Month: February 2015

A Mermaid’s Curse

Doom Bar, Cornwall

September 7th 2014

More than sixty winters have flowed in and ebbed out of Padstow since my father launched his teaching career in this once tough coastal town. Nestling at the mouth of the Camel estuary, and hardened by the relentless howl of Atlantic gales, this was then a close-knit fishing community.



And these were lean times for my parents. But throughout the dark months of December and January, frequent parcels of food and bundles of driftwood for the fire were quietly left on the doorstep of the new teacher and his young pregnant wife.

For the motto of the Cornish people is Onen hag Oll – One and All.

This was a time long before the arrival of designer beachwear and chic restaurants, when cottages crawling up the hillside housed local families and the fish on the harbourside was iced, not battered.



In those distant days, the booming sound of a maroon ricocheting down the narrow alleyways heralded the launch of Padstow’s lifeboats. Then the village would fall silent in anxious expectation.

At the school, children would become unsettled – so unteachable that classes were dismissed. For everyone was related to someone on the lifeboats, or had a loved one who harvested the sea, and all knew only too well the dangers of her restless tides.


O’ d’you hear the seas complainin’ and complainin’ whilst it’s raining?

Did you hear it mourn in the dimorts, when the surf woke up and sighed?

The choughs screamed on the sand,

And the foam flew over land,

And the seas rolled dark on the Doom Bar at the rising of the tide. 

[Alice Gillington 1863-1934]



More often than not launches were for vessels foundering on this Doom Bar – the very name piercing cold through the hearts of the mariners who plied the waters of An Mor Keltek – the Celtic Sea. Many captains would prefer to face the fury of a north-westerly gale out in the ocean rather than attempt to navigate the treacherous and narrow passage that led to the calmer waters of the Camel.

This sprawling sandbar was likely formed during the reign of Henry VIII; folklore has it that the sands were spread at the behest of a dying mermaid. Murdered by a Padstow man, her curse sought to seal and stifle this tiny port.

And to a large extent she succeeded. It is estimated that over 600 vessels were lost here over the last two hundred years alone, particularly when squalls – known locally as ‘flaws’ – sprung up over Stepper Point and mercilessly drove vessels onto the waiting sands.

It is said that the mermaid’s wailing cry may still be heard, moaning with the wind, whenever lives are lost on the Doom Bar.



But the only cry to be heard on my first visit were the lazy calls of an occasional gull, drifting in widening circles, riding the balmy thermals of an early September evening.

Having taken the narrow headland road north from the town, I left the car in a field at Lellizzick and trekked down through an almost Mediterranean landscape towards the beach at Tregryllas.



Within a handful of minutes I was emerging through woodland and out onto a blanched carpet of fine white sand, wholly deserted aside from a brace of abandoned lobster pots.



The softness of the sand made walking difficult and it held onto the heat of the day like an oven. Along the high tide line, a community of sandhoppers was emerging from its hidden slumber to feed on organic debris cast aside by the tide. Keen to avoid an irritating bite, I quickly skipped through their territory to where the sands were smooth, dark and still damp from the receding sea.

Jettisoning my clothes, I waded in and was instantly struck by the uncommon warmth of the water; shallow and sun-drenched throughout the afternoon, the estuary had become a vast solar panel.



I had to wade quite some distance before the crystal waters afforded sufficient draught in which to swim, but soon I was heading across the Doom Bar and out towards Daymer Bay and the village of Trebetherick on the opposite shore of the estuary.



Here lies the grave of Sir John Betjeman, a former poet laureate, buried in the tiny churchyard of St Enodoc. This ancient church – known locally as ‘Sinking Neddy’ – was itself once entombed beneath shifting sands. Every year, priest and parishoners were lowered in through a hole in the roof. By holding this annual service, they ensured that St Enodoc remained a place of worship.

I have always enjoyed the works of Betjeman, particularly his writings about the county he loved. His view of this area was lighter and less troubled than Gillington’s. I particularly admire the passage within ‘Summoned by Bells’ – his epic early autobiography in blank verse – in which he recounts an excited schoolboy journey on the train from Waterloo to a holiday on these shores.


 ‘On Wadebridge Station what a breath of sea

Scented the Camel valley! Cornish air,

Soft Cornish rains, and silence after steam’


It barely seems thirty years ago that I stood looking at the flowers heaped on Betjeman’s newly-dug grave…

But this was a happier evening. A time to play with the setting sun. To paint patterns with the bright palette of colours squeezed out across the water: aureolin, raw sienna, ochre. A loose wash, liberally spattered with the pigments and hues of a western sky.



The salt and slight swell carried me back to the carefree days of my own childhood, spent around the beaches and bays of Cornwall. As if a sensory trigger had been pulled deep in my subconscious, I recoiled to some distant, undefined moment. Back to a time of sun oil and sinking sandcastles. To the taste of Kelly’s ice-cream and the feel of a proper wooden surfboard. To sea urchins and empty shrimping nets that caught nothing but my hopes.

The memory was but a transient sensation, so gossamer thin and fragile that it almost dissolves in the telling.



