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 few friends and I undertake clean-up operations on the local beach. It was during one such outing when we discovered this mysterious thing.
We went a little closer to investigate and found something odd:
No-one knew what to make of 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 stood in silence as the pages fluttered in the summer evening breeze, the sunlight catching the pages and creating strange shadows on the collapsing walls of the shed. Someone finally spoke up:
‘What does it mean?’
That night, 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. She grew pale and 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.
It was 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 made it all the more mysterious. Was it meant to be art? A message? A creative cry for help? A warning, even?
I suppose we’ll never know …
If you’d like to know how the mystery influenced a dystopian/existential/psychological horror novel, check out The Horseman’s Dream.
“Full of fascinating ideas” – Will Self
“Shockingly prescient” – Paul F (beta reader)
“One of the best books I’ve read in ages. I really love the pace of it and it just completely sucked me in. Barely noticed where we were and that last line was so poignant.” – Jade G (beta reader)
Learn more about Wirral’s mysteries and dark legends here.
Over The water. The Dark Side. The One-Eyed City.
The Wirral is a strange place: a peninsula onto which you venture, rather than into. Argue this one with the natives at your peril. Beautiful landscapes and Viking history make up as large a part of its identity as shipbuilding, promenades, pop music and now, (2020 edit) Coronavirus.
Curiously polarised by time, towns which appear sleepy and civilised by day become havens of hedonism by night. Despite (or maybe because of) living on three-quarters of an island within an island, escapism is a priority. Some natives insist that they most certainly are keeping up with the Jones and everything is fine. The good ones (of which there are many) just don’t care, but a conspicuous few, drunk on our narcissistic mainstream culture, act out their reality TV fantasies in public to terrifying effect. Sometimes, life on the Paradise Peninsula is downright surreal, almost as if its geography intensifies the drawbacks and benefits of small-town life. Like a magnifying glass to the merits and madness.
At 18, I was working in a local restaurant and fell in love with a waitress. We started a relationship and suddenly, the princely local rugby players became a problem. Every time they would leer at her or make a comment, I would have to keep my mouth shut and continue working. Many was the wine glass cracked by rage polishing.
A few snotty rugger buggers is one thing, but a national/premier league footballer is quite another. My girlfriend told me that he got her number from the management and phoned her up to offer private “football lessons”. I asked him if he’d like a private boxing lesson, which he declined. I lost my job, kept some dignity and never forgot that people will often choose to side with money/fame/power over doing what’s right.
This is just a small vignette of the sociopathy acted out by the self-appointed royalty of the Wirral. The footballer’s entitled behaviour echoes archaic rights for the privileged, as per jus primae noctis. More currently, it brings to mind austerity, the clampdown on our civil liberties, the hourly infringements on our privacy and many more bigger-picture problems that exist in Britain right now, courtesy of the elite classes who are terrified of the word meritocracy, but swear up and down that they believe in social mobility.
So, I wrote A Smaller Hell, examining small-town hierarchies through a department store in Birkenhead, representing the split-personality of the Wirral, and Dianne Doyle, the kind of person who would seek to exploit and perpetuate it for her own amusement. I wanted my first novella to reflect my fear of how low people are willing to go when they’re rich and bored. Dianne Doyle is an enigma: she’s something far worse than what she appears to be, but as Robert Louis Stevenson said, The Devil can sometimes do a very gentlemanly thing,
Having said all this, you can see why many call this the Paradise Peninsula. Most of the photographs below were taken on the southern coastline, but there are myriad beauty spots all over the Wirral.
Come and visit us soon, but don’t feed the footballers.
The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n. – John Milton
‘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 was haunted for days by the feeling that I might well have thrown away an opportunity for enlightenment of an exclusive nature. I cursed myself for being a hypocrite, and for 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.’
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.