Two figures kneel side by side as the waves crash on to the shingle a few feet away. The North Sea is wild today, slabs of bronze- and pewter-coloured water slamming on to the shore and exploding into opaque foam. The kneeling figures hardly look up from whatever they are doing, but from time to time one will lean close to the other’s ear and they’ll shake with laughter.

Lida Lopes Cardozo Kindersley and Els Bottema grew up together in the 1960s in the Dutch city of Delft. The girls met, aged five, when Els would go to Lida’s house during school lunchtimes. As soon as they’d eaten, they would creep into the large abandoned garden that adjoined Lida’s backyard. It was in this secret, overgrown realm that their friendship was cemented. They climbed copper beeches, dug “bear traps” and fended off invaders with a homemade bow and arrow. When they found a dead bird, they would bury it, adorning its grave with the broken shells that covered the garden’s paths. What did the garden represent for two five-year-old Dutch girls at the start of the 1960s? “Freedom,” says Lida firmly. “Freedom.”

Approaching their teens, the two girls “slowly lost each other”, as Els puts it. “I lost everybody,” says Lida sadly. “I had very much landed on the wrong planet.” At the age of 19, she attempted suicide, only to be discovered because of the chance return of housemates. “You were not in my life,” she tells Els. “I wouldn’t have done it, probably, if you had been.”

Then, more than 10 years later, they met again by chance, while shopping in Delft. Els was still living in the city with her husband-to-be, Jan, while Lida was visiting from England, where she was living with the letter cutter and type designer David Kindersley, first her mentor then her husband. “I met David and thought, actually, maybe it’s not the wrong planet, maybe it’s just the wrong place. I’d never felt unloved, but the love that David exuded was something completely different.”

Two people kneel down on the pebbles to arrange shells in a line
Laying the shells with their ‘noses’ towards the sun © Jess Gough
Two women kneeling on a pebbly beach arrange shells in a line with the sea in the background
Els and Lida © Jess Gough

The couple’s love was bound up in their work as letter cutters in stone, and in the workshop they founded in Cambridge. Meanwhile, it was Els’s turn to feel lost. “[I was] sitting at home with this endless pile of laundry, and my second boy was crying day and night, and I thought: this is my life . . . no! This is not going to be my life! I always felt the urge to create.”

Eventually, she found her way to making ceramics, and her life took a new, happier course. “What you need when you make ceramics is patience,” she says. “You have to wait for the right moment. You have to wait for the clay to be the right consistency: not too wet, not too dry . . . ”

“With stone,” says Lida, “you don’t need patience. You just need conviction.”

They are talking about their work, but not only about their work.

Cancer was not alien to Lida, as it is to most whose lives it comes into. David, who was 40 years older than her, died of the disease in 1995. Nearly a decade later, Lida became aware of a pain in her left breast. She was diagnosed with breast cancer, which had spread to her lymph nodes. There was another, so-far-benign lump in her other breast, so she opted for a double mastectomy. After the surgery, she was told she had a 40 per cent chance of survival, which with chemotherapy and radiotherapy would rise to 50 per cent. “I said, well it’s not worth it, is it?” It was her family who persuaded her otherwise. She remembers her shoulder being wet through from her adult son’s tears.

For years, she had borrowed a friend’s place, a former coastguard’s cottage at Shingle Street on the Suffolk coast, to think and make designs. The next day, she packed her bags and drove there. Something told her it was where she needed to be. She remembers standing on the beach, alone: “I walked to the edge and I just screamed.”

The chemo would be “hell”: slow, slow injections of a lurid red fluid into her right arm; hair loss; nausea. In those difficult days, her conversations with her old friend Els were essential. Then, about three months later, distraught and exhausted, she received a phone call. A Dutch number.

“Hey Lida, guess what?”

Els too had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

“At that moment,” says Els, remembering the doctor’s words, “your world changes. Your legs start trembling. It’s like you’ve been banged on your head. It’s like: this is not real. This is not real.”

A blonde woman standing at a window with the sun shining on her
Els © Jess Gough
A line of shells stretching into the horizon
The Shell Line © Jess Gough

She had a lumpectomy (a partial excision of breast tissue) and, like Lida, long courses of radio­therapy and chemotherapy. Shortly after her diagnosis, she had learnt that her mother also had breast cancer. “She had been walking around with a lump in her breast for 12 years and hadn’t told anybody. And so, instead of my second round of chemotherapy, I had the funeral of my mother.”

Then Lida called with an idea. “I know a place where we can be together again.”

Shingle Street is one of those rare English spots where you can still feel overwhelmed by natural forces. It lies about halfway between the container port of Felixstowe and the well-to-do resort of Aldeburgh, and gets its name from the rolling bank of pebbles and cobbles that stretches to the mouth of the river Ore a mile and a half north. For centuries it was favoured by smugglers on account of its inaccessibility, and even today it is connected to the inland world only by a single narrow lane across a tract of boggy pasture.

