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Picturing the raw power of the sea

Michael Marten’s photographs show the tide’s daily grind and glory, writes James Pallister

As a schoolboy rower, the winter racing season consisted of a series of weekly time trials or ‘heads’, which would take place in various locations up and down the north-east. Almost without exception, they were bitterly cold affairs, inducing the kind of chilblains you might expect to get hanging around for an hour, waiting for your start time, in a boat on the Tyne in December.

While the rivers of the north-east are generally picturesque, pleasant places, sometimes less than pleasant detritus (a dead dog in a plastic bag, that sort of thing) would pop up in particularly rough spots, the type of stuff we suspected our rivals from posh schools down south didn’t get to enjoy. A memorable, more pleasant mammalian encounter came at Berwick one year, when an otter followed our boat, playing in its wake and popping up between our blades for about five kilometres as we travelled downstream.

Berwick town is very close to where the Tweed meets the sea and near where the photographer Michael Marten started his documentation of the Berwickshire ‘Shore Goats’, the name given to a series of teeth-like rocks that disappear beneath the flood tide. This was the start of a documentary pursuit for Marten, the results of which are soon to be on show in the OXO Gallery on the South Bank. The exhibition divides the 11,000 miles of Britain’s coastline into quadrants and places high and low tide shots next to each other (Solway Firth, pictured).

The pairs with people in them attest to the sea’s power to take away as well as support life. As Robert Macfarlane, the nature-lit heir apparent and author of an essay in the accompanying catalogue, writes: ‘The Fringe of Britain…
is a vast and debatable land, concealed and revealed in a twice-daily tidal magic trick’. Marten’s photographs take this lyrical summation of the tide’s daily grind and shows it in its intimidating and raw glory.

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