Monkshaven

Sorry there’s been such a massive posting-gap!

I’ve just been on a camping trip to Whitby, a seaside town in Yorkshire which used to be an important whaling-port – the setting for Elizabeth Gaskell’s Sylvia’s Lovers. The heroine, Sylvia Robson, lives in Whitby (renamed ‘Monkshaven’ in the novel) in the time of the Napoleonic Wars, when ‘Monkshaven’ (at the peak of its whaling success) was under threat from press gangs.

Sylvia is courted by her sober cousin, Phillip Hepburn. But his love isn’t returned. Sylvia meets and falls in love in love with the romantic whaler, Charley Kinraid, and they become engaged – just before Kinraid is pressed and taken to sea. Everyone, including Sylvia, believes he is drowned. Only Phillip knows what really happened. He was the only witness to the scene on the beach when Kinraid was ambushed and forced to enlist. Lying bound in the bottom of the boat, he gave Phillip a message for Sylvia. “Tell her what you’ve seen. Tell her I’ll come back to her. Bid her not forget the great oath we took together; she’s as much my wife as if we’d gone to church; – I’ll come back and marry her before long.”

Instead of giving Sylvia message, Phillip lets her believe that Charley is dead. Meanwhile, Sylvia’s father is hanged for being involved in a riot against the press-gang. Miserable and desperate, Sylvia finally agrees to marry Phillip.

They have a daughter – but not long after Kinraid returns to claim Sylvia and she discovers Phillip’s deception. She swears never to forgive Phillip, but refuses to live with Kinraid because of her child.

Despairing of ever winning Sylvia, Kinraid marries another woman. Meanwhile, Phillip enlists in the army, heartbroken at Sylvia’s anger against him, and ends up saving Kinraid’s life in a battle against Napoleon. Wounded, Phillip returns to Monkshaven and saves Sylvia’s child from drowning. His is fatally injured during the rescue, and Sylvia forgives him before he dies.


 

 I read Sylvia’s Lovers before coming to Whitby and the book and the place combined have laid a hold on me.

Having visited all the places mentioned in the story I was impressed by the way Gaskell conveys the atmosphere of them in Sylvia’s Lovers. Her descriptions are really accurate in a practical way, too. Here’s a passage about Whitby taken from the first chapter:

Monkshaven was a name not unknown in the history of England, and traditions of its having been the landing-place of a throneless queen were current in the town. At that time there had been a fortified castle on the heights above it, the site of which was now occupied by a deserted manor-house; and at an even earlier date than the arrival of the queen and coeval with the most ancient remains of the castle, a great monastery had stood on those cliffs, overlooking the vast ocean that blended with the distant sky. Monkshaven itself was built by the side of the Dee, just where the river falls into the German Ocean. The principal street of the town ran parallel to the stream, and smaller lanes branched out of this, and straggled up the sides of the steep hill, between which and the river the houses were pent in. There was a bridge across the Dee, and consequently a Bridge Street running at right angles to the High Street; and on the south side of the stream there were a few houses of more pretension, around which lay gardens and fields.

Whitby today is still Gaskell’s Monskhaven, even to the ‘bridge-street running at right angles to the High Street’ and the lanes ‘straggling up the sides of the steep hill’. The monastery ‘overlooking the vast ocean that blended with the distant sky’ still stands today.

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Whitby Abbey, taken by me

I visited Whitby Abbey, and saw that same vast ocean blending with that same distant sky through the ruined arches. It’s wonderful to think of Elizabeth Gaskell standing there and feeling the same rush of excitement as me. It’s easy to see why she wanted to write about Whitby.

One of the most memorable scenes of the book is at the beginning when the first whaler comes home, and all the women and children are waiting to see their sons and sweethearts.

The whalers went out into the Greenland seas full of strong, hopeful men; but the whalers never returned as they sailed forth. Whose bones had been left to blacken on the gray and terrible icebergs? Who lay still until the sea should give up its dead? Who were those who should come back to Monkshaven never, no, never more?

“To think o’ yon ship come in at last!” says Sylvia, “And if yo’d been down seeing all t’ folk looking and looking their eyes out, as if they feared they should die afore she came in and brought home the lads they loved, yo’d ha’ shaken hands wi’ that lass too.” 

Then the press-gang turns up and carries away the whalers before they can greet the watchers on shore.

…Molly Corney joined them, hastily bursting into the shop.

‘Hech!’ said she. ‘Hearken! how they’re crying and shouting down on t’ quay. T’ gang’s among ’em like t’ day of judgment. Hark!’

No one spoke, no one breathed, I had almost said no heart beat for listening. Not long; in an instant there rose the sharp simultaneous cry of many people in rage and despair. Inarticulate at that distance, it was yet an intelligible curse, and the roll, and the roar, and the irregular tramp came nearer and nearer.

‘They’re taking ’em to t’ Randyvowse,’ said Molly. ‘Eh! I wish I’d King George here just to tell him my mind.’

The girl clenched her hands, and set her teeth.

‘It’s terrible hard!’ said Hester; ‘there’s mothers, and wives, looking out for ’em, as if they were stars dropt out o’ t’ lift.’

 


Looking out on the houses past which the whaler sailed in that memorable scene I took a few photos. A rainbow framed the curve of the town, above the water, lying slate-coloured and quiet in the early morning sun. The red-rooves of the old houses were tightly packed, the steep streets like the steps of a ladder up the hillside.

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Under the modern-day quietness, snap shots of view bring back the dramatic past of the place about which Gaskell wrote. The masts of the boats, clustering close together against the pale morning sky. The cobbles over which crowds of desperate people must have run,

…anxious to defy and annoy the gang by insults, and curses half choked with their indignant passion, doubling their fists in the very faces of the gang who came on with measured movement, armed to the teeth, their faces showing white with repressed and determined energy against the bronzed countenances of the half-dozen sailors, who were all they had thought it wise to pick out of the whaler’s crew..

