a pilgrimage in two parts

I.

From the Mersey to the Dee.

You may chat with the neighbours of this and that
And close to your fire keep,
But you’ll hear ship whistle and lighthouse bell
And tides beat through your sleep.

Rachel Lyman Field

Ten months have passed since I last wrote.  I left my studio by the South coast, spent the summer in a field in Somerset, and settled in the garden flat of a townhouse in Liverpool – a city that was once a gateway to the world.  I celebrated Christmas by the Mersey, New Year by the Thames, Twelfth Night by the North Sea and my birthday (a big one) on the shores of the largest lake in Africa, further inland than I have ever been before.  And in the midst of all this movement, I lost sight of the sea.

Today, the call of the tide was too strong to resist, so I packed my pannier for a full day’s cycling and rode down to the river; past the Baltic Triangle of derelict warehouses and refurbished galleries; past the long, narrow streets of the Ropewalks; to the train that would take me under the Mersey, to the Wirral, to the sea.

In all honesty, I have no idea why I chose the Wirral.  I could have chosen Formby, or the Sefton coast.  I hate the Wirral, as a human place – suburban sprawl spreading out over the hemmed-in headland; each last pocket of countryside turned inwards in a desperate grasp for a last gasp of rural air… But, in spite of my misgivings, there is something about this place that draws me onwards, and I keep travelling to find out why.

I disembark at Leasowe on a whim, inspired by the oystercatcher on the station sign.  The first sight that greets me is a factory; the cycle trail leads me alongside it, next to the Birket stream, on a towpath fringed with cow parsley and sheltered by willows.  I keep cycling, breathing in the sun-warmed green, tasting the air for a trace of brine.

The trail meets the coast at Leasowe Common, a broad sweep of duneland rising up to an abrupt embankment which separates land from sea in a severe concrete causeway.  Beyond the causeway is another world, a world of shifting light and sandbanks, sunken forests and fortifications – all watched over by a lighthouse, the oldest of its kind in Europe, fallen now into genteel disuse.

After weeks spent following the gridlines of the city, the skies are suddenly huge.  The wind takes my breath away.  I veer inland, tracing the line between the marshes and the dunes, demarcated by the Birket and the gravel trail.  Apple trees blossom in the shelter of the lower land; beneath them, children fish for tadpoles in a reed-fringed pool.  Wheatears trill, flashing their fabulous tails from point to point along the common on my other side.  Kittiwakes fly overhead.

At the edge of Hoylake, urbanity encroaches, and I move to the embankment once again.  Clouds are gathering over Wales, turning the light silver, silhouetting the boats that are moored along the foreshore.

Image

As I stop to take a picture, a couple notice me and nod a greeting.  They live in a house that faces out to sea, and like to spend their Saturdays sat on the wall of the embankment, passing the time of day with friends and strangers alike.  “Once this place gets under your skin,” I’m told, “you’ll never want to leave.”  I smile and politely agree, my mind quietly working to solve the riddle of the Wirral.  Because, in spite of all this concrete, there is something magical about this place, this land bordered by water; something that keeps calling me back to its shores.  I cycle on.

At Red Rocks beach, the sandstone mass of the Wirral peters out into the silt-sands of the Dee, and I lose the trail.  This is a treacherous shore: tufts of marram grass concealing saltmarsh pools, firm causeways sinking into quicksands.  I pick my way across the with care, guiding my bike where I can find a pathway, carrying it when I can’t.  There is no embankment here, no promenade, yet scores of people are out walking; some dressed up in heels and jewels, simply heading to West Kirby by the quickest route; others pausing, like me, to watch the dunlins and the sanderlings grouping in the estuary. 

I find a driftwood log at the foot of the dunes and sit down to write, looking out across the sands to Hilbre Island and, beyond it, Wales, where the land rises up in waves from the basin of the Dee.  Behind me, skylarks rise and fall, their song a pattern threaded through the wind and the low, constant roar of the tide, timeless and hypnotic.

I am at the edge of everything.

Tomorrow, I promise, I will return.

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2 thoughts on “a pilgrimage in two parts

  1. I love the mention of the hugeness of the skies. It’s not often I visit the sea. Once or twice a year. I get used to being sheltered by suburbs, walking within the valleys of tiny streams. Over half of Central Lancashire is enclosed by hills- the Bowland fells in the North- to the East the Pennines. One thing I’ve noticed is how the cloud patterns change. They seem much more dramatic and you get that rolling effect. The closest I’ve been to the sea recently is the Lune estuary near Cockersand Abbey. I was lucky enough to visit at high tide. The water was so still it was barely possible to see the fine line where cloud ended and sea began. Very magical.

    • Yes, that illusory quality is something I love – especially at estuaries, where the sky, sand and water seem to shift in endless mutable patterns. These wide open skies are very new to me. In West Wales, the beaches are closed in with hills and cliffs.

      Also, thank you for the comment and the little star 🙂 – a very welcome ego-boost/incentive to write more. Part II will be up very soon…

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