Re-imagining

On the autumn equinox we head for the sea.  Morning breaks on bold blue skies and whipped cream clouds.  Sea and sand sparkle under warm sunlight.   It isn’t quite low tide, but wide expanses of reef are exposed.  The promenade is full of people, who wander over the causeway to the lighthouse.

The beach is almost empty; the sea flat and far away.  The sandscape changes with each tide.  Today it is tossed with boulders swaddled in bladderwrack.  The sand is studded with lugworm casts and bird footprints.  That unmistakeable salt and sweet seaweed scent perfumes the air.  The sand martins that nest in the cliffs are gone, but there are flocks of birds out of reach on the reefs.  A curlew’s cry echoes.  Wind turbines turn slowly beyond the lighthouse and ships break the horizon.

Back on the headland, yellow grass is woven with bronze seed heads.  Yarrow and thistle are still in flower.  Sea buckthorn berries light up the borders.  We sit on the grass and eat ice cream.  There are always starlings here and a mob of them soon moves in.  At one point there are at least forty, hustling for treats.  Once they have decided there is no more, they swarm onto the grass, a sinuous horde, looking for earthier fayre.

The equinox ends with a sky full of storm light.  For two days rain falls and winds blow.  This is not a summer storm.  It is the arrival of autumn.  Outside the air seems charged.  Damp and rich and full of movement.  Though the leaves have barely begun to turn, the atmosphere is bronze.   On a day like this, anything can happen.  The fire hisses flames for the first time since early spring and the dog lies on his side in front of it.  The wind moans in the chimney.  The autumn equinox has passed.  Summer has fled but the season of magic has arrived.

In the aftermath, we walk to the dene.  For a while, our soundtrack is the hubbub of starlings.  I wonder if at dusk they join those at the island to murmur into darkness.  The sky is moody but dry.  A row of linden trees are beginning to curl and brown.  Small tree limbs blown off in the storms cover the ground.  The sports centre around the corner has become a test centre for Covid 19, a white marquee raised next to the skate park.

A gentle cheep greets our entrance to the dene.  Autumn is just flirting here.  Crisp bronze leaves lie in clusters; some of the trees are beginning to turn; but green is still the predominant colour.  Two wind turbine foundations on their way out to sea jut over the trees.  I watch through drooping willows as mallards circle the pond.  A pair of black-headed gulls have taken the high perches on the jetty, but one of them is ousted by another before long.  The moorhens cry occasionally, the gulls scream.

A clump of meadow cranesbill draws my eye to reeds starting to turn yellow.  Sprays of orange lilies and columns of yellow rattle mingle with sienna dock seeds.  Tiny fish dart away from my shadow in the burn.  The edges are full of berries.  Blackberries and rosehips, raspberries and haws, elder and snowberries.  A pair of crows feed on a discarded Yorkshire pudding.  Suddenly, a feather – grey and downy – falls from the sky, in a slow flight right in front of me.  I catch it before it reaches the ground.

On the way home, I notice the weeds between walls and pavement.  It has been the year of the weed.  Fewer grass cuttings and weed spraying has allowed some to appear that wouldn’t normally be seen and others to grow into monsters.

We may be facing another lockdown.  In this area of the country, Covid infections are rising again and there are new restrictions in force.  There is tension between those who think the restrictions are too harsh and those who think we aren’t doing enough.  We are still fighting for balance as we move into the most challenging part of the year.  But this is nothing new.  I watch a documentary that describes how the Bubonic Plague in the 14th Century led to revolts and a re-imagining of the world.  That plague stayed for centuries, re-appearing every ten years or so to take its toll once more.  It feels, right now, like Covid is something that won’t disappear, but that we’ll have to come to terms with.

But for now, the seasons turn.  September moves into October and today, it seems, is arrival day.  Not long after dawn we walk to the park at the end of the street under an arrow of squawking geese.  If that wasn’t joy enough, there is soon more squawking in the air.  In the space of ten minutes, five separate skeins of geese fly directly overhead.  They are heading south.  I wonder where they will come in to land and what they will find there. I am thankful that I was here to witness their passing.

