Finding the right stone
The title to this piece is misleading. The right stone for the time and place cannot be found. It must find you. The important part of this union, or more properly re-union is the preparation of your state of mind. Getting yourself into a receptive state of mind usually involves an activity in the landscape, which is in some way disjunctive. Swimming in the sea is always a good sort of activity for this. It has the right mix of uncertainty and danger. It requires you to leave your comfortable habitat, strip off the safety of your apparel and expose yourself to the elements.
Before I start let me make a little digression about the importance of stones. Carlos Castenda in ‘The Teachings of Don Juan’, his spellbinding account of the of the mysterious Yaqui sorcerer and shaman tells how he placed great stress on the power of stones picked up in the dream state induced by eating the peyote mushroom. These stones have the power to protect your soul from capture by hostile sorcerers, and must be kept with great care in case they fall into the wrong hands. Even the more grounded English neo-romantic, Robert Macfarlane is aware of the this power and in his book ‘Wild Places’ he relates how on a wet and wild night he finds a ‘lozenge of gritstone’ in a hollow cave below a Tor which he presents to his dying friend Roger Deakin.
Walberswick beach is as good a place as any to find a stone. The tides are strong here, and the beach can change its character from sharp grating shingle to delicate white sand as easily as an actress takes off her coat to reveal her evening gown. The sea can shift thousands of tons of shingle in a single night from beds off shore and dump it on the beach or cut a wide channel through the sea wall and let water pour into the marshes. A mile and a half down the beach lies the hamlet of Dunwich, once one of the great towns of England but now little more than a pub, a good fish and chip restaurant and a few houses. In the Middle Ages the mouth of the Dunwich River was very much nearer Dunwich, forming a large shallow harbour where the Corporation marshes are now. But in 1286 a large storm blocked and the mouth and the harbour silted up. Over the next five centuries coastal erosion gradually overcame the buildings Dunwich, most of which now sleep on the seabed. There is a tale that sometimes ghostly bells are heard ringing out from the drowned churches under the waves.
The sea at this time of the year is bitter and even the hardiest of my little group of all year swimmers can only swim comfortably for a couple of minutes. Wetsuits are verbotten but gloves and swim shoes are permissible. The latter almost a necessity as shingle on cold bare feet is a painful experience. I emerge from the water with the outer layer of my skin tingling with cold and shock though my inner core is still warm from the increased blood supply. I look at the shingle trying not to focus on any particular stone, using what Wordsworth refers to as my ‘inner eye’. Suddenly a stone looms large in my vision exactly as though I had hit the zoom button on my keyboard. I have been found. There is a moment of recognition. A moment of sub-molecular reunion, as I stoop to pluck my stone, to explore its smooth surface with my fingers, to test its fit in my hand. I have my own time traveller to interrogate. I can probe it about its long journey under the earth. Ask where it was formed? What was it like to feel that immense pressure and heat? I can try and discover how it reached here. Was it elevated high into a now vanished mountain range? How did it come to the sea? Was it swept away in a storm or did some slow glacier prise it from its resting place.
That’s all there is to it really. You have to put your stone away before the cold gets to you. There is usually a bit of banter and village gossip as our little group towels down and we change out of our wet gear. Biscuits reward any accompanying dogs who have waited patiently while we enjoy our little madness.
A different form of madness is a midsummer, midnight swim. At night the sea is altogether different, mysterious, edgy. There is always a feeling of something lurking under the surface. Sometimes the moon is suspended above the water by a silver wire and you imagine you could swim along it into eternity. Sometimes phosphorescence glows on your skin and hair and flung spray forms droplets of molten light which stream from your fingertips like the aurora borealis. For an instant you shed your mortal coil and become a creature of light and infinite possibility.
 Robert Macfarlane, The Wild Places (London: Granta, 2008) pg., 306