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Painting of the Press-Gang, by Robert Morley


 

After exploring the narrow, cobbled streets of the town (Georgian for the most part, with a few older houses scattered here and there and and a Regency and Victorian resort area across the river), we went up to the church.

 

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Me with my Mum and my little brother Cormac, exploring ‘Monskhaven’

The Monkshaven church is also described in detail in Sylvia’s Lovers – a sailor who has been killed by the press-gang, Darley, is buried there, and Sylvia and her friend Molly Corney go up to see the burial.

…on the Sunday afternoon to which Sylvia had been so looking forward, to scale the long flights of stone steps – worn by the feet of many generations – which led up to the parish church, placed on a height above the town, on a great green area at the summit of the cliff, which was the angle where the river and the sea met, and so overlooking both the busy crowded little town, the port, the shipping, and the bar on the one hand, and the wide illimitable tranquil sea on the other – types of life and eternity. It was a good situation for that church. Homeward-bound sailors caught sight of the tower of St Nicholas, the first land object of all. They who went forth upon the great deep might carry solemn thoughts with them of the words they had heard there; not conscious thoughts, perhaps – rather a distinct if dim conviction that buying and selling, eating and marrying, even life and death, were not all the realities in existence.

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The church today

There, too, lay the dead of many generations; for St. Nicholas had been the parish church ever since Monkshaven was a town, and the large churchyard was rich in the dead. Masters, mariners, ship-owners, seamen: it seemed strange how few other trades were represented in that great plain so full of upright gravestones. Here and there was a memorial stone, placed by some survivor of a large family, most of whom perished at sea: – ‘Supposed to have perished in the Greenland seas,’ ‘Shipwrecked in the Baltic,’ ‘Drowned off the coast of Iceland.’ There was a strange sensation, as if the cold sea-winds must bring with them the dim phantoms of those lost sailors, who had died far from their homes, and from the hallowed ground where their fathers lay.

These ‘upright gravestones’ and memorial stones can still be seen today, though the sentences engraved upon them have faded and grown ghostly and illegible since Mrs. Gaskell’s time, let alone since Sylvia’s — worn by the ‘cold sea-winds’ which still come keenly whistling over the tops of the gravestones.

And inside the church, the high box pews are still lined with green-baize, as Gaskell describes. Curious how some things remain the same, and other things change.

We passed from the sharp sea-wind that billowed round the tombstones, sending a flush into my cheeks, into the warmth of the church’s gift-shop. Stands and racks were everywhere, covered with little gift cards and and cheap jewellery.

Instinctively I thought back to that scene in the beginning of the book when Sylvia is in Phillip’s shop, hearing the noise of the press-gang outside. Entering into the down-to-earth of this very different shop gave me a feeling not unlike the feeling I have reading Sylvia’s Lovers whenever Phillip Hepburn turns up on the page.

The shop seemed confident, ordinary, and full of itself just like Phillip. It came in contrast with the romance of the churchyard. Gaskell unconsciously thought of this herself when she made Phillip the owner of ‘Fosters Shop’.

Fully within the church, things grew better. It was stepping into a bubble of romance that hung between the stone pillars, only allowing some to enter it, and shutting out others. In that early scene of Darley’s burial Sylvia was allowed into the romance – Molly Corney (thinking about what was the most fashionable pattern for a cloak) was shut out.

The unwonted sternness and solemnity visible on the countenances of all whom she met awed and affected (Sylvia). She did not speak in reply to Molly’s remarks on the dress or appearance of those who struck her. She felt as if these speeches jarred on her, and annoyed her almost to irritation…

The love between Kinraid and Sylvia grows naturally out of the instinctive passion of the town and countryside – of the great sea stretching away behind all. When Sylvia returns from Darley’s burial her head is full of Kinraid, who she has just seen for the first time, wounded from an encounter with the press-gang.

Attracted by Sylvia, Kinraid begins to call on her father, Daniel Robson. Sitting in the warm, fire-licked parlour that Sylvia would often recall in her memory he tells stories of whaling-voages.

All night long Sylvia dreamed of burning volcanoes springing out of icy southern seas. But, as in the specksioneer’s tale the flames were peopled with demons, there was no human interest for her in the wondrous scene in which she was no actor, only a spectator. With daylight came wakening and little homely every-day wonders. Did Kinraid mean that he was going away really and entirely, or did he not? Was he Molly Corney’s sweetheart, or was he not? When she had argued herself into certainty on one side, she suddenly wheeled about, and was just of the opposite opinion. At length she settled that it could not be settled until she saw Molly again; so, by a strong gulping effort, she resolutely determined to think no more about him, only about the marvels he had told. She might think a little about them when she sat at night, spinning in silence by the household fire, or when she went out in the gloaming to call the cattle home to be milked, and sauntered back behind the patient, slow-gaited creatures; and at times on future summer days, when, as in the past, she took her knitting out for the sake of the freshness of the faint sea-breeze, and dropping down from ledge to ledge of the rocks that faced the blue ocean, established herself in a perilous nook that had been her haunt ever since her parents had come to Haytersbank Farm. From thence she had often seen the distant ships pass to and fro, with a certain sort of lazy pleasure in watching their swift tranquillity of motion, but no thought as to where they were bound to, or what strange places they would penetrate to before they turned again, homeward bound.

