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.