Sandsend beach in North Yorkshire is a beautiful sandy bay surrounded by cliffs with a view of the ruined Whitby Abbey at the south end. It is an interesting sort of beach with rocks, caves, fossils and rivulets running into the sea, the sort of beach where you could while away a whole day beach-combing or exploring. What makes it interesting and relevant to this blog is that apparently it was whilst walking on this beach that Lewis Carroll thought up his poem the Walrus and the Carpenter which was told to Alice by Tweedledee in Alice through the Looking Glass, published in 1871. If you don’t know the poem you can read it here http://www.jabberwocky.com/carroll/walrus.html.
You can imagine thinking up a poem on Sandsend beach. It is just about the right length to get thoughts going. At the north end the sands stretch out far into the distance and you can see why the tidy-minded Walrus and Carpenter might have ‘wept like anything to see such quantities of sand: ‘if this were only cleared away’, they said, it would be grand!’.
There have been several attempts to interpret the poem. Some describe the elderly walrus and carpenter as aggressive sexual predators, preying on the innocent young oysters. Others comment on the Victorian morbidity and ‘creepiness’ of the poem. Some consider the walrus, carpenter and oysters to represent political figures of the time. I prefer to enjoy it as a clever and entertaining nonsense poem. As a child I loved the contradictions in it (the sun shining in the night, the oysters wearing shiny shoes even though they had no feet, the boiling hot sea etc.) and the form and language of the poem made it easy to remember.
The Victorians of course loved oysters which were a cheap, easily obtainable food and something of a staple for the poor. Oysters were gathered from beds around the coast in their thousands until they ran out- quite suddenly- due to pollution and over-fishing. Having walked the length of Sandsend beach I can confirm that the Walrus and the Carpenter did a pretty comprehensive job in finishing off that particular oyster bed. I couldn’t find a single oyster shell, ‘but that was scarcely odd because they’d eaten every one’.