Anchored

SAMSUNG CSC

It has been a summer of drifting.  One day into another, sun into rain and back again.  There has been no definition to the season.  No meadow season.  No season of tiny flying things.  Not even the dreaded dog days of August.  Even now, as the season turns, we drift from the hottest September day for over sixty years into impenetrable fog.  And I have drifted too.  There has been my job and the times in between; there has been little writing.  I have no clear sense of what I’ve done with my summer.  Writing is so often about trying: trying to find a story; trying to write that story in the way you have imagined it; trying to find someone to publish it.  Sometimes what’s necessary is to stop trying and drift for a while.

SAMSUNG CSC

But summer has begun to drift into autumn.  The days shorten imperceptibly.  It is always a surprise how early darkness comes.  Mist festoons the dawn.  The spiders are at work building their webs.  And I’ve come back to the earth to find an anchor, something to root me to the creativity of autumn.  Walking into the forest is always a liminal thing.  There is the moment before, when you are in open landscape, and the moment after, when the trees enfold you.  This is my threshold: the drifting summer before I entered the trees, the rooted autumn afterwards.

SAMSUNG CSC

For me, autumn is all about earth.  It is about the call of the land.  Magically, autumn is associated with water, but the creativity that finds me in this season is from the deep darkness of the earth.  It rises from below and from within.  So I’ve come back to the woods, to walk earthen paths and to be cossetted in a claustrophobia of trees.  I’ve left the airiness of the sea and the wide horizon, for a horizon cloaked by green.

SAMSUNG CSC

And here, I also find stones.  On the North Yorkshire moors the Bridestones are sandstone formations shaped 150 million years ago.  To reach them, the track is steep and strenuous, through old oak forest.  I can’t imagine that the trees will ever open up into moorland.  But soon there is a gate, leading through a bracken-choked field.  And then there is a track, purpled with heather, and there is the first stone, drawing us on.

The stones are giants.  Gnarled, pocked and ridged, crevices inhabited by wild flowers.  They stand on either side of a deep valley, a semi circle of watchers.  It is said that their name is from the old Norse for ‘edge stones’, but the edge of what?  Some say they are the petrified remains of bridal parties lost in the mist on the moors.  Others say they are sacred to the goddess Bride, she ‘of the high places’.  But there is more than one goddess here.  The stones have the shades of old crones within them – a face here, a silhouette there.  These are hoary old goddesses.  Fierce, watchful, demanding.

This is a wide open place.  I stand on an outcrop and despite the fierce humidity of the day, I feel the whip of the wind across the valley.  This is an unforgiving landscape and if you were lost here, I suspect you would get no quarter from these stones.  But still, they sing of what is beneath and within the landscape.  There is more to the Crone than ferocity.

SAMSUNG CSC

Back in the woods, I watch two sexton beetles battle over the corpse of a shrew.  The loser crawls away in defeat, while the victor scurries to the body to begin work.  The beetle will excavate the earth beneath it, drawing the body under the soil, where it will be food for its larvae.  Look closely and you can see the tiny mites that live in co-operation on the beetle, eating the eggs of other flesh-easting rivals.  It can take eight hours for the beetle to finish its work.   The next day I return and on the surface there is no trace, but beneath the earth, who knows what transformation is taking place?

This is the season of beneath.  When the fungi whose roots bide their time for miles under the earth suddenly fruit.  A shaggy inkcap, a foot tall, beckons to a fence.  Beyond the fence, forgotten steps sprouting bracken lead down to an old makeshift bridge spanning the beck.  This is the season when hidden things become visible.  I sit on the verandah and a roe deer appears, no more than a metre away.  It stops and looks at me for one perfect moment, before bounding into the forest.  The spirit of the woods has visited.

Harvest is almost upon us; when the fruits of our labours make themselves known and we reckon up what we have achieved.  I have anchored myself back to the earth, ready for the coming season of fruitfulness.  I do my best creative work in the dark half of the year, delving beneath and within the darkness to shape the year’s dreams.

Transition

SAMSUNG CSC

It is the dawn of the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.  This midsummer dawn is a time of transitions.  For a moment the sun stands still, before the year turns into another season.  Later today, the moon will become full, the first time in half a century that it has done so on a summer solstice.  It is the fourth full moon in a season, something that happens seven times within a 19 year cycle.  High tide coincides with dawn, reaching its own zenith before ebbing.  At spring equinox, I was at the other end of the causeway, marooned on the island with the seals.  Today the tide resists me, barring entry.

