#41 seaside

Strange to be by sea on sand

Sunned, yet chilled by wind while tanned,

Watching son and daughter manned by others.


Surf school seemed the slackest sort,

Though by these slackers children taught

To stride the breakers’ cold onslaught and triumph.


Moored up, but still the rise and fall,

Anchor deep, yet still that pull

Elsewhere, a pulsing constant call, my other.


Cells divide, hearts contract, blood rushes through.

Time passes, thoughts turn, waves renew.

Surfing stops, I switch bifocal view.

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#39 windmill

Suspended on a wooden floor in the upper chamber of a sailless windmill, wind swaddled the tower in a sinewy vortex. 

We’re on the first high point inland from Praia Guincho, one of Europe’s wildest surf beaches. The wind is awe inspiring. 

Our walls are at least two feet thick, the tower shaped like a squat pepper grinder. No sense of danger. Outside, though, the palms and pines are strafed and raked, their fronds and needles shriek. 

  

#34 Embracing the craic, the folk in the yoke

Shoulder muscles straining with low-speed clutch work, I disgorged the motorbike out of the ferry’s maw down slippy metal gantries.

Stadium-sized sodium lights highlighted steady drizzle- Rosslare docks at dawn- our first sight of Ireland.

The ferry had left Wales at 2:15am, and the passage across had been like a giant sleepover. Adults drugged by driving and children snug in onesies sprawled across sofas, armchairs and on the carpet, snoring, snoozing, or getting up to stagger sidelong into walls towards the toilets, gently rocked by the Irish sea.

We breakfasted at Wexford, opposite the statue of John Barry. The town had a quaint, forgotten air, looking out on a choppy little bay with a single fishing boat. Several spiegeltents decorated the front beside the empty railway line.

Heading northward, we crossed the bridge at Enniscorthy. The River Slaney followed alongside us, brilliant and fast flowing. We stopped at Carlow, our tired eyes arrested by the bricked-up windows of many of the stone cottages lining the approach road.

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The high street was more depressing. It was a greyish morning, but the uniform grimness of cheap bars, betting shops, 1Euro shops and Polski Skleps seemed relentless and mean.

Three restorative cups of tea drunk, we headed out and north again, stopping briefly to stretch out under a wind-bowed hawthorn among psilocybe semilanceata on a hill by Ballintlea. The Wicklow Mountains, blue-tinted like a stage backdrop, reared up in the distance, far beyond the agricultural plateau formed of County Laois, County Kildare and County Wicklow.

We continued through dull Portloaise and the cynical architecture of Tullamore (admittedly skirting the town centres) until we finally reached our log cabin near Rathconrath. We had travelled 657km in 20 hours. Tea, and oatcakes with peanut butter sent us plummeting into unconsciousness within minutes of arrival. When we woke, hours later, the sky was already dimming. We roller-coastered along the swooping R392 into Mullingar for supplies, promising ourselves our first real Irish Guinness at the unassuming looking petrol station/grocers/bar we passed.

Top-box loaded with wine, cheese, potato farls and bread, we side-stood the motorbike and went into Gunnings at about 6:30 pm. The door opened into a plain little shop. There were several customers with their groceries, and each nursed a pint of Guinness on the shop counter. Facing us, was an ecclesiastical-looking wooden screen with a frosted glass door. We walked through, and found the bar.

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It’s hard to properly describe Gunnings’ rugged simplicity and worn charm. Every surface bears some evidence of age and long usage. Each element seems to have achieved balance with its neighbour- the stone floor, the wooden parquet ceiling.

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The battle-scarred dartboard,

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and its accompanying scoreboard, almost worn through.

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The first, nourishing Guinness,

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The skew-whiff leatherette sofa behind.

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All things felt right and, despite being still fully leather-clad, we felt we were now actually somewhere else. There were only three other people in the bar, the young barmaid, and two men in earnest discussion on bespoke log-hewn bar stools.

John and Anthony

One and a half Guinnesses in, I went over and asked the nearest man about Irish roads. To the newcomer, it’s not obvious what the broken yellow line on the fast N-roads denotes (it’s a hard-shoulder). The question was reciprocated; I explained where we’d come from, where we were staying. He knew our host. I called J over and we introduced ourselves properly. John introduced Anthony, and explained that they’d been at a wake most of the day. Somehow, within minutes, John had invited us along on a drive to another bar. We had meant to head home, cook dinner and rest up (we were due at a dance festival in the early hours the next night, we had been travelling for 20 hours), that was the sensible thing to do, the responsible choice.

Obviously, we said yes.

John had soon threaded us deep into a knotted network of lanes that we had no chance of remembering. It was somehow like becoming children; aided by fatigue, excited by chance, we absolved ourselves of responsibility. I rediscovered a treasured, long forgotten word my old landlord from Tipperary had taught me: yoke. It means thingamajig.

