About angharadlois

"I'm only interested in everything."

Morveren and her sisters

I know her – by type, not by name – as môr-forwyn, sea-maiden, but she is far from typical: because Morveren, perhaps alone of all her kind, made a happy marriage with an earthly man.

Beautiful and richly dressed, with an unusually lovely voice and some trace of the sea about her still, she would come up from the shore and sit at the back of Zennor church to hear Matthew Trewella singing in the choir:

“Every night at evensong the mermaid would come to hear him, until one night, as Matthew sang a particularly lovely verse, Morveren let out a tiny sigh.  Although it was as quiet as a whisper Matthew stopped and turned – Morveren’s eyes were shining, and the net had slipped from her head and her hair was wet and gleaming – It was love at first sight.”
[From The Mermaid of Zennor and other Cornish Mermaids]

Matthew followed Morveren to the sea and was never seen again in Zennor.  But, in a lovely domestic touch, the townspeople learned of Matthew’s fate when a ship cast anchor off Pendower Cove one morning. While standing on the deck, the captain heard a voice calling from the waves below, asking “if he would be so kind as to raise his anchor as it was resting upon the doorway of her house”.  The voice explained that her husband, Matthew, and their children, were waiting for her to return.  Peering overboard, the captain discovered that the mysterious maiden with whom Matthew Trewella disappeared was none other than a daughter of Llŷr, the ocean: a mermaid.

Zennor mermaid

the Zennor mermaid (image from wikimedia)

In spite of the world he married into, Matthew never forgot his earthly origins.  In a reversal of most mermaid tales, the Zennor legend tells how he would sing to warn the local sailors of the moods of his supernatural father-in-law: “soft and high if the day was to be fair, deep and low if Llŷr was going to make the seas rough.”  It was supposedly because of this story that the townspeople of Zennor carved a figure of a mermaid into the church pew where Morveren used to sit; and in spite of Matthew’s happy ending, it was intended as a warning, to other young men, of the dangers of falling for these otherworldly maidens.

In all likelihood, the church carving in Zennor came before the local details of this particular tale.  It might well be a depiction of the sin of vanity – the mermaid has a mirror, and is combing her long hair.  But in the Cornish sailors’ love of their beguiling, treacherous shores, the currents of the story were already flowing.  The carving was simply something onto which an older tale could snag, accreting into local legend.

Llŷr, like Oceanus, has many children: among his sons is Manawydan, the “ungrasping chieftan” of the Mabinogi, and his counterpart Manannan, the mythical-divine king of the Isle of Man.  His daughters, sea-maidens, are ambiguous figures, alternately seducing, enchanting, helping and cursing the humans who stumble upon and blunder through their realm.  They can be vengeful – a mermaid’s curse can destroy a harbour, or bring violent deaths on several generations of a family – and they can also bring luck to those who befriend them.  But they work in the interests of their own world, not ours.

In the estuary of the river Severn, the local merfolk – known as sea-morgans – used to entice men out to the quicksands with their bewitching songs, so that the conger eels could have human flesh to eat.  And why not?  In this eternal struggle, the sea would sometimes claim its victims from the land, and the land would sometimes claim its victims from the sea: conger eels were, after all, a local delicacy.  The morgans of the Severn were eventually defeated by a deaf fisherman who was able to pick his way safely across the quicksands with no distraction from the songs.  When the conger eels came, summoned by the singing, he speared so many of them that the all the people of Stolford and Steart had conger pie to eat for days.  The morgans left in sorrow, and were never seen again.

The two worlds are out of kilter now: we dredge and trawl the land beneath the waves and over-fish the waters, and we no longer hear the mermaids sing.


Speed’s 1610 map of Cheshire (source: mondrem.net)

Closer to my own shore is the mermaid of Black Rock, who came on board the ship of one John Robinson from Liverpool, following a storm that killed all other members of the crew.  There are several “Black Rocks” off the North Wirral coast – a testament to the treacherous waters leading to the Mersey narrows – but most local folklorists seem to agree that the Black Rock of the story is now the site of New Brighton lighthouse.  The tale itself seems to have migrated south from the shipping lanes of Inverness, becoming part of Mersey folklore in the mid C19th, when the port town of Liverpool was gathering pace to become the second city of the British empire.

