How I found community by walking on the beach alone

How I found community by walking on the beach alone

By Catherine Franks

Early morning walks on the beach became a part of my life by accident. Sometimes it feels like the best most life changing things happen that way. These walks have been intertwined with Instagram, sharing and community from the beginning.

 Recently I asked my Instagram friends what I could offer as we head into the worrying time of a new lockdown and their responses came back overwhelmingly about continuing to share walks with my dogs on the beaches around North Berwick. I’ve thought a lot about these walks and the sharing of them recently and thought I might write about about why they are important for me and how and why they seem to strike a chord with others.


How our sunrise walks began

I began walking the beaches along the coast of East Lothian here many years after I initially moved to the area. Five years ago I adopted a rescue dog from Cyprus (Ernie) who came to me via The Wild at Heart Foundation, a UK based charity who works to rehome street dogs from other parts of Europe in the UK. Oscar came along about 6 months later the same way. I was not a good candidate for rehoming a dog from a UK shelter as I work full time running my own business but international adoptions took a more wholistic approach to vetting homes and I felt confident that I would work Ernie into my life at Steampunk. Turns out Ernie had other ideas and after being with our family for a few months and initially coming in to the cafe with me every day he started getting more and more anxious around other dogs. He is the most incredibly loyal and even clingy dog. It feels like he imprinted on me when I collected him from the airport in the middle of the night and since then we have had issues with separation. I remember once when I was serving coffee from the van at Fringe by the Sea and one of the team took Ernie away for a walk - 5 minutes later he reappeared, goofy grin on his face, having slipped his collar and run back to me with my colleague running behind trailing the lead with the collar still attached! Despite being great around people he was becoming increasingly nervous around other dogs - barking and lunging and basically acting like a lunatic. So I became a dog walking ninja, ducking behind cars, crossing the road, distracting him with a bone and treats whenever another dog passed. This was pretty tiring considering how many dogs there are around North Berwick so we eventually hit on the idea of walking really early before other people were out.

Walking became my ritual

Suddenly I realised how little time I had spent on the beach since moving to North Berwick. My mornings usually consisted of waking up early and hitting the computer to start work. Anyone who has run their own business knows how all consuming it can be, and I’m by nature a pretty all or nothing kind person. So that would be the start of the day, sitting in front of the computer, answering emails, working on the website, doing social media. Then that would segue into working in the busy cafe through the day, coming home to eat something and then collapsing into bed, only to wake up again the next day and do it all over. The dogs changed that, they got me out on the beach every day before I did anything else.

Learning to observe

Walking roughly the same route each morning, I began to notice how different the beach and the shoreline looked every day. Of course the tide varied, but also the rocks seemed to change, appearing and disappearing. Some days the beach was wide and sandy and flat, other times it was rocky and ankle deep in rubbery seaweed. On one day the dunes sloped gently towards the sea then on the next sharp cliffs had suddenly appeared where the sea had gouged a path during a storm in the night. Some days we walked through the dew on the golf course, other times through the rough long grass that creates the border between the manicured greens and the sand. I began to notice tiny details - the light shining through a dandelion clock, dew dripping from the seedheads of the grasses, the rivulets on the beach where the water channeled its way back to the sea. Even the mysterious and alien mounds of sand created by whatever creature was burrowing underneath - creating weird lunar landscapes when examined from down low, cheek to the sand.

Getting in sync

The time we walk is determined by the light and over the years doing these daily walks has made me much more aware of the seasons, just as it has made me aware of the changing tides. In the summer we walk as early as 4am and in the depths of winter the Scottish sunrise has us walking as late as 8am. In the winter we see many more walkers but in the summer the vast space between sand and sky belongs completely to us. On the odd occasion we have met another soul we quietly glide past one another, each aware we enjoying our moments of solitude and not wanting to intrude.

How to capture the sky?

The sky is probably the dominant thing for me in walks which maybe sounds weird as it seems like the sea should be in the starring role. But it is the skies out here in East Lothian which so often look like paintings that are constantly changing. It must drive artists mad trying to capture that constantly shifting palette of colours. It is the skies that urge me to photograph them, rather than the sea.

I need to say here that when it comes to photographing sunrises and the beach I suffer from total imposter syndrome. There are so many incredible photographers around and I cannot hope to do the same justice to the landscape with my little Samsung phone. But nevertheless I feel the urge to take pictures, to try to pin down those fleeting colours and shapes in the sky. I like the democracy of a mobile phone snap, one that isn’t dependent on expensive equipment but is just a quick glimpse of a moment. I love the way that when you are out walking, being buffeted by the wind and dragged by the dog, or the sun is shining on your screen, you don’t really know what you have until you get home and sit down to take a look. There, as you brew your first cup of coffee of the day, you can scroll through and see the magic appear of unlikely shots that turned out stunning or ones you thought the colours would be mind-blowing but turned out a bit meh.