I videoed a fragment of the journey, talking about Gunnings:

We arrived at The Beech Tree at Streamstown, and found a warm welcome. The landlady lent us plates to make our own sandwiches on, and John and Anthony let us be awhile. Another Guinness in, and we felt ready to mix and were introduced around the bar.

Beech tree Guinnesses

We had another Guinness and a half (known as a lady – worth having as it comes in that corset-shaped glass), said our farewells and headed back out.

John suggested we went back to Gunnings. Why not?

But now, it was different and charged with life. The modest space was filled with people, movement and music, talking, clamour, folk airs on aeolian pipes, melodeons, a whistle, a guitar, singing. We had flowed automatically into the bar and now, immersed deep in the throng, we took in the array of glad, open faces. John introduced us to many, most of whom were farmers, or former farmers of beef cattle. We were given snuff, more Guinness, I was given a lesson on the melodeon, discussed the styles of music played (the waltz, the horn-pipe, the jigs, the reels)…

More Guinness, more music and more talk until, 7 Guinnesses and a lady down, we finally had to rest. Martin, cheerfully sober, sustained by the snuff he’d shared, drove us to our cabin and bid us a goodnight. It was, it had been, and it won’t be forgotten.

Generous, honest, warm, hospitable people, all gathered together, embracing us easily into their midst.

How can it be that something so clearly natural felt utterly unfamiliar?

#31 Travelling

In my mind, the dark roads had already unfurled themselves ahead of me, the broken white line flickering to my right. I had begun to lean into corners that unspooled from the dense night beyond.

So, when the journey was aborted by a stomach bug, that particular anticipated experience was severed from this time-stream. Last night’s midnight-run from here, through Wales to Pembroke Docks was left hanging like an ellipsis. To be continued…

Mastering the disappointed child-within is decorous, and necessary. As my mother would gladly attest, I’m predisposed to sulk. This last-minute cancellation of our motorbike trip to Eire is prime sulk material, I could (un)happily use up this kid-free week in a heavy funk. Yet, somehow, I won’t. The ferry can be re-booked, there are refunds on the air-b-and-bs. A bumble bee is surveying the lemon balm, and my sweet-heart’s foot is resting against me.

Next year _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ __ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

#30 Marta

Raton. Rrrrrrrrrrrraton, Spanish for mouse.

I can’t pronounce it, my lips/tongue/mouth don’t know the way of forming the sound.

Marta laughs.

Quack, miaow, woof. Animal sounds are the same in Spanish, which is useful as- right now- they form the only shared language between Marta and me.

 

Yesterday, I was so tired. The weekend I’d been anticipating for so long was over, and now it was just me and my fatigue. J and I took a train to Whitstable to visit an old friend. We ate (plenty of oysters) and drank copious amounts. We caught up,  broke bread, laughed, lounged.

There had been a malaise that fell on me towards the end of Saturday night. Gin-fuelled, undoubtedly, gradually I slumped into a wordless sinkhole, and detached from J. It hurt her. I pulled myself more-or-less together the next morning, but I was left with the consciousness of dark silt in the depths of me, threatening to billow up with the next change in current.

 

Marta is my daughter’s Spanish exchange student. I had to retrieve her from school Monday lunchtime. She was crying as we drove away, and she phoned her mum as we headed to B&Q. When we got out, the trolley I chose was unco-operative, causing Marta to chuckle. A woman from B&Q came across to help me separate a different trolley from one with which it seemed to be coupling. More chuckles. I needed some manure and shears and, as I searched for them,  I gradually managed to draw Marta out on the subject of her garden at home in Seville- quite large, no orange trees. We got the manure – caca de caballo. Smirks.

Back home we set about making spag bol. Turns out, Marta is an excellent sous chef. She made quick work of the pepper, garlic and onion, though the latter drew yet more tears. I offered her a taste of tea. Slowly, without either of us really noticing, trust was being established; the sense that, although we couldn’t communicate about anything more significant than nouns or the films we liked, the tone in which we communicated, the way we  inhabited our shared space suggested that we both meant well.

Later, after my daughter came home, we took a turn around the town. Keynsham of an evening is something of a ghost town, certainly compared to the Spanish evening promenades (passegiata in Italian). What we did come across, helped draw Marta further out of her shell. Two boys sprinted downhill in the park, away from a bin they’d just set light to. We went down to Echo Bridge and presented Marta with the acoustic wonders. We jumped, clapped and shouted a cacophony of reverberations. She was delighted.  There was an old woman drinking cider by the river, whose dog (a white, cutesy teddybear fluff ball) followed us, ignoring its owner’s calls. Marta seized the initiative and the dog, and returned it. She wants to be a vet. As we walked up the hill towards home, my daughter found a broken egg at the base of a tree. Gaviota, seagull. Marta picked up the fragile shell and unravelled it as we walked on.

