The Old Nan And The Sea

I was walking along the clifftops a couple of miles west of Boscastle in Cornwall last month when a dog rocketed out of a farmer’s field directly into my path, with a look of rare industry and resolve. I don’t know exactly what make of dog it was, or even if it was a specific make at all; I think it was one of those dogs you get sometimes that are just a dog. Dogs have been a touch sarcastic and pugnacious around me recently. One of my cats was almost killed by one a couple of months ago and I think they can sense the resulting weakness in me and quite fancy their chances at taking advantage of it. A few nights before my trip to Boscastle, on the way back from a squelchy night walk along the river Dart, I’d bumped into another dog, whose name was Ted. I’m pretty sure Ted was a specific make of dog, but it was hard to see which make in the dark: I just knew it was one of the big ones. Ted – who I didn’t know was called Ted at the time and who seemed more formidable for this fact – ran ahead of his owner and cornered me gruffly by a kissing gate. I got a very definite impression that kissing wasn’t on his agenda. 

“I’m sorry!” said Ted’s owner, jogging a little breathlessly up to us, just in time to stop Ted biting both my legs off cleanly at the knee. “Don’t worry. Honestly, he’s a big softie usually.” He introduced himself as Ollie and I told him about my cat Roscoe, her injuries and her operation. Ollie told me that Ted too had recently undergone a large and costly surgical procedure, after swallowing a large stick which tore open the lining of his stomach. “I’ve got to be careful now in case he does it again,” said Ollie. “We can’t walk through woodland any more, for one thing.” Ted was now looking up at me in a far more friendly way and, with my new knowledge of his proclivities, I put his earlier threatening behaviour down to a simple case of mistaken identity, prompted by the blackening night sky, my largely brown attire and the fact that I am quite thin.

By contrast, there was nothing threatening at all about the dog near Boscastle. It gave me the briefest and blandest of glances and beavered off along the path ahead of me. “Hurry up,” it seemed to be saying. “There’s a lot to pack into the itinerary and we have under three hours of daylight remaining.” I looked around for some sign of an owner but there was none. I’d seen a grand total of one person since leaving the ruin of Tintagel Castle, three miles west of here: a man in a raincoat who nodded at me through today’s third hailstorm in that special way that people who go out and do pointless things in harsh weather nod to other people who go out and do pointless things in bad weather. The sky above the sea on the horizon looked like the black wall at the end of the world. Why in the name of tits would anyone else be out here? Surprisingly, five hundred yards or so further on the dog and I did see some other people: surfers, but they don’t actually count as people, since they are far more crazy and tough. The north is by far the preferred surfing coast on the South West Peninsula. My friend Emma’s American boyfriend, Moon, who surfs a lot, told me the bigger waves are a result of the unusually jagged nature of the coast. Its southern equivalent can have an intestinal quality, and can suddenly dart inwards in a manner that takes your breath away, but there’s something more dramatic about the coves and inlets of the north, slightly redolent of torn fabric. It brings out a manic sparkle in the eyes of the board-happy likes of Moon who, as he enthused about it, drew its shapes with one hand in the air like a child let loose with a giant invisible birthday crayon. 

I remember the first time I walked alone on the South West Coast Path. It was in 2011, only a few miles east of here, in similarly appalling weather, near Emma’s house: an old, rambling Victorian pile of proud bricks whose shutters rattle spookily at night in the Atlantic breeze. “It gets a bit blowy up there,” she told me before I set off. “I’d leave your credit card back here if I were you.” I gave her a searching look, trying to make the connection between electronic payment and a strong wind. Perhaps “credit card” was derogatory West Country slang for a namby pamby attitude that would not serve a person well on a very undulating walk in the elements? “I took mine up there the other week and it blew out of my hand into the sea,” Emma clarified. “I had to call the bank and order another one when I got back.” 

I wussed out dismally on the walk, turning inland after only four miles to seek out a restorative pasty, and not even making it to my main destination: the clifftop hut formerly owned by the eccentric 19th Century Vicar Robert Hawker, who dressed up as a mermaid in church, invited his nine cats to sermons, and once excommunicated one of them for “mousing on Sundays”. But I also remember standing on top of the cliff early on, in an insulting salty squall, with my arms stretched out, and feeling alive in a way that it’s probably not quite possible to do on the east coast of England without an attractive naked friend or Class A drugs.