Beneath the surface, this tale is about power, perhaps even about the apparent ascendency of man over the realm of the sea: Britannia rules the waves.  When the mermaid comes aboard, John Robinson speaks first and thus gains power over her; she gives him a compass that guides him back to shore, and in exchange asks for his promise to see her again.  At that next meeting, she speaks first and thus gains power over him; she bewitches him with singing, takes back the compass and places a ring on his finger, saying she would soon see him again.  Five days later, John Robinson dies in his bed, “the one place where he might have thought himself safe after a life of peril and adventure at sea.”  In spite of all the advances of the C19th shipping, mermaids were still to be feared.

Who were they, really, these daughters of the sea?  As many a myth-buster has suggested, mermaids might in fact be nothing more romantic than adult female manatees, their breasts glimpsed under the moonlight by a few lonely sailors with time to spin elaborate tales.  But they might also be something much richer and stranger, and altogether less human.  We struggle to conceive of a relationship with any entity that does not have a face, but many a man (and woman) has fallen for the lure of the sea.

the sound of sunken bells

from sea cathedrals made of sand
homecoming bells are tolling
how you are freed from captive land
full circle you’ve come rolling

Emily Portman, Sunken Bells

There are two stories told about Rostherne Mere.  The first is that, though thirty miles inland, it is connected to the sea by underground channels running far beneath the Cheshire plain.  The second is that it contains a sunken bell.  Local legend tells that when the bells of Rostherne church were being hung, the largest and heaviest broke its rope three times; the third time it happened, a workman swore, upon which the bell rolled into the mere and sank – possibly crushing the poor workman on the way, depending on who tells the tale.  But the bell did not sink without trace, because each Easter Sunday a mermaid swims inland from the Irish Sea, along those underground channels, to ring it.

All around our coastline – and some way inland, as well – there are sunken bells which can still be heard tolling in the depths, so the stories say.  Some of them sank when a workman or a ship’s captain swore or blasphemed; others slipped from the grasp of would-be bell-thieves, destroying their boats before disappearing underwater.  Transgressors were usually killed in these tales: the bells are huge, implacable instruments of judgement, and remain strangely eloquent in their underwater setting.  The Bosham tenor bell echoes its sisters when they ring out from the church tower, so that the full octave can still be heard; Forrabury sounds when storms are brewing at sea; and anyone who dares, on Halloween, to spend some time on Black Nab rock, and call their sweetheart’s name, will hear it echoed by the breeze accompanied with the ringing of marriage bells from the sunken chime of Whitby abbey.

Up from the heart of ocean the mellow music peals,
Where the sunlight makes his golden path, and the sea-mew flits and wheels,

For many a chequered century, untired by flying time,
The bells, no human fingers touch, have rung their hidden chime

Here in the deep, bells speak when people cannot.  When a settlement disappears beneath the water, the bells are what remains of its voice, ringing out across generations to tell the world of what was lost.  The town of Dunwich – a port which once rivalled London – was eaten away by coastal erosion until, by 1912, all that remained was the ruined church tower “teetering on the edge of the cliff.  Now nothing remains on dry land.”  But legends of its bells still ringing from beneath the waves carry the story of this East Anglian Atlantis back to shore.  Further north, the residents of Cromer tell of a strange noise that is sometimes heard from the sea, over the wind and the waves: the lost village of Shipden, still ringing its church bells for parishioners who come no more.

So rich is the mythical resonance of this sound that we use sunken bells to tell the stories of drowned villages which never had churches or rang bells themselves.  Capel Celyn, the flashpoint of Welsh political resistance in the late 1950s and early 1960s, was (as its name suggests) a community centred on a nonconformist chapel, with no spire and no bells.  Yet its story so haunts the imagination that over the decades it has become an archetype, merging with other mythical lost lands and sought with the same hiraeth:

“My father would tell the mysterious and entrancing story that the water shrouded. Of course I already knew the story – as he had told it a thousand times before – of the flooded village below. If the summer was hot, I would strain my eyes for a glimpse of an ancient spire that I knew could be seen if the water was low. At the same time my ears would search the silence beyond the car engine for the tolling of the ancient bell. I never saw or heard anything, but I always imagined I did.”

