The General Synopsis At Midnight

Sea areas Humber, Dogger: Have you left enough time to return before High Tide?

spurn mosaicBits and bobs from this post featured in a piece called ‘The Shipping Forecast’ broadcast on Sunday Miscellany, RTE Radio 1, November 2nd. I took a trip to Yorkshire recently, to check out sea areas Humber and Dogger. Area Humber runs along the east coast from Berwick to south of Great Yarmouth. With no land boundaries, area Dogger adjoins areas Humber, German Bight, Fisher, Forties and Tyne. Named after a large local sandbank, sea area Dogger once covered a much greater area and had a land boundary from south Norway around to the Hook of Holland. Dogger is also an old Dutch word for a boat used to fish for cod, which is probably what we could have caught if we’d opened the car windows it was raining so hard on the drive to the coast.

‘Stop!’ I squeal about thirty miles from Leeds. We have just passed a signpost for a village with the pleasing name of Fridaythorpe but that’s not what’s distracted me. ‘Look!’ I point out the car window in the general direction of the Yorkshire rain, and through it, at the Yorkshire countryside. ‘A Medieval Deserted Village!’

My cousin Nick is driving and obligingly goes on a bit, turns around and goes back a bit. ‘Hang on,’ I say, a bit slow on the uptake. ‘A medieval deserted village? Do they mean it was found in medieval times when it was already deserted?’ When we eventually find it by tramping up and down various fields, another sign proclaims the site to be ‘a deserted medieval village’. ‘That makes more sense,’ he says.

Using my coat sleeve, I wipe the rain from the information board. Wharram Percy is the most famous example in England of a deserted medieval village, according to itself. Houses, cottages and paddocks have all been found, and the ruins of the village church are still hanging around. (And very nice they are too. I’m happy with my lot of church ruins this morning, but that’s only because I have yet to go to York and see the full glory that is St. Mary’s Abbey; a glorious construction founded by the Normans only to be put out for the bins by King Henry VIII.)

I don’t think I’m being churlish with Yorkshire Heritage’s ‘most famous example’ sales pitch, and I realise having stuff from medieval times is good, and well done everyone, but our visit involves a lot of standing around in a field wondering if the lumps in the ground under our sodden feet could have been one of the two main streets of downtown Wharram Percy. It’s not like I was expecting a Ye Olde Pizza Express, but when I dried off another information panel it had the cheek to say, ‘…none of the buildings or farmsteads have survived, but their sites can be traced through ridges left by buried stone walls and other earthworks.’ We trudge back to the car. ‘I think medieval deserted village suits it better,’ I mutter.

And that’s the first detour. There are more to come because we are going to Spurn Head via Flamborough Head via Bridlington. There are elements of the deserted village about Bridlington too when we arrive, the rain in tow. It warrants a mention in the Domesday Book apparently, but these days seems to be most famous as the former home of artist David Hockney. We walk in the wind past the Aloha Hawaiian café (also offers Tex Mex, in case you’re wondering) and down a long seafront with lots of beach and churned water that manages to be both brown and grey all at once. There is a lot of grey in Bridlington. And for variety, greyey-brown and greyey-blue and also some greyey-black. I imagine David Hockney looking out his window and desperately recreating the desiccated blues and yellows of California to warm himself up. It must be very different in summer; the town certainly seems set up for holidaymakers in a traditional guesthouse and chips-for-tea sort of way. Unusually, it has a town crier, but he wasn’t in evidence. Probably at home, keeping dry. Passing the Bridlington Spa, a local community centre and music venue on the seafront, we peer through the window at an art class and speculate what it was like for other local artists when David Hockney took up residence in the town.

Not far from Bridlingon is Flamborough Head, an eight mile long promontory on the Yorkshire coast (the photo is of the cliffs near the lighthouse). The seabed around these parts is awash with wrecks from before the time of the lighthouse, thanks to an unforgiving and dangerous coastline. Its beautiful chalk cliffs are the highest in the UK. Flamborough offers a twofer for us lighthouse fans: a Grade II listed disused lighthouse dating from 1669, and a second, which was constructed in 1806. Built from chalk (!), the first lighthouse is the oldest surviving lighthouse in Britain. It was never lit, which I can’t help but think must in some part contribute to its ‘oldest surviving’ status. Someone should have told the people of Whallam Percy that trick. In an odd parallel with the Met Office, apparently local fishermen have their own words to describe the weather. Wouldn’t it be great to hear regional versions of the Shipping forecast occasionally? German Bight, Humber: east or north-east five to seven. A bit scuffly at first in German Bight. Rain or showers. Good. Occasionally jowly.FH cliffs

Our primary reason for this tootle around the Yorkshire coast is to visit Spurn Head, a narrow sand spit that sticks out into the North Sea. Also known as Spurn Point, it forms the north bank of the Humber estuary. Humber is one of those sea areas where the name appears on land a lot as well, and I find it quite gratifying to see so many ‘Humbers’ around. I’m sure other sea areas – I’m looking at you; Sole, Fisher, Bailey – must be a bit miffed that although their names have other jobs to do in the English language, they are not associated with places.old & new at Spurn

Formed from sand and shingle washed southward from the Yorkshire coast and clay from Flamborough Head that is deposited in the calmer waters at the mouth of the Humber, the sands of the Spurn peninsula are always shifting. The entire area is moving gradually westwards. It is part of a civil parish called Easington, which has lost many villages to the sea over the centuries. There must be lots of ‘and their church bells can be still heard to this day, ringing under the waves,’ folklore around this area. The walk to the tip of Spurn Head and back is almost 10k, and the rain kindly decides to give us a break for entire kilometres at a time. As we set off it’s nearly four and already beginning to get dark, and the path is littered with signs demanding to know whether we have left enough time to return before high tide. Although there isn’t a high tide in sight, they make me nervous nevertheless. The first sign I think is helpful. By the fifth, I am detecting a snippy tone in the question mark. ‘Have we?’ I ask Nick. ‘I guess we’ll find out,’ he replies. There is even a shelter for people caught in high tide to wait in, and as I’m puzzling over the logistics of being trapped in a small wooden hut with waves rising outside its crickety door, Nick patiently explains that the shelter – the clue being in the name – is in a place that doesn’t get exposed to the water at high tide.high tide signhigh tide shelter

