Tag Archives: Lost Islands

Tall Ships and Tall Tales

Time & Tide, Great Yarmouth, 4-6 September

sea in legend and tradition flyer

Over the weekend I went on a long rideout (500 miles) across England to Great

Yarmouth, to give a talk at the Folklore Society’s annual conference – this year held at the Time and Tide maritime museum – on ‘The Sea in Legend and Tradition’. Having seen the call for papers I decided that a talk on lost islands (connected to my book from Heart of Albion Press) would be apprpriate – I proposed it and was accepted.

I set off Friday after lunch – taking my usual route back to the old town across the Cotswolds. It was dry and I made good time. Had a pitstop at Delapre Abbey about halfway, arriving in Great Yarmouth, the other side of the country, at 8pm.

I dumped my stuff in the B&B and hit the town, following the gaudy neon seafront in search of sustenance. The vegetarian options were limited, to the say the least. Why British seasides have to be so tacky, I don’t know – why can’t they try for a Mediterranean ambience? We may not have the climate, but that doesn’t mean it has to be always so naff. Does the modern holidaymaker actually want deafening amusement arcades, tatty piers, crazy golf, noddy trains, and Z-list cabaret?

I met up with some of the fellow delegates in the Old White Lion, apparently Great Yarmouth’s oldest building and pub – shame one has to run the gauntlet of the dodgy backstreets to find it. It was easy to spot the conference crowd, as one of them was in the middle of a sea ballad. The convenor, Jeremy, identified by his purple balloon, was friendly enough and I got chatting with a chap called Mark, who was there to talk about lighthouses. My greeting to my fellow delegates (‘Ya-haa ship mates!’) failed to elicit a response. The pub’s pooch was  friendlier, a cheeky fellow called Spider, who delighted in jumping up on the seats next to the customers. At least the beer was alright, but I was too tired from my long ride to have more than one.

On the way back to the B&B I made a detour onto the beach and enjoyed the full moon glittering upon the dark sea, gleaming through the mother-of-pearl cloud – a touch of sublime beauty amidst the kitsch seaside ‘attractions’, going some way to redeeming the ‘set-your-teeth-on-edge’ aesthetic of the place.

Wandering those moon-drenched shores, I started to have strange hallucinatory thoughts about werewolf mermaids, so I thought it was time I went to bed…

The next day I arrived at the museum and signed in, getting my badge. There followed a number of papers on diverse subjects: sea beans, oysters, cannibalism (!), selkies, ghosts, shanties & ballads…

My turn came around 3pm – I started by declaring my interest (passion) for islands. I shared an extract of Oisin and Niamh – a classic lost island myth, which I used as a framing narrative in my book. And then I went into the Call, the Crossing, Arrival and Return. It was all over rather quickly (30 mins, including questions). I felt drained, nodding off in the next talk, but seemed to do okay – because I sold 6 books, and at least two said it was down to my style of talk, my approach.

After the day’s proceedings, went to check out the Maritime Festival with my new friend, Mark. There was a couple of impressive tall ships, but the rest was underwhelming – perhaps because it was winding down for the day.

Worn out by the day of talks, I went back to the B&B and crashed out, soothed by Mendhelsson’s Scottish Symphony on the Proms. Went out to eat – reading Austen whilst dining alone in a cheap ‘taverna’ with the most awful table wine. After freshening up made my way back over to the Old White Lion, hoping to bump into some of the conference crowd – but they had all gone off to some restaurant. Quaffing a pint of Spitfire, I headed back to the digs – resigning myself to a rather dismal night in. An excellent Beatles documentary and, appropriately, Pirates of the Caribbean (yo-ho!) offered some mild compensation for the lack of company… but not my most exciting Saturday night!

Next morning awoke early, looking forward to hitting the road. I packed and polished off a large breakfast, before taking the bike down to the seafront, where I sat and enjoyed the view, waiting for things to start. The morning was a ‘light’ one, with a story, a documentary and a talk. Once things had finished, I dropped some books at A Novel Idea and headed west, relieved to be leaving but not altogether dissatisfied with my weekend: the booksales had helped to cover my costs and I was good to see the sea and imbibe the obscure maritime arcana…which whetted my appetite for my imminent pilgrimage to Iona with Anthony later this week.