SAMSUNG CSC

In the west, last night’s moon is setting.  It hangs suspended, an amber globe, almost at its potential.   In the east, the horizon hints at sunrise.  A slash of yellow silhouettes gloomy clouds.  Pinprick lights glow from ships far out at sea.  Clouds dwarf the ships as though pressing them downwards.  They look small and lonely out there.

SAMSUNG CSC

As the light grows, sand martins flicker across the water and back to their burrows in the cliffs.  There are some ducks that might be eiders in the distance.  But there are no bird calls, only the relentless growl of the sea.  A flock of geese flies silently overhead, in the midst of changing positions in their V.  The sky is all luminous pastels and foreboding greys.  A yellow stripe daubs the horizon.   The clouds play at masquerade: brush-strokes, wire wool, snow-clad peaks and blotched fur adorning the sky.

SAMSUNG CSC

This is a time for empowerment and some would say the combination of a fourth full moon with the solstice emphasises that power.  It’s a time to renew energy, to inhale the lightness of the season, because after today we’re already heading towards darkness.   But there has been little in the way of sun recently and much of drizzly rain and grey skies.  This morning, I don’t feel empowered, I feel tired.  And yet, there is a simmering power in the silence, if not of the sun, then of sea and sky.

SAMSUNG CSC

Our world has both expanded and contracted this week.  We shared home, food, lives and experiences with a visitor from America, reminding us that we are different but much the same.  But our world has suddenly grown smaller.  We’ve chosen to withdraw from Europe and become an island again.   In this season of looking outwards, many of us have chosen to look the other way.   This is a country enclosed by sea and sky.  It would be easy to view it as a barrier and this island as a fortress.  But when I stand at the sea’s edge, I see only an expanse of possibility.  It’s what allows me to breathe.

SAMSUNG CSC

Summer is a time of plenty, when we enjoy the bounty of what is around us.  But not for everyone and there’s a fear that there isn’t enough to go around.  The divisions are showing, between young and old, between those with and without.  It seems that we are in chaos and uncertainty as we confront the descent into winter.   In town, I’m surprised that people are going about their business as though nothing has happened.  This is another transition – we stood still as the votes came in with another dawn.  Now the sun recedes, even as summer comes, and we as a people are withdrawing too.

SAMSUNG CSC

It’s time to collect what we can from the summer to empower and sustain us into the winter.  To gather our sustenance from the light, the heat, the bounty of the land and the swelling of our imaginations.  I can’t help but feel sad today at what we may have given up, but I take my sustenance from the quiet power of the solstice dawn.  From the wide open sky and the potential of the horizon.  Transition always comes and in itself, it’s neither good nor bad, only a change from one way of being to another.

Return to Tocil Wood

SAMSUNG CSC

I arrive in a summer storm.  The landscape is blurred with rain; rain that is like a Flamenco, drumming away the sticky heat.  I came here a year ago for a work event and never expected to return.  A year ago, I found secrets here, in the shade of Tocil Wood.

SAMSUNG CSC

This is a place buffeted by trees and run through with water.  And it’s a place of fowl: a gaggle of Canada geese grazing on the grass, mallards, moorhens, coots and Greylags.  Geese honks are like clanging buckets in the distance.  I expect a colourful meadow of poppies, buttercups, ox-eye daisies and viper’s bugloss, in contrast to the greens and whites still dominant further north.  But the meadow is gone, replaced by the construction site for a new building.  I can see only a cluster of ox-eye daisies and buttercups fringing a muddy pool of water behind metal barriers.

SAMSUNG CSC

This meadow path was the track that led me to a small swing in an enchanted glade, but if the meadow is gone, perhaps the enchantment will be gone too.  I find another way around, into the watery landscape, through oaks dripping with rain.  There was a broken tree here last year.  It formed an arch that beckoned me on, but the arch too has vanished.

SAMSUNG CSC

I struggle to find the track to the glade.  There appears to be no way in, but it’s just a matter of easing the eye into the shapes of the undergrowth.  I push through and there is the swing, still hanging in the darkness of the dell.  Lying right beneath it is a single blackbird feather, like a welcome.  I take it with me.

