We have just had a week on the East Coast. We were near an RAF base called Donna Nook, so the beach we had access to (except during the hours 9-5) was a thing of nightmares, littered with targets, and strange plastic containers arranged in peculiar patterns. It was somewhat eerie. As the owner of our cottage showed us around, he raved about the seal colony further up the coast, and told us that other guests have found it a highlight. He told us we had to wait till low tide, and then walk twenty minutes to the sea, right between the targets, then turn left and walk for twenty-five minutes and we'd be able to walk up through the colony of a thousand or so seals, and it would be an experience of a lifetime.
The first problem we encountered was that low tide seemed to be fairly late, and with small children, that's not so easy. My sister decided she and her husband and all three children were going to go at about seven one night, so we rushed our late dinner and joined her. Mum was tired, and decided to stay at home, so I left the little one with her. The six-year old had had a high temperature as well, so I promised I'd take her another time, and left her, too.
After just ten minutes walking along the deserted beach, the vicious wind had burrowed into my ears and was making them sing with pain. I tried to walk with my hands over my ears, shuffling lop-sidedly. We made our way down through the targets, and turned left. I improved my overall appearance (lop-sided shuffle and all) by sticking clean tissue in my ears, which solved the immediate problem, but looked oh-so-classy. After half an hour, there was no sign of any seals, and we were all getting somewhat bored by the endless sands under a huge sky. The four year old decided that he needed the toilet, which turned out to be the most fun he'd had so far, as he discovered he could draw patterns in the sand.
The grown ups carried on debating whether this was a lost cause, and whether it was low tide, while the children ran in crazed circles, drawing lines in the sand with sticks. Then one of my brother-in-laws spotted a lump on the beach that just might be a seal. A single, lonely, seal; where were the other 999? Never mind; we trudged on with renewed enthusiasm, and sure enough, after a few minutes, the dark blob moved; it raised a dog-like head, and, I imagined, whiffled in our direction, then proceeded to make its painful way to the sea, shuffling and humping awkwardly. Perhaps it, too, was trying to keep the wind out of its' ears. We could easily have cut it off, but it looked so pitiable and panic-stricken, we stood back and watched.
When it had escaped into the grey sea, we cast longing glances over our shoulders back to the radar tower at the RAF base, a mere blip on the horizon now. No-one wanted to be the one to cry 'Quit!' but it seemed we were wasting our time. Then my other brother-in-law spotted a series of speckles on the horizon (I was getting fed up of everything being on the horizon) which he inspected at length through his top-notch binoculars, and declared were seals, possibly even the mythical colony we were searching for. With sinking hearts, we set off again and eventually were close enough to see the individual seals, glaring suspiciously in our direction. Any move towards them sent waves of them flopping towards the sea; graceful as a collective. We managed to sneak a few steps closer without scaring the whole lot away, but there was no way to get between the sea and them, as advised. A few of them, safe in the waves, stayed nearby, watching us, domed heads bobbing against the pewter sea. The light was beginning to seep out of the sky, ever so slightly.
We admired the seals a while longer, because we felt we ought to after all that effort, but really there was little to see at the distance we were. At last we felt it was fair enough to give up, and we headed straight across the beach to the radar tower. The four year old was definitely flagging; his bottom lip was quivering, and his Uncle offered to give him a ride once we got to the fluorescent orange containers. I didn't feel that happy about cutting straight across a bombing range; there are times when an imagination is a curse. We ended up singing songs that were torn from our lips by the wind, and swinging arms with the four year old. We set off at a grim pace, determined to get him home before he collapsed with tiredness, or into a puddle of tears. He kept up and joined in, and suggested more songs when he had breath. We told stories, and watched the landmarks, which didn't seem to be any closer.
At last we reached the orange containers on sticks; the brother-in-law pointed out they were in the shape of an arrow, but we were all far from impressed, our eyes fixed still on the ever-distant radar tower. At last we made it through the mudflats and to the edge of the dunes; past the base and its weird fake helicopter, make of a thin frame covered in netting. The four year old decided to climb down again, telling me earnestly, 'He didn't ask me to get down, I wanted to, cos I thought he was tired.' He clasped my hand, and I knew what he really meant; he was tired and wanted his Mum. We passed the signs that warned death and calamity if you wander onto the beach at the wrong time, and not to dig up anything at any time, and then there was our path through the dunes. We almost missed it, we were in such a rhythm.
We filled up on cheesecake when we got back, and the four year old was asleep before I'd covered him up.
Next day we went to the seal sanctuary, and got to look at doe-eyed seals close up; really close up.
'We saw loads of them last night,' the four year old boasted.
The six year old regarded them with serious eyes, then looked at me.
'Are you going to take me to see the colony tonight, Mummy?' she said. 'You did promise...'