We got home and the girls watched a film while I filled my newly prepared pallets with topsoil (to be raised beds). By the time it was time for bed, we all knew each other a little better and I was feeling more recovered from the lapse of the weekend.

Marta had come to feel safer and more able to be herself once she felt that my daughter and I understood who she was. The ingredients had been:

  • mispronunciation
  • animal noises
  • slapstick comedy with supermarket trolleys
  • caca de caballero
  • cooking
  • echoes
  • a little white dog
  • a seagull egg

 

Last Saturday night’s existential angst was a momentary forgetting of who I was. A slow-burning chain reaction of:

  • gin
  • tiredness
  • disorientation (J and I rarely spend time with others for long periods)
  • mild envy/the acknowledgement that my friend (and his girlfriend, with whom we were staying) are home-owners and materially better off
  • lack of a sense of belonging (my friend’s mum and dad live close, he lives in a town he grew up in, always bumping in to long-established friends with whom he maintains a mostly easy, regular socialising existence)

 

Marta recovered herself gradually, by establishing an understanding between the three of us of who she was, while (simultaneously) discovering who we were. Not only that, but we cared about her well-being and actually wanted to know who she is.

Now and then, I feel unsure of who I am.

The things I do- the writing, playing the accordion, motorcycling, rambling- are partly about defining my self to myself (and those around me). It’s probably the same for all of us. Most of the time, the way seems clear- just keep doing the things you do, try your hardest, help others; smile. But from time to time, the energy required to just be can just suddenly wane and the ground beneath you falls away. Thankfully, this Saturday night, I was with one of my oldest friends and the woman I adore. I was given time to resurface and gather my senses. It’s not always the case. In the future, when the walls close in, I will try to remember how an eleven year old Spanish girl pieced herself together with the simplest of words, echoes, an egg and a little laughter.

#24 Falmouth

Last Tuesday week, I went mackerel fishing with my children. We went with Falmouth fishing trips from Custom House Quay in Falmouth. It was a bright, fresh day. There was one other tourist with us, a reticent, retired man from Manchester who was staying in a guest house in the town. He agreed to take our photo.

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As we pulled out of the harbour into the final run of the River Fal, we passed a huge naval vessel, the  RFA Mounts Bay

RFA Mounts Bay

It utterly dwarfed our 12 man fishing vessel. Our fisherman/guide explained that it can hold fifty tanks, or a large number of small boats which are launched at sea by partially flooding the hull. Despite being a pacifist, it’s hard not to be amazed at the scale of such a thing.

We passed St Mawes

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with its castle stacked like cake tins.

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We were soon out of the river and into the English Channel. We edged a little way west along the coast, past Pendennis Castle and were soon opposite Swanpool. Our skipper had a fish-finder and explained that the other fishing tour, which was tagging along close-by, didn’t.

Soon, we drifted a little and received a brief tutorial on how to use the rods. They were baited with tinsels.

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Mackerel are voracious sight predators and devour anything flashy that catches their eye as they speed along. There were three or four tinsels per line. The key point was that we were to shout fish on! if anything bit. Nothing did for a while and we lifted our rods quietly up and down as we’d been shown.

        Fish on!

There was a sensation of tugging at my line which I assumed was a fish. It was. I reeled the line in and hauled a glistening mackerel from the water. I landed it and our guide (whose name you may have rightly deduced I have sadly forgotten) unhooked it. Within ten minutes, I felt another pull on the line and, as the words formed in my mouth, my daughter and the man from Manchester also shouted fish on.

It is the way it goes. Nothing for a while, then a shoal passes by and bites everything it sees.

I saw my daughter land four mackerel in one go. For five minutes, we all kept pulling mackerel out almost continuously. There wasn’t time to dispatch them all straightaway, and my son leapt around the catch-container amazed, as more and more mackerel thumped about in there.

After the frenzy, our guide showed us how to dispatch a mackerel cleanly. He hooked index and middle finger just inside the fish’s gills, pushed his thumb behind the head on the spine, then pulled the head upwards and back, breaking the neck. We watched as he quickly worked through the fish. A lance-like silver sand eel flew from the jaws of one fish, much to my son’s delight. He scooped it from the deck and stroked it for a while before throwing it back into the sea.

The shoal passed and we moved south, further out to sea between several massive tankers. While our boat bobbed about on the waves, these behemoths were utterly motionless, as if fixed in concrete.

Their implacable steeliness appeared devoid of any life,

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their shadowy immensity was intimidating.

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Falmouth boasts the world’s third largest and deepest natural harbour, and is a major refuelling stop. These tankers were each waiting to be refuelled via barge.