At the end of Spurn Head are an RNLI lifeboat station complete with a small clutch of crew houses, and a disused lighthouse. Because of its general trickiness to get to, it is one of only two lifeboat stations in the UK is staffed full-time, even though it is no longer permanently inhabited by crews and their families, as it once was. Spurn also has an older lighthouse (they’re both in the photo), which according to my calculations makes four lighthouses in one day. The earliest reference to a lighthouse on Spurn Point is 1427, though neither of the buildings still standing there today is it. Now closed, the newer (1895) of the two is in the process of being turned into a visitor centre. After fifty years service guiding ships safely down the tricky River Humber, the Spurn Lightship – a ship that functions as a lighthouse – is now in permanent dock in nearby Hull and open to tourists. From protection to recreation: this is the story that will be told by so many lighthouses from now on.

The following morning, I waste a few minutes threatening the squirrels who are throwing conkers down from the trees in the car park of my b&b. I’m in a hurry because I’m going to York. There was a large poster in the arrivals hall at Leeds airport which declaimed ‘Visit York! The City Where Most People in the UK Want to Live.’ And who can turn down a challenge like that? I have another reason though, because as a Kate Atkinson fan since Behind The Scenes At the Museum was published in 1995, I’ve always wanted to walk down the same York streets – Micklegate, Shambles, Tanners Moat, Doss Gate – as the fictional Ruby Lennox and her loose sprawl of predecessors.

St Mary’s, the abbey that knocks Wharram Percy’s attempt at a church out of the park, is in the grounds of the Yorkshire Museum. William the Conqueror himself gave permission for a monk called Stephen (!) to build a new monastery. Whoever Stephen was, he gave it his all, got the local nobility on board and constructed his abbey on this large site near the city. By the late 13th century, the monks had become rich enough to think about knocking down Stephen’s edifice and starting again on a grander scale, with the result being the 120m long St Mary’s. It became the wealthiest monastery in England, which must have been like a red rag to Henry VIII’s bull. During the dissolution of the monasteries, its riches were confiscated and the building left to slowly fall down. Although its main claim to fame now is that it was sketched by Turner, if decaying buildings are your thing, this one is well worth the trip. The ruins inhabit the Museum gardens as perfectly as the most carefully curated sculpture, and autumn branches are framed like filigree through gaping vaulted arches.St Mary's Abbey 2

People have been living in York for 4,000 years. Prehistoric farmers kindly dropped flints for modern archeologists to pick up; 10,000 Roman soldiers – who named the city Eboracum – stayed for a while; Eric the Bloodaxe (so-called because he had four of his brothers killed. You didn’t mess with Eric); Stephen and his monastic crew; Dick Turpin; Rowntree’s chocolate factory workers… all these visitors to York were, as a display in the Museum puts it, ‘here for a time and then gone.’

I have a sit-down near the ruined nave of St Mary’s. A brass plaque tells me this bench was presented by the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service canteen social club 1946 – 1965. I wonder how many of the generous women of this club were living in York in April 1942, when in revenge for the recent bombing of Lübeck and Rostock, Hitler decided to target British cities that were militarily unimportant but of great historical significance. This campaign became known as the Baedecker Raids, because he selected the cities using a Baedecker guidebook. He decided that any historic place in England marked with three stars was to be targeted. York was one.

And I’m sitting on my WRVS bench and I’m inland from sea areas Humber and Dogger, yet I can’t help but think about the Shipping Forecast when I read this particular piece of York’s history in my guidebook. How different would so many lives have been had he picked the two star cities? Or used a Shell Guide instead? A guidebook is a sort of forecast too; a prediction as to what you should expect to find, and where and why it matters. There are still times, in the face of such arbitrary warfare as using a genteel Baedecker to pick which city to destroy, forecasting has no power whatsoever.


The General Synopsis At Midnight is my exploration of the sea areas of the BBC R4 Shipping Forecast, thanks to the Maeve Binchy Travel Award. The earlier post ‘Counting Down To Midnight’ explains the project. Part of this post featured in a piece called ‘The Shipping Forecast’ broadcast on Sunday Miscellany, RTE Radio 1, November 2nd









The General Synopsis At Midnight

Sea areas Fitzroy, German Bight and Faeroes: what’s in a name?

Postcard of the Battle from the scrapbook of Leading Signalman George Smith, then on board HM Destroyer Forester
In 1955 the countries bordering the North Sea decided that sea area Heligoland should henceforth be called – drum roll, please – German Bight. It made sense, they reckoned, seeing as German Bight was already the name those on its other side used for this area. And so it was done. Exit stage left for the curiously elegant Heligoland, and enter German Bight, which sounds like a nasty rash.

As Heligoland did before it, sea area German Bight runs alongside the coast of Denmark. It goes from Dan Helder right at the tippety-top of the Hook of Holland to Esbjerg on the west Jutland coast. Following its path on a map I noticed a fantastically named selection of towns and areas: Borkum, Krummhorn, Wangerland, Norderney. (Norderney would be a good name for Fermanagh, I think, if for some reason Northern Ireland decided to hitch itself to the name-changing bandwagon.) There is a German island in this area called Sylt, described by travel writer Charlie Connolly in his brilliant book Attention All Shipping as a name that sounds ‘like someone accidentally swallowing a peach stone’. It’s according to the Danish tourist board so I’ll allow some bias, but West Jutland has some of the most beautiful nature in Denmark. Okay, the website concedes with an online shrug; fair enough. It’s not all tiny waves and the pitter-patter of smooth pebbles: the dramatic coastline of this, the ‘windswept west’ is shaped by the ‘uncompromising North Sea’.