Remembering that first trip here, 20 years ago, Lida describes how they would go for walks on the beach, picking up shells as they went. “Then one of us would plonk [ourselves] down in the shingle. We were very tired.”

“We were so tired!” says Els.

“We sat down and there was the most beautiful thing: a little sea pea with beautiful little purple flowers. Very small, very vulnerable, and we just started putting our shells around it.” It was not until much later that they remembered the childhood shells they had collected from the paths of the abandoned garden in Delft.

They spent the rest of the week taking short walks and sitting quietly by the fire in the cottage, talking about what they’d been going through. When they returned to Shingle Street six months later, they chanced upon the circle of shells they’d laid down on the beach during the depths of their respective treatments.

“We never thought it would even last a month,” says Lida, but now they felt a kind of obligation to look after what they had begun. And, over the next decade or so, during twice-yearly visits, they laid down a line of shells, each metre, each shell, marking their slow recovery. They reckon the line today contains about 10,000 shells.

In a book they have recently published about the Shell Line, Lida describes Shingle Street as “the kind of place you either love or find unbearably desolate”. On the afternoon that I meet them there, it’s possible to have both reactions at once. Els has come from the Netherlands, Lida from Cambridge. I have arrived from 10 miles up the coast to the kind of weather that would make the coastguard who once lived here reach for his telescope: rain that’s not only horizontal but seems to rise up from the ground, wind that buffets the car like waves hitting a boat. As a pan of chicken soup clinks on the hob in the cottage, we talk about their lives: their childhood in the Netherlands, the people they’ve loved and lost, the beautiful things they’ve spent their lives making, and the crisis that brought them both to this place, where they made another beautiful thing.

When the wind finally drops, the clouds part and we head outside. We crunch across the beach, following the Shell Line from the flagpole outside the house towards the sea. As we go, Els kneels next to Lida to do some tidying of the line. “Their noses must point towards the sun!” she says. She’s talking about the way you place the shells, the pointed end facing south. First you make a shallow trench with your hand, then you line the shells, one by one, along the trench. Each time they return, they find that sections of the line have been disturbed by the wind or seagulls, or the wheels of fishermen’s trolleys, and that some of the shells have been turned grey by the elements. And so they kneel again and re-lay the line, replacing discoloured shells with freshly collected white ones.

When I first came across the Shell Line, I was reminded of the Land Artists of the 1960s and 1970s: the strips of black rocks laid down by Richard Long in the Sahara; Robert Smithson’s spiral of salt-whitened boulders extending into Utah’s Great Salt Lake. But this was different: subtler, less monumental, less earnest. It was the sort of thing any child might have started to make, but its scale, and the patience and labour it must have entailed, weren’t at all childlike.

Waves breaking on a beach
The breaking waves of the North Sea © Jess Gough
A content-looking woman sitting on a chair as the sun streams in
Lida © Jess Gough

The single careful row of shells rolls over one ridge of shingle after another, on and on, until it reaches the sea. Day by day and year by year, tides and storm surges shape and reshape the ridges. One winter a storm might excavate a new saltwater lagoon deep enough for summer swimmers, only for a storm the next winter to fill it in as if it never happened. The Shingle Street that Els and Lida knew when they first came here together has, in that sense, gone.

After 10 years of making the Shell Line, Lida asked Els: “Do you think this will survive?”

“Who cares?” she replied. “It’s just what we’re doing.”

And then, other people started adding to what they’d done.

On her way back home once, Els met a friendly customs officer at Harwich port, who asked her where she had been staying during her holiday. Shingle Street? Had she noticed the line of shells? He and his little boy always added some when they were there. Once, she and Lida were approached on the beach by a father and daughter, who asked if they could contribute some shells to the line in memory of the girl’s mother.

Another time, they returned to find a whole stretch of 60 metres gone — obliterated. There was only one possible cause: someone, for some reason, had meticulously removed each shell. Why? It didn’t matter why, they collected more shells and re-laid the line. As the years passed, and the immediate threat of cancer receded, both women returned to their professional work. Lida remembers the first letter she cut after her return, a capital “M”, 2,000 blows of the letter cutter’s dummy. Els’s recovery was slower, but she too has returned to her studio.

When they come to Shingle Street now, they no longer need to extend the line. It can go no further, either seaward or landward. Their job is just to maintain it, like architectural conservators, replacing greyed or broken shells, realigning those that have gone astray since last they were here. It is this, it occurs to me as we crunch back to the coastguard’s cottage, that gives the Shell Line its power: the attention, even love, that is bestowed upon it, like a sandcastle rebuilt between tides, year after year, decade after decade.

Is it art? That’s not for them to say. “We just sit down here and laugh and sing silly songs and be girls,” says Lida. “It does something big, but that’s not what we set out to do.” It’s true, it does something big, something almost equal to the place itself.

“A Shell in Time” by Lida Lopes Cardozo Kindersley and Els Bottema (Cardozo Kindersley Editions) is out now. William Atkins is the author of “Exiles: Three Island Journeys” (Faber)

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