Between the Tides

Comber Estuary, Strangford Lough
Comber Estuary, Strangford Lough

Rough Island lies just off the western shores of Strangford Lough, at the mouth of the Comber river. It is a submerged drumlin, like most other islands in the lough, A narrow causeway joins the island to the mainland at Islandhill, which is only safely fordable at low tide, when it is surrounded by extensive sloblands of boulder clay. The island was used in the nineteenth century for discharging coal and other goods for Comber by small vessels which could not navigate the shallow channel of the river, but which could reach Rough Island at high tide. From there, goods were carted across the causeway to Comber. Evidence of much earlier human presence was confirmed by the Harvard Archaeological Mission to Ireland in 1936, when researchers found large oyster middens and flint blades from the late Mesolithic period. The style of cutting the flint tools indicated cultural connections with other shoreline inhabitants around the north coasts of the Irish Sea.

A small car park and picnic area is now located at Islandhill, from which people walk along the shore, and like pilgrims, cross the causeway to walk around the island. Because the causeway is only accessible at low tide, visitors are not afforded views of the sea, but instead an extensive vista of intertidal mudflats and wetlands. There are no golden sands here on which to sunbathe, or dig sandcastles. There are no tumultuous waves either upon which to surf or gaze. Dogs who like to swim trot out on to the mudflats, nosing the streams and the seaweed: they can smell the sea, but they cannot seem to find it. The attractions of the intertidal zone are different in kind from the cultural pleasures of the sandy beach or the open sea. There is something more desolate, and more visceral, about the intertidal environment, and especially in winter. In his book, Rising Tide Falling Star, Philip Hoare writes of the intertidal zone in Cape Cod:

“I half expect to see a Neolithic family foraging on the beach. The landscape is moonlike, bone-scattered. Sere, stripped back by the winter, pallid and raw. Yet despite the intense cold – so barbarous it becomes a kind of warmth – the shore is full of life. Everything is residual and tentative in the intertidal zone; a place belonging to no one.” (p.76)

The mudflats surrounding Rough Island have that same feeling of a place belonging to no one. The curlews and oystercatchers noisily claim it as their own, patrolling the shoreline in chaotic quickstep. A photographer sits in his car, and trains a long lens out of the window at a straggling pair of brent geese, as if wary of intruding on their privacy. The intertidal zone only grudgingly permits human presence. The causeway is often treacherous underfoot, never managing to recover from its twice daily immersion in the sea. Depart from the causeway, and the saturated clay of the mudflats is even more treacherous, and will steal your boots, or perhaps something more precious. The remnants of a wooden jetty have ceased to look like marks of human industry, and resemble instead the proud bones of a sea beast. Even a thick electrical cable which has been exposed in the mud at the island-end of the causeway looks more like the arching back of a mythical slobland worm, too big to be rooted out by any passing wader. On the island itself, the last low walls of a long-forgotten building have now almost merged into the briars and bushes, and will soon be invisible.

What brings us down to these shores which are so indifferent to our history and our fate, and yet so inseparable from them too? For John Gillis, the answer to this question may be primal: ‘For most of our existence we have been foragers, and much of human evolution has taken place not in landlocked locations, but where land and water meet’. Whereas our ancestors up to times within living memory worked these shorelines for food and other resources, now the coast is increasingly the scene of heritage trails and scenic walks, a space for leisure and recreation. Part of the cultural value of these intertidal places, however, may be that they engender in us feelings of being in close contact with past generations, as well as, perhaps more intriguingly, feelings of acknowledging and accepting their disappearance. Two memorial benches have been sited at the car park, facing out upon these shores, and dedicated to deceased loved ones. A plaque has also been placed in the ground close to where a totem pole sculpture once stood, to mark the place as one of special significance for the Light-bellied Brent Geese which winter here in vast numbers, spending their summers in Northern Canada. The totem pole was commissioned from local artist, Owen Crawford, to celebrate ‘the cultural links between here and Canada and welcomes the geese back to Strangford Lough every winter’. Nothing of the pole remains beside the plaque, but the geese keep coming back anyway.

Rough Island, Strangford Lough
Rough Island, Strangford Lough

Notes:

John R. Gillis, The Human Shore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

Philip Hoare, Rising Tide Falling Star (London: Fourth Estate, 2017).

Thomas McErlean, Rosemary McConkey, and Wes Forsythe, Strangford Lough: An Archaeological Survey of the Maritime Cultural Landscape (Belfast: Blackstaff Press/Environment and Heritage Service, 2002).

Hallam L. Movius, ‘Report on a Stone Age Excavation at Rough Island, Strangford Lough, County Down’, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 70.3 (1940), 111-42.

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