A Revealing Walk Across New Hampshire's Seacoast

May 28, 2016

Credit The Otter, Flickr

  This Memorial Day weekend the state expects some 600,000 people to come to New Hampshire. Many of them will be on the Seacoast, though probably not many of them will do what poet and author Julia Shipley did - walking the 13 mile stretch along New Hampshire's coast. 

Shipley wrote about her walk for the May/June issue of Yankee Magazine and joined Weekend Edition to talk about what she learned. 

There's a long history - you wrote that people have been settling in the area once known as Winnacunnet for thousands of years.

Thousands of years, yeah. Archaologists from UNH excavated an area in 1974-5 along the Hampton River. They found all kinds of things - bones, shells, tools, clay pots - suggesting people have been living here for thousands of years. But as recently as 2000 B.C. the sea level rose, so a lot more evidence of habitation is likely under the water now.

The way you describe some of these beaches along the coast is interesting. People are doing what you'd expect - they're playing with their kids or collecting shells - and yet they seem pleasantly removed from the rest of the world. It becomes a real getaway even if regular life is only across the street or on the other side of the parking lot.

It's really interesting - there was this one gentleman and he had set up his beach chair facing the ocean and he'd written in the sand in front of him "Chef's Day Off." Walking northward, Massachusetts up to Maine, it was really interesting to think about how off my left shoulder there's people's lives, everyday errands, things going on, and then off my right shoulder there's the ocean, which probably looks the way it's always looked. It was so neat to see this beach culture, almost. As soon as you put your foot in the sand you're off-duty in a way - unless you're a lifeguard, of course.

You walked through a place called Cable Beach, because of the transatlantic cable that had been connected there in the 19th century. You noted that if you look east into the ocean, beyond the Isles of Shoals, there's just Spain.

That was something that surprised me too - I thought I was just taking this walk on the beach. But history kind of kept sneaking up on me. Cable Beach [is] the first transatlantic cable, and there are remnants of it there. And you think that people are now on the beach with their cell phones, they can Skype if they want, or Google, or whatever. This is our first way of connecting across continents and time.

What's interesting, too, is that remnants of this cable are snaking through remnants of this forest that probably got maybe scoured by the glaciers - it's pretty wild to think about going across the ocean but also back in time.

There are so many of these dualities cropping up - the everyday world is close to the microcosm of the beach; there's history and yet there's a timeless quality about being on the beach. I wonder, is it possible to sum up the coast and the people on it?

I think it's too much to condense, even though New Hampshire's the state with the shortest coastline. Each little beach has its own culture. Jenness Beach was definitely sort of the surfer beach. Then there's Rye Beach State Park, which has the obelisk commemorating John Smith's sighting of the coast and visit to the Isles of Shoals. Up an Odiorne State Park [there's] a place where there's World War II gunner turrets that were watching the coast to protect it.

It's all connected, and you can drive it along [Route] 1A, so theoretically it's continuous, and yet it feels like it's beads on a string in a sense that each place has its own feel, its own history, its own people that gravitate towards it.

The beaches closer to Salisbury, Massachusetts were really quiet compared to Hampton Beach, [which] was great and full of people just kicking back and enjoying a lovely day with plenty of entertainment and food amenities nearby. Then up toward Odiorne Point was, again, more secluded and contemplative. There's something for everybody.

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