Hole in the stone wall
Window on another world
Hole in the stone wall
Window on another world
IT IS a bright, sunny morning in early May, and I am walking the hill road, alone. The place is Knockroe West, on the wild Beara Peninsula in County Cork, Ireland. I am staying with two dear friends, who live in a converted farmhouse,perched high up on a slope, and surrounded by fields, overlooking an almighty blue ocean.It is about as different from my own home, in a suburb of Leeds, in the North of England, as you could get: although the surrounding countryside in Yorkshire – with its craggy, reckless coastline – bears more than a passing resemblance. Which might explain why I have lived in Leeds so long. Echoes, repeating echoes, in a constantly shifting inner landscape.
Neither friend is with me now. In fact, there is no one around at all. The air is still, as if the sky itself is holding its breath. The livestock in the nearby fields are quiet. I pass not a single soul – in car, or on foot – until I reach the main road into Allihies Village down below, forty minutes later.The only sound is that of a far-away bird, up overhead, and the steady, striking rhythm of my boots, on the grass-infested tarmac beneath. It is a solid and comforting thing – both the silence and the beat of those boots. Proof that I am back on my feet, after two years of problems with my health (where fatigue, for a long time, would have prohibited a walk like this.) And proof that I am back, too, in a terrain that has, through the years, been an inspiring, consoling, and essential component in my life.
The hill road curves, high and narrow, above the house where I am staying: rough hedgerows to either side marking edges and boundaries, filled with grasses, gorse and careless weeds. Here is no soft-centred beauty. This is a landscape carved, down the centuries, by wind and rain, and born of bare, simple necessity. Beara can be brutal, when the weather closes in: the people who work its waters and its land have a difficult time of it, with frequent sudden deaths on road and sea, and lives foreshortened by hard, hard graft.But the grandeur of it all: the heart-stopping magnificence of cliff edge and boulder-strewn waterline – the heights and vertiginous swoops of its topography – holds anyone who has ever been here in its permanent thrall. Like Prospero’s island in Shakespeare’s ‘Tempest’: it is a place of pure,rough magic, to infect the soul.
As the road winds down towards Cahermore Strand, cars begin to hurtle past me on the main coast road, and the silence is broken. There is a cheerful mother, marching her two children towards the village, pressing them protectively against the hedges as the cars go past, backpacks firmly fastened in place. We are all smiles – at the unpredictable sunshine – and are making use of it now, since who knows when the curtain of mist will fall again, dropping the fields and mountains back into mystery? I cross the road and scramble over the grassy rubble, onto the little pebble beach itself, passing tufts of sea pinks coming into full bloom, and peering into rock pools; gazing at the slate-sharp masses that rise like black stone monsters from the ebbing tide. The suck of the waves sweetens my ears, enters my bloodstream, settles my brain. Beara is drawing me back once more.
There are some people who like to stay at home. Others crave adventure, pastures new: a place they have never been before. Others still – and I am one – are always looking to return. The places that resonate with me are few and precious in my life, so that – wherever I may be in reality – I am always looking for them in my mind. The Beara Peninsula is one such place. I first came upon it in my twenties: staggering off the back of a motorbike after an epic journey from Brixton, South London, to find a landscape unlike anything I had ever before encountered, in my town-and-city, urban-hectic, self-obsessive, books-and-writing, room-based life. Beara blew my head off. Left me speechless, shaken,at the majesty of it. It changed my life in an elemental way. On the day before we left, I walked to the edge of a cliff, and lay down on my belly in the moss, feeling the ground strong beneath my body – with my head left dangling over the edge, gazing at the waves, smashing against the rocks, far below. For years afterwards, back in the chaos of London life, whenever I felt lost and alone, I would summon that cliff in my mind’s eye. And it spurred me onwards. Gave me strength. In 2002, when my husband Tim was very ill with cancer, he wanted to take a road trip – somewhere that he had never been before.I took him to Beara. And he loved it, too. In 2004, after he died, my daughter and I scattered some of his ashes into the water, over a rock. Some places – even though you may leave and neglect them, they never leave you. The ghostly imprint always sticks.