Shifting

It shouldn’t be this hot.  The view is grey.  A fret rolls off the sea.  The piers are  blurry in the mist.  The sun is at my right shoulder, a bright disc among grey clouds.  It shouldn’t be hot, but the humidity is unbearable.  It shouldn’t be bright, but the sun lasers through the clouds to pick out highlights on the water.  In the empty space between the piers I see mirages, columns of white that might be the sails of ships or distant lighthouses.

The tide is in.  Children play on a narrow slice of beach.  Gulls float on the calm water and huddle on what is visible of the notorious black midden rocks.  The massive autoliner carrying cars passes as we arrive and small fishing boats trundle past.  We sit on a bench overlooking the sea, my wife and I.  It is our anniversary, 25 years since we got together and we’re having a celebratory lunch of fish and chips.  25 years seems an unbelievably long time.  If we have been together that long then surely we must be old.  But we aren’t yet.  Not quite.

Even when you feel that there is no movement, the years steam on, until you wonder how you got here so quickly.  Something has shifted in the last fortnight.  I’m moving again.  Perhaps it was our short journey south through fields of gold.  Perhaps it is the shift in the air that follows.  Dark grey clouds gather like a dome.  Winds whip up and rain comes.  But in the end storm Ellen only caresses us.  In the dene it still seems like summer.  The burn is only a trickle, the cascades choked with weed.  A flock of mallards faces off against a flock of moorhens on the pond.

The police helicopter is hovering, its attention focused somewhere north of here.  I’ve spent a lot of time this year like that helicopter, stalled and searching for something to focus on.  But what has often felt like drifting aimlessly has in fact been an absence of the old ‘to do’ lists and wishing time away.  As the world re-opens and structure returns, I’ve been reluctant to embrace the way it was before.

So I shift slowly.  I start to edit my manuscript.  I use my sketch of a woman and cello to create a painting.  I submit some short stories.  It’s a trickle rather than a flood, just like the burn, but it’s a beginning.  The helicopter still hovers, but three swallows are closer.  Like tiny spitfires swooping over the grass.  There is a hint of yellow in the linden trees.  Rosehips and blackberries fatten in the hedgerows.  These swallows are the last of summer, propelling me forward as the seasons turn.

Magic and Monsters

The darkness is glutinous but I have a sense of things moving around me. And suddenly, I want to leave. It doesn’t matter that my things are still in my room, or that water covers the causeway. I need to leave now and I understand that I’ve wanted to leave since the moment I crossed the causeway.

The Siren Flower – Andrea Stephenson

The moon is waning in a baby blue sky.  The sea is dimpled glass and the sun an exploded tangerine.  A path of pink wanders across the sea from sunrise to land.  There is a sense of calm, of balance.  Gulls lounge in groups on the rocks.  Cormorants dry their wings, always at the very edge of land and sea.  I watch an oystercatcher stumble as it forages among the rocks and it amuses me that even a bird so adapted to this environment can have a clumsy moment.

Seals repose on the rocks.  Grey seals use this as a haul-out point, to rest between forays into the water.  They breed further up the coast at the Farne Islands.  A bundle of grey fluff is probably one of this year’s pups.  A huge bull – a rare sight here – flops across the rocks with great effort.  His moans and grumbles fill the air.  Winter has retreated.  It feels warm and it seems every creature is sunning itself.  On days like today, the island is luminous.  Suspended in a bubble of stillness as the tide slowly flows out.

This island is my soul place.  A place of sun-kissed sand and wrack-wrapped rocks; of childhood play and adult solace.  It is the magic of wave and wing, of liquid and light.  In my novel The Skin of a Selkie, selkies dance here on moonlit nights and three generations of women fall under their spell.   But every place has a darker story to tell.  There are stories here of shipwrecks and cholera victims, buried bones and murder.  From the headland overlooking the island, the body of a murderer once swung from a gibbet.