SAMSUNG CSC

I walk further into the shaded glade.  It was always a dark spot, but today it is fogged with rain.  The ground is slippery: thick red mudstone that has been gathered for clay here since the 1st century.  Part of the steep slope has been roped off.  But a little further in, two more swings have appeared.  The first seems to have been made by the same hand as the original, fashioned from slatted wood and rope.  The second is bright blue plastic.  Both wait, empty, for small bottoms to fill them.

SAMSUNG CSC

And though my original arch through the trees has gone, there are others here, trees bent and twisted, beckoning me along the tracks.  One leads to a den that has been created in the trees.  A child’s toy lies forgotten, colourful plastic among its dead  branches.  There are ropes fixed into the hillside.  This unlikely spot has become a place to play.  A slightly wild place, the kind we might wish to have inhabited as children.  I follow the path further into the trees.  The ground is choked with young ivy and  campion, there are oaks and hazels and fallen trees.  I emerge damp but satisfied to have reclaimed a little of the magic.

SAMSUNG CSC

Later, I return to the woods.  I find the clearing of trees that I discovered a year ago.  Another secret space in the forest that spoke of enchantments and stories yet to be revealed.  I wonder if the heron at the edge of the pond is the same bird that guarded the threshold to the woods last year.  A place has many stories.  In one story it remains the same as the first time we met it.  In another, builders put up barriers and change its landscape.  In yet another, children take over and make it a place of play.  My story of Tocil Wood is all of these and none of them.  I was only here for a moment but I am part of the story too.

Finding a story

SAMSUNG CSC

The world is decked in white and green.  Spring is tipping into summer and the earth suddenly seems more vibrant.  Lush greens laden with the clotted cream of hawthorn.  Cow parsley frothing in the hedgerows.  Horse chestnut flowers, service tree and rowan blooms, dandelion clocks.  Even the butterflies are all white today.  Cherry blossom, nearing its end, is snowing in the breeze, lazy petals floating to the ground.  Tiny seeds, encased in fluff dance in the air.   It’s a quiet, lazy day.  The ducks are sleeping or preening, the birds are singing but invisible.  If they’re working at spring, they’re doing it out of sight.

SAMSUNG CSC

Spring has been like treacle.  May has been an endless month.  I’ve been be-set by disquiet, unable to settle to anything.  My work in progress is finished.  I have revised it twice and there is nothing more to be done until it’s had its first reading and I have some feedback to work with.

SAMSUNG CSC

I’ve been in mourning for the story that has ended.  We spend months, sometimes years, with a story.  We live with the characters.  They are family, friends, sometimes closer than that.  As much as they can be difficult at times, I find it a comfort to return to their world.  So there is a celebration at the end of a story, but after the celebration is the mourning.  I’ll tinker with it, I’ll revise it, but I’ll never write that story again.

SAMSUNG CSC

At the end of my story there’s a gap where the writing of it was.  I slipped into a habit of writing every day and without that there’s something missing.  I feel the need to begin again, but I’m struggling to find a story.  I start, with an idea that was always going to be my third novel.  I write a prologue with gusto and stop.  I attempt a first chapter but it stalls.  The characters are poised to embark on a story if only I can tell it.  But this is where doubt seeps in.  Am I stuck because I’m following the wrong idea, or because I don’t yet know what the story will be?  Or perhaps – and this is the real fear –  I don’t have another story in me.

SAMSUNG CSC

Winter is my time for dreams.  Perhaps this brazen spring light is too harsh for dreams to flow.  But the solstice will soon be upon me, the time for empowerment and renewal.  And today the vibrant earth and the freshness of those whites and greens stirs something.  I watch a mother and daughter playing beneath a cherry tree in the park.  They shake the branches to make a snow storm of the blossom.  I watch them laugh, lost in their own game.  There’s a story there.  There are stories everywhere.  Back at home, I find the thread of the story I’m seeking and follow it.

The hidden garden

SAMSUNG CSCSAMSUNG CSC

‘You look and see nothing, and you might think there wasn’t a garden at all; but, all the time, of course, there is, waiting for you.’ 

Philippa Pearce – Tom’s Midnight Garden

In spring I dream of gardens.  I yearn for something more than this patch of walled concrete, its plants caged in pots.  Something like the hidden garden on the edge of the forest that unfurls behind the beech hedge.  Something like the magical, midnight garden that appears as the clock chimes thirteen.

