Walking on Water

St Helens Fort Walk - Photo Christopher Nye

St Helens Fort Walk - Photo Christopher Nye

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.

Sweet Tins and Love Letters

There is something magical about Yaverland beach in a high wind. The top layer of sand dries to lightness and is propelled across the surface in ankle deep swirls and eddies, smoke-like and ghostly, the ground hugging passage of earth bound spirits. Today the sea thundered in, brilliant turquoise and white foam; kestrels skilfully suspending their flight in the fierce south-westerly along the cliff’s edge, as if the wind were calm and they frozen in space.

Trish and I walked up to Culver cliff and back after lunch at the Roman Villa. Here they are conducting an archaeological dig on the southern side of the site. The villa is home to some impressive mosaics and sits at what once was the edge of Brading Harbour, overlooking Sandown Bay and the Downs. It’s a beautiful spot. Much of Brading Harbour is reclaimed land and marsh, the original Romano-British occupants looking out on a slightly different scene than that of today, the sea practically lapping at the door two thousand years ago.

Watching the layers being removed and sifted (the wheelbarrows all have names – my favourite is ‘Wotan’!) it is frustrating to think that we cannot excavate emotions and experiences in quite the same way; the thoughts and responses, the joys and tragedies of the people who lived and worked here, are only hinted at in the finds being washed and sorted, documented and filed. It is strange to think that so much that is significant to us – the less tangible substance of our life, its meaning and context – disappear so thoroughly from view with only bone and domestic rubble as comparatively poor signposts. And yet, we sense that our ancestors’ living was no doubt as complex and perplexing as our own; we share our humanity, a psychic bridge that fords the gap between the living and the dead – nothing new under the sun, the moon or the stars – a thought comforting and puzzling in equal measure.

With archaeological finds, so much depends on interpretation; fitting shattered pieces back to make a recognisable whole, doesn’t necessarily mean you grasp the point of something. The true function and worth of not only objects but also the people in our lives can be notoriously shifting and mutable. It’s a bit like using an old sweet tin to keep love letters in; for someone to dig up that rusty tin years later, letters long turned to dust – how would anyone appreciate the true story of that object, know of the intense love of one human being for another once held within it? Intended purpose is not always the same as actual function; equally our relationships with each other are not so easy to judge simply by the titles we or others might give them.

The strangely shifting nature of life and memory were strikingly apparent to me this weekend. Laurie and I stayed with some much loved friends, Van and Lou, on the mainland. By some weird twist of fate, Van and Lou are now living in our old house. At this point, when home has felt so not like home, it was a surreal and slightly unsettling experience to find ourselves sleeping in our old bedroom. When I left that house, I never expected to see it again, let alone sleep in it. We lived there for four years; it was a sanctuary during some awful times and the first place that we had lived in twenty years that felt like a real home – at last somewhere comfortable and nurturing. I planted a silver birch that I had grown from a sapling in the garden and was moved to see how big and beautiful it has become. And yet now the place feels like a stranger. Both Laurie and I noted that we had remembered it differently, the bedroom now seeming so much smaller, the familiarity that day to day living brings to a place, very much gone. This was our old house but it is not our home anymore.

Sitting on the bus on our journey back to the Island, Laurie and I discussed how incredibly rootless we both feel. The problems with the kids here have had such an impact on our ability to settle in, to feel at home. We are both suspended like those Kestrels in the wind; an uncomfortable freeze frame between an old life left behind and a new one wanting to emerge. It’s a confusing place to be but I suspect one of potential. What a tough job the archaeologist has to know the people of the past; I couldn’t recognise any part of me in the bricks and mortar of a house that I had called home only two years ago – where would the traces of me be in centuries to come? This brings up the issue of course that ‘home’ is not a building; it’s our body, our emotions, our being that we truly occupy; feel happy or ill at ease in. And yet, the bricks and mortar do make a difference. Our old home was a sanctuary when within me there was a much greater whirlwind of change and crisis than there is now. It doesn’t seem to necessarily follow that being at home within oneself equals feeling at home in your house or the reverse.

I have written on my Blog many times of the powerful sense of belonging I feel here in the landscape. Walking with Trish at Yaverland today, I felt that immense sense of connection, of being enfolded and welcomed. Things make sense out there.

Laurie and I face a challenge now. We have a decision to make. We have planned to sit it out until Winter Solstice, let the autumn bring what shedding it may. In the meantime we both hope to reach some clarity, to more clearly grasp what can and can’t be changed; life is too short to hold on when we should be letting go. The bottom line is simple: we could adapt to the situation we find ourselves in i.e. change ourselves; or we could move i.e. change the situation. We at least have a choice. I sometimes allow myself to get paralysed by the thought of making a ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ decision. I keep forgetting I am human. I keep forgetting to trust.