Sylvia does not know herself in that passage. She does not know that her love for Kinraid is made of those ‘marvels that he told’. Kinraid and his whaling-stories are one and the same, in Sylvia’s mind and in the mind of the reader. They can’t be separated. Take away the whaling-romance, take away icebergs and press-gangs and Whitby, and there’s nothing left.

Several critics have complained that Kinraid has no real character -— that he’s only a surface with nothing underneath. That’s certainly a point of view — but given that his surface reflects whales and dazzling icebergs like the surface of Greenland waters, I think he’s in fact an exceptionally vivid and somehow living figure.

Phillip Hepburn arguably has more character than Kinraid – certainly we’re given more isight into his thoughts – but Gaskell has utterly failed in making him him sympathetic. Described at the beginning as having ‘a long face, with a slightly aquiline nose, dark eyes, and a long upper lip, which gave a disagreeable aspect to a face that might otherwise have been good-looking’, he comes across as arrogant and selfish, and incredibly boring.

His character is fixed from the very beginning – the scene in the shop when he stops Sylvia from joining in the riot against the press gang.

‘Let us go into t’ thick of it and do a bit of help; I can’t stand quiet and see ‘t!’ Half crying, she pushed forwards to the door; but Philip held her back.

‘Sylvie! you must not. Don’t be silly; it’s the law, and no one can do aught against it, least of all women and lasses.’

Still makes me furious! As my younger brother Tass said: ‘Sylvia should have knocked him down flat and ran out. Serve him right!’ (it is now a favourite game in our house to think of things to ‘do to Phillip’. Tass has thought of some pretty fitting punishments)

The contrast between Phillip and Kinraid is seen at its strongest in the scene where Kinraid is pressed. Phillip sees the press-gang waiting, and, seeing Kinraid as his rival for Sylvia’s affections, doesn’t warn him.

The instant Kinraid turned the corner of the cliff, the ambush was upon him. Four man-of-war’s men sprang on him and strove to pinion him.

‘In the King’s name!’ cried they, with rough, triumphant jeers.

…Although taken by surprise, and attacked by so many, Kinraid did not lose his wits. He wrenched himself free, crying out loud:

‘Avast, I’m a protected whaler. I claim my protection. I’ve my papers to show, I’m bonded specksioneer to the Urania whaler, Donkin captain, North Shields port.’

…. ‘D – n your protection,’ cried the leader of the press-gang; ‘come and serve his Majesty, that’s better than catching whales.’

‘Is it though?’ said the specksioneer, with a motion of his hand, which the swift-eyed sailor opposed to him saw and interpreted rightly.

‘Thou wilt, wilt thou? Close with him, Jack; and ware the cutlass.’

In a minute his cutlass was forced from him, and it became a hand-to-hand struggle, of which, from the difference in numbers, it was not difficult to foretell the result. Yet Kinraid made desperate efforts to free himself; he wasted no breath in words, but fought, as the men said, ‘like a very devil.’

Hepburn heard loud pants of breath, great thuds, the dull struggle of limbs on the sand, the growling curses of those who thought to have managed their affair more easily; the sudden cry of some one wounded, not Kinraid he knew, Kinraid would have borne any pain in silence at such a moment.

There is massive contrast here between the physically brave Kinraid, battling the press-gang, ‘fighting like a very devil’ and ‘although taken by surprise, and attacked by so many, not losing his wits’, and Phillip, crouching awkwardly behind a rock. This contrast is too strong throughout the book – sympathy with Phillip is impossible.


 

We spent the night in the carpark of Sandsend, nearish the beach below Haytersbank Farm (Sylvia’s house), where Kinraid is pressed.

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Taken from Sandsend carpark

Evening. I lay stretched on a wall in the carpark, reading Sylvia’s Lovers. Beneath me was the beach, winding away, and hugged by the line of distant green cliff on the furthest point of which stood Whitby Abbey.

The sky was thundery, the sea coming in, stretching in in an uneven line along the beach. In the distance it was smooth and quiet-looking as silk with a ragged hem. But beneath me the waves crashed over the large, green, agley-draped rocks, sending up a mist of fine spray. Far away along that green headland the lights of Monkshaven began to twinkle, appearing one by one as night fell around me. I was totally pulled into Sylvia’s Lovers. 

…the grass was crisping under their feet with the coming hoar frost; and as they mounted to the higher ground they could see the dark sea stretching away far below them. The night was very still, though now and then crisp sounds in the distant air sounded very near in the silence… The long monotonous roll of the distant waves, as the tide bore them in, the multitudinous rush at last, and then the retreating rattle and trickle, as the baffled waters fell back over the shingle that skirted the sands, and divided them from the cliffs…

Usually when I’m reading something that really grips me I forget where I am. I’m transported to the place I’m reading about.

This time there was no need of transportation. I was here, along with with Sylvia. I could hear what she heard – the sound of the waves ‘as the tide bore them in, the multitudinous rush at last, and then the retreating rattle and trickle, as the baffled waters fell back over the shingle that skirted the sands, and divided them from the cliffs…’ I saw what she saw – the sea ‘sea stretching away far below’ and my night, like her night, was ‘very still’.

Instead of the words pulling me away from the real world as they would normally do, they helped me to trap the whole of the wildness of the view inside me as I read. I think it was at that moment that I realised the uniting force of the book, from which both the faults and the virtues of the characters, and the faults and the virtues of the plot spring.

Sylvia’s Lovers certainly has some flaws, particularly toward the end, and having Phillip Hepburn as a main character was a really terrible mistake.

