, Dutchmen and Belgians’; he mentioned ‘pleasant walks in the
neighbourhood’. He tells you the price of a two-horse carriage to get there,
and full board at the Bad-Hôtel.

He does not mention what happened at
Domburg, even though people still alive remembered. It was at that ‘small
bathing place’, on a lovely beach, that the sea gave back its secret: its

High winds tore up the dunes and made
the sea wild in the first days of January 1647. The sand was forced out of the way
to show something in the subsoil that should never have been there: stone. There is
no stone at all on the coast near Domburg; there is only sand, peat, clay. So
someone must have brought the blocks on the foreshore from far away – from seven
hundred kilometres away in the quarries of northern France as we now know – and
moving it must have been serious business; one stone weighed two tons and no machine
in 1647 could shift it. An excited letter to Amsterdam, which went into print as a
newsletter, reported: ‘About a fortnight ago some great stones of white
limestone appeared on the beach near the sea.’

There was also what looked like ‘a
little house with the base of columns’. There were half-erased images on the
stones, prayers to a goddess called Nehalennia, thanking her for success, for the
welfare of a son, for the safe passage of goods across the sea. That made it likely
that the ‘little house’ was some kind of temple. The remains of trees,
petrified and salted, suggested the kind of grove that was often planted around
temples. The newsletter was sure that what the sea uncovered was ‘a monument
of greatest antiquity’.

Among the stones were altars to known
gods – Neptune, of course, for the sea and sailors, and Hercules – but Nehalennia
her twenty-six altars had been unknown
for more than a millennium. On the altars she sits under a shell-shaped canopy,
which makes her a goddess of Heaven like Venus or Juno or Minerva, or she stands on
the prow of a ship on an unquiet sea; she sometimes has a throne, often there is a
basket of apples around, and there is always a fine-faced dog gazing up at her.
Ships were not always just a means of transport; they have a curiously deep
connection with fertility in people’s minds, especially Northerners’, so
it seems she was the local goddess of good harvests, good luck at sea, even good
connections like carts and roads.
She had once been everything to the
people around Domburg, and she had been entirely forgotten.

There was huge excitement across learnèd
Europe: something unknown had come out of the sea. Now the past began to come back
and wash away and come back again as though history itself were a sea in motion.
Peter de Buk, an old man from Domburg, remembered that in 1684, ‘during the
very cold winter, when the ice piled up very high on the beach’, the immovable
stone started to loosen and then shift and then ‘gradually it moved to the
sea’. The ballplayers who had used the stone for years, so the local Minister
said, had to find somewhere else to play.

Three years later there was a storm so
violent that in the morning there were bodies on the beach: ancient bodies, each in
a coffin of wood a couple of centimetres thick. The skulls all faced west. The
coffins were full of sand. There were slim, ornate chains around the necks with
coins hanging on them; one skeleton had a goblet stacked on its chest, another had a
silver dagger at its side. Christians were not supposed to bury goods with the dead,
so the graves must have been made before the coast started to turn Christian round
700 – or after Christians had been beaten inland a century and a half later by
Viking raiders. For a few days the past was as solid as a coffin, unexplained like a
ghost; and then the waters swept back and hid the dead before anyone could find out
who they were.

In 1715 a very low tide stretched the
land out so far that there were the remains of wells to be seen, and the foundations
of buildings. One more statue appeared: a great headless Victory, in the middle of
what was certainly a temple of some sort, paved with round and
square stones. Victory stayed stranded for years until she
was carted bodily inland and parked in the local church. She survived, turning green
now that she was out of the salt water and in the rains, but she was ruined when
lightning brought down the church in 1848. The remains of this ancient Domburg were
reduced to a few damaged pieces and two cubic metres of rubble dumped in the garden
of the town clerk.

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