The Sea in their Blood (1976/83)

(aka The Coastline)

The Sea in their Blood

This is an astounding documentary film showing (and describing to us) what it is like to be beside the sea in Britain. The film was started in 1976 and shelved for a while, then completed in 1983. Greenaway offers us an eclectic array of images related to the sea - boats, slides of fish, photographs, huge waves crashing against the rocks, piers, Blackpool Tower, lighthouses - while a narrator describes a mind-boggling set of statistics and information of the British Coastline.


"Every word of the text which is being presented in a dry and cool way literally sparkles with irony, and the film is nothing but a persiflage on the promotion films that had to emphasize the very particular advantages of certain landscapes... The Coastline could be broadcast as a program of Monty Python's Flying Circus. The gigantomania of the local tourist societies who strive to prove any positive development (and there are only positive developments) by means of figures and statistics will experience their glorious Waterloo here." - EMAF 


There are 730 tides a year in Great Britain, 732 every leap year. 

Portsmouth Harbour has 4 tides or more a day. Leith in Scotland often has no measurable tide at all. There are some 4,327 waves every tide. In rough weather there are not necessarily more of them, they just hit harder and from a greater height, eroding, building and shaping six thousand miles of the British Coastline. 

This is an impression of what it means to be beside the sea in Britain. 

18 million photographs a year are taken with the coastline as their location; mostly by marine biologists, ornithologists, holidaymakers and the British Tourist Board. 

10 types of British seaweed are edible, as are 3 species of English crab, 1 species of Welsh lobster and 12 types of Scottish shellfish.

Queen Elizabeth I had a necklace made of pearls from Kent oysters. Henry VIII had gold threads from muscle-shells sewn into his soldiers' uniforms. 

The coldest temperature at sea level measured in the British Isles was -23 degrees centigrade at Peterhead in 1897. 

But on the same latitude no country has a milder winter - warm water from Florida and the Gulf of Mexico drifts across the Atlantic and permits the Hottentot fig to flower at St Ives, the Chusan palm to flourish in Aberystwyth, the Chilean fire bush to grow in Barrow-in-Furness. 

The British spend 4 million pounds a year on bird-watching, more than anyone else in Europe. It is no doubt a compensation for living on an island and not being able to fly. 

Over 500 miles of land along the British coast belongs to the National Trust, providing ample opportunity to the keen observer to correct some misconceptions, for it was once believed by the credulous that geese came from barnacles the way frogs come from tadpoles, that swallows hibernated underwater and that the swan was worth eating.

At Dunwich on the Suffolk coast a large medieval city has disappeared beneath the sea - 52 churches, 200 streets and a fishing fleet - which in the fourteenth century rivaled anything in the North Sea. 

7 small fishing boats now catch 80 pounds of haddock and 60 pounds of herring every weekend, and each new decade another tennis court, another garden shed goes over the cliff to join the abbey and the cathedral under the sea. At Robin Hood's Bay, where Robin Hood reputedly kept his boats to escape his pursuers, there is one of Britain's 8 marine biology research stations so rich is the coastline in marine natural history. 

The British built 133 castles along their coastline, mostly in the south where it's warmer. But the last successful invasion was by William the Conqueror in 1066.

If every man, woman and child in Great Britain went to the seashore at a given command, they could each be allowed 3 inches of beach to stand on. Strictly speaking there would be no room for their dogs. 

1 out of 10 British families have a boat; 1 out of a 1,000 British families have a tractor. There are 3 million licensed anglers and 259 lifeboats, 7 of them named after the coxswain's wife. In 1981 British coastal lifeboats took action in 3,965 incidents, assisting 7,750 people.

The waters around the British Isles are among the busiest in the world. 300 ships pass daily through the Straits of Dover; 500 ships daily use the English Channel.

912 ferry-boats carrying 25 million passengers cover over 100 million miles a year. The longest ferry journey is from Harwich to the Hook of Holland - 115 nautical miles. The shortest is 204 yards across Pegwell Bay. There are 110 chain ferries and 79 row boat services.

The British have been building sea defences with some earnestness since 1800, and there are now 600 miles of defended coastline. The cost is high - a sea wall costs a million of pounds for half a mile. In 1953 the sea broke through all along the East Coast, causing millions pounds worth of damage, amply justifying the expenditure on stone, wood, concrete, tar, sandbags, clinker, reed mats, marine grass and all the other materials used. Sea defences are built as much to contain the movement of sand and gravel, pebbles and mud, as to deter the hammering of the waves. The land on the East Coast is always on the move. Pebbles at Cromer become gravel at Lowestoft, become the sand at Aldeburgh, and finally disappear into the sea at Harwich. The sea level is rising at the rate of a sixteenth of an inch a year. In the year 160000 it will reach halfway up Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square, and the site of the Battle of Trafalgar will be eight fathoms under the sea. 

There are more than a quarter of a million wrecks around the British Coast. The Isle of Wight can boast a 1,000 wrecks in a stretch of water fifty miles long.

There are 150 lighthouses around the British Coast. The first one was built by the Romans in the first century AD - the most recent is off the coast of Cornwall at Ball Point.

Eddystone Lighthouse has been rebuilt five times - the first attempt was in 1698, the last in 1980. The first version had a cupid on its weather vane, the last has a helicopter platform on its roof. 