As the tide swept on and out of the estuary, like children flooding from the school gate, I turned and struck back towards the beach until the water was barely ankle deep and I was forced to walk the final hundred metres across the sands. I made a mental note to be more aware of this risk when swimming in the buff!



But thankfully the beach was still empty, and soon I was settling down to a snack of sushi and the only appropriate ale for the occasion.



Behind me lay Hawkers Cove, barely more than a silhouette now. Here, stood a row of former coastguard cottages where the actor Edward Woodward lived out his latter years.

And nearby, the long-abandoned lifeboat station stood sentinel over the bay, its slipway rusted to the colour of the setting sun.



Sitting among the dunes until the last dregs of day had faded like midnight embers, I watched the waxing moon, almost grown to her full glory.

An opal in the clear dusk sky.

Heading back through dying light, towards an inn and supper of fresh local mackerel with warm bread, I fancied I could hear the boy Betjeman; newly arrived and alive with anticipation…


‘The carriage lamps lit up the pennywort

And fennel in the hedges of the lane….

… As out of Derry’s stable came the brake

To drag us up those long, familiar hills,

Past haunted woods, and oil-lit farms and on

To far Trebetherick by the sounding sea.

Oh what a host of questions in me rose:

Were spring tides here or neap? And who was down?

Had Mr Rosevear built himself a house?

Was there another wreck upon Doom Bar?

The Dart Triple Decker

River Dart near Holne

September 6th 2014

Dartmoor gives birth to her river in quiet solitude, labouring amid the peat, granite and heather of the high tors. Twin daughters, later to conjoin, her waters babble and stutter before finding their feet and learning to run. A careless childhoood is spent skipping down gulleys and dancing through vistas of coarse grassland, close-cropped by generations of grazing animals. By the time she reaches the village of Holne, the Dart is a fast and flashy teenager, twisting and turning, jiving through dense woodland.



Here, her mood can change on a whim; one moment bubbling and effervescent, the next, deep and dark and difficult to predict. Emerging from the torments of adolescence at Ashburton, her adult years are lived serenely, gliding through the buccolic beauty of the South Hams before reaching her dotage at Dartmouth. Here the ocean steals her soul and she is borne up into the heavens where her samsaric cycle begins anew.

Life, death and rebirth.

This journey has been repeated many times in the 700 years since the ancient yew in the churchyard at Holne first saw the light of a Devon sky. Villagers have come and villagers have gone.



Onesuch was Charles Kingsley, born into this tiny community in 1819. Kingsley was priest, professor, poet and a friend of Charles Darwin, but he is best known as author of ‘The Water Babies.’



This moral fable, once a must on every child’s bookshelf, tells the story of Tom, a young chimney sweep who tumbles into a river, drowns and is reborn as a water baby, in which form he embarks on a succession of adventures.



And there are certainly adventures to be had in rivers…

For some time I had been looking forward to swimming at three sites along this stretch of the Dart. All are well known among the wild swimming community and have recently gained a wider audience through written guides and web sites. So, seeking solace, I waited for a weekday after the schoolchildren had returned to their lessons before trekking up through ancient oak woodland towards the first of my triple decker destinations – Sharrah Pool.

For almost two miles I kicked and shuffled through a leafy carpet, where ripening hawthorn berries hung thick and blackberries dripped the goodness of a long summer. Streams busied past in heady dives down the valley sides, reaching for the river far below.




The path was peppered with black beetles, stranded on their backs in an urgency of flailing legs and failing strength. The day was hot and having checked my position on the OS map, I was glad to emerge from the trees to be welcomed by a long, tranquil expanse of still water.



Sharrah was all I had hoped for – beautiful, cool, deserted. Within seconds I was stripped and heading upstream to falls where I jumped in and was spat out by the force of the current. A wet n’ wild fairground ride – helter skelter  – around the rocks and back into 100 metres of limpid loveliness, rich with reflections.



This was a playful pool, filled with the thrill of being spilled and spewed, nudged and nuzzled. And then caught – as if in the net of a trapeze – to be cradled and carried to safety.




A picnic lunch was followed by a second, unscheduled swim – too delicious a dessert to forego. Dipping and diving, bathing and basking, I was oblivious to the presence of a passing hiker, but I was immersed in a personal world, where the only thing that mattered was the wonder of the water.

Wellsfoot Island is particularly acclaimed as a skinny dipper’s delight and so dressed, but still dripping, I retraced the winding path down through the woods towards this second tier of my triple decker.



This heavily wooded island, encircled by a divide in the Dart, is best approached from the far bank, where a precarious bridge spans the water.



But for me, the approach was through the water, as I slipped and slid across smooth algae-laden boulders, until the river was deep enough to swim. I came ashore on a sandy beach, abundant with flowers. A place so perfect that I half expected to discover the footsteps of Man Friday; this was an island paradise and I was a happy castaway.



Soft sands nestled into a clearing where ebony embers lay scattered in testament to a midnight swim. Tracks led away from the beach, fingering through verdant vegetation and topped by a tall canopy of trees. This really was a special place, a place to sit with friends, into the dusk and beyond. A place to be warm beside a sparking fire, to talk, to laugh and to swim  – to commune and connect.

