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‘]

halcyon days

walking home along the seafront, the air like bated breath

the sea is beyond blue, today –  it’s the colour of light, and so still that all sense of space is suspended.  The barest ripple of a wave breaks the illusion of the surface

and I am reminded of the halcyon days, when the sea is so still that kingfishers can settle on the shore to lay their eggs.  The perfect blue of these summer evenings, after relentless months of rain; I am glad to see it one more time, at least, before I leave.

My books are packed away in boxes, my flat swept bare and clean; and somewhere in my stories – across seas, across seasons – Ceyx and Alcyone meet again, to nest.