What I hadn’t realised until I started The General Synopsis At Midnight is that Heligoland is a real place, not just a) the former shipping forecast sea area and b) that Massive Attack album from a few years back. It’s two real places in fact, as it refers to two islands. If only there had been a clue in the name. Formerly both a Danish and British colony and now German, Heligoland is a small archipelago of islands in the southeastern corner of the North Sea, three hours sailing time from Germany. Sorry, the uncompromising North Sea. The islands themselves aren’t immune from name changes: Heligoland was once known as Heyligeland or ‘holy land’. Imagine the confusion that must have caused in medieval travel agents.

Considering it is merely two small islands with a small population, Heligoland has had a traumatic life. It’s been British, Danish and German (‘Deutschland Uber Alles’ was written here). It’s been abandoned, nearly destroyed and rebuilt. It was the scene of a major naval battle of WWI – the First Battle of Heligoland Bight took place on August 28th 1914 – and a major air battle early on in WWII – yes, you’ve got it, the Battle of Heligoland Bight. The image up top is a postcard of the First Battle from the scrapbook of Leading Signalman George Smith, then on board HM Destroyer Forester. During a period of uninhabitation after WWII, the islands were used for bombing practice by the British. This included ‘the Big Bang’, a 6,700 tonne explosion – speaking of Massive Attacks – in 1947. Apparently the intention wasn’t to destroy the islands, and though I’m not yet a fully qualified munitions expert, it’s hard not to believe there wouldn’t have been an ‘ah, sure what harm’ attitude had the Bang been Big enough to take Heligoland out completely. As it was, the explosion shook the core of the bigger island to a depth of several miles down and changed its shape.

Heligoland is now German again (for now), yet one of its most significant naval stories has an Irish connection thanks to Admiral Thomas McNamara Russell. Born in County Clare in 1740, his career in the British Navy included active participation in the American Revolutionary War, the French Revolutionary War and the Napoleonic War. That’s a lot of war by anyone’s standards. His biggest success is said to be his taking possession of Heligoland after Denmark came into the Napoleonic War on the side of the French in 1809. The names of some of the ships under his command during what was a very long and distinguished career read like a roll call of British we’ll-show-Johnny-Foreigner attitude: The Vengeance, The Dictator, The Centurion. I’m not quite sure how his other ships the HMS Ferret and HMS Terrier fit in with this, and I like to picture the Admiral rolling up to the docks and rubbing his hands together in happy anticipation of an all-cutlasses-blaring adventure on the shiny new frigate Doomster, only to find the lads apologetically unfurling the sails on a nut-brown HMS Squirrel Nutkin instead.

Of course as name changes go, the smooth and tear-free ‘bye-bye Heligoland and hi-de-hi to German Bight’ pales into insignificance when compared with the switch from Finisterre to Fitzroy. Sea area Fitzroy’s coastline is relatively small considering its size. It touches land from Puerto de Vega in the Spanish Asturias around to a point just south of Porto in north-west Portugal. Follow Fitzroy’s invisible sea boundary straight north and up along the westerly line of the Plymouth and Lundy sea areas and you will eventually hit sand in County Wexford, at the point where our old friend Fastnet meets sea area Lundy. (Not far inland from here is a road with the curious name Lane Of Stones.)

In 2002 an international accord between the UK, France, Spain, Portugal and Morocco agreed to change the name of sea area Finisterre. Its name derived from the Spanish finis terre, ‘the end of the earth’. It was confusing, the Spanish argued, seeing as they already had an area of the same name themselves, and the waters in question bordered Spain, not the UK. Their pronouncement wasn’t followed with the Spanish version of na-na-na-na-na, but I bet they were thinking it. And so the Met Office firstly had to find a new name for Finisterre, and then agree how to pronounce it (FITZ-Roy won the day, beating off stiff competition from Fitz-ROY). Apart from those optimists who saw this as a glorious opportunity to make puns along the ‘God rest her Sole’ lines, people took its renaming rather badly. The BBC website on February 2nd 2002 wrote an obituary: RIP Finisterre, which began; ‘FINISTERRE shipping forecast sea area, a familiar friend taken away from us after a lifetime of service.’ The Liverpool Daily Post newspaper launched a campaign to try to save the name. The letterboxes of The Times and Telegraph were stuffed full with middle-England outrage. A woman from Tyneside who together with her sister had between them named their children Shannon, Tyne and Bailey, complained to the BBC R4 Today programme, ‘Fitzroy sounds more like a Doberman dog than a sea area.’Galicia coast

The westernmost peninsula of mainland Europe, Cape Finisterre (that’s a little bit of its coast in the photo) is the final destination for many pilgrims on the Santiago De Compostela, the Way of Saint James. (Familiar to David Lodge fans as the route Tubby Passmore takes in Therapy when he decides to follow his former sweetheart Maureen on her walking pilgrimage.) It was the Romans who came up with its name, obviously convinced that no way could be any more terre after this bit here. Finis. Its coast is known as the Costa da Morte, the Coast of Death.

The hypnotic, evocative beauty of the word Finisterre does make its substitution a tough one, but it’s hard to argue with a decision that celebrates Vice-Admiral Robert Fitzroy. A skilled seafarerer who also put in a spell as Governor of New Zealand, one of Fitzroy’s many claims to fame is that aged only 23 he captained the HMS Beagle on its expedition to Tierra del Fuego and the Southern Cone. On board too was a gentleman by the name of Charles Darwin, and a young hydrographer called Beaufort. I wonder what ever happened to them? Reputed to have a terrible temper, on the five-year voyage with Darwin, Fitzroy’s nickname was ‘hot coffee’. Having retired from travelling because of ill-health, in 1854 he was appointed Meteorological Statist to the Board of Trade, which thanks to his pioneering work became the Meteorological Office. Five years later, a particularly violent storm sank The Royal Charter with the loss of hundreds of lives. It was on its sixth journey from Australia to Liverpool. There’s a very moving contemporary report here, and a selection of retrieved artifacts are on display at the Merseyside Maritime Museum. Amidst concerns about the ever-increasing business of shipping lanes, he began to develop charts that would allow weather predictions to be made. To speed matters up, he established 24 weather stations around the UK. Information was sent from these stations to London using Morse Code. Not only was it his idea to publish forecasts in daily newspapers, the very term weather forecast was his. Impoverished thanks to the cost of his research, Vice-Admiral Robert Fitzroy died by suicide in 1865. He was only 59.Robert Fitzroy

The names of the sea areas of the Shipping Forecast are derived from – among other things – sandbanks, estuaries, islets and towns. Fitzroy is the only one named for a person. I think it was well worth the switch from Finisterre, because it’s thanks to Vice-Admiral Robert Fitzroy that we have a shipping forecast to listen to at all.