Stopped off to see my Mum for a cuppa (which also made it worthwhile) before gratefully heading back across the Cotswolds – the landscape getting increasingly beautiful the further west my wheels took me. As always, it was with huge relief I returned to the oasis of Aquae Sulis. It was good to be back in Bath.

into the east - Great Yarmouth beach

into the east - Great Yarmouth beach

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Riding the Awen

Badbury Rings

Badbury Rings

15-16 March

Late last night returned from a talk I gave on my book Lost Islands to Sue Stone’s Positive Living group. The most enjoyable part of it was the ride down in the sunshine yesterday afternoon – I stopped off at Badbury Rings, a fairy fort near Wimborne Minister, just off an incredible avenue of beeches. Its centre, contained within an impressive triple ring of ramparts, is filled with majestic trees. Whenever I go there I always end up feeling sleepy and wanting to nod off against one – but I feel I would wake up in three hundred years time, like a West Country Rip Van Winkle. It made a pleasant pitstop, to say the least – green tranquility after the roar of the road. I used the time to get some headspace before my talk. It’s been full on lately, what with getting two books ready for publication – one for print (Places of Truth by Jay Ramsay, coming out this Friday, touchwood) and one for the publisher’s deadline (The Way of Awen – my follow up to The Bardic Handbook). What with a stack of marking as well, things could get too breaking point – but I’m staying on top of them, just! It seems I am destined to lead my life this way, by the seat of my pants, no matter how much I plan – riding the awen, trusting in it to give me the inspiration and energy to achieve whatever I need to.

Feeling relaxed, if soporific (Badbury had slowed my metabolism – my brainwaves from alpha to theta – a little longer there and I would have started scribbling, but interestingly I didn’t have my notebook, or even camera on me when I went up to the hill. They had been left behind on my tank-bag. I was just meant to ‘stand and stare’ for once) I drank some coffee from my flask, checked the map and set off.

I arrived in Bournemouth, at West Cliff as the sun was setting. I got myself some chips and sat and watched it and the beautiful soothing vista of cool blue water against the dying gold.

Bournemouth from West Cliff

Bournemouth from West Cliff

I read through my notes and hunted down the venue – St Ambrose Church Hall (who was St Ambrose – Merlin Ambrosius perhaps?). I said hi to the host, Sue Stone, who seemed excited to see me in my leathers (it turns out she used to ride a bike herself). I got ready for my talk. The place filled up. There was a good turn out – a full house pretty much. I started with raising the awen, then went straight into my Oisin story – finishing with Niamh’s song calling him to Tir nan Og. Then I lead them in a ‘lost island’ visualisation, using John Lennon’s haunting ‘Imagine’ song as a prompt for ‘imagining your utopia’. Then I plunged into the main body of my talking, following the awen. I read out an extract from the book, answered some questions and ended with an extract from my next Windsmith novel, The Well Under the Sea, in which I describe my created lost island, Ashalante (an island at the crossroads of time where lost souls find each other). Afterwards I chatted to some of the group members, who shared their enthusiasm for islands. Then I guzzled some caffeine, scoffed some chocolate biscuits for the sugar and hit the road. There was a freezing fog on the way home – not much fun along windy roads, however romantic Dorset mist might seem. It was like being on Niamh’s fairy steed, returning to Erin, trying to find the home I knew – would it still be there? Would I make it back, or would my ‘saddle strap’ snap (I discovered my tank bag’s strap had come loose) and I be overwhelmed with mortality? It certainly felt possible in the freezing pitch black night. But the roads were clear and I felt awake enough. I stopped in Salisbury for refueling (myself and the bike) and made it back for midnight. I needed a dram of whisky when I got in, and a hot water bottle – but even that didn’t stop me feeling cold. I really needed a long soak. Wrapping myself in my duvet just kept the cold – which had numbed my extremities – in. Due to the high levels of caffeine I needed to get home, I wasn’t able to get to sleep, despite being exhausted. Blearily, I ‘awoke’ up at 5am, made myself a tea and snack and read until I finally fell into blissful sleep…but not for long enough. Could have slept the rest of that morning but had loads of marking to do. Had it all been worth it? The New Age entrepeneur certainly made more out of it than I did (if I had been paid a pound for every mile travelled there and back I would have felt  my effort more fairly remunerated – I got basic expenses, and a basic fee but nothing to warrant my exertion). Nevertheless, things can be reciprocated in ways we don’t realise. You never know if someone had been touched by what I had said. Inspired. Certainly the people that came up seem to be. One Scottish lady enthused about the book on islands she was going to write. If I had sparked something, then it had been worthwhile…but at the moment, with my aching bones and bleary head, it doesn’t feel so!

