I grew up with travel books and ‘travel literature’ has been a constant pretty much all of my life. Travel literature has been around for a long time but, perhaps, came into its own after the second world war. As we moved through the 60s and 70s travel became more democratised. It became easier to research and to plan trips and travel also became more affordable. And there was still a lot to discover and to write about. While western economies were developing there were still many places in the world that were unspoilt or where local cultures had experienced only minimal exposure from the outside world.
You will have your own favourite authors but in all honesty I’ve fallen out with the genre in recent years. It is arguably too easy now to write a travel book. So many have been written that there seems little space for innovation. We are obsessed with celebrity travel. Books seem less profound and more about echoing television entertainment than about being inspirational in the way,well, only a book can. There appears to little new to write about. it all becomes very formulaic. And then something pops out of nowhere and thrills you once again!
The Naked Shore is a great book based around a proposition so simple that I’m amazed this hasn’t been done before. Tom Blass sets out to explore the North Sea, travelling north from the mouth of the Thames crossing endlessly over the sea to the continent and back again.
The North Sea is a dark and forbidding place, not exotic in the tropical sense but no less complex and surprising. To some extent we can see shared culture that you might not first imagine, through the Saxon and the Vikings and then through the traders of the hanseatic League. But we also have fascinating sub cultures, sailed communities that scarcely figure on the map. While we might simply blink at the mention of some of these places today and then move on, some of thee tiny pieces of rock assumed ridiculous importance in years gone by.
First off, Blass explores the Thames from Tilbury to the sea; it is at Tilbury that the Thames river pilots give way to sea pilots. This is the land of Great Expectations, of mist and marsh bt also of modern economic development and growth. Past Southend the Shoeburyness marshes are a weird and wonderful places still used by the military, conjuring up a word;d all of its own. On the opposite side of the sea the river Shelde (running through the great port of Antwerp) is often seen as the twin of the Thames. but of course these two rivers run a different course through the history and culture of place as much as they share a similar natural history.
Bless focuses on both the ancient and the modern, on geology and on today’s geo politics. And then there is the lost land of ‘Doggerland’, a once well inhabited bridge of land between ourselves and the continent, memories and remnants of which show up occasionally in extreme weather conditions and in the nets of fisherman.
The island communities are fascinating. Heligoland while now just a blip in the ocean off hamburg was once seen as important enough to be traded and bargained for by nations on both sides of the water. Further north there are some even stranger island communities but I won’t spoil that for you here!
And then there are industrial bases, the tough towns and communities of North Lincolnshire and the Humber. Fishing predominates here and the social and economic industries is no less fascinating than the geological and natural history of the region.
Blass writes beautifully. It is something of an achievement to produce such a riveting, entertaining and educational book about an area so close to home, that we all think we know so well.