Bishop Rock Lighthouse on the Scilly Isles flashes 2 times every 15 seconds with a range of 28 miles, and in fog blasts once for 3 seconds every 30 seconds. Strumble Head Lighthouse at Fishguard flashes 4 times every 15 seconds with a range of 29 miles, and in fog blasts 4 times every 60 seconds. The Royal Sovereign Lighthouse flashes once every 20 seconds and has a range of 30 miles, and in fog blasts twice for 2 seconds every 30 seconds. 

If the lights from all the lighthouse beams in Britain were put together end-to-end, theoretically the beam would stretch from Dover to Kingston, Jamaica.

Lulworth Cove in Dorset in winter has a population of a 1,000 - some 300 families - half of whom catch lobsters and have done since the 1600s, when lobster-pots were fashioned from reeds and willow.

The winter smugglers of 1600, making use of rough weather and stormy seas, are now replaced by winter fossil-hunters, making use of rough weather and rock falls from the cliffs.

Most fishing-boats in Scarborough are named after heroic women; in Grimsby after seabirds; in Aberdeen after characters from Sir Walter Scott. 

A typical trawl from the winter North Sea will catch more cod than plaice, more haddock than herring, more whiting than mackerel, and more dogfish than sole.

A dogfish in the sea is called rock-salmon on the table. The most desirable part of a mackerel is its head. The tastiest part of a lobster is its tail. Lemmet in the sea is called turbot on the table. Dover sole is a luxury, common sole isn't. Herring in the sea can often be a kipper on the table. Most fish is eaten in Britain fried in batter and breadcrumbs. 10 percent is boiled, 5 percent grilled, 3 percent is steamed. Very little is eaten raw except by cats and in Japanese restaurants, 29 in London and 1 in Milton Keynes.

Slipper limpets, softback crabs, rag worms, lug worms and mussels, are dug out of British beaches to catch codling, bass, eels, sole, cod and plaice.

A sea angler uses ledgers, traces, spoons, blood-knots, bird-nests, casters and jelly-floats, and invariably keeps what he can eat to take home and cook for his tea. Friday is still a day for eating fish from Dunfermline to Halifax. The habit has died out in the South of England, but even there more fish is eaten in winter than in summer.

There are 54 piers in Great Britain. Southend has the longest; Brighton has 2, Blackpool has 3. 

Sea bathing was originally recommended as a winter rather than as a summer occupation. Cold water was preferred to warm - the saltier the better, and nude bathing was normal. The Victorians popularised the habit. Going to the seaside became an event. Thousands of workers in the railway towns were given an annual day trip by train, leaving their hometowns empty and deserted. Daytrippers like these started the seaside souvenir business, wanting something small and inexpensive to remind them of their day beside the sea. Souvenirs could always be bought on the pier - painted shells, figures of Neptune, rock, stuffed fish, cuttlebone for canaries, glass crabs, bottles of coloured sand, miniature boats, ceramic mermaids, dried seahorses, pressed seaweed, black jet, golden amber, bottled ships, sailor hats, and models of the pier in brittle toffee.

Brighton has a racecourse, a university, an aquarium, a marina, and a nude bathing-beach. Skegness has a mermaid, a dolphinarium, and a reputation for bracing air.  More people visit Scarborough in the first two weeks of August than they do all the rest of the year put together.

A canal joins the River Severn and the River Thames. Their sources are at one point only 12 miles apart, thus England is split into two large islands. The same is true of Scotland where the Caledonian Canal joins Inverness and Fort William.

The sea is saltier at Filey than it is at Land's End; deepest off the shore at Ross and Cromarty, and shallowest at Morecambe Bay, where with a guide to help you avoid the sinking sands, you can walk 12 miles without getting your feet wet.

3 million pictures of the British Coastline are sent as postcards to all parts of the world every year. 600,000 of them are of Blackpool, 80 percent of which feature the Blackpool Tower - one for every light-bulb that gets switched on every spring, and two for every light-bulb that gets switched off every autumn.

In Blackpool on any morning in July, 180,000 eggs are cracked in 3,500 hotels to provide breakfast for 160,000 visitors, who've just got out of 150,000 rentable beds. Afterwards they might walk on the seven miles of Promenade, eat fish-and-chips from 1 of 200 fish-and-chip shops, and at least 50,000 of them will be back next year doing the same thing all over again.

There are 750,000 beach-huts in Britain, two million caravans, 3,000 seaside swimming-pools, 27 travelling Punch-and-Judy shows. 

Last year 18 million photographs were taken with a glimpse of the sea somewhere in the picture, and with the likelihood of sand too in the camera.

18 million people go down to the sea in summer, one third of them are British, one third of them are from abroad, and one third of them live there already, as at Whitby in Yorkshire - home of Captain James Cook, who set out from Whitby on his voyage to Australia. Home of Count Dracula, when Bram Stoker brought him over from Transylvania. Home of Frank Sutcliffe, Victorian photographer, and home for 80 trawler men, 700 cormorants, a harbour-mussel called the Pickering, and arguably the best smoked haddock on the East Coast.

No British citizen lives more than 60 miles from salt water, and most live considerably closer. Two million in fact can see it from an upstairs window.

12 of Britain's major cities are on the coast, and the 4 capital cities - Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and London - are ports.

For whatever reason, no Briton can go for long without a glimpse of the sea.






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