It is not often you get to see a farmer with his oysters. Man and shellfish in perfect harmony. But such is the life of one Northumberland farmer these days. We drove out over grassy pastures to an isolated stretch of coast opposite Holy Island, the seat of British christianity. It is a bleak and beautiful shore where the oysters grow; a strangely disorienting No Man's Land between the North Sea and the sandy beach. The mainland beyond; the sea, grey blue and flat in the mid distance and grassy dunes behind you. You have no choice but to crunch through thousands of mussel shells to reach their oyster brothers. For a moment you balance above the fragile barnacled blues, but you cannot rest there for ever; you have to accept your lot, shift your weight and press down, walking on into yet more collateral damage. Best not to look back when you walk on what was the seabed - the post traumatic stress could kill you. You have to time it perfectly in order to plunder land which belongs to the sea and is claimed back again so quickly. When the tide slides out, it reveals trestle tables crouched low and iron in the sand. Cross-hatched bags made of strong plastic lie hooked to the tables so that their contents are not snatched back by grasping waves. There is a spot on the river tour of the Thames where a lip-licking guide will show you where offending unfortunates were chained to rusty iron rings to drown when the tide ran in to the capital. Somehow the oystered bags reminded me of that. Presumably they are happier about their situation than yesteryear's river victims.
These are Pacific oysters rather than natives. What crime do you have to be guilty of in a previous life to come back as a Pacific oyster living in the North Sea with no sex life to speak of - apparently it is too cold for them to reproduce. When my farmer friend told me his oysters were hermaphrodites, I was not quite sure what to say. It seemed like too much information too soon. Particularly when they were right there in front of us listening. It is a far cry from a seafood platter at London's Rules restaurant and a strangely timeless way to harvest food. It is believed that monks who lived on Lindisfarne harvested oysters as long ago as the fourteenth century. This most recent foray into oyster farming was begun in 1989 by my friend's father.
Seaweed festoons the oyster bags which are unclipped and then spilled out into a box to be sorted and sized. Tiny green crabs dash for cover between the gnarled and calcified shells, all covered in sandy mud, smelling of the sea - of nothingness and salt. Oysters as small as a thumbnail are "seeded" in the bags and grow for three or four years before they are big enough to be promoted to crushed ice and certain death. If they are too small for gastric tastes, they are returned to their trestle to await another Judgment Day.
When the waters begin to lap around my feet, I looked up from my work and calculated the distance across the pulling sands and crisp shells to the car. I asked myself whether I would make it and wondered what would happen if I did not. As I came back, bouncing in the open back of the 4X4 with the other oyster harvesters, we passed the patch of beach where naturists frolic. (I cannot believe there are that many naturists in Northumberland. They must be a hardy lot - may be I should try that next as part of my quest to feel more at home here? Let me think about it. You know. Maybe not. I might meet someone.) My oyster farmer happened upon a couple of naturists as he was driving out to his oyster beds. He knew they had to be local; the man covered his paraphenalia and the woman her face.