David Leigh-Ellis, Deluge and Flashpoint

The most direct mythical forbear of Capel Celyn is, of course, Cantre’r Gwaelod, whose sunken bells have been the subject of a famous song for centuries:

As Ar Log comment on the video above, it is likely that “clychau Aberdyfi,” the bells of Aberdovey, are the bells of Cantre’r Gwaelod “yn atseinio o’r dyfnderoedd,” echoing from the deep.  And as of 2011, they have echoed again in Marcus Dovey’s Time and Tide Bell, installed at Aberdyfi, and at 12 other sites around the British coastline, to be rung by the sea at high tide.  Each of the 12 bells has its own unique inscription, capturing something of the story of that shoreline; the bell at Aberdyfi takes its inscription from a poem by R. Williams Parry: Cantre’r Gwaelod Nos y Boddiad, the night on which it drowned:

uwch llanw                                         above the                   tide
erch llawenhaf                                                     
awesome        I gladden

These might not be the first bells specifically designed to sound when submerged, but they might be the first to take legends of the sound of submerged bells and make them a real part of the soundscape of our modern coastline.  The message is resurgent, optimistic: the sea takes, but it also gives, just as the tide both rises and falls to ring the bells.  As the artist writes:

“The Time and Tide Bell is to create, celebrate, and reinforce connections, between different parts of the country, between the land and the sea, between ourselves, our history, and our environment.”

These connections, like our coastlines, are forever changing; but in them, the echoes of the past still sound.

A Harbour of Songs for a ship made of stories

Delayed reaction

On Saturday 19th May 2012 the Collective Spirit sailed into Brighton Marina, her first port of call – while just a few hundred yards away, inland, I was… somewhere else.  To hazard a guess, I’d say I was curled up on my sofa, reading, while outside my window the welcoming celebrations merged with all the revelry of Brighton Festival on the Saturday night air.  When the ship set sail for Portland eight days later, I had no idea that something so remarkable had passed me by.

Hold this piece of wood to your ear and listen…

Two years and seven months later, at one of the Unthanks’ magical singing weekends in Seahouses, I was given a treasury of songs inspired by the story of this ship, and left curious to find out more about what I had missed.

Collective Spirit under sail. Photo: Tom Gruit/Creating Waves

Look closely at the Collective Spirit and you will see what makes her special: visible above the waterline are the outlines of hundreds of donated wooden objects which were used as raw materials for her construction.  Lone Twin, the artistic collective behind The Boat Project, set out to make an “archive” (or even an ark?) “of stories and memories” as their contribution to the 2012 Cultural Olympiad: “1,221 people came with their wood and told us their story, each donation was then used along with thousands of others to construct a seafaring record of our lives.”  The result is beautiful and functional, a seaworthy work of art deserving of its moniker: “the ship of a thousand memories.

Of the 1,221 donations, a splinter from Hendrix’s guitar is lost among the grain, but an old wooden ruler can clearly be seen – the same wooden ruler, perhaps, once brought down hard on the knuckles of a student by a sadistic, misguided teacher, “for something, for nothing, for fun.”  The outline of this ruler frames a story, written down by Nick Hornby and given voice by The Unthanks, about leaving behind the memory of a brutal school regime: “inch by inch we climbed above you, inch by inch we sailed away.”

‘The Ruler’ forms part of the Harbour of Songs, an album produced by Adrian McNally of the Unthanks to hold the stories inspired by the Collective Spirit.  “Each piece of wood holds a different story within its grain, and each song captures a story.”  The songs were donated in “the same manner as the wooden items themselves, each specifically bringing to life the stories behind them.”  Imagining the former lives of the objects from which The Boat Project was born,  Sarah Blasko sings of the joy of a ‘Simple Wooden Box’ for the storing of secrets, while Alasdair Roberts imagines the pride of an Australian circus performer’s prowess with ‘My Rola-Bola Board’.  One of the most moving stories on the album is Ralph McTell’s ‘Shed Song’, celebrating the “church of masculinity” that a man’s shed became to his young grandson.  The shed disintegrates as the years go by until, after the grandfather passes away, only three planks remain: “one for him, and one for me, and one for lives and schemes that overlap each history aboard this Ship of Dreams.”