But there’s something about the romance of the battle between the press-gangs and the whaling ships that really sweeps one away. It’s because Sylvia is swept up in this romance that she loves Kinraid, the specksioneer (chief harpooner). And it must have been because Mrs. Gaskell was swept up in it that she was able to write such powerful scenes. That’s what’s special about Sylvia’s Lovers. It’s that exhilarating feeling of comradeship. You’re really sympathetic towards Sylvia because you share her infatuation with Kinraid and her bitterness against the press-gangs. She loves the idea of him, and the reader loves the idea of him, too. She falls in love with Charley before she’s even met him, when she hears the story of how he stuck up against the press-gang out at sea.

It is this, too, which creates the great fault of the book – the over drawn contrast between Phillip and Kinraid. Main characters ought to contrast – but the contrast between these two is far too great for sympathy. Unlike the specksioneer, Phillip does not seem part of the romance of Monkshaven and the press-gang. He puts a damper on the flow of excitement we feel reading it.

When Sylvia marries Phillip, she does not cease to feel that he is opposing the romance of Monkshaven and the press-gang – nor does the reader cease to feel it. But the battle with the press-gangs has changed from being a romantic dream (as it seemed in the beginning of the book) to being terribly, frighteningly real. Then later in the book Kinraid himself turns out to be less romantic than we originally though him.

More than the misery of the characters, it is the breaking-up of the romance that makes the ending of the book so sad. The night after I finished reading Sylvia’s Lovers I had feverish dreams.

We were leaving Whitby, never to return again – the red rooves were disappearing into the distance – something indefinable but terrible had happened to Kinraid …

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The ending is painful because, like Sylvia, the reader has been swept into the great, wavy, rippling dream of romance, and then grounded on a sandbank.

We have Whitby to thank for all the passion of Sylvia’s Lovers. The story has grown out of the clustering red-roofs of Whitby and the wide sea beyond. Gaskell’s sea, Sylvia’s sea – my sea.

 

 

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Let Me Have It

A short essay on yearning

‘Bring me the sunset in a cup,
Reckon the morning’s flagons up
And say how many Dew,
Tell me how far the morning leaps—
Tell me what time the weaver sleeps
Who spun the breadth of blue!
… Who built this little Alban House
And shut the windows down so close
My spirit cannot see?
Who’ll let me out some gala day
With implements to fly away,
Passing Pomposity?’
Problems, Emily Dickinson.

 

There are many things in life that it seems we can never quite reach – that excite an unexplained yearning for something – and we cannot quite decide what it is that we want. Usually, it is small things that make us feel this way – at least, things that are small in our life, but outside our life, immensely large. Dawns, limestone rivers, very tall trees, moss, huge leaves, summer skies, Christmas lights, frozen lakes,  Monet’s waterlilies, the sea. All these things give me a feeling of something I want – like an urge to be in them – not just looking at them, but in them, part of them. The feeling is perfectly captured in the first line of the poem above – ‘Bring me the sunset in a cup!’. It is a major part of our lives, this subtle feeling – above all, a major part of beauty. Whatever is really beautiful, really great and powerful, is like subtle torture to a human mind. We cannot get enough of it, we cannot grasp it properly and hold it forever. We are used to things, objects we can hold and keep – pretty plates, clothes, money – we cannot bear the elusiveness, the powerful vagueness, of nature.

But it is when one of these yearnings is unexpectedly fulfilled that a magical moment of our lives is created – a moment we will always remember. Like the time I went moonlight bathing – the time I climbed a young beech to the very top and swayed with it in the wind –  and the time I wrote this poem about:

My Memory

2017

I saw the river, waiting for me,

And every mossed-rock with a smiling face,

And all and everything under a spell

The golden spell of the sun’s last rays,

Like the yellow resin from out of a tree

That catches the bugs that into it fly

And keeps them safe for all the years

Thus it catches my soul as my soul flies by

With its airy wings newly sprouted from joy

And holds that joy in its memory

And mine.

The river it holds the memory also,

Let it flow with that memory, on forever,

With a rush and a sparkle over the pebbles,

And the silken weeds like mermaids hair,

And the moss-cushioned rocks, and mingle,

Its sound with the sound of the wind passing by

High over the mountains from whence it came

And on to the sea, that endless sea;

And there let it crash with the waves on the beach

And foam on the rocks as the tide draws out –

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And finally, here’s another poem, about the same concept as my essay:

Let me have it

Let me have it, that something I never can reach –

Let me dance in those poppies that scatter the sky!

Let me drift on those wisps of velvety peach!

Let me slide down those beams of dusty sunshine!

Let me sit on that pale arching curve of a moon!

Let me gather those stars, behind prickling pine –

And wear them on a necklace that forever I’ll keep.

And, for a pendant, what most I should like,

Is one of those bright embers, when the fire falls asleep.

 

Why always so high, so far out of reach –

You taunting great velvety dome of a sky?

If closer you came, I might crawl through that breach,

That fiery crack in the pearly enamel

When the hot sun sinks over a silvery sea.

And what should I find, pass’d through that red channel?

Might I slip out of the atmosphere, and down

The cold milky-way go soaring at ease?

Let me go with the wind to rustle the tree’s green gown.

 

Why, Nature, so allusive, so flitting and shy,

Like the soft butterfly, who flees as I near?

On some big water-lily pad let me lie

And down the quiet stream go a-floating far.

Make the clouds my kingdom, hedge, tree and all,

With a palace, all shimmering with light from the stars.

On the crest of a wave let me ride away!

Forever let me lie on a bed of rich moss,

Let me dress in the sky at the dawn of the day,

And at Nature’s bosom I ever will stay.

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Home Again

 

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Me and my brother at the pillars

Hello Everybody,

I am so sorry for the terrible lack of posting during the last few months. I have some excuse – I have been on holiday in Sardinia for a couple of weeks – though that does not really excuse my not posting for a month or so before that.