Beneath the waves there may be monsters.  And sometimes, monsters also walk on land.  Both appear in my own dark story of this island The Siren Flower, the tale of a troubled woman who visits a remote inn looking for the start of a new life.  But there is something very wrong on this island and she will soon discover that more than her happiness is at stake.  Last year Fresher Publishing ran a short story competition on the theme of monsters, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  I’m pleased to report that my story was shortlisted and appears in the anthology, available now from the publishers.


 Volume 4 - Monsters

There is no evidence of monsters here this morning.  The island’s inhabitants go about their business unconcerned by what may lie below the surface.  But when the sun sets and the rocks are clothed in darkness, perhaps the monsters will have their time…

 

Lighting up time

Even on these deep black mornings, there is light.  A luminous moon and burning Venus side by side  as blackbirds trill in the dark.  Evenings, and streetlights cast cones of swirling silver on the sky.  Puddles become silver pools.  Falling rain is glitter flickering on the road.   Iron benches are splashed with liquid gold.  It is rare that I experience true darkness in this town that I call home.

I have seen true darkness, when the sky is crowded with stars and soaring meteors; when fish light up the water with the luminescence of their passage.  I have walked on the edge of the forest while the nightjar sang and only glow worms lighted the paths.  But that is not here.  Here the sky is obscured by reflected light, streetlights puddle in sickly orange or cold white.  Still, there is a velvet to these mornings and evenings, when shadows bloom into darkness.  Still, I can revel in the fertile dark.

I have a print on my wall by Peter Brook called ‘Lighting up time’.  It shows a man and his dog on a snowy hill with the fire of a street lamp punctuating the monochrome.  One of the delights of winter is when the lamps wink on and bring comfort to the dark.  When light spills from houses and we wonder what might be going on within.  When the streets are wreathed with lights and there is a Christmas tree in almost every window.  This is the lighting up time of the year, when we ward off the darkness with a barrage of illumination.

The river is a blur of luminous colour: amber behind glass, cold white of floodlights, green and red warning beacons, the flash of the lighthouses.  Lights that waver in the water like coloured streamers.  I walk there in the dark on the morning after the solstice.  I am here to celebrate the sun’s birthday on the dawn after the shortest day.  From now on, though it doesn’t seem like it, it will only get lighter, the days will only get longer.

And at first it seems the birth will be muted: a brush of red below indigo clouds.  It is low tide and the sea is just a whisper.  Gulls congregate on the sandbanks and the air is all gull cry.  But the birth of the sun does not disappoint.  The sky blushes with colour.  The river becomes stripes of lilac, the sea left behind on the sands is a lake of pink and orange and blue.  Soon the dawn is molten colour.  Just before sunrise I hear a loud creaking and an arrow of geese soars against orange wisps of cloud.  I watch as they fly south, out of sight.

And then the sun is born, blazing orange.  I feel its heat light me up, burnishing my face and warming my core. The beach behind is washed in gold and my shadow lengthens. The sun is now too bright to look at.  Then, the Amsterdam ferry sails past, blocking out the sun.  For a moment the day is revealed for what it is – grey and wintry.  Afterwards, the day never quite regains the light of the sunrise.  It seems darker than the dawn.  But I felt the fire of the sun as it was born and that is enough to light up the winter to come.


Myrtle's Game Book CoverI’m thrilled to share that Myrtle the Purple Turtle has a new adventure.  Written by the talented Cynthia Reyes and her daughter Lauren Reyes-Grange, Myrtle’s Game continues the theme of difference and belonging begun by the first book.  It is about other’s perceptions of what we can do just because of the way we look or who they think we are. It is about not being defined by those prejudices and about being who you are and excelling at it. This is a great book to read with a child to prepare them for their first visit to nursery school or their first group situation where they are trying to find their place.  This story is about friendship, supporting one another and showing that we should never let what others’ think stop us from doing what we love. A lovely story that will really appeal to children and would make a great gift, both the print and e-book versions are now available on Amazon.

