Seasons end

A new month but the end of our season. A shift in the clocks, the weather and the pace of life on Bryher suddenly throws you in to winter. Darker times bring warm, cosy-lit fires, snuggle-soft blankets and candle-shadowed nights.

The weather has been wintery this week. Wild winds and big rolling seas hurl spray high into the sky, obscuring rocky giants such as Shipman Head and Scilly Rock, coating our faces in salty dampness.

My blog today is a slight cheat, in the fact that I've already written it. It's a piece I have written for the Island Partnership's newsletter, but it sums up my love of winter on Bryher and has a slightly ghostly story, and of course yesterday was Halloween so...

I like to think and write to the rhythm of walking, but during the summer taking time in my day for this is challenging, if not impossible, and the many distractions of work, boat engines, chattering children and enquiring visitors can give a rather fragmented energy to my writing. After a mind-muddling, thought-spinning summer season, winter on Bryher brings a sense of relief and gratitude.

Winter writing satisfies my need for quietness and time; to become more insular, solitary and cocooned, with space for wild walks and gentle thought. There can be a battle between the cosy indoors and the stormy weather beating at the window, but how better to write about the natural world that inspires me than to be part of it?

I tuck a notebook, any old notebook close to hand, and a pencil, always a pencil, into the deep pocket of one of my well-worn mud-covered coats and venture out, sometimes knowing my route, other times walking for inspiration. Footstep beating after footstep, word tumbling over word.

Rocky nooks of lichen-covered granite provide shelter to write and sketch, capturing glimpses of place and wandering thoughts. High up on a sky-exposed hilltop or down at the water’s edge, the raging sea pounding the rocks in a fury of steel-grey waves and frothy-white spray or slipping away like molten silver, sliding silently on an ebb tide.

The paper flaps infuriatingly in the wind, (note to self, bring a clip to pin the paper down) my fingers are numb and the rain is seeping through the worn-out seams of the old coat, dampening the chilled nape of my neck. I pack up. Walk home. Soggy steps squelch soggy ground. Wrecks and rescues mull about my head, back with me to snuggle up beside the fire. Hot Earl Grey tea warming one hand, pencil waiting in the other.

Ghosts of islanders and their battles to survive the island’s ever-changing moods tease my imagination. I have long been fascinated by Clemmie who lived beside our farmhouse in a squat, two-roomed granite cottage, when roofs were still made of the reeds cut from Tresco pond and shipwrecks were a common occurrence. An island fisherman once told me of a night when, whilst folk gathered for a party, a ship ran aground and his grandfather rowed out in the first gig to reach her. Island-spun stories inspire my tales of fiction.

Clemmie 1910

I hear a ships whistle, shrill and loud. A scream of warning and fear, slicing through the gathering of folk, our faces warm and flushed from the cosy heat of Uncles cottage. Again, the shattering scream. We know this sound; it brings with it a realisation of impending tragedy. My heart begins to race.

“To the gigs” Uncle shouts.

The heavy wooden door slams back hard against the rough granite wall. The heat of our bodies escapes in a suck of steam out into the damp, black air. Men I have known all my life, pull on their thick leather boots and run to the gig shed. My hand is squeezed tight in mothers strong grip as she pulls me along the sandy track towards our home.

“Come on Clemmie, hurry along.”

I can feel my heart in my throat, as I watch her moving quickly about the room; lighting candles, lifting blankets from boxes and stoking the fire, throwing on the dry logs set aside for tomorrow. Sleeping embers are stirred back into rage, sending fresh columns of ghostly-grey smoke dancing through the thatch of our roof into the stormy night.

“Put the kettle on the stove” she calls.

The old, black kettle is full and heavy. I put half a barley loaf on the table. Our island that moments ago had been sat alone and still within its ocean, now pulses to the beat of rescue and salvage. Nothing awakens the souls of islanders like a wreck.

The cottage is now ready for whatever or whoever the wreck may bring our way. I leave mother fussing with the bed. I am desperate to watch the rescue. Twisting tightly closed the big wooden buttons of my thick woollen coat, I stumble across the field to the beach, my feet slipping in boots just a little too big for me, eyes straining in the shadowy dark .

The men are hauling the gigs across the sand, deep wooden bows slipping into the treacle-black water. Clambering aboard, oars are lifted high and set to pin.

“Row, row hard” I hear Uncles bellowing voice over the roar of the ocean.

Oar and pin grind, creak and cluck, slice water. make swell, cut air.

“Pull, pull hard men!”

I watch the boats; their flickering lanterns disappear into the dark swell of the sea. The rhythmic sounds of wood and water quickly slide away. I hold my breath and wait in the black of the night.

Winter on Bryher, for me, holds that perfect balance of wild, windswept exposure to weather and nature and a well-earned retreat into a cosy, hunkered down cottage with space and time for thought and creativity, to capture those dreams and stories that have evaded me throughout summer. A rewinding, a renewing winter of wild writing.

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