The difference between the walking me of now and the walking me of then is roughly the difference between a goat descended from generations of goats who’ve lived on mountains and one of the goats at a minor animal theme park who believes he’s hardy just because he bullies peanuts out of soft tourists on weekends. With my new dog pal never very far from me, I skipped nimbly up and down the steep rocky paths approaching Boscastle, hurdling a vertiginous stone stile over the bay without a hint of fear. “Down there is a sunken cave,” he seemed to say. “And over here is where I did a piss yesterday. Keep up, for heaven’s sake! We haven’t much time.” After well over a mile, beside the 1970s folk horror film churchyard on the clifftop above the harbour, he finally left me, taking up with a young couple in smart anoraks who were heading back in direction we’d come from. Perhaps he did this sort of thing all day, every day? I liked to think so. I felt more free and loose without him, but the feeling of freedom was abruptly lost when, in a quagmire a mile inland, I sank to my shins and almost lost a boot. Up ahead, there was no let up in the gloop: the deepest mud I have encountered on any walk on the South West Peninsula, which is renowned as a deep mud world heritage centre. I somehow got through it, lost the path, found it, lost it again, realised I was in someone’s garden, hurdled a fence, staggered the last mile of the day’s eleven in pitch darkness in the manner of a tired and irritable drunkard, told a stroppy-looking horse to fuck off, instantly felt remorseful about it, reached the car, realised I hadn’t eaten a morsel since 8am, inhaled two bags of cheap salt and vinegar crisps then drove home in entirely the wrong direction.

This was an anomaly amongst the handful of long coastal walks I’ve done in the last month, in that it left me feeling worse than when I started out. I can only blame this on slapdash route planning and poor time management: it certainly wasn’t nature’s fault, because nothing ever is. The sea’s aim is always to make you feel better, but never in an unrealistically flattering emboldened inspirational Tumblr quote way. When life turns against us in the modern world, we often retreat to technology for some reassurance: a small virtual shoulder rub from a stranger, executed with the best of intentions but from a safe distance, confirming for thirty glorious seconds that the way we feel is all right. The sea is more into tough love and doesn’t give us any of that. It’s inconceivably vaster than any of us, it will still be here when we are gone – eventually drowning all that we once knew, without a moment’s deliberation – and it doesn’t care about our problems. Strangely, this is often the biggest reassurance of all, especially in those moments of worry that derive directly from the delusion that as humans we are in some way important, which is kind of all moments of worry, really.

I did not grow up in the most landlocked place in Britain but I would not have had to travel far to reach it. My mum’s side of the family are, however, originally coast dwellers, relocated by my nan and granddad from Liverpool to Nottinghamshire in the mid-1960s. In my enduring mental picture of my nan’s tiny terraced house, two ever-present smaller objects stand out: a 1950s wooden backscratcher and a large, shiny seashell that looked like a mouth. It could be argued that the wooden backscratcher was a poignant emblem of the fact that, for many years, my nan had not had anyone to scratch her back, but in reality it was probably just a really nicely made backscratcher. The seashell – the first that someone had told me would enable me to hear the actual sound of the sea if I held it to my ear – was more significant. My nan missed the sea terribly, but, with her family settled around her, was far too gentle to tell anyone just how much she wanted to go back to it. Telling people what she wanted or making herself in any way the centre of attention were not features of my nan’s personality. She did not believe herself to be remotely important, but was, and still is, immeasurably so, to many people.

Towards the end of her life, my nan chose to express her longing through creativity. A quarter of a mile from her house ran the A610 dual carriageway, connecting the Derbyshire town of Ripley with the M1 motorway. As she drifted off to sleep at night, she liked to imagine that the hum of cars running along the A610 – harmonising with those on the M1, if the wind was in the right direction – was the sound of the sea. At the back of her cottage was a yard of a size that, ever since growing to my full height, I was able to cover with two and a half long strides in any direction, and in which she kept as many diverse plants as she could physically fit. On the walls of the former outhouse at the rear of this she gradually, painstakingly fashioned a grotto consisting of hundreds of shells. If anyone in the family was visiting the seaside, everyone knew what their first task was: pick up some nice shells for my nan. After my nan died, in autumn 2009, one of the great sadnesses of selling her house was that this shell grotto would probably fall into alien, uncaring hands. Would it be torn down? We decided it was best not to know. But in 2012 my mum received an unexpected postcard from the new owners, informing her that they were continuing the project.