If anyone digs up my poor old bones, I feel a little sadness that they will not detect the peculiar story of my life from my remains. Going back briefly to an old landscape of my own, I am amazed at how much the vista has altered and in such a short time. No doubt the one time residence of Brading Villa would notice some changes too, the sea receded and their home now shadowy traces in the soil; their wonderful mosaics without the walls and roof that held so many lives together within a shared time and space.

It has occurred that all this longing for home of mine is a bit like wanting to be a big rock on the beach, not that wind blown sand shooting across the surface, its movement dictated by forces beyond its control. And yet even those big old rooted rocks are eventually worn down by the elements, unavoidably reshaped by the constant movement.

I think I am fighting the speed of the changes that have swept through my life in recent times; I feel exhausted with the pace of it despite feeling that the change has been necessary. I simply want some breathing space, to recharge, brush myself down, and yet it seems that the major changes are not yet finished with me. Sometimes I fear I just won’t have the stamina to survive all this; sometimes I am fearful of where it is taking me, of what more might be ‘removed’ from my life. Some days I curse the moment that I ever thought engaging with my spiritual life was a good idea because of course, once we do dig a little deeper, it seems that we activate those changes, magically setting in motion the transformations that many state are a common factor upon such a journey. Thing is, I felt compelled. To not want to engage with those deeper mysteries in life and in my self; to not answer that intense desire to reach for the Divine and for meaning in my existence; to not want to delve into the extraordinary beauty around me and find myself a part of it, was not an option I felt I had. To have denied that journey would have killed something vital in me. Now, I sometimes joke that answering that call might just kill me anyway!

There is a quote from The Dark Labyrinth by Lawrence Durrell that I find incredibly helpful at these times of deep tiredness and confusion:

Yet there is a merciful law by which nothing heavier than you can bear is ever put upon you. Remember it! It is not the burden which causes you pain – the burden of excessive sensibility –but the degree of your refusal to accept responsibility for it that sets up a stress and conflict.

It’s also about having compassion with yourself; it is so easy – when trembling beneath the weight of loss or the heavy consequences of our actions or decisions – to berate ourselves as failures or fools. We are fragile beings, and that bigger picture that might make some sense of the confusion is so often obscured or distorted by the limited angle from which we can view it. We should feel a tender sympathy for ourselves, a loving patience when we cannot always rise to the difficulty of the task placed before us.

At Yaverland in a high wind, just for a second the fierceness of the elements and the blinding sun on the sea combine to act like white noise; for one brief moment all this movement and I are all that exists, no boundary between us, not one thought or feeling to complicate it. It is the briefest of respites. At this point when all my strategies seem to be failing me, I turn once again to surrender. In that moment of release, in the movement of the loosening grip, I have to place my trust…

There is no Fate so Terrible…

There is no fate so terrible that it cannot be overcome – whether by a literal victory gained by action and in time, or the deeper victory of spirit in the lonely battle of the self.   – Robert Cochrane

Music Boats by the Bay

I have just been listening to Song to a Siren – feeling that familiar thrill at the beauty and yearning; I discovered Tim Buckley in my late teens and I am still moved as much by him now as I was then. Why we love a voice is often hard to say but Buckley’s emotional intensity, his love of playing with tone and texture, his vocal resonance, richness and impressive range, has kept me a fan for over twenty years. What also appeals is his willingness to experiment with different styles; his early albums are folk inspired but, unperturbed by the expectations of his fan base or crude commercial demands, he seems to musically follow where his heart leads, displaying an eclectic range of influences, moving through folk/jazz to traditional R & B; the albums Lorca and Starsailor are seriously avant-garde in places. Later albums initially appear more mainstream but even here there are some pretty ‘out there’ vocal moments: the track Sweet Surrender from Greetings from L.A is an extraordinary performance, his voice seemingly winged and fearless.

When someone dies at such a young age (Buckley was only 27) there comes a point when you have listened to everything the artist has recorded. Recently, I was delighted to find a rare clip of an unheard song on the DVD Tim Buckley –My Fleeting House. This song is called Venice Beach – Music Boats by the Bay and is performed live in a studio. He sings it beautifully– it’s a gorgeous song, written apparently at the same point as the Album Starsailor but sadly not making it on the final listing. It was eerie listening to it for the first time – I know everything he has done inside out and backwards; listening to the warmth and immediacy of that wonderful voice singing a melody unknown to my ears, felt like hearing a voice from beyond the grave. It is hard not to grieve the loss of all the melodies that could have been. Tim Buckley so often expresses such deep longing in his voice; it can be a cathartic experience for the listener because it enables a connection to those profound emotions within. This is the power of music and the human singing voice in particular; it can access this ‘truthful’ place with such directness, often leaving us utterly open and reeling. When a voice finds its way inside us – really inside – it has the power to transform and heal.

