Heswall shore: a muddy beach/marsh in the north west of England that will always be in my heart. As well as being my playground since I was a little boy, I’ve worked, fought, bled, cried, fallen in love and broken up there.
When I was a personal trainer, I used to have a client who was a wealthy venture capitalist and hedge-fund manager. He employed me for a few years and we became good friends, always interspersing our workouts with conversation about allsorts of things. Being in the type of job he was in and having that kind of money, he was well-travelled and would regale me with stories of derring-do from far-flung corners of the globe on a regular basis. One day, we were taking a break from interval sprints, overlooking the Dee estuary, and he said something to me that has stayed with me ever since:
‘That’s still the best view in the world.’
‘Because it’s home?’
‘Not just that: there’s nowhere else like it. Lots of places look like other places. This doesn’t look like anywhere else.’
I’d never taken the views for granted, nor the wildlife. Foxes, bats, herons, peregrine falcons, hen harriers and short-eared owls are just some of the wonderful creatures that can be spotted and heard. There’s always something to look at, including the wrecks that make up the infamous Heswall graveyard. Weathered dreams set in fibreglass and good intentions caked in mud and marsh grass left to disintegrate. Some people complain, but if it’s such an ugly sight, how come we see so many intrepid photographers holding their tripods aloft like soldiers with rifles as they cross the perilous mud, leaping the gutters and sinking thigh-deep on a mis-step? Personally, I love it all before I even look up at the Welsh moels and moors tapering into the Irish Sea near the lighthouse at Talacre: a view which reaches its zenith as the sun is going down.
Occasionally, a group of us undertake clean-up operations on the local beach and one day we came across something unusual. The dilapidated shed that had been there for years hidden in the bushes looked different somehow:
We went a little closer to investigate and found something rather wild:
No-one knew what to make of it. As you can imagine, we were all intrigued enough to walk right on up to it:
Someone had meticulously stitched pages of the Bible – mostly from the book of Revelations – with fishing line and suspended them from what remained of the ceiling. Some had been sewn into surrounding bushes, vines and roots, also.
We all stood in silence as the pages fluttered in the summer evening breeze, the sunlight catching the pages and creating strange dancing shadows on the collapsing walls of the shed. Someone finally spoke up:
‘What does it mean?’
No-one had an answer.
That night, I hardly slept and when I did, I dreamt about the shed of Revelations. The next day I knocked on the door of the house that was nearest the shed. A lady answered and I asked if she knew anything about what we’d seen the day before, because we had all found it so intriguing. She went pale and seemed quite upset as she denied any knowledge of it at all before slamming the door in my face.
The next day, it was gone, sadly. Not just the fishing line and the pages from the Bible, but the whole shed razed to the ground.
In a way, it was sad and frustrating, because I would have liked to find out what would drive someone to go to all that trouble. On the other hand, the fact that it was only there for a day or two adds to the mystery and romance of it. Was it meant to be art? A message? A creative cry for help? A warning, even?
I suppose we’ll never know …
Last night, after the captain and crew went to bed, I stuck around on the bow of the Sarinda to catch the Perseid meteor shower. I wedged my rucksack under my head and kept my eyes fixed on the night sky until bright green lights began streaking across it, leaving vapour trails in their wake.
I didn’t have a wish ready: I had to root around for one, trying to choose something not too selfish and not too far-fetched. The corner of North Wales looked like it was being attacked from space at one point, making me wonder what would happen if one were to strike the estuary, which is still reported to be full of unexploded bombs from World War Two.
It reminded me of being a child again, when I used to play with my friends down on the shore, discovering and investigating wrecked boats and winding gutters. We made The Hidey Hole out of a huge concrete pipe that had been discarded in the woods and launched regular water pistol assaults on another gang from there. There were rope-swings, rope-bridges, fox-holes, tunnels, BMX ramps and even a zipline.
Unauthorised use of our facilities was the most common cause for confrontations, which often escalated to the point of parents getting involved, displeased at their beloved little angels coming home covered in mud and soaking wet, having lost the territory battle. No-one ever got really hurt. An older brother threw a brick at me once, hitting me in the leg, but it didn’t do much damage. I just pretended it did, so that his mum would ground him, taking him out of the equation for a week and leaving his brother fair game for another water-bombing.