Grounding

A tree lies broken on the path.  The old poplar has been rent, a bough the size of a large tree torn away in the winds.  The splintered heartwood is shredded and the tree nurses a jagged ivory stump.  Its amputated limb blocks the path, causing passers-by to stop in wonder.  It isn’t the only casualty.  A bough of the shoe tree has fallen, a mossy pair of trainers tangled in its branches.  In the dene, a large bough of weeping willow is hanging by a thread of bark, like a besom broom sweeping the path.  Storms aren’t unusual before the equinoxes, as though the earth needs to expel its energy before it can come into a balance of sorts.   After the day of wind comes a night of rain, before the morning calm.

After the storms, I go in search of stone, a balance to the torrent of air and water.  I want to be grounded by the size and the steadiness of earth.  I start at the Pen Bal Crag, the tallest of all our cliffs, where the priory and castle sits atop limestone and sandstone.  I rarely come to this small bay – the steps are steep and many and dogs are banned for half of the year.  In fact I don’t recall the last time I stepped on its sand.  Alone on the beach, I’m dwarfed by the rocks rising above me.  Boulders are tumbled at the bottom of the cliffs, some from landslides, clad in bladderwrack and gutweed.  Water drips from vegetation in the cracks and behind it all, the sea roars.  These rocks are layered in time and faith and blood and the ancient lava flow that once poured through them.  I am as slight as a grain of sand in comparison.

Strange how the memory plays tricks.  I have a very strong recollection of a barbecue here many years ago.  It has the gilded patina of nostalgia, redolent with soft evening light and the taste of sausages.  I remember clearly exploring a cave under the cliffs – so clearly I used the memory of it in one of my novels.  This is why I’m here, to re-visit it.  Yet as I stand on the shore, gazing at the cliffs, I realise that this cave doesn’t exist.  It most likely never did.  All these years, the image of it has come to me and it seems that I invented it.  I puzzle over my trickster memory, willing the cave to come into being, but of course it doesn’t, except in imagination.  A crow, the trickster bird, squawks and lands on the rock beside me, as though laughing at my foolishness.  It has something that might be a crab in its beak, something spindly and long-fingered.  I watch as it pulls the creature apart and welcomes in its mate to partake in the feast.

The sand is virginal.  There is only the faint meandering imprint of a small bird’s passage.  The remnants of last night’s storm churns the sea into boisterous waves.  But that is out there.  Here on the beach, all is tranquil.  The sky is pale blue washed with wisps of buttermilk.  On mornings like this the dawn sky is insubstantial.  It holds a luminous translucence that makes my skin seem thinner than it is, as though I too am made of gossamer.  The clouded sun turns the breakers to liquid platinum.  I can see the lighthouse silhouetted at the end of the pier beyond the cliffs.  I came here for stone, but it is sky and sea that are the most precious gift this morning.

I walk to the other side of the bay, passing a few black headed gulls and an oystercatcher.  A young herring gull bleats for food as I pass.  Up a bank lined by valerian and the leaves of silver weed, past a rusting old bench.  My coastline stretches from the mouth of the river to the island where one county ends and the next begins.  In between is a chain of bays.   I head down to the next, down to the derelict open air swimming pool and onto the sand.  Here, I search for a memento of the light, a token to take with me into the dark season.  I spot it immediately, as the thought is taking shape, a pebble that is, in fact, neither light nor dark but blushed with both.  I take a strand of kelp and draw a circle in the sand by the tide line, and bisect it.  This represents the year, with both halves in equinoctial balance.  I step into the circle and cross the line, clutching my token, symbolically moving from light to dark.

This harvest I have a sense of completion. There is nothing that niggles, undone.  It hasn’t been an easy year and the strange weather seems to have reflected its challenge.  But I have two polished novels ready for submission, one of which was long-listed for the Lucy Cavendish fiction prize; two agents asked to review my full manuscript while another said it was the strongest submission she’d seen for some time; three new stories written and a story short-listed for a short story prize.  There are things I would like to have achieved – such as one of those agents agreeing to represent me – but perhaps that is for another year.

