We were contacted in early September by 14-18 NOW. The director Danny Boyle wanted to do a project called Pages of the Sea that would include sand art portraits of service people drawn into the sand between the tides all across the country on the 11thNovember, 100 years since Armistice day. Could we help?
At the time Claire and I were on holiday in Italy enjoying a quiet period after a busy summer so we stopped eating pizza and ice cream and got to work. This was going to be one of the most complicated and ambitious projects we have ever embarked upon and we would only have 7 weeks to realise it.
The following week we met the whole team in Folkstone for a test run and got Danny Boyle himself raking in the sand. Folkstone is a lovely seaside town but when you imagine its history it is chilling. Hundreds of thousands of people departed for the front from here. There is a railway like pier that they call the canteen and this is where soldiers would get their last cup of tea before departing and for many never to return.
It became evident that there were a mountain of challenges facing us. Firstly we obviously could not be in 28 locations all at once to draw in the sand. This meant that we would have to train teams who had never made sand drawings or worked on a beach before to be able to make a 30 metre drawing to a professional standard. Furthermore, the tide times across the UK are totally different which means that some of these teams would have to start in the dark. In November the days are short and cold, the beaches do not drain so well, and on top of that each beach is unique and has its own challenges and unique logistics.
I was quite frank. “So with all these challenges do you still want to go ahead?”
“Yes.” was the answer from Danny Boyle and his team.
We set about the mountain of logistics and scheduled a training weekend for all the partners such as the National Trust, the National Theatre Scotland, Swansea Council, Taliesin, Aber Arts Centre, Sunderland Culture, Nerve Centre Northern Ireland, Magna Vitae, Creative Foundation, Activate, the Eden Project, Visit Blackpool, Seachange Arts, Oriel Mostyn, Theatre Orchard and the Lemmings Theatre, that were to be involved in the project.
The idea was that we would take 40 individuals, train them how to draw in the sand, and then they would then train a further team and all being well, we would end up with 28 teams and over 160 people to be drawing in the sand on the 11thNovember. This was a mammoth task to get things together but finally, we all met in Ainsdale near Southport to train the teams. The first day was how to work on the beach safely and make the image. It was a lovely day which was good as everyone had a lot to learn, and some had to come back in the evening and learn how to draw in the dark. This is not an easy task as a large beach is a hostile environment and it is easy to become isolated and lost in sea fog. The second day was for them to practice as much as they could by themselves. Unfortunately it absolutely poured it down but in the end these were the ideal conditions as they were all successful and then confident that they could do the image whatever the weather.
From that point on we then designed the images for each location. These were chosen by Danny Boyle and the 14-18 NOW team as a representation of the people of the UK as well as local connections. It was haunting how some of the faces that we drew looked just like young boys and learning about each person’s life and history. Young lives cut short before their time.
We also set about making 800 stencils that were to be distributed to each site. These were for the public to use to make life sized silhouettes of service people on the beach so that they could connect with people of the past and be part of the art work. These were accompanied by producing all the drawing kits that the teams would need for each site.
By the 10thNovember we were all set. All of the teams had their equipment, they had practiced on their beaches, they had the designs and were ready to go.
The Sand In Your Eye team were to do a special 60 metre portrait of the poet Wilfred Owen on Folkstone beach. Wilfred Owen was like a journalist of the time. He had earlier been in the war and discharged due to injury. He did not need to go back, but insisted on doing so as he thought it his duty to report on the reality of war with his poetry that was contrary to propaganda. Owen swam in the sea in Folkstone and left with the other soldiers from the Canteen. On Armistice day 1918 the war ended. Sadly his mother received a telegram that very same day to tell her that her son had died a few days before. He was just 25 years old.
On the early morning of the 11thNovember 2018, 100 years since the end of WW1, we awoke to howling winds, rain, and a very dark night. We were equipped with torches and each other. The sound of the sea kept us company as it rumbled up the beach, slowly ebbing away to allow us a canvas to draw upon. These certainly, were not the ideal conditions, and from the forecast we were to face 40 mph winds with heavy rain. This meant that we had to change the location of our image; a 60 metre image is a very difficult thing to make as you need the sand to be perfect and consistent. But in a way the isolation of the dark, the wind and rain felt right as it makes you feel alive, and this project to me is very much about life as much as death.
Slowly we formed our plans and began to draw in the sand. Beams from our head torches lighting up spots on the beach, hearing conversations on the walkie talkie occasionally but otherwise each alone drawing our lines and with our own thoughts. We drew more. Gradually, light began to emerge over the horizon and we noticed that we were no longer alone. People had come early in their droves to see this page of the ‘The pages of the sea’. By 7am thousands of people had emerged and we removed our plotting system. There was now a thin outline of Wilfred Owen’s face on the sand only to be raked in.
And then it rained. It rained so much that the beach flooded, and the surface water ran to the sea. When sand gets hyper saturated the marks that you make on it dissolve. This is a bit like when you walk on wet sand and your footprints disappear behind you. We stood there as our drawing that we had painstakingly been making since 3am vanished in a few seconds before our very eyes as thousands of people looked on. We stood agog looking down on the sand for any trace. Luckily, there remained the faintest of lines, so faint that if I had not drawn it I would not have believed they were there. But there was Wilfred Owens eye. Rapidly we raked the image back in. The rain abated, only for another storm to come in and erase the image once more, no sooner had we redrawn everything when it happened again for a third time! Finally the rains passed, the skies brightened, we stiffened our upper lips and pushed on and the portrait and the onlookers remained.
This great time-lapse film from the BBC gives some idea of the conditions and challenges we battled with and hopefully triumphed over.
From 9am people gathered on the beach, a poem by Carol Ann Duffy, the poet laureate, was read out by choirs and then members of the public rushed down onto the beach to take part and make their own tribute by etching figures of soldiers, munitions workers and nurses in the sand using templates provided by our team and everyone gathered for reflection. Although there were thousands of people looking over the sea it was only the quiet chatter of contemplation rolling over the waves that you heard. People were connecting with the people of the past and each other to remember and learn. The 11thhour of the 11thday came and there was absolute silence as at that moment the flooding tide passed over the face of Wilfred Owen, to erase what had been a giant image from the beach, never to return.
Sand drawings only last for the time of the tides. The beach is a beautiful place and we cannot improve it. Our drawings only visit it as we do this earth. We try and live the best lives we can until it is our time. Life is precious and for some so short.
This was not the war to end all wars as it was unfortunately followed by others. But it does hark in my mind a period of peace time in Europe that followed. I am in my late 30’s and cannot conceive of Britain going to war with another European county. It seems evident that if we engage with other nations politically and socially in relationships then the conditions for war are much lessened. Of course relationships are not easy, but they reap reward. What concerns me is that we are now in an age of emerging nationalism where countries are seeking to become more isolated. With isolation there is room for jealousy, misunderstandings, relentless greed and ultimately hostility. The conditions for war become more fertile. Let’s hope that we can learn from the pages of the sea.