I must go down to the seas again…

…for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

Whitsand Bay Hotel

Whitsand Bay Hotel: photo used with kind permission from Warren Derrington Evans

As I teased you with my last post like a burlesque dancer tickling your twitching nose with a long white feather, I went to Cornwall. I needed to go away because I had become rather anxious, and my memory was becoming unreliable, and I couldn’t sleep properly. So I was shamefully profligate, tore my credit card out of my wallet like Arthur pulling the sword from the stone and booked myself into a hotel, without allowing myself to think of the cost, or of the fact I was doing it All By Myself when generally I walk into town in the rain rather than pay for parking and still prefer to visit the ladies’ in a group.

As I breasted the hill the Whitsand Bay Hotel loomed out of the sea-mist, dark and gothic, towering over the little hamlet of Portwrinkle, and I felt the frayed knot in my stomach relax a little. No phone signal, no internet, no email, no Skyplus, no cooking, no cleaning, no online surveys, no gym, no neighbours shagging/killing each other (I am torn as to which is worse to be woken by). Just me, a pile of books, and Dad’s Army.

My room, on the top floor, was small but pleasant, and the view from it – the green-grey water slamming against the black rocks – was breathtaking. I felt like the sea was speaking for me, saying everything boiling inside me which I couldn’t articulate, with each sonorant smack.

I had a cup of tea and then set out on my first walk in the gloaming. I went up the lane where the ghost of the notorious smuggler Silas Finny is said to walk, but uncharacteristically I was too busy concentrating on the map to keep an eye out for him. Which as it happened was a complete waste of time: my map was accurate, but of an entirely different area, where I’d had just kind of assumed I was. I’m not going to go into the ins and outs of why because I will get cross with myself again, but the walk to (as it turns out) Tregantle Beach – long, whale-back smooth and empty save two surfers riding white horses – was very enjoyable, if a little disconcerting, as the further I walked the more apparent it became that I had no idea where I was. I scuttled past a gypsy campsite and got barked at by several angry looking dogs, like an episode of Casualty waiting to happen.

I walked to the end of the beach, thinking about stuff I hadn’t dared think about before. Just aware of nothing apart from the sounds and smells and feelings of being by the ocean. The tide started to come in, so I picked up my pace and eventually retraced my steps, sticking faithfully to the path. As I flung myself girlishly over a gate and navigated some fat cowpats I felt eyes upon me, and slowed down until I found I couldn’t move at all. Was it Silas Finny, angry because I had been more concerned with my longitude and latitude than in his spirit?

Well, no. I turned slowly to the left and found I was gazing at two soldiers, lying motionless on their stomachs, aiming rifles in my direction. My automatic response was to yelp and put my hands in the air asking them not to shoot, but when I asked if I might go through their field they said “Yeah of course,” like I’d asked something really foolish. Next time someone aims a gun at me, I’ll know not to make such a big deal out of it.

The return journey to the hotel was more a yomp than the upbeat Val De Ree I had started out with; I was increasingly cold, I was starting to get tired and I was as always lost; and desperate for the loo but too frightened of soldiers and gypsies to wee behind a propitiously-placed bramble bush. After dinner I soaked in the bath for an hour and watched Dad’s Army in bed. I hadn’t watched episodes for years, but it was a great family favourite, and I had forgotten how much I loved it, how straightforward and innocent and loveable and warming. Hot chocolate for the soul.


That night a storm boiled the sea and flung rain at my window, but the next day dawned pale blue and soft gold, perfect for a long circular walk from Cawsand. The pinnacle of my 3 hour trek was St Michael’s Chapel on Rame Point where the Spanish Armada were first sighted in 1558. I couldn’t catch my breath properly, and not just because I’m out of shape; the air was heavy with saltspray and the wind was twisting elf-knots into my hair, and I could imagine the frisson of fear felt by the lookout as the first gunships, pale as ghosts, shimmered through the brume.

When I finally collapsed back into my car I felt ridiculously proud of myself. Back in my room I sank into a bath and practically fell asleep at dinner. Afterwards I sat by the window listening to the sea and reading until I couldn’t resist the droop of my eyelids. I fell asleep at about quarter past nine and slept right through until half seven; I haven’t slept so well in months.

I’m back at home, and just very aware that I wasn’t away for long enough. But I know I can do it now – go away by myself, and put my mind on ‘standby’ and just Be.

I have nothing to report since I came back, mainly because I’ve gone down with bronchitis which means I don’t have the energy to do much apart from watch TV and read. Every cloud… I stumbled across a contemporary(ish) Jane Austen in Elizabeth Taylor, whose Mrs Palfrey at the Clairmont is quite captivating. It’s the simple tale of an elderly lady who moves into a downmarket hotel occupied by other old longterm guests and it’s magically observed and written.

The other author I am really pleased to have stumbled across is Elizabeth Fremantle whose Queen’s Gambit was a real find. Katherine Parr is not one of Henry VIII’s wives who has had a huge amount of fiction dedicated to her, perhaps because she is not as bewitching as Anne Boleyn or as cruelly treated as Catherine of Aragon. Elizabeth Fremantle has righted this wrong with a hugely readable and enjoyable imagining of what things might have been like for her, and this marks a new voice in historical literature.

Fremantle’s writing style is lush but reader-friendly; her descriptions are beautiful without being twee or poetic and her characterisation is excellent. Seymour’s charisma, Katherine’s down-to-earth goodness, and the grotesque Henry VIII is all brilliantly portrayed. Plus, she focuses on smaller characters who in history may have been merely cameos but who for Fremantle feature prominently in Katherine’s life. So it’s not just the royals and aristocrats who matter in this story, but also the servants, the doctors, and other characters. Fremantle has researched her subject meticulously and it shows. Despite the huge differences between the 16th century and the 21st the characters are still so human.

She also creates a complex character out of Elizabeth Tudor, future Queen of England, who is normally vilified or lauded. For Fremantle Elizabeth is intensely human and of all the numerous fictional portrayals of the young Elizabeth I I have found this to be the most convincing. I don’t know about anyone else but Philippa Gregory seems incredibly anti-Boleyn/Elizabeth I and this gives her books an edge which I found Fremantle to be without; and that is to her credit. Hence I’ve waffled on about her so much.

Tonight, Matthew, I’m going to be reading The Undiscovered Country: Journeys Among The Dead which I have been excited about for months. It’s about how death and in particular the soul have been viewed for centuries. Yes I know it’s another death book and I should be reading about fluffy kittens and copper kettles and japes and scrapes but – I have done. And I like it, I really do. It’s just I like this too, and as long as I keep an eye on my dark side I don’t see why I can’t live with it, just not let it take me over the way it has threatened to.

I promise though – no more reading-Jack-The-Ripper-by-day-and-watching-Zombie-Nazi-Killers-by-night. I’ve learned that lesson.

Lux et umbra vicissim, sed semper amor
(Light and shadow by turns, but always love)

Will I go back to Portwrinkle, and will I be haunting Finnygook Lane in the dusk to see if Silas deigns show his skeletal face?

Watch this space. (There’s that tickly feather again…)