One song leads to another, and when the tale is over another one begins…

Of course, the Collective Spirit is more than just the sum of these stories: over the course of her voyages, she will gather stories of her own.  In the Summer of 2013, she was crewed to 5th place in the Round the Island Race; as Steve Tilston’s contribution to the Harbour of Songs imagined, “her keel will cut fine courses, while from the starboard bow keen eyes will watch for breakers”.  After a long tour of this island nation’s ports, Collective Spirit is still sailing: in fact, you can charter her for your own use, and add your own memories to the thousands already held within her hull.  But, if you are as landlocked and broke as I am for the moment, the Harbour of Songs offers another way to set sail on Collective Spirit, launching yourself into a sea of the stories she inspired.  It was a great gift.  Thank you, Max McNally, for passing it on.

drowned lands

— Jacques Darras, ‘Doggerland’

Last month, in an idle online odyssey, I landed on a tantalising site full of speculation about the history of the River Mersey, which may be barely 1,400 years old.  Some local stories suggest that until 600 A.D. its waters could have followed the route of the Shropshire Union Canal, beneath which there are said to be traces of an ancient riverbed, to mingle with the river Dee at Chester.  What is now the Mersey estuary would then have been a marshland linking Lancashire with Wirral – a folk-memory preserved in an old couplet quoted by Mark Olly: “the squirrels ran from tree to tree, from Formby point to Hilbre.”  Olly notes that the Mersey estuary is absent from Ptolemy’s map, produced in 200 A.D.  This map is, admittedly, not the greatest work of cartographical accuracy, but it does include the estuaries of the other great rivers in the area: the Dee and the Ribble.  At some point, therefore, local lore suggests, a great natural catastrophe – an earthquake, as recorded in Trioedd Ynys Prydein – must have breached the natural land barrier between where Birkenhead and Liverpool now stand, causing the sea to rush in and flood the low land, diverting the course of the river forever.

Britain is an island rich in drowned lands.  The Formby footprints bear local witness to the gradual rising of the sea and its encroachment on the places once walked by our Neolithic ancestors; there are countless similar sites all around our coastlines.  In our far prehistory, this was not an island at all, but part of a vast landmass extending from Denmark to Brittany: Doggerland.  Fishermen have been dredging up the bones of mammoths, lions and deer from this lost land, probably for longer than we ever fully realised.  There are Cenozoic silt deposits in East Anglia which are thought to have formed part of the course of the Rhine through this ancient landmass, making the river significantly older than the coastline to which its waters flow.

Doggerland‘ by French poet Jacques Darras – written in English to “materialize the rift” formed as the sea flooded between France and Britain – speaks to the unfathomable sense of time we encounter in such discoveries:


Over the millennia, the Doggerland peninsula diminished through the thawing of successive ice ages, leaving a low strip of vulnerable marshland linking Southern and Eastern England with Holland and France.  It is this land that forms the setting for Darras’ poem, a land of “shell-gatherers” and “whelk-gulpers” – both of which can still be found on each side of the channel today.  The image of these inhabitants of the doomed lowland assessing and discussing “the encroaching sea” creates an inevitable resonance with the concern over climate change, a low-level anxiety humming through our culture, which was captured so brilliantly earlier this year in the public response to Isaac Cordal’s puddle sculpture.

The sculpture dubbed

The sculpture, dubbed “Politicians discussing global warming” on social media.

What became of the Doggerlanders?  Perhaps some of them migrated to higher ground, following the deer-trods to our newly-forming island.  Perhaps others stayed, raising rudimentary defences against the slow, unstoppable sea (another uncomfortable echo of our times).