And that was the end of the end of the world.

A postscript that’s more to do with changes of line-up than name, but still… Two years ago today Ireland beat the Faroe Islands 4-1 in the 2014 World Cup Qualifiers. Sea area Faeroes first appeared on the shipping forecast map in 1932 and has borders with sea areas Southeast Iceland, Hebrides, Bailey and Fair Isle. (You can read about my trip to sea area Fair Isle here.) A landlubber connection between Ireland and The Faroe Islands is former Republic of Ireland football manager, Brian Kerr. Between 1997 and 2005 he managed first the Republic of Ireland Under 20’s, and then our national team. He went on to manage the Faroe Islands’ team in 2009 and became so popular that his departure two years later didn’t go down at all well: then defender Alti Gregersen told RTE the squad were ‘willing to die’ for him. As the country crest suggests, these are people with strong opinions. Apart from five men who were signed to Danish or Icelandic teams, when he took over the job initially, the balance of his squad were part-time footballers. Coat of arms of the Faroe Islands

In a newspaper interview he said: “We have four carpenters, at least six full-time students – one of them had to fly to Copenhagen and back for an exam this week – two policemen, an accountant, one fella works in a sports shop, two teachers, Andreas works in a bowling alley, and he’s doing a bit of carpentry as well. Simun is full-time in Iceland, Suni works in a fish factory, I think Frodi’s a builder, Jakup is a teacher but he’s on the town council as well, he’s like a TD. That’s kind of the run of it. The pool is quite limited, there’s no one at Milan we’ve missed out on. The Granny Rule isn’t much help either, the Faroese haven’t been huge at emigration.”

Emigration. Now there’s something the Irish, in common with many of the Shipping Forecast countries, have been good at.


(Images thanks to Wikipedia).

The General Synopsis At Midnight

Sea areas Shannon, Fastnet, Lundy, Plymouth, Portland, Wight, Dover and Thames: when Grace met Elizabeth

geograph-3754514-by-Joseph-MischyshynOn the odd occasions I’m in London I always try to fit in a quick hang-around by the banks of the Thames (I’m not even that fussy about which bit). It’s because being anywhere near the Thames estuary always makes me think of Granuaile and the journey she made in 1593 from Clew Bay to Greenwich to seek an audience with Queen Elizabeth I. I suppose the actual voyage itself wouldn’t have been particularly taxing for her: you don’t get to be known as the Pirate Queen of Ireland without being a very able sailor, and Grace O’Malley’s legendary life of pillaging and plundering had taken her much further afield than from the west of Ireland around the south, up the east coast of Britain and down the estuary where the Thames meets the North Sea. But this was no ordinary voyage. This wasn’t business, this was personal.

Continuing the work begun by her dear old dad Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth’s ever-increasing conquest of Ireland had been encroaching on Grace O’Malley’s power (Granuaile came from a nickname ‘Grainne mhaol’, bald Grace, because it was said she cut off her hair as a child as it would get in the way of the ropes on her father’s ship). Cracks had formed in the once-strong Irish clan system, and it was piecemeal and prone to internal feuding. In Elizabeth’s eyes this made her dangerously open to attack from her enemies on the continent. Frustrated and impatient with what he saw as Granuaile’s dismissive and insubordinate attitude, the English governor of Connacht, Sir Richard Bingham murdered Granuaile’s eldest son and seized another of her sons as well as her half-brother, Donal-na-Piopa. He confiscated her cattle and horses and installed his own soldiers in her home, Rockfleet Castle on Clew Bay (pictured). You can understand why Granuaile was hopping mad and decided to sail to England to petition Elizabeth I for their release. But as a known leader who could quickly command hundreds of loyal followers should she choose to do so, the decision to travel to the Queen’s court was a dangerous one. Bingham and his cronies were out for her blood too, not just that of her family. Of course not only was this before the shipping forecast but it was long, long before sea areas and what we would recognise as navigational aids. This was a time when pirates were routinely hung inside iron cages along the banks of the Thames, their rotting bodies left to the mercy of the seagulls. (A forecast of a sort, I suppose, as was this signature of Elizabeth on the death warrant of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587. Elizabeth’s seal is below her signature.) elizabethrsignature

It is remarkable that two of the most powerful people in that patriarchial and sexist society were women. Unfortunately, it would still be remarkable now. Elizabeth I famously sent Granuaile a list of 18 questions about her life, her work (you can be sure the term ‘piracy’ wasn’t used by either of them), and the laws of Irish society. According to Elizabeth’s advisor, Granuaile had ’overstepped the role of womanhood’, which seems to me to be a dangerous criticism to make in the company of such a trail-blazing Queen of England. However, Elizabeth must have decided to let that one pass, and despite her advisors’ fury, the Queen agreed to grant her visitor an audience. Anne Chambers refers to the encounter in her book Granuaile, as ‘When The Sea Queen Met The Virgin Queen’.