SAMSUNG CSC

The garden at the forest’s edge lies hidden behind a hedge of golden beech.  There is  a small gap, like a gilded archway, beckoning green beyond.  Wispy branches, studded in bronze leaves, tempting me in.  I cross the hedge threshold into a forgotten grove.  A trio of yews greets me: the magical tree, guardian of graveyards, the tree of knowledge and eternity.  Beyond the yews, a pair of squat stone posts mark what must once have been a path, but my dog will go no further, barking at something I cannot see.

SAMSUNG CSC

I follow ivy and moss-choked steps, strewn with golden leaves.  Into a corridor of brick columns, garlanded with ivy.  They stand as forgotten sentinels within this forgotten garden,  leading only to the side of a building with a crenelated top and a bricked up window.  This and a small cluster of buildings that were once servants’ quarters are all that remains of Keldy Castle.  Not so much a castle as a large house, whose owners invented Brasso and Windolene.  A cluster of log cabins has grown up around it, yet the garden is still a secret among them.  It belongs to the ivy and the yews and the fallen leaves.

SAMSUNG CSC

A garden is a piece of the wild contained.  No matter how we prune and trim and weed, it will always hold that wildness within.  Plants will grow where they aren’t supposed to.  Creatures will move in, wanted or not, creatures who don’t know what a garden is, let alone that we might consider them trespassers.

SAMSUNG CSC

A garden is a plot of magic.  We might know the science behind how things grow, but the process is magical all the same.   The garden in Phillipa Pearce’s book Tom’s Midnight Garden is a truly enchanted garden, one that has stayed with me since childhood.  It’s a garden that appears after midnight, when the old grandfather clock in the hallway strikes thirteen; a garden that teaches Tom about the nature of time , loss and growing up.

SAMSUNG CSC

I prefer a garden that’s a little unruly.  One with crooked paths and hiding places.  I like a garden where trees stand guard and the plants are allowed their freedom.   There are spirits in a garden: elemental beings and the haints of those who have gone before.  And an abandoned garden is all the more bewitching.  There is memory in it, soaked into the stones and the way things still grow – the memory of what was once there and is now gone.  But there is also adventure in an abandoned garden:  what was once tame is now free to set its own course.

SAMSUNG CSC

A garden isn’t ours, it’s only borrowed for a while.  We shape it and nurture it and make our memories within its borders.  Until finally, we have to let it go.  I have borrowed many gardens, but it is the garden that is hidden in my imagination that is the only one that will last, woven into story and memory and dream.

 

Marooned

SAMSUNG CSC

On this day before the spring equinox, I am marooned.  I have come to the island that is my soul place, to write, circled by the sea.  This is a tidal island, reached by a causeway.  For eight hours a day, at the two high tides, the causeway is covered and the island is left to the birds and the seals.  We spend the day in what was once the lighthouse keepers’ cottage, ten writers, working together but apart on a writing retreat.  But for me, this is not only about my writing, it’s also an opportunity to bring to life the symbolism of the equinox as the wheel of the year turns once more.

SAMSUNG CSC

The equinox is a time of balance, when the hours of light and dark are equal.  Afterwards, the sun will prevail, the days pushing back the darkness.  Being marooned on this island is like the strandedness of winter.  Cut off from the world, in a landscape that may appear barren, longing for the tide of darkness to turn and for winter to end.  But winter is also for dreaming and introspection.  It is when what is beneath becomes clear and we realise that the tide brims with creativity.

SAMSUNG CSC

When I emerge from the cottage onto the drenched island, the silence simmers.  Half a dozen grey seals recline on the reef, occasionally stretching.  A parcel of oystercatchers huddle on the rocks.  Turnstones swarm languidly among the seaweed.  Black-headed gulls and sanderlings wait at the edge of the causeway, like tiny bouncers.  Only the sea is agitated, bellowing against the rocks.  There are people over on the mainland, unable to cross.  I feel protected, privileged to be at the other side of the tide.

SAMSUNG CSC

Just before the moment of high tide, I find a place on the rocks and let myself be scoured by wind and salt.  I have gathered two pebbles – one dark, one light, to represent each half of the year.  Balance.  I cradle them in my palms while I consider winter’s gifts: a new novel, dreamed into completion in the dark; words scribbled in turquoise ink, recapturing my joy in writing; a perfect whelk shell found on a storm-tossed beach at the start of the year, promising treasures to come.  I thank winter for its gifts and return the dark pebble to the sea.