I loved seeing this postcard, not just because I initially thought it said “I got your address off Lizard Andy”, rather than “I got your address off Liz and Andy”, and I liked to imagine what Lizard Andy was like. My nan’s legacy has since been further upheld by the next owners of the house, who recently invited my aunties over to have a look at their excellent work. I have upheld my nan’s legacy in my own ways, not always consciously. Her words and sayings are more part of my everyday dialogue, either internal or external, than ever: “money won’t buy you happiness”, calling people “nesh” for not being able to cope with the cold, “dog shelf” as an alternative term for the floor, “gone for a burton” when dropping or breaking an object. Recently, I was thinking fondly of the way that she would have her house keys out in readiness on any journey home at any point when she was within an hour or her front door. I was walking back from the shops at the time and had about twenty minutes still to go of my journey. “Wasn’t that silly of her?” I thought, looking down at my hand, and spotting my house key in it.

My nan didn’t like shocks – extremely understandably, since the second half of her life was defined by a big, terrible one. After the sudden and unexpected death of my granddad in the early seventies she lived alone for the remaining thirty seven years of her life, but her house was typically a hub of activity: children and grandchildren then great grandchildren always popping over, never knocking when we did, always walking straight through the front door into her living room, where she watched only four types of TV: snooker, news, tennis or Coronation Street. Despite this, when her phone rang, my nan would levitate dramatically out of her seat by a distance of between two and five inches. I like to believe that in this way she was simply ahead of her time. Lots of people get excited about phones nowadays, but my nan was already all about that as far back as the early 1980s. “Oooh!” she’d say, every time her phone rang. Since I made the mistake of being talked into having a fancy phone a few years ago it’s barely stopped buzzing and you’d think I’d be used to it by now but I’ve been known to start a little abruptly myself when it does. Maybe this, too, in time, will evolve into full levitation. Like my nan, I also drink a lot of tea, using each cup as, in the unforgettable words of my friend Josie, “the human equivalent of switching yourself off and on again.” And like my nan, I love the sea. It is another way in which I keep her with me.

Acrylic painting by my dad of him and me on Slapton Sands

I might be just a coincidence, but it was around the time of my nan’s death that I started to go on a lot of winter walks on the coast: first in the crumbling MR Jamesian look-behind-you landscapes of Norfolk and Suffolk then here, four hundred miles away, on the more fangy and weather-slapped Cornubian Batholith. As well as being what I’m going to call my 1970s stoner rock band when I finally get around to forming it, the Cornubian Batholith is the geological name for the 300 million year-old mass of granite that runs from East Devon to the Isles Of Scilly in the deepest westest part of the Deep South West. The sea is never far away when you’re on the Batholith and you can still feel its salty presence on some of the area’s most inland spots: Dartmoor, for one. I go to the sea often when I’m happy too but in what’s been an especially tough winter of relentless dark skies, less than brilliant personal health and considerably worse pet health, feeling tiny in huge sea mists on the Bolt Head or the treacherous towering headland of Start Point or on the finely sliced tuna steak cliffs just west of Burgh Island has been my therapy. 

I have walked most of the thirty five miles of coastline from Brixham, in the east, to Noss Mayo, in the West. Each small stretch of coast has its own very distinct personality, with the common factor that – with the notable exception of Slapton Sands, where ley and sea threaten to engulf the flat, unnervingly straight coastal road and merge into one – it is very steep. Yesterday I was at Blackpool Sands – the one Devon beach I can remember visiting with my nan, in 1989 – where the dipping coastal road and sandy beach views through stands of pine are almost like a chilly miniature version of Italy’s Amalfi Coast. A few miles east at Thurlestone, a golf course dominates the headland. I played it last year and it’s very good – possibly England’s nearest answer to Pebble Beach in California – but I lost interest in my game and found my attention wandering to its edges: the wildflowers in its thickest rough and the crashing grey waves beyond it. I used to argue for golf as the ultimate, most exciting form of walking but that’s all in the past. Golf is all about conquering the landscape but I am far more content letting it do its stuff and conquer me. 