They met in the summer of 1593 at Elizabeth’s palace at Greenwich. (Greenwich is also where the first Board of Longitude was set up in 1714, primarily as a result of the watery fate of Sir Cloudesley Shovell and his crew, which I wrote about in this post about sea areas Sole, Lundy and Fastnet.) Granuaile’s journey to the court at Greenwich must have been so different from all others she had previously undertaken because it was about saving a life; about giving not taking. The circumstances of their meeting and what happened during it inspired my short story The Dead Of Winter which was published in the Irish Independent on May 31st in the Hennessy New Irish Writing competition. Co-incidentally that was the same day I was first on the Marian Finucane radio show to talk about the Maeve Binchy Travel Award, which seems like an particularly appropriate connection between these sea areas of the Shipping Forecast and The General Synopsis At Midnight. The following is my version of what happened when Grace met Elizabeth…


The Dead Of Winter

Typical, just typical. I’ve trudged five cold, rain-sodden miles out from Newport to visit Grace O’Malley’sCarrickahowley_(Rockfleet)_Castle_County_Mayo castle only there’s nothing to see. Not even a sign – unless you count the tatty Office of Public Works: Keep Out notice swinging from the broken railings, which I don’t. What was I expecting to find, I wonder? A boom-time Interpretative Centre? Jaunty, pirate-themed cafe? I jam my hands harder into the pockets of my fleece. Even a leaflet would have been nice. Rockfleet Castle sits at the edge of the water, squat and square and solid. It must be black as soot on the inside. Now that I’m closer (that gap in the railings somewhat undermining the creaking authority of the Keep Out notice) I can see that the castle is the edge of the water: its walls climb from the sea, a gift thrown to the land.

I have taken myself away from my life for three days.’That’s all I want,’ I told my husband, ‘three days away.’

‘A mini-break?’ he said. ‘There’s great deals, hotels are on their knees this time of year. But I’m too busy to take time off.’ He was sitting on the end of our bed, clipping his toenails. ‘Maybe… ‘ he said, ‘if Mam took Cuan, and Jack went to your sister? I’ll think about it.’ Each slim sliver he placed neatly on the floor, and when he was finished he gathered them into a pile. A tiny white shoal dropped into the bin under his night table. For me to fish out, I supposed.

‘By myself,’ I said.

‘You want a mini-break by yourself?’ He looked puzzled. I realised he could imagine only the holiday we would take together. Us, sipping Guinness in country pubs; us frittering away a day in deciding where to have dinner. He thought I wanted the holiday I would have with him, only without him.

‘I want to be alone. For three days. That’s all. I won’t get through the winter otherwise.’

‘But what about the boys?’ he said, in bed now, the glow of the iPad ghoulish on his face. He thinks I make too much of it. Of her. That it – she – consumes me. That I alone tighten the iron band around my heart. I know he thinks it, and he knows I know.

Water laps the sides of the castle, licking the stone.

‘You alright there?’

‘Jesus!’ I jump, whirl around, ‘You scared me half to death!’

‘Sorry.’ The man is wearing an oil slicker and black bobble hat. He steps back and holds up his hands as though I am cranky dog, liable to nip. He looks older than me, though that could be the beard. He points down a half-hidden slope that leads to a small jetty. The prow of a boat bobs in and out of sight. ‘You were getting fierce close to the edge.’

‘I was looking for a door.’

‘It’s around the far side, but the castle’s shut up for the winter. You’ve no fear of ghosts then? It’s haunted by Grace O’Malley herself.’

‘Yeah,’ I say, ‘Sure.’

He nods and I can’t tell whether he didn’t get that I was being sarcastic, or just didn’t care.

‘She died here, but her head was buried out on Clare Island and her body is said to set sail from here every night in search of it.’

‘There’s no such thing as ghosts.’

‘There’d be no such thing as ghost stories, so,’ he shrugs. ‘I’ll take you out in the boat, if you want? I’m done fishing, there’s feck all out there today but it’s light enough for a half hour.’

‘You’re a fisherman?’ I say stupidly. I’ve never met a fisherman before, which now strikes me as odd, considering how much fish I eat.

‘Yeah,’ he says, ‘But in the summer I do better from the tourists. Two hour tour, 20 euro a head. Seals, mussel farms, Louis Walsh’s summer house, the lot.’ When he nods the bobble on his hat jigs up and down. ‘They can’t get enough of Louis Walsh.’

I imagine my husband’s look of horror if he could see me now: alone in the dusk in a dead-end with this stranger, this sea-faring giant. My jeans are stiff from the rain and it’s awkward to climb down the metal ladder to the boat so I take off my thick gloves. I gasp when my hands touch the freezing iron and he – Murrough, his name is – grabs my elbow. Once again I picture my husband’s face (waves of horror, a distinct undertow of reproach) and all of a sudden I’m conscious of the scared thump in my heart and about to exclaim, no! do you know what? I think I’ll leave it for today after all, when he jumps back saying, ‘It’s them last few rungs are the tricky ones, people jump thinking they’re in, only they’re not.’

We chug out into Clew Bay, the engine announcing us to the darkening sea. I guess I can always fling myself overboard if I have to, though the water looks so unforgiving I decide I will take my chances on board. I feel an unexpected pang for the Seaview Hotel, for my small room with its commanding view of the leisure centre’s external ventilation system. Guilt had caused me to book cheaply and unwisely, and thanks to its Winter Warmer Offer – three nights for the price of two, breakfast and dinner thrown in – the hotel is humming with guests. My fellow bargain hunters are either much older than me and enjoying mid-week leisure time, or families with pre-schoolers.

‘I took the early retirement package,’ a man had confided to me in the lift, his pinkish cheeks and juniper breath telling a story of golf, of gin and tonics at the nineteenth. ‘And we’ve not looked back since.’

I am that holiday oddity; a woman alone. In the restaurant I’ve noticed older women looking curiously at me. The mothers of small children regard me with something more like envy: I know they are picturing my long hours of unbroken sleep in clean sheets, and my not driving around aimlessly for an hour every lunchtime because the toddler refuses to nap in the twenty-euro-per-night-surcharge travel cot.

I have spent the last two days rambling up and down The Greenway trail before coming back to the hotel for a late swim when the pool is quiet. I have kept myself busy and alone. That way I can think about Poppy, can let her fill my thoughts entirely, and still play fair – more than fair; play kind – with the present. When I phoned home Cuan and Jack were chatty and said they missed me. My husband sounded tense and bemused and only when I hung up did I realise why: he hadn’t actually believed I’d go.

‘Who owns that house there?’ I point at the long low lines of grey stone; a ghostly shape flittering through a bank of winter trees.

‘Yer man who used be the American Ambassador. Funny enough, no-one gives a feck to see his house.’ The boat motors along for another minute and then, ‘Once upon a time,’ Murrough says.