But on this sultry afternoon, it was simply a place to just be. To float in the warmth of the September sun and, after a few lazy strokes, to drift into the deeper waters where the Dart has relentlessly chiseled her mark into the the cliffs that tower above an elbow in the river.



Here all was stillness; a haven, where the waters pause before tripping and tumbling off downstream, hustling and hurrying through a succession of rocky rapids and peaceful pools.



And soon I was following on, stumbling over the roots that straddled the narrow woodland path and pausing only to enjoy the company of fellow evening travellers through Cleave Wood.



Then onwards to the final tier of the Dart Triple Decker – crafted like a horse shoe – a natural jacuzzi. Deep and delicious, I had spied this place on a previous visit and was determined to sample the spa treatment it promised.



Here I hoped to savour the ultimate watery massage, amid the foam and first-fallen leaves of Autumn.



But it was not easy to gain entry into this private pool – the force of the current repelled every attempt to swim up and into the narrow channel that funnels into the fall itself.

The only faesible approach was to drop in from above. Nine hours of Devon sunshine had warmed the smooth rock from which this plunge pool was hewn, its comfortable heat giving little clue as to the cold shock that awaited me as I slid over the edge and into the maelstrom.

But wow! What a feeling. It was impossible not to whoop and shout in exhilaration as my shoulders were pummelled and pressed by the crystal waters. An umbrella of spray rose above me, splashing down to wash away the view and flood into my eyes, nose and mouth. And how sweet that water tasted.



A couple were swimming a little way upstream, so in deference I had donned my swimmers. But Mother Dart, she had other ideas and soon I felt the strength of her flow tugging and pulling and, in an instant, the shorts were around my thighs, knees and then gone.

It was as if she were saying there is only one pure and beautiful way to enjoy my gift to you – like a baby, naked, drenched and vulnerable within the slate of my womb …

‘In fact, the fairies had turned him into a water baby. A water baby? You never heard of a water baby? Perhaps not. That is the very reason why this story was written.”  (Charles Kingsley)


Ghosts and Granite

Foggintor, Dartmoor

September 26th 2014

To call this place Foggintor is a misnomer.

For there is no longer a tor here, just an empty excavated hollow. A husk of a hill.

On the western slopes of Dartmoor, where the horizon expands to embrace sea, rolling pastures and the distant hills of Cornwall lies a quarry. A silent place now. Where the only sound is the soft, rhythmic grazing of sheep, or the occasional wistful moan of the breeze through long-derelict cottages.



Cottages built from the granite that was quarried here in the days when this lonely place was a bustling business, a thriving and self-sufficient community where men worked and lived, loved and left.

Cottages that lined up in a row against the casual whim of the elements. Where productive gardens and the family pig sheltered in the lee of dry-stone walls.

Foggintor father and soin


In its heyday, in the middle of the 19th Century, hundreds of men worked the quarry and from its grey faces were hewn Nelson’s column, Dartmoor Prison and the Plymouth Breakwater.

But that all changed in 1906 when the quarry fell silent and the bleak beauty of the moorland crept back.



And gradually the quarry filled with water; the crisp clear water that abounds around here from overloaded clouds and a myriad hurrying springs.




I had heard that this was a good place to swim; not deep nor wide nor long, but private and peaceful, protected on all sides from sight and season.



So on a languid, lazy and overcast September evening I stood on one of the few patches of coarse grass that abut the lake and escaped the hot grip of my clothes. Sliding into the shallows, I took care to avoid the razor sharpness of the discarded blocks strewn around the quarry bottom – a barely submerged obstacle course through which I twisted and wove.



The water was quite warm (14 degrees) as I swam into the deeper section, towards a brace of tiny islands, improbably adorned with an exuberance of leaves, like the head-dress of some Polynesian princess.



Taking a deep breath, I dived down through roots to where sunken grasses grew on the silty bed, amidst shards of granite and sunlight.



Surfacing to float on my back, my gaze drifted up past the yellow brightness of gorse flowers, their heavy coconut scent suffusing the evening air.  Ferns clung to sheer sides of rock, using an occasional crevice to claw and claim a foothold and up beyond these opened a clearing sky, alive with the swooping dance of swallows.

A burst of saffron heralded the slow steady decline of the sun, sinking deep beyond the silhouettes of Caradon and Bodmin moor to the west.



Jail Ale and the best steak and stilton pie that money can buy were calling from the ‘Plume of Feathers’ at nearby Princetown.

I stood for a while to dry in the warm breeze, as the last bees of the evening bumbled past and away and were gone, leaving only that wonderful, almost oppressive, silence of absolute solitude…


February 4th 2015



It is only four months since I swam with the setting sun at Foggintor, but a few days ago I returned – slipping and sliding along the old horse drawn tramway by which the granite blocks were hauled to the sea for shipping.

Feeling the crisp crunch of freshly fallen snow underfoot, I gazed in awe at the wholly frozen expanse of ice that was so recently the quarry pool.



With wind chill, the temperature was minus five and, as echoes bounced and called between the rock faces, I imagined I could hear the shuffle of iced feet.

The clatter of a cough.

The cry of a chisel.