The sun is at my back now as I walk.  That luminous sky behind me, as is the zenith of the year.  This bay is known as the ‘long sands’ and it is a mile long.  By the time I reach its end, my circle will probably have been washed away by the tide.  I walk at the water’s edge.  There isn’t much of a strand line here, just wisps of seaweed, a single maple leaf, a few pebbles, shells and feathers.  I follow it, such as it is, letting the tide seep over my feet when it chooses.  I’m always greedy for treasures from the strand line – one more pebble, one more shell – my house is full of jars and tubs of them.  I pocket a sliver of sea glass,  a chunk of sea-washed china, an intricate shell, a pebble honeycombed by piddock trails and a tiny white feather.

A group of four sanderlings scuttle in the tide in front of me.  I try to catch up with them, thinking that if I overtake they’ll see I’m no threat.  But they keep scuttling, back and forth, always the same distance away, until finally they take flight, sick of the game or never having noticed me in the first place.  A cormorant dives in the surf and I watch as three times it dives, three times it rises.  At the north end of the beach, curls of kelp litter the shore.  The tide has created an island out at sea, thronged by birds.

I came for caves and there is one bay where I know they aren’t imaginary.  I clamber down sandstone crags, feet sinking into slimy banks of bladderwrack until I reach smuggler’s cave.  A few pigeons take flight and a redshank sounds an alarm.  I walk under the arches, past limpid pools and clusters of pebbles and seaweed.  From above, these caves are sunny sandstone.  From beneath, they are grey, green and dark.  The caves are beyond the pier, cut off from the safety of the sands.  From under the arch, I see the same ship I’ve seen in my walk along the shore, the same sea, the same sky, but the view from inside the stone is a secretive one.  Here, there is no-one to know that I am a witness.  I am the watcher in the dark, looking out onto the light.

My harvest is completed and now I absorb inspiration, to take me into the creative dark.  I ground myself in the resonant stone.  Moving inwards, to the sheltered half-light of autumn.  I will take with me the brilliance of this, and other, watery dawns; the iridescence of a kingfisher’s wings; the stripes of a badger’s face.  The light is always there, running like a vein of crystal through the stone.

The whisper of the sea

I have neglected the sea.  It whispers to me, always, from just beyond the piers, but I have ignored it, without consciously doing so.  I have wandered in the dappling of trees, under opulent greenery.  I have sauntered through parks and leafy lanes.  In this ambivalent summer that has veered between intense heat and thrashing rain, I have felt the urge to be enfolded in all this greenery.  Occasionally, I have walked by the river, within the stone embrace of the piers.  I have seen the sea from a distance, behind the glass of a passing train.  But for months, I have abandoned it, ignoring its insistent whisper.

I wake to the sound of a ship’s horn moaning on the river and know by its rhythm that I will be greeted by fog.  I wake to thin, drenching rain, rain that has fallen for three days.  The kind that could be rain or could be mist, but is in fact a mixture of both.  Rain that seems barely a sigh on the air, yet will leave me soaked in minutes.  But the sea calls all the same.  It will brook no further delay.

The lighthouse, dirty white against a washed out sky, is hardly more than a shimmer in the mist.  The waves are industrial; rough and grey, white spume smashing against rock.  A ship smudges the horizon.  The birds are subdued.  Herring gulls glide silently on the wind, while a gaggle of oystercatchers and eider ducks repose on rocks on the far side of the causeway.  The sand martins that nest in holes in the cliffs are absent, perhaps tucked up in their burrows.  There isn’t much of a beach; the wild winds of the last few days have left the sand strewn with a quilt of rusty kelp.

I once lived in a city whose water was packaged and tamed in canals.  A city that was too far from the sea for me to visit.  The brick and the concrete burdened me.  There wasn’t the air to breathe.  I was packaged and tamed like the water around me.  I couldn’t wait to leave.  Now I am never far from the unfettered air of the sea.  The town’s heartbeat is the cry of gulls and the blurt of horns.  Sea frets roll in and blur its edges.  This is a liminal place, a mirage of water, sky and land.  I can cloak myself in green, but the blue is never far away.