It does mean, however, that my posts about the holiday – the white sand, rich turquoise water beaches where we spent most of our time, the dry pine forests and green romantic crags, the flapping palms, views of a silver sea, and my being stung by a Mauve Stinger jellyfish! – will now be coming thick and fast.

Today, I am posting about a twilight swim I went on on a beach  next to a roman granite quarry. As the ancient romans loaded the pillars and things they’d carved out of the quarry onto the ship to be taken to Rome, they’d sort them through, and if they found one they’d got wrong they’d just dump it on the beach, so there’s loads of Roman columns just hanging about on the beach!

 

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Those tremendous blocks will never stand on end, tall, tall, as the pillars of heaven, as they were meant to do, never watch the sacrificial service, or hear the bleating cry of the goat killed on the altar, their fate determined by one slip of the sculpture’s hand. Now the years pass by and by, and Rome no longer needs their service, no longer wants their strength, to uphold the great and gilded roof.

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Now, themselves half sunken into waters still and glassy as a temple’s polished floor, rings round them, echoing off again and again from the granite, not hymns to Neptune, but Neptune’s own music, lapping, lapping, forever lapping. No priestess’s skirt shall swish against their hardness, only water, water, ever water.

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It was that hour of evening that goes on from just before sundown, and then from between sundown and dark-fall, when laughter and wind and noise all melt down into a hush.

As the fiery blaze of radiance, seared by the setting sun, subsides to a tender pink in the sky, the elements fall silent, as we fall silent just after something glorious has passed before us.

Whatever the cause, there is a gentleness, subtle but firm, in the air at twilight, and we mortals feel it, and cease our laughter and play in awe. Certainly, I do.

This evening, the sea had fallen still as lake-water about the great blocks of white solidity, so that their reflections are clear as crystal; fallen still over the granite sea-bottom, changing now to fine sand as I come out of the rocks and pillars onto the main beach, smooth and reflective almost as the water where the waves had dampened it, but ruffled beyond by the tracks of the people, nearly all gone now, leaving the beach. Though they were in dry sand and would have been easily smoothed into nothing by one gust of wind, they looked strangely permanent in the stillness of the hour. Yet nothing made by man is permanent – not even those great, forgotten granite pillars. Already the sea is ever wearing them away. Only the awe that they inspire in our hearts is permanent.

As I walked by the last pillar, I broke the mirror-reflection into ripples, rising to catch colour from the pink glow in the sky. There was no sound but the slow, calm liquid noise of my wading. Then, instead of walking along the beach, I began to walk out to see, and, eyes of the last of the pillars, plunged softly into the water, and swam away, the pillars fading into the haze of evening calm.

 

 

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(Note: I just created a new page: My (winning) entry for the Alan Garner Writing Competition of 2016)

Owlet and Rose Photos

 

My mother saw it first. It must have been quite a shock; just glancing out of the window – my gosh! –

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There it was, a blinking, fuzzy old fluff ball, looking rather grumpy but so sweet! It was sitting less than a room’s length (be it not a very tiny room) from our french doors, on the raised part of the garden surrounded by a gravel drive-way that we call the island.

Perhaps I ought to explain a little more. For a long while, our garden has been inhabited by two great tawny owls – gifts of Athene, the protectress of those animals –  or so I have always thought.

Day after day, we would look up and see them, sitting side by side on the branch, looking down with their wide, burning, searching eyes gazing questingly into yours, and their great heads swivelling amazingly far round.

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Many times we have found what are almost defiantly the feathers of young owls about the garden; but we have never seen the babies before. It was a great excitement, then, as you may imagine, when we found a tawny owlet sitting on the island.

After the first shocks of delighted amazement, we began to consider what to do. We did not know at all whether the owlet was supposed to be on the ground – it looked considerably out of place there, almost like some incredible creature from another world suddenly set down in our garden. We are surrounded by different  neighbours, nearly all of whom have cats who not uncommonly venture into our garden – and we have even occasionally been know to have dogs enter from under the gate. We were therefore rather worried that some of these animals would prove predators to the baby owl.

I set to work googling, and found that

Hand rearing an owlet and releasing it later is not the best thing for it. Unless there is something definitely wrong with the bird, it is far better off remaining ‘in the wild’… It is important to note that young Tawny Owls usually leave the nest long before they are ready to fly and there is actually no point in placing such birds back in the nest. From approx. ½ to ¾ grown (around 120-220mm tall), Tawny owlets go through a phase called ‘branching’, when they walk, climb, jump and flutter around in the trees at night. The adults locate them by their contact calls and will feed them anywhere. It is not at all uncommon for owlets to spend time on the ground during this phase and they are surprisingly good at climbing back up again. It is very likely that the owlet you have is perfectly okay and if it is left where it is, or returned to the same spot, it will be fed by the adults and will be able to climb to safety.

and

“Tawny Owl babies are often seen on the ground in summer, where you should leave them alone! They are able to call their parents and even climb trees to safety. Adult Tawny Owls can attack and severely injure humans. Beware!”

We decided, then, to let it stay where it was; we could frighten away any cats that came if the parent did not. It was comforting to know that it was still under the parent’s guardianship, and had not been turned out of the nest. Incredible as it seemed that such an immobile looking fluff-ball could climb a tree, we trusted the websites, for all of them said the same.

So, everybody, that is what to do it you are lucky enough to ever see this amazing spectacle.

Note: This note is written a few days after I wrote the first part of this – I kept it un-posted as Jane Austen characters do with their letters so as to add more later. We have continued to see the owlet about the garden; sometimes it tries to fly, and makes a ridiculous spectacle, rather like a struggling bear with wings. It is clear that it can move about the garden much faster than you might have thought, and the parents regularly feed it. We are not as yet sure whether having seen the babies, as we have not done previous years, means that they are nesting in the garden, instead of in a nearby hollow chestnut as we before thought. 

