The vast crescent of Sandown Bay starts at the eastern tip of the Island. Here the chalk spine that runs through the Wight’s centre – emerging at the far western point at the Needles- starts its journey in the distinctive white shape of Culver Cliff. This huge bay sweeps round, across from Culver, along the southern coast until it reaches the dark shape of Dunnose Head. It is edged with sand along the full sweep of its arch, and, with the right tide, it is possible to walk its seemingly endless length on the beach (with small diversions onto sea walls at points) passing the seaside town of Sandown; the cliffs at Lake and Shanklin esplanade, onwards beneath the ominous Knock Cliff and round the headland into the wildness of Luccombe Bay.
Up on top of Culver cliff, the views across the Bay are stunningly beautiful. From here, turning towards the mainland it is possible to see the ridge of the South Downs, the eye taking in Sussex to the east and Dorset to the West. Portsmouth appears a magical city, and the Yar valley channels its way through to the centre of the Island, the ridge of the downs in the south and the chalk spine in the north, containing and shaping it, adding their own impromptu undulations, waves in the landscape that still seem to emanate movement and energy.
Sandown is a traditional seaside holiday place, its sandy beaches bringing coaches of holiday makers throughout the year, mainly older folks in the quiet seasons. The beach in this part of the bay can get very crowded in the summer, but the further east you wander, the lonelier it becomes, with mainly locals and the odd intrepid visitor venturing on to Yaverland, the fossil infested stretch that finds its destination beneath the white chalk of Culver.
Walking east, with Culver marking the furthest edge of the bay ahead, the cliffs are small, dark, crumbling sandstone, abundant with dinosaur bones. Beyond these is the Yaverland landslip, a large area of sunken cliff that has become an enclosed bowl, uneven and cracked, its lower slopes covered in gorse. It is a sheltered space from the south-westerly winds that cut across the bay, hitting the exposed headland with force.
From here Red Cliff rises up suddenly, it rich colour the product of oxidised sandstone. In places, the patterns of erosion on its soft surface look like giant pleats in the skirt of the Earth Mother. Wind often causes fine particles of dust to dance off its face, as if any moment its vast presence might crumble. The deep warmth of Red Cliff eventually merges into the starkness of Culver. When the tide is out the beach is massive, open and sandy with a line of heaped pebbles at the cliff edge and larger rocks – tossed and rearranged regularly by the sea – beneath the chalk. When the tide finds its way back to the land, the beach disappears; it is wise to know your tide times or be stranded on the lower slopes of the chalk, or at the unnerving base of Red Cliff.
It was here on this beautiful beach that I first encountered the ravens. I had previously only seen them in Wales, on the peak of Cader Idris, and had assumed that their presence this far south in the country would be highly unlikely. It turns out that my assumption was wrong, and the Island is home to a growing presence. It was startling to hear the deep, distinctive croak, so different from crows and rooks. I couldn’t quite believe that I was seeing that dark feathery form perched on a tiny ledge of chalk above me.
There are actually two at Yaverland; a couple. They fly the length of the cliffs, never that far away from each other, swooping out over the edges, parting the acrobatic clouds of jackdaws that play on the margins of earth and air. I have since seen others further along the bay and down the southern coastline; I have seen them flying high over my house, circling and coasting in the sunlight like buzzards, and have heard their calls over the wetlands. It seems that the Island suits them well; its cliff faces serving as perfect homes for such private creatures.
Ravens have suffered a bad press, as indeed have all the Corvus family. Persecuted for many years, it is heartening to see such a healthy presence of crows, rooks, jackdaws, magpies, jays and now ravens here on the Island. All of these birds possess a wonderful intelligence and playfulness and extraordinary skills in flight. There is a humour about all of them – I find it hard not to be cheered by them.
As carrion eaters, perhaps they remind us a little too much of our mortality, but I find a great healing power in their symbolism. A few years ago, during meditation, I saw a vision of a crow in my skull, pecking away at my brain. On the surface, this rather gruesome image might have appeared quite disturbing; however, at the time, it felt very comforting. I was at a point in my life when I was carrying so much personal dead wood; events, attitudes and relationships that no longer served me – the corpses of a life dead, dying or passed were weighing heavily, rigidly holding me in a tight circle of repeated patterns and frustrations. The crow seem to speak of the psychological and physical transformations needed to keep life flowing onward; the not necessarily pleasant but absolutely crucial task of processing the rot and shit into fertile ground. Any amount of wreckage that our own psychological battlefields might produce have at least the potential to be stripped clean, laid bare and put to rest.
Since then I have had many inner and outer experiences with these birds – especially ravens. Through them I have learned that like the line between land and ocean, the place between life and death – psychological or actual – is a powerful one, rich in the potential for change. The ocean and the land impact upon one another and this is most intensely perceived where sea and shore meet; similarly, life and death impact upon each other too. The trick is to surrender our stone-like resistance to the rising waters of release. When the time has come, resistance really is futile.
In this place of merging edges the Raven dwells, but in its exhilarating acrobatics; in the soft ruffles of its shaggy throat, stretched to call out its comical song, we might come to realise that there is also a joy in the process. I have learned to trust the flurry of black feathers and sharp beaks. At Yaverland, the ravens are often most visible at sunset, that in-between place between day and night. Watching them effortlessly glide the cliff edges in the dying light, it is easy to grasp just how magical and mysterious these wonderful birds are, and just how vital their gift of transformation.