When you grow up with the sea, you can never be comfortable anywhere else.  The air will always be too thick.  You will miss the scent of salt-scoured skin.  You will miss the dust of sand beneath your fingers and the simmer of sea-blown limbs.  The sea opens you up and returns you to yourself.  How could I have forgotten this?

All my life I have talked to the sea.  The sea listens and carries my words away.  It shatters them on the rocks, scatters them in the spray.  And then it returns, carrying new words back, words tinged with salt and magic, creeping over the sand like offerings.  Summer is my hardest season.  When my soul revels in light and warmth but still longs for the delicious introversion of autumn.  I fight against the exposure of the season, but the sea offers a kind of truce, reminding me of who I am.  I have always been small here, but the sea fills me up and expands me until I am everywhere.

Transition

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Marooned

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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/

 

The song of the earth

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The moan, rush, roar of the wind through trees.  The creak of branches and rattle of sticks.  The howl and whistle of wind round the house and down the chimneys.  The patter and gurgle of rain on leaves or windows.  The bone-vibrating boom of thunder.  I never tire of the sounds the weather makes.  These are sounds that surround me and seep into my soul.  That remind me how small I am and how wild the world is.  Depending where I am, they can make me feel protected or broken open, as though there’s no boundary between me and the elements.

Some of my favourite sounds are those that echo through the night, piercing the darkness.  When the day is fully dawned the world is taken over by a chaos of sounds – traffic, industry, voices.  But the distant, melancholy sounds of night and river speak to something inside me:  the moan of the fog horn, the blart of a ship setting out to sea, the clock tower striking across the water.  They speak of other worlds far away and make me revel in the solitude of the darkness.

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The sound of the sea is a symphony of bubbles.  Each bubble is made of gas, surrounded by liquid and each one has it’s own note, like a tiny bell.  The bubble expands and contracts and it’s that pulsing that contributes to the roar of waves that we know as the sound of the sea.  Like the weather, the song of the sea sometimes calms me with its lullaby of waves tickling the shore, and sometimes fills me with the excitement of being alive, with the boom of breakers on the rocks.

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Every day the chatter of birds cheers me: the exuberant squawk of herring gulls, the eerie scream of black-headed gulls, the harsh caw of crows.  Before dawn, the vibrato of the robin shatters the morning.  In town, the gentle coo of pigeons soothes and the chirps and whistles of starlings exhilarates.  I am a child of the town, so I take pleasure in being serenaded by these so-called common birds.  But when I have the opportunity to hear them I love the hollow sound of a woodpecker drumming, echoing in the forest, the hoot of tawny owls in the darkness, the clatter of a pheasant’s call.

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When I was a child, I had recurring ear infections that affected my hearing.  I have little memory of the pain, but this time is marked out for me by the sound of marching.  I know now that this beat was that of the internal sounds of my body amplified by the absence of those from the outside world: my heartbeat, my blood pulsing.  But as a child, it was disconcerting, sometimes scary, to be filled with the sound of marching.  I recall the sensation of ears swollen with pain, almond oil and cotton wool. I remember the vivid pink and sickly taste of penicillin.   I recall the cool leatherette of headphones as I listened for the sounds of buzzers at different frequencies to test my hearing.  Ear infections are miserable, not only because of the pain but because of the isolation.  You feel divided from the world, existing within your head, the only sounds you hear are those of self and body.  It feels lonely.

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Having been without it, I appreciate the connection to the world that hearing gives me.  Hearing expands my world, not only enriching the things I can see, but alerting me to those I can’t: a ship on the river, a bird hidden in a tree.  Yet my sound of choice is often that of silence.  Silence is never really empty.  It has a hum, perhaps even a heartbeat, a pulse that isn’t quite audible, but that fills the air with expectation.  The sound of an empty house, the stillness before a storm, a remote location, the hush of falling snow.  Silence is relief and comfort, but it is also potential.  The song of the earth is both silence and clamour and if there was no other music to delight in, its melody would be more than enough.

This post was prompted by a mini-series on the senses by the talented Teagan Geneviene over at Teagan’s Books.  Take part in the challenge here.