Also, it was Thomas Hardy’s birthday on the 2nd of June.

And finally, here’s a slideshow of some pictures of the Incense Rose I took the other day:

And here’s a poem I wrote about it years ago:

I open with the sun –
The gentle sun of spring,
I overflow with joyous light
Oh, what the year may bring!
My dainty buds were forming
When the earth was bare and stark;
My ferny leaves made patterns
On my stems so rich and dark.
My leaves they are scented
Of incense do they smell,
Like a church as dark as winter
But of sweet spring sun as well.
I am no double rose,
Nor fit for any ball,
But I’m sure my simple beauty
Will please and charm you all.

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My stay in ‘Mona’

Hello!

Sorry I haven’t posted for a while – but luckily it means that there is a series of especially good posts to come – as the reason for it is that I have been on holiday to Anglesey with my parents for a few days, there collecting descriptions for my first proper novel, Speedwell, which is set on Anglesey. I hope soon to create a page on my blog where you can read it. This entry, though, is an account of something which happened on Anglesey.

Eased Heart 

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The untouched sand is dazzlingly smooth – whiter than the sand of the beach behind it, and shaped by the wind unto gentle ripples reflecting the waves of the sea. Somewhere, a sky-lark was singing – and the sound echoed gurgling round the smooth sandhills, seeming all-about and everywhere.

A figure, outlined delicately against the bright paleness of the sand was walking past, her bare feet leaving faint imprints on the light-smoothness. She felt as if, in that moment, she had passed into another unknown world, vast in it curiosities. She stoops to put on her shoes, in readiness for climbing the huge dune that rises ahead – and is not soft with sand, wind-swept, but now unearthly still, like the others, but all a’green with marram grass, and sheets of herb and weed. And the ground about it is green too, for some little space. And all amid the greenery there peeps out a clump of one, two, three little heartsease, smiling up with their little bright faces at the girl. She smiles back, delighted, and stoops to pick one of the heartsease. She then notices other clumps are scattered all about. Some of the laughing, smiling little flowers are of many different shades of yellow – others different shades of blue or of purple, some are of purple, blue and yellow together, arranged in a different way on each flower. There were some that were yellow with a dapple dark purple splash upon each petal. 

She climbs on, panting, up the green slopes of the dune, till she comes to the top, and looks down at a world of dryness, dappled with greenness and patches of sand, marvelling at the whole. The marram grass gave way a little here, baring a crumbling, winding precipice of loose sand on the other side. She flung herself down it, rolling and tumbling amongst the sand, came to a stop at the bottom, and lay looking at the sky, in which floated by, soft and pure white as swan’s down. She felt bright and cheerful – but not as bright and cheerful as the smiling heartsease.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Moonlight Swim


Silver Surfaced

Sea below – a great, wide mirror, surface glazed with shimmering silver – still – crisp – silent. Sky above – a great, wide veil – soft – dark – blank. Magic drifted over those silver-surfaced waters – savouring the atmosphere – filling our souls. I came to the edge of the pale sands and stood in the crystal water – shivers of icy coldness rushing through me. Then I shut my eyes and sunk effortlessly into the still silver coldness of the sea. There was another splash as my mother and brother joined me – the mirror broke – shining silver ripples spreading around us. The water was clearer and more colourless, save for the surface of moonlight, than I have ever seen it before – the many coloured pebbles shone through, glinting in the wet like precious stones. I grasped my mother’s hand and we swam together – the feeling of swimming through that mesh of moonlight and crystal was indescribably calming – and yet it was bracing too – and energising – and when I arose at last out of the chilling beauty of the water I felt fresh, and ready for something – I knew not what.

And I made sure that those special moments of magic should never leave my memory.

This really happened – it was when we were on our holiday in Spain – I will maybe be posting a few more things about days on that holiday – it was lovely.

Valentine’s Day Cards

I am having a break in the story of Ponden Hall to make a several days late Valentine’s Day post. Happy Valentine’s Day! This post is about our Valentine’s Day, and especially the cards we made.

We often make each other cards on Valentine’s day instead of buying them from cards; my Mum and me mostly make them, but my brother Tass does too sometimes.

This Valentine’s Day Mum and Dad both bought each other and me and Tass lots of chocolate, and Dad bought a huge bunch of flowers. Mum decorated all the chocolate boxes with hearts cut out of card and glittery paper, and we all made each other cards. I made one for Tassy with a heart inside a doily, and inside the heart I stuck a little cat-shaped wooden button (he is obsessed with cats). For Dad I made the same, but the heart was inside a golden netlike piece of cloth, and inside it was a dog instead of a cat, because we pretend he is a dog. I made Mum a card with a heart on it cut out of red card, and inside the heart another smaller one cut out of a flowery cloth, and I also made little corners for it out of the red card and the flowery cloth. I also had little hedgehog shaped wooden buttons like the cat ones, and I used them like stamps, dipping them in pink ink and pressing them down on the card. I made it look like they were kissing. (It was hedgehogs because that’s Mum’s animal). Mum made a card to us all with puffy hearts in it. Me and Mum made one together for my grandmother, and I drew a picture of a tulip for it. Mum arranged the cards and boxes of chocolate around the flowers for a surprise. Below are some photos of the cards.

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My card to Mum

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Tass’s card to me

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Detail of Mum’s card (Dad’s heart)

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Detail of my heart

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Tass’s card to Mum

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Another detail (Tass’s heart)

IMG_8175Mum’s card to all off us (the heart larger or smaller according to the size of the people they are to; the large heart is Dad, which is why it has a dog over it, the smaller one Tass, which is why there is a cat over it, and the tiny one with the face over it is our baby. The medium size heart is mine, and it has a lily of the valley and roses over it because Mum calls me ‘Lily-Rose’).