Deer's Leap, Mendips, overlooking the Somerset Levels

Deer's Leap, Mendips, overlooking the Somerset Levels

The previous day had been, in comparison, a joyous breeze. A beautiful Spring day, I took the bike out for a spin on the Mendips, taking my route to Chew Valley along lanes lined with golden daffodils (so different in the daytime!) and stopping off at Stanton Drew – having a coffee in the beer garden of the Druid’s Arms next to the Cove (remains of an ancient burial chamber). Then I took the back roads to Priddy, and to Deer’s Leap – a picnic site with stunning views over the Somerset Levels, which looked spectacular on such a clear day. Glastonbury Tor rose mythically from the haze, like a dream of Camelot. A good place to get a perspective on things. Then I called in on my friends Amy and Jose who had just moved into a lovely cottage near Wookey, on the side of the Mendips. It was good to catch up with them, and see their place – which made me green with envy! I took Jose a bottle of rum to thank him for helping me out with my bike, and some chocolate and wine as a house-warming. Yet a cup of tea and a good old chat can’t be beaten. I returned in the fading light, carrying the sun inside me.

Mist Over Pendle

Men with Hats!

Men with Hats!

16 November

 

Clitheroe & Pendle

(written in Gloucester Station)

 

Boots still damp from bog-trotting on Pendle Hill today – walked up there with Anthony Nanson, fellow writer and storyteller. He had arranged a joint reading in his old home town of Clitheroe, Lancashire, where he went to Grammar School (‘Like The History Boys, but without the homosexuality!’). We stayed with his parents, Simon (ex-headmaster) and Cynthia (ceramicist and mean cook), who were most hospitable. I even got to sleep in Anthony’s old room. It was really special to let into his past like this.

 

The next morning we dropped some books off at the shop, looking perhaps a little bohemian for a small Northern town with Anthony’s Aslan-ish mane and my devilish hat. Afterwards, as we had a few hours to kill before the gig, Anthony took me up to ‘the Cut’, a notch in Pendle Hill frequented by revellers on Halloween (not a place to hang about, according to Anthony’s schooldays reminiscences, but very much part of the mythic landscape of his childhood). Here, with a dramatic vista either side we rehearsed our stories, slightly apart from one another.

 

Failing to raise Old Nick with our ‘incantations’, (our mythic mumblings would have probably had us burnt two or three centuries earlier) we drove into ‘witch country’ – now clearly sign-posted (as the Pendle Witches have been marketed as local heritage) although we still managed to have a moment of ‘navigational uncertainty’, at a suitably bleak crossroads, where the signs seemed to point all the wrong way (which, as it turned out, they did – having been bent round! It was all getting a bit ‘Blair Witch’…) We found the village, which seemed rather pleasant and harmless, as no doubt the ‘witches’ were – persecuted for political ends or local grudges. With the temperature dropping, we wended our way back to the town. Time to get to work.

 

The ‘reading’  (more a performance, as we didn’t use the texts) took place in Kaydee Bookshop – where Anthony worked for a year. We were co-promoting Anthony’s short story collection Exotic Excursion and my non-fiction tome, Lost Islands – a good combination. We told thirty minutes of material each, alternating ten minute slots. After Anthony’s introduction I started my set with the opening of Oisín and Niamh, including the poem, ‘Delightful is the land beyond all dreams’. In the middle I did The Spirit Bride, an Algonquin tale (which I last performed in Malta last November at Metageum). I ended with two modern stories – a Climate Change one about the ‘discovery’ of a found island, Nymark, in the Arctic, due to melting ice; the other was about how the Onge tribe of Little Andaman survived the Indian Ocean Tsunami thanks to the thirty to fifty thousand years of folklore. Anthony was thoroughly professional and engaging as usual. He hesitated doing his last ‘spoken fiction’ story from Exotic Excursions – because of an incursion by mainly teenage girls halfway through the event, but after apparently listening to Spirit Bride they up sticks and left, so luckily we got to hear Anthony’s movingly subtle rendition of his lakeside epiphany – an experience perhaps you appreciate far more, the older you get. It would be nice to have someone to share such a moment with. Indirectly, I supposed we had…a small but committed audience listened attentively (mostly Anthony’s family and friends, including an old Primary school teacher). We sold three books each, and they took six more of Anthony’s title on sale or return. The long trip certainly wasn’t reciprocated financially – most of it went on petrol and trains – but in other ways it felt worth the effort. It was great to have a break away from Bath after a heavy fortnight of teaching and marking. I hadn’t really been away from Bath properly since late September (OOTO/Long Man). Also, I have had a hard time lately – separating from my partner and, earlier in the week, having a motorcycle crash. I survived (a bruised knee and bank balance) but my beloved Zuki is in the garage awaiting repairs – the last thing I needed in these difficult times. 