More often than not, we all ended up playing together and becoming friends after the initial tribal stand-offs, building yet more jumps, slides and ramps, after which we would go to one another’s houses for the ubiquitous dinner of fish fingers, chips and peas. We would be careful to mind our manners and remove our shoes if it was “that kind of house” for the benefit of our pals more than anything, so that they would be able to continue to come out to play.
Things changed when one of our gang discovered fire. He proceeded to blow up The Hidey Hole (literally cracked it in two) with a load of deodorant cans, changed up his Super Soaker water pistol for a can of WD40 and a lighter and set fire to another gang’s BMX tyres. The police got involved when neighbours from half a mile away heard The Hidey Hole go up. It was with immediate effect that all of us were banned by our parents from playing down on the marsh anymore. Sometimes, I would ride my bike down there to see if anyone was around, but no-one dared since our mate was being threatened with juvenile detention. Everyone was asking each other who had grassed when we could get each other on the phone, but no-one knew, or so they claimed.
Lying on the deck of that historic warship and watching the meteor shower, I realised that I’d left a little piece of my heart in The Hidey Hole when it was blown up. I never really saw those friends again since that was our last year at primary school and I ended up going to a different secondary from them. I hated my new school and most of the kids therein, it being largely populated by entitled little bullies, many (but not all) teachers included. There were times when I felt so alone and worthless that I would stay awake all night in tears, dreading the next day. Summer would never be the same again.
As another spectacular Perseid meteor blazed across the sky, I thought about all the close friends who have come and gone from my life. Nothing lasts forever. Not even the mighty Sarinda, whose copper nails and fixings will eventually disintegrate. Not even the captain, who seems invulnerable to the stormy seas of life. Not even the first mate, whose fixings are only 21 years old. And definitely not me, whose sails just can’t catch the wind at the moment, it seems.
Having not seen another meteor for ten minutes, I picked up my rucksack and checked that the tide had gone out before climbing down into the lethal mud and its unseen gullets that swallow wellies, sometimes people. As I slopped through the blackness, one last Perseid, bright and green, appeared to fall into Moel Famau across the river, right into the nipple on its peak.
I made my wish before the vapour trail faded out of sight. That’s the rule, you know.
As I walked along the water’s edge, I could hear a boat engine following behind me in the darkness all the way up to the slipway at the boatyard.
‘Alright, Tone,’ came a voice from the darkness. It was one of the local fishermen. ‘See that shooting star fly into Moel Famau?’
‘Yup. What did you wish for?’
‘Can’t tell you that,’ he said, dragging his dinghy up the slip. ‘Wouldn’t come true, would it?’
The wind howls up the slipway, clinking through the sleeping masts of the sick and dying vessels, bringing with it the defining scent of my childhood summers: salt, mud and a hint of sewage. The yard – like its inhabitants – is unkempt, but highly functional. By day, tattoos quiver on weather-beaten hides all round the yard, under the strain of ropes, chocks and barrels. Faces more accustomed to snarling into the sea wind clasp frail rollies between their lips and mutter antique expletives as their gnarled 60 year-old hands take on tasks that would challenge men four decades their junior. There is no shortage of laughter between the men, but it is not given away – especially when the job might cost them fingers if they turn their head for half a second.
It’s all about mud down here. Without wellies, you’re only half a man, a teaboy, a landlubber. No-one minds if you don’t have a boat, but if you don’t get stuck in the mud at some point, you’re just not one of the gang. If you fall over in it, extra kudos is given, depending on your reaction. A decent bloody wound is valuable currency, especially if you’ve sustained it helping someone else out with their boat. Once again though, one must be careful not to undermine such currency with inappropriate reaction. Whilst moving a trimaran downriver one rainy Saturday, I made the mistake of mentioning Tetanus after slicing my hand open. Conversation trailed off pretty quickly in the dinghy on our way back to shore, until Goz struck up a shanty to save me the social embarrassment. The sheer profusion of blood from the wound on to my boots and a hearty rendition of “Leave Her, Johnny” was enough to absolve me from my sin until we reached the boat yard again, whereupon I slinked off to apply Germolene from my first-aid kit while no-one was looking.