‘What?’ This must be his patter for tourists. ‘A fairy story?’

‘A true story.’

‘Then you shouldn’t have once upon a time. If your story is true, it’s a legend and they can’t start with once upon a time.’ I am aware of how daft, how childishly pedantic, I sound.

‘It’s my story,’ he doesn’t look at me, ‘I can have it whatever way I want.’

I turn my head to the sea because my eyes have filled with tears.

‘Once upon a time,’ he says, then laughs, ‘Fair enough. In 1593, Grace O’Malley, pirate queen of Ireland, set sail for London from the very same harbour as ourselves. Her youngest son Tibóid – her favourite for reason of being born at sea – had been taken prisoner by the English and charged with treason, which carried a sentence of death.’

He pauses. I edge closer to the wheelhouse.

‘She sailed her ship the Malendroke as if her own life depended on it and when she got to the Thames Estuary word was sent to Queen Elizabeth. Pirate corpses hung along the Estuary, so she’d have known her fate if she didn’t play her cards right. Elizabeth sent her a list of eighteen questions, but when she received Granuaile’s answers she left her waiting six weeks before agreeing to see her.’ His voice is bigger than the story needs, I suppose he’s used to a chattering, camera-flashing audience. ‘It felt like a lifetime to Granuaile, but it was a good omen; she’d been warned she might be still waiting at Christmas.’

Christmas. Poppy died on December twenty-second, three years ago.

‘She had meningitis,’ I’ve heard my husband tell people, but to me meningitis had her. It consumed her, destroyed her. And now, when summer is over and the boys go back to school, I feel the draw into winter as a tug to that date.

I close my eyes and let four hundred years fall away. Two women living men’s lives face each other. A Queen trussed up in a farthingale, face harshly painted, rotting teeth shored up with pieces of stale bread. Bright and garish, she is a flightless tropical bird. Grace O’Malley has hair woven from waterweeds and loose, homespun clothes. Her face is raw from a life at sea. They are the two most powerful women of their age and the only time they will ever meet is for one to beg the other for a life.

The boat lurches and seawater slops over my jeans. Spray touches my eyelids and they shoot open. Through the wet light of the wheelhouse his yellow oil slicker gleams like gold.

‘-and so,’ he is saying and I realise I must have missed a bit, ‘Granuaile’s words worked. Elizabeth released her son and let her ply her trade in peace in these waters. The Queen was so impressed she had her lads draw a map of Ireland with Granuaile included as a chieftain of Mayo. She was the only woman ever to be named a chieftain.’ He pauses and raises his eyebrows till they disappear under his hat. ‘And,’ he adds with a grin, ‘they all lived happily ever after.’

‘How do you know so much about her?’

‘My own people are descended – I don’t know how many greats back – from her grand-nephew, he was another Tibóid.’ He turns the wheel in a wide arc. ‘Let’s head in now, maybe we’ll get a seal or two to perform for us on the way.’

We head back for the harbour and Newport and the road to Dublin and my life of the last three years and the years before that and the years yet to come. I can’t see it, but I know Croagh Patrick rises, tall and broad and severe, from the mists on the land to one side. I turn my back to it and look at Rockfleet looming ahead, the moon turning its grey stone to silver. The castle was owned by Granuaile’s second husband, Murrough says, but under Brehon Law she divorced him by calling Richard Burke, I dismiss you, from a window and lo! it became hers. ”Twas easier done in them days,’ he grins.

I picture her on the turret, red hair fizzing and gossamer-thin nets spinning from her fingers as far as her eye could see and her heart could want.

He tucks his boat into the crook of the harbour and we clunk up the ladder. My lungs are full of sea-cold air, my throat scratchy with salt. I offer him twenty euro. ‘Ah, you’re grand,’ he gently pushes my hand away, ‘You didn’t see much after all.’

And from up ahead I hear the wind grab the loose Keep Out notice and beat it, beat it hard against the railings.

the dead of winter image


Want to sea more?

Granuaile lives on, and I don’t mean through such things as the ill-fated musical The Pirate Queen. She is at sea still: the Commissioners of Irish Lights boat the ILV Granuaile is one of the most advanced vessels of its kind. (It’s also available to hire, should you and your wallet be inclined).  In 1997 I spent a day on board its predecessor, the Granuaile II, in the company of the CIL and an artist called Stefan Gec, who had a made a specially constructed, fully operational navigational buoy from steel cast from eight decommissioned Soviet submarines.

There is a Granuaile Visitor Centre in Louisburgh, Mayo. Contact for details.

There are no likenesses of Grace O’Malley in existence apart from that in the photograph used at the start of this post. The alabaster statue (photo by Joseph Mischyshynis a version of the bronze statue that is located outside along the road to Westport House near the north end of the bridge over the Carrowbeg River. Westport House was built in the C16th by – and is still owned by – descendants of Granuaile.

In chapter one of Finnegans Wake, James Joyce uses the story of Granuaile (‘her grace o’malice’) and her kidnapping of the grandson of the Earl of Howth. Apparently the Earl refused to receive her in his castle because he was having his dinner. Fair enough, some would say. Furious at such treatment, she kidnapped his grandson and returned him only when the Earl promised to lay an extra place at this dinner table for evermore.


The General Synopsis At Midnight is my exploration of the sea areas of the BBC R4 Shipping Forecast, thanks to the Maeve Binchy Travel Award. The earlier post ‘Counting Down To Midnight’ explains the project.

The General Synopsis At Midnight

Sea areas Fastnet and Rockall: Living on the edge

to the lighthouseAppendix I of C.W. Scott’s 1906 History of the Fastnet Rock Lighthouses – class, please make a note of that plural ‘s’, we’ll be coming back to it later – is entitled ‘Working Days And Number of Stones Set Each Day’. This meticulous list begins on June 9th 1899 (the first entry is Stones 2, Courses, 1 of, in case you’re wondering) and ends four years later, when the recorded total is of 89 Courses consisting of 2,074 stones. Including the infill and the foundations and the space between the tower and the rock, the total completed weight of Fastnet Lighthouse was 4,633 tonnes.

