The dark cloak of night was yet to loosen itself from the town of Santander as I crept up from a creaky bed onto the creaky floorboards of a creaky guesthouse. Desperately trying not to disturb sleeping parents next door – clearly not helped by the creakiness of this particular guesthouse – I gathered the only set of keys and my camera and set out to surreptitiously escape the building and head towards the sea. If you cannot sleep, why not watch the world wake up.
Emerging into the refreshingly cool and breezy air – a pleasant change from the pungent heat of a Spanish summer – the sea was barely visible, merely a rhythmic thrash of water hitting the shore somewhere distant. To the east, the sky was only just beginning to soften to indigo, the change marked by the silhouettes of gulls rising in the distance, their shrills increasing in tempo and building in volume. Elsewhere, further occasional signs of life…eager fishermen setting out, unseen shutters rolling up, street sweepers marking a clean slate. The final blinking of a distant lighthouse extinguished as the horizon turns deep blue and a thin strip of orange light flashes across that steadfast line between sea and sky.
Now, a red sidelight flickers across the whitecaps of surf, as rocky outcrops transform from black and white to heavily contrasted greys and greens. With light, sand becomes copper, every little rock and patch of seaweed casting a long shadow across the grainy canvas. Footprints are embossed alongside the water’s edge, as the first joggers, amblers, dog walkers and sleepless tourists break the surface. More gulls gather on the beach, more shutters are heard rising; more vehicles make their way along the coast road in a subdued early morning hush. The sun glides quickly higher into the sky and the moment is gone – for another day.
The world may now be awake but the parents still seem to be snoring. It was a long drive the previous day, from south to north across Spain. Through the dusty nothingness of the interior and over the greener, damper northern ranges, we reached Santander after dark and pretty much flopped out in our hastily picked guesthouse. I was surprised to awaken and watch the light introduce a different Spain, with surf cleansing the broad golden sands and scouring craggy rock platforms in between. A verdant headland of cypress pine and she-oak marked the entrance to a snaking, shallow estuary , peppered with sandy coves and treacherous currents. Beyond, the backdrop of forested mountains, lined at their base by popular coastal towns and expensive waterfront properties. For one moment I thought I had woken up on the south coast of New South Wales again.
I shared some of this world in full daylight with Mum, heading off for a little walk once everyone had arisen and dressed and drunk several cups of tea before checking out. They hadn’t even realised I had been out in the morning, such was my obvious stealth and their obvious talent at sleeping in. Outside, we found that the headland was indeed a pleasant spot, the array of trees now offering useful shade for the sun spanning overhead. In fact it would have been a good spot for a little doze, especially if you happened to have been up and out when it was still dark that morning . However, we had a ferry to queue for to take us through to the following dawn.
In between one whole revolution of the earth there was still some time to fill. This involved a lot of sitting around. First for coffee and some local food that I cannot remember other than it being deep fried and delicious. Then, once over the international barrier and beyond the spell of the salty streets of Santander, the most mind-numbing wait to board the ferry, sat in a car in the heat of the day while the Spanish operators have a siesta or go on strike or something. And further, once finally on the ferry, the futile task of finding something to do, other than sit down and have a drink.
To be fair there were at least, oh, 3o minutes worth of exciting ferry activities: walking the upper deck via a maze of secret stairwells; perusing every item in detail in the gift shop and working out whether it is cheaper to buy in Euros or Pounds; wondering do they actually sell those giant M&M characters and comedy oversize Toblerone bars anywhere else; and, importantly, noting the location of every toilet accessible once rolling about in the Bay of Biscay. So it turns out that the sitting down with a drink option is by far the best, a chance to farewell the Spanish sun that I greeted many, many hours ago.