Thurlestone Rock

Around the corner from here, the Bolt Head, above Salcombe Harbour, with its unusual oceanic tors, might be the nearest coastal Devon gets to Middle Earth. It’s impossible to ascend the stone steps hooking steeply around Sharp Tor without feeling you’re about to partake in some kind of climactic battle scene involving otherworldly horned creatures. Hidden deep beneath here is Black Bull Hole, a passage so named due to the legend that a black bull once passed through it and emerged all-white, so traumatised was it by its subterranean experience. After this, and the anomaly that is the somewhat soul-stripped Salcombe – unofficial Second Home Capital of Devon – come the more tranquil surroundings of Prawle Point, the southernmost tip of the county: a place boasting a microclimate within a microclimate and its own rare indigenous type of bee, where on a July day you walk through clouds of butterflies above turquoise water and want to wrap the whole place up and lock it in an old ottoman where nobody else can steal it. Not far from here, two summers ago, suffering from what I hoped were the final stages of a mystery virulent river disease that had left me feverish and dizzy for weeks, I swam for an hour in clear gentle waves, where warmth seemed to radiate up from the seaweed and shelves of rock below me. Nobody watched me but a small black dog, with the curly fur of Kevin Keegan in his prime. Unusually, I hadn’t picked this one up from out of nowhere. His name was Billy, or, sometimes, The Blackberry. I’d actually met him on the Internet a few months before and now borrowed him regularly. He barked now, and seemed unusually anxious.

“Has your fringe gone in your eyes again, rendering you unable to see?” I asked, concerned.

“Woof!” said The Blackberry.

“Are you sad about the fetid rotting stick you left outside the pub earlier by mistake?”

“Woof!” said The Blackberry.

“Ok. Be honest. Is it because I called you a little woolly cockshaft when you ran off deep into the bracken near the cliffs earlier?”

“Woof woof!” said The Blackberry.

“I thought so.”

As sea scenes go, it could hardly have been more of a contrast to the one that greeted me last month, on a malevolent rainy day a mile away at Start Point: a day when I’d been originally scheduled to be in the centre of the country, in a big city, with my best friends but, because of my gravely ill cat, I’d cancelled, and decided to walk instead. As I climbed the rocks of The Point, gusts of wind slapped my head like an onslaught of bored school bullies. All of this stretch of coast is a forceful reminder of the power of the sea but the area around Start is arguably the most forceful of all. The relationship between ships and sinking in bad weather here in the 18th Century, before the construction of the Point’s lighthouse, is roughly akin to the relationship between toddlers and falling over. On one night in March 1891, two entire ships – the Marana and the Dryad – struck the rocks and sank, every hand on the latter drowning. Nowhere on the south coast does the sea roar more drunkenly than on this scalpel headland. 

Start Point
But perhaps the starkest illustration of the power of its waves is nextdoor, at the ruined village of Hallsands which, after many years of storm damage and sinking, was finally evacuated in 1917. You can now gaze down at Hallsands’ ghostly remains from a viewing platform on the top of the cliff before walking back to the Point through a patch of haunting grabby-limbed woodland. Hallsands women were an unusually tough breed who habitually waded out to the fishing boats with their husbands on their backs, to save their menfolk’s feet from getting wet prior to a day’s work. Even after the evacuation of the village, one of them, Elizabeth Prettejohn, remained stubbornly and heroically in her house right up until her death, in 1964, at the age of 80 (if you remember the 60s in Hallsands, you weren’t really there). Apparently Prettejohn was only too happy to show tourists around the houses of her former neighbours but you can’t help but wonder how else she amused herself for all those years, as the village’s lone resident. “I know! I’ll found the Hallsand WI!” you can imagine her saying, in a lightbulb moment. And then, with a sigh: “… Oh.” On a cold dark day, bowled over by the wild beauty of the place where I live and my passionate ties to it, but also very conscious of its isolation in winter and many of the people closest to me being far away, together, I related to Prettejohn on some small level. I think my nan – another woman who felt the inexorable tug of the sea and lived alone for over three decades, in a house she could have found many reasons for no longer being in – might well have done too. Each of them, perhaps, had her shell: the difference was that one kept hers on her mantlepiece and the other went that bit further and actually lived inside hers.

Read my latest two books The Good, The Bad & The Furry and Close Encounters Of The Furred Kind.

