This last weekend the tides were at their lowest. This has become an annual signal for one of the Island’s most charming events. Without any formal organisation, a seemingly spontaneous gathering of Islanders – and adventurous holiday makers who happen to catch the passing word of mouth – converge on the beach at St Helens to walk out to the Fort.
St Helen’s Fort is one of Palmerston’s constructions built in the 1860’s to protect Portsmouth Harbour from the French. There are four of these sea forts: Spit Bank, No Man’s Land and Horse Sand, St Helen’s being the smallest and closest to land, protecting the area where ships drop anchor. These impressive, circular, granite presences both alarmed and fascinated me as a child. To those of us who have lived on the Island or in Portsmouth, they are the ever present landmarks that signal home and the known; strangely ominous and yet cheerily part of the everyday vista.
Early Sunday evening, Laurie and I sat at the base of the ruined tower of St Helen’s church waiting for the tide to recede a little further, watching for the sudden, unspoken trigger that leads to a long, winding line of bodies, wading their way out into the sea.
It was a beautifully calm evening; the low angled golden light of the sun turned the sea glassy white, its almost imperceptible ripples tinged with blue. Oyster Catchers flew across the emerging sands in anticipation of their supper. The low waters exposed thick, lush, beds of various seaweeds, some like slimy bootlaces that would wind their way around our ankles as we waded through the shallows.
As if by magic, the line of walkers gradually formed, wandering out amongst the rocks and weeds. We followed, weaving in and out of the small pools abundant with tiny, translucent shrimp and crab, negotiating the shingle banks and wading into the strong but shallow currents, the water reaching our knees at its deepest. There was this wonderful party atmosphere, people laughing and enjoying the moment, sensing that the sharing of such a rare and unusual event with complete strangers, somehow mystically made us all, for just the briefest of times, known to each other. There is something deeply satisfying and comforting about such camaraderie; folks who perhaps normally pass each other on the street without notice, now chatting and joking like old friends.
We waded out to a sand bank, venturing once more into the water before we came to the shingle causeway that leads directly to the fort. The stony path suddenly emerged from the water, the ocean parting like the Biblical Red Sea, lapping eerily on both sides. With the sea glassily calm, stretching out either side of the tiny path, the sky’s arch seemed endlessly curved, dissolving white vapour trails intensifying the effect. It was stunningly beautiful. There before us, at the end of the path, was the fort, the base greening with seaweed, its iron structures rusting to deep crumbling reds and browns; small pieces of fallen metal work were scattered amongst the pebbles, jagged contrasts amongst sea-worn rocks and stones. People had climbed the fort’s lower steps and were circling the ridge at it base, having their photos taken as proof that they had walked on water, had touched the impenetrable granite blocks. I claimed a small rod of crumbling rust from amongst the shingle, an egg-like stone with a hole through it and a stone the shape of a heart that I found upon the causeway path; it thrills me to think that all three were normally hidden by the ocean, magical talisman’s who have been reshaped by its rhythms and hold a memory of it movements. A piece of metal; a hag stone and a heart stone: Smith craft; magic and love, each great masters in the art of transformation.
As we walked back, others still came, taking advantage of the small window of time that the tides would allow. Looking back from the shore, feeling my feet and calves tingling from the cold water, my soles connecting with land, I felt very happy; I thought how apt that my name was connected to the sea, of how I can never be far away from it for long without feeling the loss of it – I understand the sorrow of the landlocked Selkie.
There is a beautiful poem by Michelle Stoll that I read once in a copy of Sage Woman:
Something in my soul is sea, I know.
Something craving the certainty of tides
And the gentle transformation of erosion.
Something in my heart is ocean
And knows vastness is not always lonely,
Knows rage is not always malicious,
Knows the tender ache of letting a blessing slide out
Beyond the horizon,
Back to its beginning.
Standing at the sea,
The edge where longing meets belonging,
I come home for the first time,
And have never felt more like a daughter.