Earlier this year, storms uncovered a a walkway made of sticks and branches, some 3,000 – 4,000 years old, off the coast of Cardigan Bay at Borth.  Archaeologists believe it may have been constructed to cope with rising sea levels.  This walkway belonged to a different part of that Doggerland peninsula, the archetypal drowned land of Wales: Cantre’r Gwaelod, the “lowland hundred” lost beneath the waves.  In the story we learned at school, Gwyddno Garanhir presided over the land, which was also known as Maes Gwyddno (the plain of Gwyddno); one evening, the drunk Seithynen forgot to close the sluice gates, allowing the sea to flood in, and the land was lost.  An earlier, more mysterious version of the tale from the Black Book of Carmarthen, records that the maiden Mererid allowed a well in her care to overflow and flood the Cantref. I remember vividly the first images I saw of Borth: I was in a room in Aberystwyth lined with photographs of petrified stumps on a shore at low tide. Through the window the sun was setting over the sea, casting a red light on Cardigan Bay, the curve along the face of Wales that speaks of an absence where (legend has it) Cantre’r Gwaelod would have been. I was 10 years old, waiting to be called onstage for a school Eisteddfod; reading the labels to calm my nerves, it began to dawn on me that Cantre’r Gwaelod was more than just a story – that there had, in fact, been land here once, land which was now lost beneath the waters.

The tangible remains of Cantre’r Gwaelod haunt my West Wales imagination, much as the knowledge of Doggerland haunts Darras as a “Man of La Manche”.  The inhabitants of these doomed lowlands must have had some sense of the rising threat of salt water.


Beneath the waves of Cardigan Bay, as the story goes, the bells of Cantre’r Gwaelod – the Clychau Aberdyfi of the folk song – can be heard on still days, or on Sundays, or in times of danger.


I cannot help but wonder – if we, too, disappear beneath the waves – what traces of our lands would be dredged up by inhabitants of unimaginable futures, fuelling the discovery that we existed, once, and made this place our home.

white chalk

65 million years ago and more, microscopic creatures lived and died in the warm waters where our island came to be.  The traces of their skeletons fell in drifts to the sea bed where, layer upon layer, they formed the mineral which became our most iconic coastline.  The white cliffs of our Southern shore are really nothing more than a crush of tiny bones.

Chalk, to me, will always mean Sussex – especially the stretch of coast along the undercliff walk, east of Brighton, where I used to spend my lazy Sunday afternoons battling the wind for the papers at Ovingdean gap.  The rock is so soft that a defence system of groynes and walkways has been built to separate the sea from its natural shore.  Banked in by glaring chalk and concrete, the undercliff is a strange place to walk, but people love to be beside the seaside.  On quiet days (in old clothes) you can lean against the cliff and feel the whole landmass of Britain at your back.

The pebble beach beneath these cliffs, just past the Marina, is an excellent hunting-ground for hagstones: nodules of flint which work their way free of the chalk as the cliffs erode, with their softer minerals smoothed away by the sea to leave a perfect hole.  British folklore credits these stones will all kinds of powers – though a true hagstone, it is said, will float on water, something none of my flint specimens have ever done.


Two years ago I tried to walk this whole landscape, along the South Downs way to the Seven Sisters cliffs, where the white chalk plunges dramatically into the sea.  The walk was a promise, of sorts, to the sea, made one lunchtime while standing up to my ankles in cold brine.  I hated my job (not the people, or even the organisation; just the job) and I often walked down to the beach at lunchtime, easing my feet into the sea and letting the waters carry my worries away, before heading back to the office and another round of worries.  I decided, that lunchtime, to learn all I could about this coastline, the better to appreciate the sea that was such a big part of my life at the time.

In the end, I made it all the way to Alfriston – the last leg! – before turning back with a fever.  Over the next three days of convalescence I found myself shunning music and television, unwilling to relinquish the silence of the high Downs.  There was no lingering sense of unfinished business; only a lasting impression of a quiet, open landscape, older and wilder than we know.  The cry of the lapwing and the song of the lark, the unceasing challenge of the wind, all kept coming back to me in daydreams.

This Easter, I am going back – not to finish the walk (I hope I never finish walking on those Downs) but to drink in as much as I can of this sea-formed, wind-washed landscape.


[postscript: almost everything I know about geology I owe to Ian Vince’s brilliantly readable book, ‘The Lie of the Land‘]

very like a whale

“…that region of ecstasy on the brink of the final, formless Deep, which is the source and end of all things”
–Mona Douglas, from the foreword to The Sacred Isle

Space and time work differently in dreams.  The most mundane of objects might just be a doorway to another world.  A child’s inflatable paddling pool, for instance, found lying full of water, in an old forgotten corner of the basement in a pub where you once worked.