I should note that, amusement-wise, there was also the excitement of the little cabin we had booked for the overnight trip. Here, an air of childlike wonder in discovering clever folding beds and storage spaces, incredulity at how they managed to fit a toilet and sink and shower in a tiny cupboard, bemusement with ever so miniscule space-saving gadgets and fittings. And, despite effectively being a pimped up prison cell, an astonishing sense of light and space. It’s like the Tardis, only marginally less scientific and with fewer smartass actors and delightfully ridiculous storylines.
To be honest, I could have done with an interruption from Daleks, perhaps emerging literally out of the woodwork, stealthily disguised as the bin and composite parts of the sink unit. At least I think their grating warnings of impending extermination may have woken up Mum and Dad and given me a break from their snoring symphony. So in sync that when one stops the other starts, building to a wave of crescendos where all components of the orchestra are at full blast, ending with a huge crash of drums and cymbals. Then just a brief intermission before the next number. Their melody in tune with the rocking and rolling of the sea, a sea which mercifully calms midway through the night, unlike the music.
With no natural light and a regular swaying movement the cabin proved quite disorientating on the senses but somehow with all this going on I believe I did sleep (and probably bolstered the orchestra in the process). And with that came morning, or at least the clock said it was approaching morning for all that you could tell inside. A trip out on deck confirmed this, while the temperature confirmed that we had definitely left Spain and were approaching England. Another day, another dawn, this one inevitably shrouded in grey on the eastern horizon, but a clear softening in the light marking the transition from one state to the other. The period of transition which makes dawn so special, so magical, so hopeful .
With reassuring inevitability the sun eventually emerged above the solid brush of low cloud and timed itself with a majestic arrival into Plymouth Sound. The pleasing site of land, and not just any old land but my land, inching nearer and becoming a reality at Rame Head, its patchwork of bracken and gorse a khaki camouflage rising out of the blue sea. To the east, rays of sun glowing godlike through clouds over Mountbatten, angling towards the west and lighting up the cosy cove of Cawsand. And directly ahead, a glimmer of red and white standing erect on the foreshore, a beacon to Janners worldwide: Smeaton’s Tower.
A perfect combination of movement and light heralded me into the arms of Plymouth, the ferry gliding serenely through the water, the low projection of light colouring and highlighting the ultimate goal. Rather like some kind of tractor beam from an alien spaceship, dragging me towards it, resistance futile and probing likely. It was the first time I had been back in a little while and arriving by sea in the first sunlight of the day made it seem like some exciting new place, exotic and far away . The anticipation building as the port came closer and closer. The freshness in the air added to a sense of rejuvenation. It truly was a new dawn, a new day, and I was feeling good.
Can there be any better time of the day than dawn? Sunset is an obvious rival, with both dawn and dusk offering subtle changes that equate to a dramatic whole. The inevitability of both being a reminder that humans remain immaterial, the world carries on spinning, regardless of what we do. Wherever you are, whatever you are up to, there will be a dawn and a dusk, in which the skies will transform, clouds will burn like flame, and light will glow and fade on the landscape. Dawn is extra special in that it requires a little extra effort, rising at unnatural hours, skipping breakfast, embracing the cold. Anyone can see a sunset. Only the committed or narcoleptic may see a dawn. And for this effort you will often be rewarded with peace, solitude, tranquility, a calmness which exacerbates the spirit of rejuvenation and hope that emerges with a new dawn.
 I may be factually incorrect with the tree types, but don’t quote me on it
 I believe, looking back at Google Maps, this headland is the Peninsula y Palacio de La Magdalena
 I hope my friend Dawn happens to read this, for surely there are significant brownie points available.
 In fact, when ashore I noted the rather peculiar, distinct language of the local population. Then joined in.
Santander Tourist Information: http://www.spain.info/en/ven/otros-destinos/santander.html
Palacio de La Magdalena: http://www.centenariopalaciomagdalena.com/es/
Brittany Ferries: http://www.brittanyferries.com/
Driving me in Spain: http://neiliogb.blogspot.com.au/2010/10/youre-driving-me-in-spain.html