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Tass’s card to Dad

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The flowers and all the cards together

 

I though I might as well include some valentine’s cards from a few years back, while I am on that subject.

Here they are; some ones that I made for Mum

 

Part Five of Bronte Country

The presents were opened; twilight had fallen, and darkness was veiling the green hills and scraggy moors. The hour of the box-bed drew near; I had resolved to climb inside as soon as night fell. Though too afraid to sleep in it, I would certainly spend my evening inside it. Standing before the bed I shut my eyes and ‘slid back the paneled sides, got in with my light, pulled them together again’. They creaked terribly as I drew them back; the smell inside was a pleasant one of fresh pinewood – I pretended it was musty, and in my mind’s eye hung cobwebs in the corners. Shaking with fear and yet half laughing, a smile of nervous excitement frozen upon my lips, I leaned across the bed to examine the dreaded window. It was not exactly as described in the book; indeed, in Wuthering Heights the window bore more resemblance to the one outside the bed, already described, for in the book it opened, and was large enough so that ‘the ledge of a window, which it enclosed, served as a table.’. The local legend said however that this was the window, and for good reason, for it looked in many ways spookier than the other. It was very small and square, and cut strait out of the stone, and it did not open. It was placed back substantially from the wall, embedded deep in the wall, with a small slanting window ledge. But alas, carved upon it were no “Catherine”s. Outside the cold dark night pressed against the pane, and far off lights glimmered through the darkness. Condensation beaded the window, and a couple of drops were trickling down onto the window ledge. The stone below was rough, and when the drops reached the bottom they stuck between the bumps in the stone like little jewels. On the window ledge stood a huge old bible, half crumbled apart. Eagerly I turned over the huge leaves, half hoping – or should I say dreading – to find something written in the margins, though I knew it to be impossible. Disappointed in my search, I pulled the book off the ledge (carefully of course) and placed on the windowsill my wonderful writing desk already described in the last part. I folded it out, and taking out some paper and my pens and ink, I began to write.

Many times I was interrupted in my writing by the sight of a strange shadow reaching toward the window; twice on seeing it I nearly screamed, and had to hurry across the bed and, panting, throw open the door and look into the bright, reassuring room, wherein the adults were chatting. I tried to use the new blotter, but ended up splotching ink over all the paper. But if after I had finished it looked more like a mess of ink, I had certainly had fun writing it.

Box bed photos

Part Three of Bronte Country

We drove on through the stirring countryside, now up through the moors, now plunging down again into the green hills. A light rain was falling, and a wintery haze, broken sometimes by the slanting sunlight that burst occasionally through the clouds above, seemed to hang about. As we neared our destination, a large reservoir came into view, reflecting the grey of the stern sky exactly, except that it added a feel of glossy silver. The rain pattered upon the glassy surface of the water, creating tiny splashes. And then Ponden Hall itself came into view; a long, sturdy grey building, with a slanted roof, and just below the roof a long line of windows clustered together on each side of the doorway, made of lots of tiny little pains. Directly above the doorway was a little arch-shaped crevice, with writing carved in it. I tried to read it as we drove up, and did not, alas, catch the words, ‘Hereton Earnshaw’. The doorway itself was classical in style, made of the same stone as the building, with a white door in it.

We stood on the step and rung the bell; we were not greeted either by a dark, glowering Heathcliff, or by a cascade of snarling dogs throwing us to the ground (these circumstances I regretted at the time, but found afterward were rather more of a relief) but instead by the very friendly owners of Ponden Hall who hurried us into the main room and gave us lots of cake and tea, which we were badly wanting after the cold and tiring walk back up to the car from Wycoller Valley, which had been particularly difficult for me as I was continually tripping over my long muddied skirts.

Being well lit, comfortable and not especially large, the room we were now in bore at first sight very little resemblance to the room in which the laughable Mr Lockwood is attached by dogs (it was this room that the “house” at Wuthering Heights, where the dog encounter occurs, must have been based on). But on looking more closely I noticed several things that bore, in fact, a striking resemblance to the room described in the book. One of the things I noticed was that the floor was paved with large slabs of stone, giving very much the feeling of Wuthering Heights, and actually described in the book (though in the book they are white; in reality grey). Indeed, take away the warmth and comfort of the room and place in it some rather more old-fashioned furniture, it was indeed very much as described in the book; excepting one thing, which was that it is rather smaller than I image the room in Wuthering Heights to be. We were told however by the owners of Ponden Hall (Steve and Julie) that the room used to be much bigger, and the Great Hall of the house. It was made smaller before Emily’s time, but still, she might have know that it used to be a Great Hall and transported the house back in time a little for her story.

After finishing our examination of the room and our cake and tea, we were shown upstairs into our rooms. The first room we were shown was comfortable-looking, but nevertheless it bore distinguished marks of Wuthering Heights about it. Among other things was the amazing ceiling. It was high and slanting, and covered with wooden planking as though it were the floor. Across the planking all the way up were a row of incredibly large, long beams, and altogether made an incredible sight when gazed up at from below. There were three beds; two singles and a double, and the double, the one that I was to share with my mother, was a four poster. It was not, however, one of those romantic sorts of four posters of which I generally dreamed; it was not a bed similar to that described by Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey, ‘and the bed, of dark green stuff or purple velvet, presenting even a funereal appearance’ No. It was a very comfortable bed with white sheets and pillows, and the hangings were of gauzy transparent stuff. By the bed stood an old rocking horse, with two little seats attached to it that rocked also. My brother Tassy pleaded to be allowed on, but Mum said we had to see the other room first. This other room that was mentioned was the one my aunt and grandmother (who were also come with us to Ponden) were to sleep in, and on seeing it I would certainly have had a shock, had I not already had suspicions of what the second bed was to be.