SAMSUNG CSC

Winter is over.  The tide is already receding.  A flush of eider ducks crosses my vision, flying north.  I am left with the light pebble, reminding me that it is now the time for action.  The pebble is smooth, but not unblemished.  Its imperfections will remind me that no year runs smoothly and every creative process has its obstacles.  When I return home, to the world, it will sit on my altar next to the whelk shell.

SAMSUNG CSC

There is a sense of peace about this day.  Writing among writers with the sea at the windows.  At times it is hard, six solid hours in which to focus and knuckle down.  But it works.  I came with the intention of finishing the first revision on my novel and between walks around the island, I do it.

SAMSUNG CSC

As I cross the causeway, I leave winter behind.  I have been spring-cleaned by sea and wind and I am filled with the imprints of the island.  The tide has turned, unmasking spring.


Earthlines14 FrontCoverI’ve just renewed my subscription to Earthlines, an independent magazine run from rural Ireland by writers David Knowles and Sharon Blackie.  It’s a high quality, beautiful magazine that showcases inspiring writing and art about nature and our responsibilities towards it, connections to the land and its inhabitants, community and transformation.

SAMSUNG CSCIf you’d like to help this magazine survive and thrive into the future while enjoying a great read, why not consider subscribing to print or digital versions via the website http://www.earthlinesmagazine.org/

 

On the edge of the tide

SAMSUNG CSC

There is a place on the coast, a place that is almost forgotten.  It lies in the shadow of the promenade and you might never notice it was there.  The zig-zag of steps leading down to it is unobtrusive and ends abruptly on the rocks.  You might wonder why there is a staircase here at all.  But look before you and you will see a bowl scooped neatly out of the rocks.  Peer into the foggy water, choked with bladderwrack, and you might notice flagstones at its base.  Look closely at the walls and you will see rusted metal rings driven into the rocks.

SAMSUNG CSC

Table Rocks is an accident of geology: a natural pool filled by the tide.  It was opened as a swimming pool in 1894, when it was 20 feet long.  In 1908 the rocks were blasted to extend it to 70 feet.  Steps were cut to lead down to it.  A rope rail was threaded through the iron rings.  A changing hut was built that was later swept away by gales.

Old postcards show the pool thronged with people, the spectators clad in formal suits, hats and long dresses.  This was a time when English seaside resorts were booming, but swimming in the sea wasn’t as easy as it is now and there were concerns about its safety.  Still, swimming here must have been a thrilling experience, with the waves booming against the rocks only a few metres away.  My mother swam in this pool, though I never did.  It was used until 1971, the year I was born.

SAMSUNG CSC

Just along the coast from Table Rocks, another pool lies abandoned.  Tynemouth open air pool was specially built in 1925.  It lies on the edge of the beach, snuggled into the cliffs and was filled by the tide.  My grandfather helped to build this pool, often working at night between the tides.

These places are remnants of another age, before people abandoned the seaside resorts to take their holidays abroad.  Swimming became very popular in the inter-war years and in the 1930s a craze for sun-bathing developed, so in the twenties and thirties more than 200 lidos were built in the UK.  It wasn’t until the sixties that indoor leisure centres took over.

In the early nineties the pool closed, forgotten by all but the hardiest of swimmers.  The pavilion was demolished and its rubble pushed into the pool.  Covered by sand and rocks to make it safe, it was hoped that it would develop into a rock pool landscape, but it never worked.  There is a stark beauty to its dereliction.  The way the sea air has weathered the old barriers in rust, framing the sea beyond.  The abandoned stairs climbing to nothing.  The cracked steps haunted by ravens and gulls.

SAMSUNG CSC

But when I see what has become of it, there is a sadness too.  For I remember what this place once was.  It had none of the comforts of indoor pools.  The temperature of the water was that of the frigid north sea.  Its taste was salt.  The changing rooms were no more than concrete cubes.    But swimming here, you could feel the sun and the air on your skin.  I have been here when it buzzed with people, sprawled on the steps, splashing in the pool, frolicking by the fountain.  And I have been here, cocooned at high tide, when it was almost empty.  One of my last and most vivid memories is of swimming alone, the last person in the pool as a lightning storm rolled in.

Swimming in the open air pool aged about 9

But perhaps there is a future for these places after all.  Outdoor swimming is becoming popular again.  A group of local people are seeking funding to re-open Tynemouth open air pool.  I hope that one day I will swim in it again.