The Delicate but Impressive Eco Balance of my Garden

Yesterday I returned home to find Charlie – my neighbour’s gorgeous cat – sloping out from the undergrowth in our garden, his stomach sucking in and out like a bellows. He managed to manoeuvre himself onto the path before he opened his mouth –  to lock jaw proportions – and with that strangulated ‘caah’ sound that cats make  just prior to being sick, promptly deposited an impressive pile of vomit beneath the honeysuckle arch – welcome home Maria – thanks Charlie.

Racing around trying to get my Dad fed, watered and to the ferry on time, I made a mental note to wash away Charlie’s ‘gift’  upon my return. Inevitably I forgot. Laurie informed me this morning that he actually went out to clean up after Charlie late last night only to find two enormous orange slugs, skidding around in it and feasting upon it merrily. Yep, slightly stomach churning but you have to admire nature’s resourcefulness.

This morning the path beneath the honeysuckle arch was scrupulously clean. Tonight, a slug was sat wistfully on the spot beneath the arch, the memory of his recent banquet still bright.

Tiggers Don’t Climb Trees

Upon the wall above the computer desk hangs a large copy of one of the wonderful sketches by E.H Shepard from A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner. This particular sketch is from the chapter entitled In which it is shown that Tiggers don’t climb trees. Roo and Tigger have climbed one of the six pine trees but Tigger’s bouncy tail means he can only climb upwards and so they find themselves stuck. The sketch shows Christopher Robin, Piglet, Eeyore and Pooh each holding a corner of Christopher Robin’s tunic, stretched out to catch Tigger (Roo has already successfully jumped and landed safely). Tigger is mid-flight, paws and belly skywards, falling towards the waiting group below who are braced to receive him. I discovered the print and frame in a junk shop in Sandown – I really love it.

The Pooh books are wonderful and Shepard’s beautiful drawings capture them so brilliantly. They express such warmth; I find it hard not to be cheered by them. It is to Shepard’s credit that it is impossible to think of Milne’s characters without instantly bringing Shepard’s illustrations to mind; a perfect example of how good illustration can enrich the text.

Looking up at the picture as I write is helping to lift my spirits. It has been a rough couple of days; the seemingly intractable problems with some of the kids on the estate that I live on, have made the last twenty fours hours very difficult. I have real sympathies for these children and their families (despite making life hell at times) – poverty and a host of other issues all collide to make for some pretty dysfunctional behaviour. Many of these children are desperate for attention and will settle for the most negative of reactions, actively and energetically seeking it out in ways that impact on others in troubling ways– simply put, with all the sympathy and compassion I can muster, it can still be very hard to live amongst them at times. Only four days after moving in, I remember standing at my kitchen window watching what looked like a re-enactment of Lord of the Flies just feet away outside. It was hard not to have a sense of foreboding about just what this might mean for us. Within two weeks we were treated to a broken window, achieved by a stone throwing game of dare; over two years later, the accumulative effect of numerous incidents is starting to take it toll.

I feel so incredibly at home in the landscape of this beautiful Island and yet it has been that much harder to feel at home within the bricks and mortar of my actual home. As much as I love our little house and feel so grateful to have been given the opportunity to live in it, it is heartbreaking to feel under siege so often within it. It is strange that it has been small children that have undermined my ability to settle and feel safe here; in the past I have lived in far more threatening situations, living in the grimmest of multiple occupancy buildings, my roof shared with everything from heroine dealers and users to hardened thugs and petty thieves. That wasn’t ideal either but somehow it was easier to deal with than this. Perhaps my expectations were different back then; perhaps I have had so much riding on finding a sanctuary to heal in at this point in my life.

There are great contrasts in wealth on the Island. There is high unemployment and much of the work is seasonal and poorly paid. Many families struggle. Poverty denies access to cultural capital, diminishes aspiration, can insidiously erode the simple belief that life can be different. There is a worryingly high level of teenage pregnancies here and the very nature of island life can sometimes intensify the closing in of horizons, narrowing expectations. For many of these children, life is not what it could or should be and that angers and saddens me; it also leaves me dealing with the fall out on occasions too.

Looking at Tigger letting go of his branch, trusting that he will be caught, that he will land safely, I try to convince myself that such an approach is the only one that will serve me in this situation, in any situation for that matter. And yet, the thought of having to move again leaves me feeling more like Eeyore in his ‘Gloomy Place’. It seems that a great part of my life has been a search to reclaim a ‘home’ that feels lost to me. Don’t you just hate it when you catch yourself in the middle of a repeated pattern…?

“Let’s go and see everybody,” said Pooh. “Because when you’ve been walking in the wind for miles, and you suddenly go into somebody’s house, and he says, ‘Hallo, Pooh, you’re just in time for a little smackerel of something,’ and you are, then it’s what I call a Friendly Day.”

Piglet thought that they ought to have a Reason for going to see everybody, like Looking for Small or Organizing an Expotition, if Pooh could think of something.

Pooh could.

“We’ll go because it’s Thursday,” he said, “and we’ll go to wish everybody a Very Happy Thursday. Come on, Piglet.” – A.A.Milne.