We passed out of the room, and from there through two doors. A bookcase was attached to the wall in the space of hall between the two. We then went on through a carpeted corridor, the walls of which were hung with pictures; we then passed the stairs we had come up, and continued down a new section of the corridor we had not yet passed through. The corridor ended – in front of us stood a low doorway of shiny dark oak, in shape more in the gothic style than roman (though it was not quite gothic, for though it had a pointed top, it did not curve round gracefully toward the point; it was like two strait planks on either side, and then two more on top of them leaning toward each other, forming above something like that triangle shaped thing that stands on Greek temples). We opened the door; as it creaked open, I got for the first time in the Hall a real feeling of Wuthering Heights. The room stood before us in all its majesty – and in it – I have already said that I suspected, but yet my heart jumped at the sight of it. But I will not suffer the readers of this to discover what that surprise so startling to me is until I have described the less prominent details of the room.

The walls were made of stone with a very Wuthering Heights aspect, of a pale warm colouring; the was floor polished wood with a glazing of black over it, and the ceiling was like that in the other room, only a little less spectacular, for the beams were smaller, the ceiling was lower and there was no planking. However, this ceiling had the advantage of some lower beams going from one side of the room to the other. There was a large fireplace, and in front of it a wooden chest. On either side of the chest was a chair; on one side an arm-chair and on the other a rocking chair, and facing it was a sofa, in the same pattern and with the same throw as the armchair. On the right-hand wall was a window with a window-frame of heavy stone, divided into three panes, the middle pane of which opened up. In front of the window was a little table on which lay some vases, jugs and bowls of blue pottery, and a old edition of Wuthering Heights. Now the minor details of the room have been described, we may describe the other thing, that shocking thing, the crowning of the room. We will take to describe it a paragraph out of Wuthering Heights.

“I fastened my door and glanced round for the bed. The whole furniture consisted of a chair, a clothes-press, and a large oak case, with squares cut out near the top resembling coach windows. Having approached this structure, I looked inside, and perceived it to be a singular sort of old- fashioned couch, very conveniently designed to obviate the necessity for every member of the family having a room to himself. In fact, it formed a little closet, and the ledge of a window, which it enclosed, served as a table. I slid back the panelled sides, got in with my light, pulled them together again, and felt secure against the vigilance of Heathcliff, and every one else.”

It was this ‘large oak case, with cut squares near the top resembling coach windows’ that now faced us. Sliding panel doors, little windows at the top, all was complete. Only the markings and shine of wear was wanting; this was no ancient box bed, but one placed in the room for Wuthering Heights tourists. But as this circumstance was not what I would have wished, I merely passed over it in imagination, added in my head the tatter and the wear, and that is what I mean the readers of this to do. But I did not bound toward it and enter at once – for one reason, I was to stupefied with amazement, thrill and a little of terror – for the other, I felt that it would spoil it to get in while the grown-ups were tramping round the room like buffalos, and chatting in a manner guarantied to ruin any romance. I would wait until the room was quieter, and until my mind was a little quieter also.

 

 

 

Photo 1 The rocking horse mentioned in text    Photo 2 The Box Bed Room

 

 

 

 

 

Part two of Bronte Country

Packhorse Bridge photos

After exploring the ruins for some time, we began to get hungry, and we decided to find a good spot to eat the picnic that had been packed in Victorian style into a white wicker hamper. After wandering about for some while, we sat down upon the remains of mossy wall that stood on a damp bank overlooking a brook. The riverbed was stony and the water rushed, now trickling, now gurgling, now roaring over the rocks. The peat in the water caused it to look a rich, brownish red as it rushed and tumbled by. Across on the other side the bank rose high and sheer like a low cliff, the ferns and moss growing in the gaps covered the sharp rocks with soft greenery. We unpacked our abundant picnic; two tins of little quails eggs (traditional Victorian picnic food) a custard tart each, a plain bun each, an iced bun each, and a bag of rock buns which we were all too full to eat. We bought some hot milk from a small café that stood round the corner, and them continued walking about.

We took these paths and those paths, but wherever we went the terrain was nearly the same; rushing rivers and becks; pools and marshes, ferns and mosses, squelching mud, green valleys and hills, bare trees, and rising always around us, the Bronte moors, purple in the distance.

There are many famous and ancient bridges in Wycoler, but there are only three that we saw, or at least that we noticed; Clapper Bridge, Clam Bridge, and Packhorse Bridge. Each of these has something interesting to be said for it. For Clapper Bridge, there is a very interesting story. The bridge used to have grooves in it worn by the pattens of the weavers carrying across their bundles, but when a farmer’s daughter tripped and was killed on the rocks below, he had the bridge flattened out and it is now perfectly smooth. Still more interesting is Clam Bridge; it is one huge slab put across the beck, and it dates back to stone age times. Twice it fell and was smashed to pieces in floods, and twice it had to be stuck back together. As for Packhorse bridge, the main reason that it was interesting to us is because Bobbie sits on it in The Railway Children. It is one of my favourite films and my mother also used to watch it when she was child.

After passing over all these bridges, we made our way finally up the steep, muddy slope, with the scraggy blue ridge of the moors around us, and taking a last look at Ferndean Castle as we walked – that castle that was the inspiration of one of the most wonderful scenes ever to pass in of one of the most wonderful books ever to be written – we reached the top, and climbing into our car/carriage, we drove in the direction of Ponden Hall.

Clam Bridge photo 1                                  Clapper Bridge photo 2