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25 thoughts on “The Old Nan And The Sea

  1. Beautiful writing, as always. Especially liked "…like a child let loose with a giant invisible birthday crayon."; the description of how the sea comforts (what I have always known but could never quite articulate; your Nan's shells.

  2. A perfect thought-provoking read at the close of a stormy couple of days in Cornwall. Tom, you are a master story-teller and raconteur (it beats anything I've ever read by Hemingway by a country & coastal mile). So evocative, funny and poignant.

  3. These scenes still look a bit Jamesian to me…. Keep an eye on the horizon! (Or let Blackberry do that for you; if dogs aren't good for sensing paranormal activity, what ARE they good for?)

  4. I moved off an island onto the mainland 6 years ago and have sorely missed the sea since. You have reminded me of all the things I loved about being near a beach and hearing the sounds of the waves on the pebbles whilst dropping off to sleep. I long to one day live by the sea again, this brought back to me the reasons why.

  5. I'm so glad you're no longer fettered by newspapers and editors expecting a word count – your stories take as long as they take to tell and it is a real pleasure to have them told in an unhurried way. Thank you for another great post.

  6. A new blog post from you, Tom, always warrants a mug of tea and my undivided attention. Your writing is so personal and also so universal to the human experience, and living in Cornwall as I do, between the moor and the sea, your walks and observations resonate deeply with me. Thanks again for sharing your words.

  7. This more than a anything makes me want to come to the UK and walk on moors and coastlines when its raining or blowing, hear the sea.

  8. This was so beautiful, I enjoyed it so much. I wish I could experience your sea, which is so different from the sunny beaches of Australia (which I never go to thanks to my very fair skin).

  9. Living on the East Coast of the United States, with arguably the most obnoxious, gaudy beaches in the world, I don't believe I have ever longed for the Sea. However, your Sea, the one you write about so proudly and lovingly, that Sea, I now long for: a stern friend that forces you to buck up, and somehow loves you for it, distractedly, from afar.

  10. Despite being quite ill, and rarely leaving the house because of it, often think of and wish for the coast. Never really made sense if honest, largely on account of nearly drowning when very small (no one bothering to watch tiny child, yellow handle of red bucket in hand collecting pebbles they'd not be allowed to keep, going for a paddle and falling out of depth on a submerged concrete shelf). I think Tom's writing nails that sensation of having an *urge* to be near the sea — both soothed and comforted by it, awed by it, as if some primordial remembrance calls us.

    Or maybe it's just pretty and interesting.

    Perhaps, one day, might be well enough to go back one last time.

  11. Although I'm scared of water I do need the sight of it every once in a while.
    More importantly, I'd love to know what Billy tells his doggie mates about your trips out.

  12. I enjoyed that, I always do. Thank you Tom. Loved the thread of your Nan's story weaving around the seascape and the lost village. I can see the lights and stacks of the biggest power from waste plant n the UK outside my darkened window. It was lovely to smell the sea and feel the fresh wind on my face for a while with you.

  13. Enjoyed reading this Tom- Thank You. I have recently returned from a trip south to the beautiful Carribean blue waters of the Mexican Gulf. It's interesting how the sea water, no matter where you are in this wide world, can calm and regenerate a weary soul.

  14. Spotted a small grammar error;

    "but they don’t actually don’t count as people, since they are far more crazy and tough." (two don't's)

    (I'm not trying to be a grammar nazi, just thought you'd like to know!)

    Love your writing~

  15. Another good one, Tom. I can almost feel the wind and hear the surf as I'm reading your words. And I always love when you talk about your family. Your Nan sounds wonderful. It's so great that the current owners are keeping up her shell wall.

  16. I loved the bit about an 'onslaught of bored school bullies…' It was just the right way to describe the sort of buffeting the SW coastal wind can throw at you.
    Your dad must be a talented artist. The picture of you both on the beach is great.

  17. I ended up hear from the recent AV Club review of your book and let me say I am very excited to have found this. You're writing is endearing and funny and I'm definitely excited to read more of your work!

  18. I've only recently discovered your writing, having enjoyed your sad cat posts for ages. I've now bought and read Close Encounters of the Furred Kind and intend to read as many of your books as l can get my hands on. Thank you!
    Penny Corrin

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