Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Port whine?

Newhaven. It's quite a pleasant name, isn't it? I can imagine Newhaven as a cosy little seaside town in New England; all white painted, weatherboarded houses with paling fences; a couple of bearded old salts mending their nets on the quay, spinning yarns for the tourists; sand dunes sloping lazily down to the sea; the smell of freshly cooked lobsters...

But the Newhaven close to where I live is a very different place. It's a port town at the mouth of the River Ouse in East Sussex, handling passengers and goods bound for Dieppe, and port towns always seem to have a rather scruffy air about them. Our Newhaven is no exception. It has a hinterland of industrial estates, scrap yards, sewage treatment plants and empty factories, one of which, the Parker Pen company (remember them?) has recently laid off all its workers and moved operations to France. That's nice of them, isn't it? The town centre isn't much better. Many of the shops are empty and some of those still operating seem to be in two minds about it. As I walked down the High Street a herring gull was pecking at an empty pizza box, trying desperately to turn it over in order to reach whatever residue was left inside. Every time someone passed, the gull would wander off, feigning a lack of interest in the box. You could almost hear it whistling and staring vacantly into space. But when the passer-by had gone it renewed its assault on the box. A child coughed without putting its hand over its mouth. Outside a nearby pub a heavily tattooed employee was enjoying a doorstep cigarette, whilst at the bus stop, someone had helpfully written the word "ARSE" four times on the red plastic bench beneath the shelter.

All of this might lead you to think that I've got a bit of a downer on Newhaven. Curiously, I haven't. There's something about the place; something that gives it special character that one only finds in marine towns. Alright, so the pubs might look a bit scruffy, but they have a kind of faded grandeur; a sense of having been buffeted by the weather for a couple of centuries, a bit like some weather-beaten old sea captain. And, what's more, they're still open and offering bed and breakfast to the traveller. The street lamps in the High Street have canopies that are reminiscent of the sails from some old square-rigger. There are no less than three war memorials placed in a tiny but beautifully kept garden at the edge of the town. The smart marina, set about with pastel-coloured apartment blocks, is home to a large number of expensive-looking yachts, their halyards slapping against their masts in the stiff breeze. And there is a special quality to the light; a brightness that is not seen in an inland town; a brightness that makes you want to take up a paintbrush and commit something to canvas...

Just occasionally, I look out of my bedroom window at night and see a ferry steaming out to sea, its bright lights reflected in the inky blackness of the English Channel. Sailors have been putting to sea from Newhaven and other Sussex towns for centuries, rowing, sailing or under power; many have failed to return, due to war, weather or shipwreck. But watching these great vessels gliding silently to goodness knows where brings a sense of continuity to an ordinary event. Newhaven has seen better days, but it battles on regardless, like a tramp steamer chugging on in the teeth of a westerly gale. Long may it do so, I say.

Blimey. I got all poetic there for a moment.