You went in search of something – who knows what?  Perhaps yourself.  You knew you were lost.

The basement was a labyrinth, full of old, forgotten things.  You wandered for what felt like hours, until you reached the pool.  And in the pool, there was a whale.

Space and time work differently in dreams.

The whale is vast, wild, incomprehensible – and you are somehow alongside it, palm-to-skin, suspended.  In the water?  In the air?  Impossible to tell.  Floating by its flank, you feel its thinking, its one question –


– and as you form an answer, your two worlds draw back from one another for a moment, like the tide draws back from land before a surge.

You see yourself: standing in the corner of a dusty basement, staring at a child’s inflated paddling pool.  And in the pool there is a whale.

Its great flukes rise above your head and crash onto the water, and the wave engulfs you.

And you drown, or you wake up, or maybe both.

windows to the sea

Every time I visit Aberdeen, the sun is shining.  Although I am assured that this is rare enough, the Aberdeen of my imagination sparkles with quartz-flecked granite, sudden weather and a cold, blue sea.


Powis Gates

With time to spend exploring last week, and an unshaken conviction that I take the Scottish sunshine with me, I set out on foot to wander through the cobbled streets of Old Aberdeen, down to the river Don and, eventually, to the sea.  This part of town is home to the university, one of the oldest in the country.  As my Scotsman loves to point out, for a moment in the C16th, the city of Aberdeen had as many universities as the whole of England.  The buildings, made from hard granite, have none of the crumbling benevolence of their English contemporaries; the crisp details of their carvings creates a strange dissonance with the knowledge of their age.

I love it here.  I daydream about moving into one of these old granite houses, working in the wonderful Elphinstone Institute, wearing woolly cardigans and drinking Speyside malts by an open fire in the evening (the Scotsman mutters darkly about Aberdonian winters, but for the sake of this daydream I am choosing to ignore him).

Past the old town, just South of the Don, the city beach is bounded by a golf course, of course.  I do my best to avoid it, skirting around the edges of the manicured turf to reach the seafront.  Regular signs punctuate the concrete esplanade – guidelines on how to avoid upsetting the dolphins and porpoises that live around the harbour (“DO NOT try to swim with the dolphins”) and field guides to some of the birds you might see here: oystercatchers, eider ducks, gulls and terns.

If I told you how clean the white sand beach is, up here in the oil capital of Europe, you would never believe me.  You’ll have to visit, to see it for yourself.  When you come, be sure to stop for fish and chips in one of the wonderful chippies where they fillet and batter the fish in front of you before frying it to crisp perfection.  If you’re feeling brave (or lean) try one of the other deep-fried delicacies for which Aberdeen is famous.  I particularly recommend the battered pizza.  If you’re feeling even braver, you could compensate for all those calories by swimming in the freezing sea.  It is the height of summer when I visit; people are out walking and playing on the city’s silver sands, and no-one, but no-one, is venturing into that water.

As I walk along the sand, I see a ship leaving harbour every 10 – 15 minutes; some to the oil rigs, some to the Orkneys or the Shetland isles.  Aberdeen is very much a working place, a city that still prospers on the industries from which it grew: fishing and maritime trade, and – of course – the North Sea oil.

At the edge of the beach, by the mouth of the Don, are three granite frames sculpted from the local stone by Lourdes Cue and donated to the city by Mobil in 1984, at the height of the oil boom.  A small brass plaque tells the name of this sculpture – “windows to the sea” – and little else besides.  Beneath the frames are flowers, laid by unknown hands.  I pause here for a while, and wonder.

windows to the sea

Windows to the Sea

The Scotsman, in its article on Aberdeen art, has this to say about the sculpture: “If you wish, you can think about how all our views – mental and physical – are limited by the frame imposed by our genes, our history and the way our brains are structured.”  The sculpture allows us, physically, to view the vastness of the waters through a cultural frame; somehow, for me, the frame becomes a window through which those left behind wait and watch for their loved ones to return.  So many of them never make it home.