Soon, our skipper suggested we went back to where our earlier bonanza had been. Almost as soon as we’d returned, the fish were biting again and we landed another glut of tiger-striped beauties. There were thirty in all. When the shoal sped off, we turned away from the tankers and headed back toward Falmouth.


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As we neared the quay, the fish guts were flung out for the gulls. They plunged in diving squadrons around the boat,

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then glided triumphantly as an escort of angels,

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albeit with the occasional, barely noticeable gut bloodstain.

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We thanked our captain and guide as we disembarked, then drove back to Lanner where we were staying with friends to prepare the fish for dinner and the freezer. They had already lost much of their mother-of-pearl sheen, but remained beautiful.

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#23 Redventures

I sold my motorbike- Reddi-  on Monday. Here she is, or was:Image

It had not been quite a year that I had her, but we have had some memorable times:

  • never-ending waterfalls above Talybont reservoir
  • the after-work trip to Tintern last summer, sitting amongst the beeches above the Wye painting in the fading light, jumping the wall of the abbey, roaming the silent ruins in the dark, roaring back up the sinuous road to Chepstow, and across the Severn Bridge
  • Dymock woods, via the Wye valley- working the jaw of a badger skull , ceps,  yellow stagshorn fungi

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  • finding the Somerset floods- parking by Ivy Thorn Way on Cockrod, above Street, gazing out across the ruined fields shimmering in late afternoon sun, then skipping around puddles
  • coffee and breakfast in Bradford on Avon, then to Devizes and up Roundway Hill, cat and mouse with deer, sliding down the deep, fleshy folds of the landscape on our arses, water-colour painting side by side

IMG_2073 gliding partridge, a few hares.

Last Wednesday, I dismissed my class a minute earlier and was the first out the school gates; I had a taxi waiting there. We drove to my daughter’s school, collected her and then headed into Bristol to the Colston Hall. We met my daughter’s mum, who took my daughter home with her while I caught the 4:35 Megabus to Leeds, 207 miles away. Barry met me at Leeds bus station and drove us to his place near the A1, and I bought his motorbike:

8It was a long way to go, and it had only been a one-way ticket, but I had talked with Barry for quite a while during several long  phone conversations. What particularly encouraged me was that his voice was almost exactly the same combination of Yorkshire straightforwardness and gentle kindness of a previous Head of Department. Strange to perceive so much of a personality through a voice. He gave me several cups of tea and a cheese and tomato sandwich. His house was traditionally furnished, some oil paintings of sailing ships and a grandfather clock. He offered me a spare bed for the night but, as I needed to collect my daughter and go to work in the morning, I declined. I set off from Leeds on the new bike at around midnight.

I took it slowly at first, getting accustomed to the torque-y engine, then leaned forward and flew down along the misty carriageway. I got lost. I should have found my way to the M1 and shot south towards Birmingham. I somehow stayed on the older A1 and was soon penetrating the borders of alien territories: Rutland, Sherwood Forest, Cambridgeshire. The bike is quick, so by the time the recognition that I was far off-course fully dawned on me, I was in deep.

The truck stop at Stibbington was a welcome sight, I think I pulled in around 1:15am. The man working in the empty cafe sorted me out with directions to Leicester, black coffee and a snickers. The chairs were all up, the light seemed jaundiced and faded. I was glad to share a little time, small talk and company before stepping out into the void. Apparently, he’d never had the co-ordination for bikes- liked them, but would have killed himself.

His directions sent me on the A47, a much more involving road of plunging corners, rippled straights and unexpected, sleeping villages that scrolled past like silent narratives.

When I slipped into surburban Leicester at around 2:15am, I was quite tired. I pulled in to the Shell garage at the junction of Uppingham and Coleman Road to refuel. I asked a young asian lad getting out of a Golf GTI for directions toward Birmingham. He wasn’t sure, so he asked his mate who was pissing against the wall of the garage. When he’d finished, he offered to escort me to the M42. And so it was, that these two hospitable ambassadors of Leicester lead me through the intricate,  empty city. I left them at Enderby with a salute of thanks and began the penultimate stage.

I stopped in the Waitrose/Petrol station at Hopwood Park on the M42. I had another black coffee and texted J at 3:18am. I bought deep red tulips, which I locked into the top-box and set off. I arrived in Keynsham around 4:30. I took my bike cover off Reddi and, after it’d cooled, placed it onto my new bike. I got changed and drove to J’s.

There was a candle for me in the hallway. The pre-dawn chorus was beginning. I got a glass of water from the kitchen, blew out the candle and went upstairs, my mind still racing.

The motorbike journey had taken 4 1/2 hours from the witching hour until dawn.

281 miles

4 hours journey time

Average: 70 mph