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.

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.

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.