          I was appreciative that Anthony was allowing me into his past – as we walked streets ghosted with memory. Later that evening, after the gig, we went into town with Andrew, an old Grammar School friend of his. We holed up in the Castle, by a merry fire. The old friends got caught up in a discussion about economics, while I yearned for some more feminine company. Anthony said I go to a pub to drink, but actually I want to connect with my emotions – not my intellect – after a tiring week’s teaching. I find a political debate not that relaxing, whileas some love to argue the toss (they had both been members of the school’s debating society and you could tell). I wished I’d gone into the other room to watch the musician, but by the time I decided to do this, he had finished. When we got back, I just hit the sack. It had been a tiring day.

 

          Sunday, the weather miraculously cleared up after an overcast start. Togged up, we set off with some basic supplies – from Anthony’s ‘iron rations’. We parked in the pretty village of Barley and followed the line of reservoirs up – the effort warming us up, as it was chilly. We stopped to savour the black lines of bare trees against the silver water, the steep flanks of green hills beyond, the reddish bracken in the foreground. It was cold, clear – with a Celtic clarity about it, like one of those Medieval vignettes, perhaps the Gawain poem – one could have easily imagined the Green Knight dwelling up one of the cloughs, the sound of him sharpening his axe ringing in the brassy air. We carried on up passed the Boar of Wembory Clough, a jagged gulley down which iron knots of water gurgled. We were meant to follow the V of the main beck (?) all the way up but the path seemed to vanish into muddy, rocky slopes – so we struck out across country, hoping to intersect the lost track, but found ourselves bogtrotting over spongy ground riddled with treacherous ‘holes’ of brackish water. It was tiring slog, but at least it was sunny. It would have been grim going in wind and raining. This wasn’t a place to linger in such conditions. It had a wildness about it, an abode of trolls. After a determined yomp we hit the stone slab pathways – what bliss – which led to the top, the ‘Big End’. After ritualistically touching the trig point we went to the brow of the steep side to enjoy the spectacular view over the Ribble Valley. It had been certainly worth the effort. We enjoyed the prospect despite the noisy group of ramblers nearby, stopping for their summit snack like us, before the temperature made them move on. It was a clear day, and the Big End afforded fine views. We scoffed some crisps and chocolate and got moving again, making a small diversion at my request to Robin Hood’s Well, from which we both sipped. It was a romantic place, one could imagine the wolfshead slaking his thirst here as he looked back to his possibly native Yorkshire. I asked for cunning and agility, for it was also known as Fox’s well, but this was probably after George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, who had a vision on Pendle which inspired him to found his new religion. It was easy to see why – this place lent itself easily to noble thoughts, to vision. We now stood on Mount Epiphany, in the footsteps of prophets, and drank from those same waters…Having supped from the source, we gladly descended, body temperature plummeting. Down the steep rock steps passed the hordes of visitors flocking up, some ill-attired for the heights or a sudden turn in the weather. It was good to descend to milder climes now, although the land retained its wonderful rugged quality. We followed a merry beck lined with tangled hawthorns back down to the carpark, and, after purchasing some placatory jam (a token gesture to my kindly hospitable hosts) we wended our way home to Anthony’s parents for a lovely lunch, before hitting the road in earnest – South, a long but agreeable ride down the Welsh Marches. Anthony dropped me off at Gloucester station, where a dull long train ride home awaited (3 hours!). I wearily made it back to the Cauldron, ready to collapse – but first I finished off the stew I’d made earlier in the week, and hit the sack with toddy and bottle. A tiring jaunt, but I was certainly better for it than if I’d stewed at home all weekend. Nature is most certainly the best medicine. I agree with GM Trevelyan, who said: ‘I have two doctors, my left leg and my right.’ I am grateful to have both.