Last week, I was walking through the centre of Leeds, back from my Irish journey – and hollow with fatigue, as I went from one appointment to the next, willing my legs to get me there on time,oppressed by the noise of the traffic and the press of people, hurrying along. Then I looked down at my boots, tuned into their rhythm, was slowed by their sound. And for a moment, I was walking the hill road again, in solitude and quiet, sustained by blue sky above, and solid ground beneath; held by a deep well of memory; nourished by experience – and strengthened by the knowledge of return. So, till the next time, lovely Beara, adieu…
*’A Handful of Earth’ by Barney Bardsley (John Murray), on the power of the land – and the making of a garden – is available here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Handful-Earth-Year-Healing-Growing/dp/0719596106
* Thankyou to Liz Mellon and Fiana Reid for being such magnificent hosts, as always….x
Stones by the water
Washed clean in the endless tide
Simply marking time
I love trains. In particular, steam trains. So atmospheric. So ponderous and noisy and smelly – so labour intensive and gloriously pointless – going nowhere, slowly. Full of days-gone-by. Of dreamy ‘what if’s’ and ‘maybes’. The ghost of “Brief Encounter”, wafting poignantly into the twenty first century. They remind me of my childhood – most of which, as the only girl to two older, railway-obsessed brothers, I spent, cold and wet, waiting on some god forsaken station for a magical train (with a coveted number plate) to finally arrive, so we could all, mercifully, go back home again. Nostalgia makes me dewy eyed. What bored me rigid then, enchants me now.
So my latest walk, last weekend, was a particular treat. It was preceded by a ride – with my friend Geoff, who likes a dreamy little, going-nowhere adventure quite as much as I do – on a tiny heritage railway, from Bolton Abbey, in the Yorkshire Dales, to Embsay. The journey was all of four miles. Then, after a twenty minute wait on Embsay station, whilst the little engine chuntered back and forth, to the click click clicking of the points and the busy, coal-faced scurryings of the volunteer drivers and guards… we went all the way back again, through the bluebell and primrose banks, to where we began. Into the station cafe for a cup of tea and a cake. Then, finally, off for a walk down the lane and into the hedgerows towards Bolton Abbey itself, a 12th century ruin now developed into a vast and glorious estate.
Everywhere the birds were singing fit to bust. And the lambs were picture book plump and curious, coming up close to peer at us through the brambles, occasionally breaking into a little skip and jump, but mostly lolling about by their mums, or snoozing in the impossibly juicy, grassy – quintessentially English – heartbreakingly beautiful, countryside green.
The combination of a very slow train and a very quiet walk to follow, was both mesmerising and reviving, all at the same time. Reverie is an essential tool in anyone’s life, and particularly that of a writer. We do need to dream. To enter a protected space in our heads. To let some kind of alchemy take place. And nature always helps that happen. Miraculously. Without fail. If you want something to change, to transform – get outside, take a journey, and walk.
The memory of trains has stayed with me since I’ve come back to my city house and daily routine. I remember iconic railway journeys I took long ago – like the train I rode from Budapest back through Europe on my honeymoon in 1996, seeing everything through a miasma of heat and happiness and a huge, pálinka induced hangover.
And before that, when I was a student of Russian, in 1976 – there I was, setting off, on a Soviet boat, with a huge hammer and sickle on the top, from Tilbury docks for Leningrad (now St Petersburg), navigating the choppy North Sea, via most of Scandinavia: only to find that the boat was overbooked, so a few of us were dumped in Finland, and had to go the rest of the way by train. I got the top bunk, with about three inches to spare between me and the ceiling. When we reached the border in the middle of the night, and a Soviet guard came bursting through the door demanding passports and visas and shouting “Stand Up!” like the rattle of a machine gun in full, merciless fire, I sat up so fast and banged my head so hard, I don’t think I’ve ever been in my right mind since. Which explains everything really. But doesn’t make me love trains – whether big and foreign and slightly scary, or little and local and charming – any the less.