The tour guides of Ephesus, in Turkey, have a nice party trick to wake up their dozing coach passengers. As the coach drives along, they say, ‘This is the ancient port of Ephesus’, and the passengers look, as I did, at fields and trees and nothing else. They peer for the sea and are told it is miles away. Ephesus was a major river port in antiquity but the river has long since silted up and left its port stranded. This fact isn’t in Aldersey-Williams’s book on tides but there are plenty more to be told of the curious, attritional relationship of humans and the tidal waters of the planet.
Don’t be put off by the two muted squibs that open the book: an unexciting tale of sailing that you’ve read a thousand times elsewhere, then a colossally English endeavour set on an ordinary creek in Norfolk, where Aldersey-Williams lives, and where he decides to watch a full tide cycle, for 13 hours. He does his best to provide drama, but froth and tiny tidal creatures can only provide so much. Living humans don’t provide much drama, either. They are surprisingly colourless: even Cedric Robinson, the Queen’s Guide to the Sands for the last 50 years. More interesting than Cedric in this portrayal are the terrifying tides of the sands, which can fill the huge bay with six billion cubic metres rushing in at ten miles an hour.
Perhaps Aldersey-Williams prefers water to people. Even when he builds up his trip to find the Maelstrom of myth — actually a well-known tidal zone in Norway — the result is disappointing. He stands on a ledge to watch the water move, when his reverie is ‘spoiled’ by a boatload of people heading into the maelstrom.