Now this should be reassuring. Fastnet is big. It’s solid. It’s taken battering after battering for far longer than I’ve been alive. And yet shortly after I arrive for my overnight stay I find myself clutching the handrail on the observation deck just that bit tighter as Ronnie O’Driscoll, a man with over 40 years service as a lighthouse keeper behind him, mentions the green water that has been known to pour in through the windows. ‘But we’re 160 feet up!’ I hear myself squeak. 50mph Atlantic waves have been known to go right over the dome, and after a bad storm the tower can shake and sway for up to ten hours. Back inside the kitchen which is the entirety of floor 7 (the lantern itself occupies floors 8 and 9) I hear it said that after particularly high seas fish have been found in the gutters above. As it is my ears give a light pop every time someone opens the kitchen door to go for a stroll around the deck that wraps around the building. Even when the heavy iron door is shut there is a constant sound from outside. During my first half-hour on Fastnet I had assumed this roar was coming from a boat’s engine somewhere nearby. Nope. It’s the sea, pounding away.underneath the lighton the edge

Fastnet Lighthouse may be the most beautiful lighthouse in this area, but it isn’t the first. That was built on Cape Clear, 6.5km away. Cape Clear lighthouse had a significant flaw, which unfortunately became only too-apparent in December 1847 when American packet ship the Stephen Whitney ran agound: the lantern was too high above sea level, which meant that its beam became easily encased in fog. Only 19 of the 110 people on board the Stephen Whitney that night survived, and an account of the sinking written days later by its Chief Mate told of those who, ‘bruised and naked without shoe or stocking jacket or waistcoat scrambled up the rock which overhung the sea to the height of nearly 60 feet and after searching about for some time arrived at two miserable huts the only human tenement on the island.’

The Commissioners of Irish Lights decided to build on the compact Fastnet islet instead. And this brings us to the reason for C.W. Scott’s additional letter ‘s’. Firstly, a new cast-iron tower and small dwelling for the keeper (I’ve been in it, and believe me, it’s small. Also noisy and stuffy) was built, and began operations in 1854. However, some years later during a storm a similarly constructed lighthouse at Bantry Bay broke in two. The iron snapped clean off, as though it had no more strength to it than a souvenir stick of rock. Given that the beam from the existing tower wasn’t strong enough anyway, the Commissioners of Irish Lights decided third time just had to be lucky. A new tower! That’s what they needed, they reckoned. None of your messing around with repairs. A new lighthouse, one that would be as strong as it could be, complete with a lantern as powerful as the technology of the time was possible to create.

It was to be the tallest and the widest lighthouse to be found anywhere in Ireland or Britain. Originally powered by paraffin, and now electric, the lamp is 180ft above sea level and can be seen for a 26-mile range. It is made from six tonnes of glass in a four-sided structure that revolves in a bath of mercury. On the inside of this structure, its shape is that of a beehive. A very disconcerting optical illusion occurs on the inside of this beehive. Outside it, it is obvious that the spinning sheets of glass are rotating, but if you duck inside, it appears as though you are the one suddenly twirling about, and the glass itself has come to a swift stop. In the photograph, I am at the halfway point of the light. Beside me are six tonnes of twirling glass. inside the light(Yep, that’s me: the dark, quivering blur to the right).

Fastnet is known as Ireland’s teardrop. Not because of the eye-watering breeze out here on the observation deck apparently, but rather because it was the last part of Ireland to be seen by C19th emigrants sailing to North America. The water far below me is hypnotic. White rushes against pale blue, shoving pale blue against dark blue. The repetitive surge shaped like a white arrowhead that pushes through the dark and spreads itself out and around has me singing the Dad’s Army theme tune. Never before have I experienced a life that is so purely, so entirely vertical. There is no horizontality to the world out here; nowhere to go for a stroll that isn’t up or down steps, or that wouldn’t be soon ended by a sheer drop. It’s a very odd thought, and one I can’t shake off as I lie in my curved bunk in the dark. Every lighthouse has a unique timing to its flash, known as its ‘character’: Fastnet’s is every five seconds. I lie there, watching the light signaling to the world beyond the tiny circular bedroom, telling its story of routine, of safety. Yet there must have been many, many nights when being on the lighthouse must have felt impossibly unsafe to the men whose job it was to keep the lantern turning. It must have taken a very particular personality to thrive in such a life, one that was so isolated yet lived in such close proximity with others. I think there is more to ‘character’ in relation to Fastnet than just the arbitrary system of signals assigned to its flash. Every lighthouse has a personality, they are all different, all unique, even though their function is the same: to warn, to serve, to protect.

Of course the very mention of the name Fastnet understandably reminds many people of the disaster in 1979. 306 yachts with 3,000 competitors on board set sail from Cowes on a route that would take them around Fastnet and on to Plymouth. Only 86 boats finished the race. An unexpectedly severe storm blew up and went through the race like a carving knife. Waves the size of buildings hit small yachts and sent them spinning around, powerless. The Assistant Keeper on Fastnet at the time was Gerald Butler, who wrote about the race and its rescue operation, which was the largest-ever in peacetime, in his memoir The Lightkeeper. A survivor recalled his boat being pitch-poled; a form of cartwheel that happens when the bow ploughs into a wave in front just as the back is lifted by another wave.

