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.

drowned lands

YET LET’S NOT FISH UP PARADISE FROM FLOODED EARTH
YET LET’S NOT FANTASIZE OUT OF A FEW SCANTY FACTS
    […]
FOR WE CANNOT SEE BEYOND SOME FLINTS AND A JAW
FOR WE HAD BETTER MUCK FURTHER INTO TIME’S SLIME
— 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:

NEITHER IN A MAN’S LIFETIME NOR IN HIS FAMILY’S
NEITHER IN A MAN’S MEMORY NOR IN HIS PROGENY’S

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.

FOR THE FLOOD MUST HAVE BEEN SLOW AT FIRST

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.

SO WHAT STORIES WILL BE LEFT AS WE QUIT THE PLANET
WHAT LEGENDS AHEAD OF US AS WE MOVE INTO NIGHT

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.

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.

a pilgrimage in two parts

II.

To the island.

In cities that
have outgrown their promise people
are becoming pilgrims
again, if not to this place,
then to the recreation of it
in their own spirits.

R.S. Thomas

The first pilgrimage I joined – entirely by accident – was to Santa Faz in Alicante.  I woke one morning to see the street below me thronged with people, all heading in the same direction, all carrying a sprig of rosemary, and I made up my mind to join them.  That was how I learned that rosemary (ros marinus, the dew of the sea) shares its Spanish name with the act of pilgrimage, romero, of which it is a symbol.

Alighting from the train in West Kirby, with a packed lunch and a copy of Laver’s tide table, I stop to pick an overgrowing sprig from a nearby garden to carry with me on my journey.

I have returned, as promised, to walk across the sands to Hilbre, a tidal island in the estuary of a river which was once reputedly a goddess so sacred that her name could not be spoken.  My destination is the “church in the sea” recorded in the Domesday Book; the home of St Hildeburgh, whose chapel stood here for 400 years but leaves no traces now.  The last permanent human resident, a warden, left two years ago; since then, although we visit in our hundreds, the only residents have been non-human; island fauna which, like the flora, flourish in our absence.

The route across the estuary sand is strewn with walkers, all heading in the same direction but (because we are in Britain now) all solitary, making their own way out to the islands.  I follow in their footsteps, feeling the soft shore-sand give way to denser, wave-patterned riverbed and – further out – channels of wet silt where lugworms and razor clams wait for the returning tide.  Following advice, I am wearing walking boots, but I long to sink my toes into the soft silt; so I unlace them, sling them over my rucksack and pick my way across the broken mussel shells to the low, sandstone ridge of Little Eye, and onwards.

Seashores – like riverbanks – are great levellers: everybody has a reason to be here.  Young families push prams across the sand, looking for the shelter of the cliffs.  Teenagers carry plastic bags of sweets and soda, hoping to escape the watching world.  Keen birdwatchers forge on ahead, laden with equipment and shod in even more sensible shoes than my own.  All around us, wet channels snaking through the drier sand tell the story of the shifting tide, how easily it leaves you stranded.

Middle Eye rises up abruptly in a sandstone cliff, with rough-hewn steps leading from the sand to the turf-covered plateau above.  English bluebells bow gently in the shelter of the island’s ferns.  The non-native hybrids have yet to cross this stretch of water.  Away from the wind, the air is heavy with their perfume.  Huge bumblebees tumble from bluebells to thrift and birdsfoot trefoil on the turf.  I pause to drink in the sunshine with the flowers, and lace up my boots for the final stretch.

The tides here play a trick – not breaking in receding waves, but steadily advancing, with a vanguard of white foam.  As I walk towards the sea, the sea walks towards me, at an equal pace.

Finally reaching Hilbre, I feel I am really on an island.  The Northern tip touches the Southern reaches of the Irish Sea.  I sit down on springy turf to eat my sandwiches, looking out to the open water, beautifully bereft of words.  I could not say how long I stayed, but it was long enough to fall in love with that strange, liminal place, between England and Wales, river and sea.

As the tide comes in, seals swim over from their sandbank in the channel, breaking the waves to watch us departing.  The walk to shore seems much shorter, somehow; I am walking towards a known quantity.  Home.  An ascent of steps and, suddenly, I am back on dry land.  A quick left turn towards the station puts the sea behind me, and all the colours of the town suddenly seem so solid – bricks, painted ironwork and broad-leaved trees; no sea-light to illuminate their mystery.

On the train home, the music in my headphones sounds tinny in my throbbing ears.  I take them out.  After a while, I realise I am humming to myself.  The absence of the sea leaves a space that only song can fill.

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.

a Welsh connection

In the small harbour town of Burry Port, 84 years and 6 days ago, Amelia Earhart touched down in a small seaplane called Friendship, and became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic.  She was a few days shy of her 31st birthday.

Amelia’s achievement is part of the landscape of my childhood.  I remember my mother taking me down Stepney Street, between the harbour and the house where she grew up, to show me the monument that commemorates this flight – an obelisk topped with a small brass plane and inscribed with the words:

in commemoration of Miss Amelia Earhart of Boston, USA, the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, who, with her companions Wilmur Stultz and Louis Gordon, flew from Trespassey, Newfoundland, to Burry Port in 20hrs 49 minutes in the Seaplane named Friendship on June 18th 1928

At the time, I wondered how something so exciting could possibly have happened in such a small, run-down town (the answer is, of course: by accident).  If the flight had made it to Southampton, as planned, I might never have heard of Amelia Earhart except in passing.  Local pride plays its part in passing on the tale – but hers is a tale worth telling.

She had only co-piloted the plane that landed in Burry Port; she would not complete her solo transatlantic flight until nearly four years later.  But on that day in 1928, Amelia Earhart had succeeded where three other women had died in the attempt.  In her words:  “women must try to do things as men have tried.  When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.”

The young Amelia kept a scrap-book of women who were successful in supposedly ‘male’ pursuits.  She referred to her marriage as a partnership “with dual control.”  She wrote about the beauty of flying among the stars at night and watching the moon set from the air.  She sipped hot chocolate, alone, 8000 feet above the Pacific, to shake off the chill of the altitude.  She lived, and blazed a trail for the rest of us to follow.

“The more one does and sees and feels, the more one is able to do, and the more genuine may be one’s appreciation of fundamental things like home, and love, and understanding companionship.”

Happy 115th birthday, Amelia Earhart!