For those in peril

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The Watch House, with Collingwood’s Monument in the background

On the afternoon of 24th November, 1864, a south-easterly gale blew up on the north east coast of England.  The schooner, ‘Friendship’, carrying a cargo of coal, sailed into the mouth of the Tyne to take shelter, but ran aground on the notorious black midden rocks.  As darkness began to fall, the steamship ‘Stanley’, on its way from Aberdeen to London, with 60 passengers and crew, and cattle and sheep on the deck, tried for shelter too but was also swept onto the rocks.  The lifeboats from North and South Shields couldn’t get close due to the storm, so the only hope was the breeches buoy, a kind of harness attached to a buoy and hauled via ropes up  the cliff.  But only 3 people were rescued before the lines tangled and the rising tide meant that the rescue had to be called off until daylight.  The Friendship broke up, losing all its crew and the Stanley tore in half.

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The Black Middens, just visible beneath the high tide

As daylight came, thousands of local people had gathered on the cliff tops to watch the disaster.  It became known that 32 crew, passengers and lifeboat men were killed in the wrecks.  One of the people watching was a man called John Morrison, who believed that if local men were to volunteer to help the HM coastguard, many more lives could have been saved.   A public meeting was held, with free tobacco given out to encourage attendance, and over 120 men signed up.  The Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade was born.  Soon, nearly every village had an organisation like it, all based on the TVLB rules.  The TVLB is 150 years old this year and still running.  The volunteers (22 men and 1 woman) are on call 24 hours a day every day of the year and all have day jobs as well.  They still attend around 120 rescues every year.

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The maroons are fired, calling the volunteers to action

This week, local people again lined the cliff tops to witness a rescue, but this time it was only a drill, to celebrate the TVLB’s birthday.  As in the past, maroon rockets were fired to begin the drill, calling the volunteers to action.  The bangs echoed around the cliffs and through the small village, creating cloudy puffs in the air.  ‘Casualties’ waited nervously on a boat in the harbour, next to the pier.  Even on this calm day, waves plumed over the pier, reminding us that in the days the TVLB was formed there was no pier to halt the waves.  The drill was carried out in a sheltered bay named ‘the Haven’, but the black middens were just visible around the cliffs, licked by the high tide.

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The breeches buoy is prepared, ready to be sent to the ship

On the beach, the uniformed volunteers began to prepare the breeches buoy.  In these days of helicopters, it’s now rarely used, but TVLB members are one of few organisations around the country still trained to use it.  A rocket is fired to the ship in distress, attached to ropes and a buoy.  The survivors on the ship secure the ropes to the vessel, ready for the breeches buoy to be ferried across.  The breeches buoy is a life saving ring with a harness attached – like a pair of fluorescent breeches.  The survivor steps into it and is hauled in to shore.  No dramatic hoist up the cliffs on this rescue, but the ‘casualties’ were pulled through the water onto the beach.  This isn’t a quick way to effect a rescue.  Each passage takes around ten minutes, so I can only imagine what it must have been like to wait, on a stricken ship, for your turn to come.  But without it, there would often have been no hope at all.

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The first ‘survivor’ is hauled towards the beach

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And reaches safety

TVLB are based in the ‘watch house’ an wonderfully characterful building that is now a museum, filled to the brim with maritime memorabilia.  Quirky, old-fashioned, a little eerie.  The watch house is on the promontory above the mouth of the river and looks down on the black middens below.  Keepsakes from the wrecks that prompted the start of the TVLB are among the items on show there.  This celebration was a well-oiled drill, carried out on a calm day, with a ship that wasn’t in any danger.  But if you were to walk around the watch house and study the things that are preserved there, you could easily imagine being on one of those ships, broken on rocks in the stormy dark, with no radios and no helicopters to aid you.  I’m proud that it was here that this organisation began and I know that should I ever need them, they’ll be there to come to my rescue.

For those of you who receive the BBC’s ‘Coast’ TV programme, the drill was filmed by them on the day, with one of their presenters being ‘rescued’.  The Watch House Museum has received lottery funding for refurbishment and is currently closed while it has a facelift.