Some days later, as we leave the city, we switch on the radio to hear news break of the Super Puma helicopter ditching in the North Sea.  In my mind’s eye, I lay a flower for the fallen at those frames.  The sea still claims its victims, as it always has, and always will.

dreams of drowning

When I last lived in Spain, there was nothing between me and the sea.  Our street, Calle Virgen del Socorro, clung to the bare rock of Mount Benacantíl at the edges of the city.  From the windows of our 8th floor flat, the view was of infinity.


the view from our window

I dreamed of tsunamis over and over.

Everything was clear – I would be sitting at our table chatting, or hanging out the washing on the balcony, when the water struck.  There was no time to get away.  I felt it hit me, cold and brutal, before I woke up gasping.  Over and over.  I have no idea why; I have never been afraid of drowning – at least, no more than I have ever been afraid of death.  But the sea that filled my senses through the waking day overwhelmed me as I slept.

So much of that year seems like a dream to me, tantalisingly hallucinatory – as though I felt it more than I remembered it.  Only those dreams felt real.  The laundry, damp between my fingers.  The sun on the white plastic clothes-horse.  The movement in the air as I turned to face the water.

That was my first taste of living by the sea.  The air smelled of brine and left a film of sea-spray on our hands.  Everything was rusting.  I grew rosemary on our balcony, the only plant that could withstand the constant battering of sun and salty wind.  One particular evening, I remember, the air was pink with dust, and the full moon rose just as the sun was setting.  Alicante was glowing.  Lucentum.  City of light.

The year itself was the most beautiful, most difficult, I’ve ever lived.  A hundred versions of me drowned by night; in my waking life, only the bare rock of me was left.  Six years of life have softened me with growth again, but I still miss the sea.  I never thought I’d fall in love with what killed me, but I have.

seals and selkies

There is something curiously human about seals, about their dark, dilated eyes and friendliness towards us.  It is not surprising that there is such a wealth of stories about seals taking human form and walking in our world, or acting as guides and protectors as we venture into theirs.  One of the most famous of these stories – retold beautifully by Clarissa Pinkola Estés as ‘Sealskin, Soulskin’ – tells of seal-maidens who take off their seal-skins to dance in human form by the light of the moon.  My personal favourite folkloric encounter with these creatures, however, takes the form of a human journey into their world, deep in the waters beyond John O’Groats.

The Scottish story of the Seal-catcher and the Merman, as told by Elizabeth Grierson in the Penguin book of Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales, is initially a tale about “the one that got away” – the king seal, stabbed by the seal-catcher for his enormous pelt, who escaped into the water with the knife still in his side.  Having given up the chase and turned for home, the seal-catcher meets a stranger on the road who takes him to the edge of the water and pushes him in, dragging him down to the deep-lying kingdom of the seals, where the king now lies dying.  Only the hand that struck the blow can heal him.  The seal-catcher, now transformed into a seal himself, finds he is deeply sorry for the harm that he has caused, and half-expects the seals to seek revenge.  But these are peaceful creatures:

“they crowded round him, rubbing their soft noses against his fur to show their sympathy, and implored him not to be afraid, for no harm would befall him”

All they ask of him is that he removes the knife and washes and dresses the wound – and that he swears an oath to never harm another seal again.  So he swears, even though he knows his family may starve without the money that the seal-pelts bring.  When they return him to the shore, and his seal-form falls away, the reformed seal-catcher turns to shake the hand of the stranger/seal who had accompanied him – but into his outstretched hand, the stranger places a bag of gold, with the words:

“Men shall never say that we took away an honest man’s work without giving him some compensation for it, and here is what will keep you in comfort to your life’s end.”

The tale is fabulous in the truest sense – it could be a fable for these troubled times.  There are not so many seal-hunters now, but seals are still hunted, culled and killed in conflicts with fisheries; they also face contamination from marine pollution, and entanglement in fishing nets and in the human debris that litters our seas.  And only we, who wield these knives, can heal these wounds.

Yesterday, I put my name forward to volunteer with the Friends of Hilbre Island.  One of the many services they offer is seal-watching sessions for the visiting public.  On this island – and in many other places like it – we really can visit the realm of the seals.  And with compassion, with the sight of what we have done, we can inspire the desire to undo it, and the resolve to never see it done again.