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 …
‘The nights are really drawing in now, aren’t they?’
‘Nip in the air.’
‘That time of year.’
The old man, who had been stalking me across the desolate golf course with a huge Great Dane, fell silent as he looked out over the estuary.
‘Got to take as much in while we can.’
It was the point when idle chatter transgressed briefly into something else – something that had a whiff of meaning about it. Surely this was not the time and place for meaning? How very un-British of you to accost a stranger in such a fashion, sir. And on a public footpath. I deflected this attempt at talking about stuff that matters with more politeness.
‘I suppose we have,’ I replied with a ridiculous smile.
But he was not smiling, and it was then that I realised what an arrogant fool I was being. I excused myself from the conversation through embarrassment more than anything else.
I was haunted for days by the feeling that I might well have thrown away an opportunity for enlightenment of a highly exclusive nature. I cursed myself for being a hypocrite, and for potentially increasing that dying man’s sense of loneliness and alienation. How could I extol the virtues of compassion in my work if I couldn’t manage this small feat of listening and talking to this man for a few more minutes?
I shared my concerns with a close friend on whom I can always rely to be very direct in times of moral or existential crisis. Upon learning that the incident took place at dusk on the Wirral Way, he assuaged all my worries with five words:
‘Probably a flasher anyway, dude.’
And the Earth kept on turning.
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.