Instagram and sharing

At first I wasn’t sure about sharing my amateur sunrise snaps on a coffee account (imposter, hello?) and really wasn’t sure who would want to see them. But it seemed people did and those pics were always the favourite on our account. But it was in 2020 with lockdown and through stories that the impact of this sharing truly became apparent. So many people were stuck at home, many without access to the outdoors, certainly not wild outdoor landscapes. The walks seemed to offer a positive start to the day for many people and I got such nice feedback about how folk would wake up and check out the stories first thing, knowing that the dogs and I would have been out and they would have beautiful glimpses of the sea with which to start their day. Many people knew North Berwick already from vacations or growing up here but others did not and now hope to visit when travel becomes possible again.

With Instagram I have long been aware of the negative effects of ‘aspirational’ and ‘lifestyle’ accounts. I found that scrolling through some accounts of lifestyle/influencer types, I was left feeling a bit deflated and my life somehow felt a bit washed out and lacking by comparison. I very quickly stopped following those Instagram pages, realising they brought sadness rather than joy and I was really anxious that our Instagram at Steampunk would not make anyone feel that way.

When lockdown hit I worried that showing pictures of the beaches here could make people feel despairing of being stuck indoors. I was also concerned about encouraging people to travel out here during lockdown when we were all supposed to be staying local. It turns out I needn’t have worried. The feedback was incredible. The messages you all sent were heartwarming, that the seaside walks were in fact grounding, that they gave a sense of perspective, that it was reassuring that no matter what us humans were going through, to know that the sea and nature were just continuing on as normal. It was a comfort knowing that all this amazing beauty was waiting for us when we emerged, blinking, from our separate bubbles. This reaching out through the internet - through comments and DMs and chats in stories - created a web that bound many of us together and supported us through what was often a difficult and isolating time.

New ways of connecting

These walks and thoughts along with the popular recipes from Steampunk that I shared throughout lockdown formed the basis for the Recipes for Happiness book that I published at the end of the first lockdown, that seems to have had the same connecting effect, reaching out to more people who are not connected with us through social media.

But for me, social media has been a lifeline, as a single parent with teenage kids who were largely self sufficient and networking with their own friends through their own electronic pathways, the connections I made through Instagram were a crucial link to other humans and a reminder of how interconnected we all are. Without connection it is too easy to sink into your own thoughts and hibernate in the solitude which can quickly turn into loneliness.

This year, to maintain connections with others we have explored so many new technologies at Steampunk. My first step towards podcasting was when I joined Peter (one of our lovely members of Team Steam) who runs the fantastic mental health Blog and Podcast Tell Me a Time. In this episode we talked quite a bit about the healing power of the sea and walking out in nature. We discussed how restoring it can be to confront your own smallness and your place as part of a larger picture, something that walking along a beach will do if you let it. Do check out the episode if you want to hear more.

The sea and the bigger picture 

The sea itself is a powerful reminder of how small and insignificant we humans are, how at the mercy of nature we really are despite our arrogance and assumptions of being able to tame nature. We have learned that lesson hard this past year with Coronavirus. With the sea, it is the relentless waves, the sound of the shingle being sucked back as they retreat, the destruction of the beach after a storm in the night which serve as reminders of its power. Its underlying darkness when still and its wildness when being whipped up into froth by the eastern winds is equal parts terrifying and beautiful.

Despite living next to the sea, I have only been out on the water once. That was on a beautiful calm evening a couple of summers ago when friends and I went out in kayaks. It was utterly still with the setting sun turning the water to liquid gold (damn, I had left my phone on shore, convinced I would fall in) and we saw seals and puffins and it felt utterly peaceful. Then, when we passed between a couple of the little islands just out from the harbour here, in the shadow of the rocks, the sea suddenly felt less benign. I could feel its energy under the thin skin of the boat and the slate grey water turned matte with hidden menace. It made the golden water of a moment earlier seem like an illusion and showed how quickly the sea can turn on you.

At new years I received a message from one of the followers of our stories. She shared with me that the sea had caused her a terrible loss and that the pictures I had been sharing had helped her gently be able to look at the water again with a kinder eye. Her message touched me deeply and brought home the impact that connections can have and that even if we are unaware of them, that our actions and things we do or share can sustain or help other people in unknown ways. From us there stretches out a whole network of threads linking us to each other, to the sea, to the land and through time to what has created us and what in turn we create for the future. These links are what hold the true value of our shared experiences.

All moments are important, no matter how small

Walking on the beach every day gives me a lot of time to think and naturally the start of a New Year is a time for introspection and resolutions. This year I have spent a lot of time thinking about the choices we make every day - lots of tiny seemingly unimportant moments where we choose to do things one way or another. How we treat someone, whether we wear a mask, whether we stay home, if we share a kindness, if we look after ourselves. These things can add up to big changes and they can also ripple out from us creating change far away from our awareness. Making a thousand little decisions gives us a thousand new opportunities to make changes. And a thousand opportunities to forgive ourselves and move on if we think we made a mistake or could have done better.

The sea and the sunrises over it are a reminder of the constancy of nature and that we are but a tiny part of something infinite. Rather than that being frightening I am finding increasingly there is a comfort in being a part of something bigger and that fact makes me feel empowered to make changes that can have a butterfly effect, reaching out endlessly past myself and my bubble to touch and affect others in ways I cannot even begin to imagine.
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