In the morning according to the Shipping Forecast the conditions are ‘easterly or north easterly four or five, occasionally six’. Fastnet is the most southerly point of Ireland, 13km from the Cork coast. The lumpy blur in the distance in the photo of the helipad they so-thoughtfully monogrammed in my honour is its nearest neighbour, Cape Clear.monogrammed landing Years ago, children on Cape Clear were taught to include the Fastnet keepers in their nightly prayers. I am on the observation deck again, trying to pick out the edges of Cape Clear through the mist. I’m casually trying to zip up the jacket billowing around me like a prototype hot air balloon without taking my hands off the rail. What I’m really doing is silently designing a forecasting system of my own; one in which the strength of the wind – described back in the kitchen as ‘getting a bit fresh’ – can be determined by whiteness of my knuckles clutching the handrail.

landings then and nowBut back to C.W. Scott and his appendices. I wonder what was happening on July 11th 1901, when only two stones were laid. Yet a few weeks later on August 22nd a whopping 25 stones of 45 courses were sorted in a day. Scott, in common with all biographers of the Fastnet, devotes a lot of time to James Kavanagh, the foreman of the site from 1896 to June 1903. He rarely left the place, deciding instead to sleep each night in a damp hole in the rock near their boat’s landing strip (carved out specially, don’t you know). Up at five every morning, he set every one of the 2,074 stones himself, and when the tower was complete its vertical variation from the original plans drawn up by engineer William Douglass was a mere 60mm. Unfortunately for James Kavanagh, the best part of a decade spent sleeping outside on a bed of rock ruined his health and he never saw the lamps lit. erecting the lantern august 1903By the time this photo (which I came across in C.W. Scott’s book) of the construction of the lantern was taken in August 1903, he was dead.

The last full-time keeper left here in 1989 and the lighthouse was automated and converted to unwatched. A bolt had to be put on the door from the outside, because one had never been needed before. This beautiful building had never been empty. And it truly is beautiful. From the perfect edges of the granite slabs that face no audience other than the waves, right down to the intricate mosaic on the kitchen floor, this building is a work of art. Yet it is a working work of art, and one that continues to provide a necessary service. From paraffin to electricity to solar power, lighthouses too must sway with the times. They must continue to create a safe passage for those at sea. George Bernard Shaw once commented, ‘I can think of no other edifice constructed by man as altruistic as a lighthouse. They were built only to serve.’ I think that Neilly O’Reilly, one of the team who maintains the Fastnet, expressed this far better when, as we stood on the observation deck tracing the curves of Kavanagh’s perfectly-cut stone above our heads, he told me; ‘They had to make them functional, but they didn’t have to make them so beautiful.’with CIL


With a very, very big thank you for my stay on Fastnet to: John Gore Grimes, Donie Holland, Captain Harry McClenahan, Ronnie O’Driscoll (on my right), Neilly O’Reilly (on my left) and Barry Phelan, all of the Commissioners of Irish Lights.

A sea area footnote: is there life on Rockall?

Fastnet is a tidy enough area, but it’s New York compared to Rockall, an uninhabited granite islet that has given its name to a sea area. 430km north-west of Ireland, it measures 110ft in diameter which I guess is about as high as the ground floor of the Fastnet. The nearest inhabited place is a small island called North Uist in sea area Hebrides, a place known for its ‘drowned landscape’ of peat bogs and lochans. Rockall looks lonely and terrifying and dangerous but… Yep, you got it. People have camped out there. Plenty of ‘em. The most recent resident was Edinburgh man Nick Hancock, whose record-breaking 45-day endurance stay earlier this year raised funds for the UK Help For Heroes campaign. Incredible.

Want to sea more?

You can hear me telling Marian Finucane about my trip to Fastnet on September 20th here.
Various tours around the rock by boat are now available, such as this one:
Commissioners of Irish Lights:
The Lightkeeper: A Memoir by Gerald Butler with Patricia Ahern:

The General Synopsis At Midnight is my exploration of the sea areas of the BBC R4 Shipping Forecast, thanks to the Maeve Binchy Travel Award. The earlier post ‘Counting Down To Midnight’ explains the project.



Other bits what I wrote

Showing and telling about show don’t tell

That creative writing can be taught is a debate as old as the teaching of creative writing. Show And Tell, my take on the subject, was published in Connections, the UCD Alumni magazine circulated with the Irish Times on Friday September 5th. (I recently completed an MFA in Creative Writing in UCD.) Many thanks to James Ryan, Éilis Ní Dhuibhne, Molly McCloskey, Paula McGrath, Andrea Carter and Grainne Shanley O’Toole for their comments and contributions!

You can read Connections here.

The General Synopsis At Midnight

Sea areas North Utsire, South Utsire, Viking, Fair Isle, Shannon, Southeast Iceland: Messages without bottles

I didn’t dip a toe into any sea area for The General Synopsis At Midnight this week, instead I experimented with time-travel.

Once upon a time, and not as long ago as you might think, Iceland simply didn’t exist. It was nothing more than the faintest wisp of a myth. Then, early in the ninth century an Irish (hurrah!) monk called Dicuil – now there’s a name you don’t hear shouted across many playgrounds – wrote about Irish pilgrim monks spending the summer on a remote land. And that’s the first recorded mention of the country. Not of the people, nor the volcanoes, nor the sea-bright air. The country. There were no people to construct unfathomable megalithic cairns. No-one to drop a darn-and-it-was-my-lucky-flint-too arrow-head. Over a thousand years before Dicuil took quill to parchment, a Greek explorer called Pytheas of Marseilles came up with the idea of land six days’ sail from the north of the British Isles. He called it Thule. Because it was the most northerly point anyone could imagine it became known as Ultima Thule. And even it wasn’t Iceland. (What Pytheas had come up with was most likely the Shetlands, or depending on how speedy a sailor his calculations were based on, possibly Norway).

Dicuil set the bar for travel writing high, partly because he described the country so evocatively, partly because he believed it actually existed. Of the permanent daylight in summer he wrote, ‘The setting sun hides itself at the evening hour as if behind a little hill, so that no darkness occurs during that brief period.’ Dicuil added that it was possible to pick the lice from your shirt as precisely at night as in daytime, thanks to the light. Clearly, here was a man who understood the vagaries of travel. (On Unst recently I was told this perpetual midsummer daylight is known by the lovely title ‘the Simmer Dim’).

Although they had yet to settle in Iceland, Vikings had been firing themselves at northern and central Europe for some years before Dicuil recorded the monks’ visit. The Viking age is generally considered to have started in 793AD, when they decided to have a crack at Lindisfarne, an island off the northeast coast of England. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – a thousand-year old series of manuscripts charting the history of the Anglo-Saxons, not a British local paper chock full of small ads, in case you’re wondering – recorded, ‘In this year fierce, foreboding omens came over the land of the Northumbrians, and the wretched people shook; there were excessive whirlwinds, lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine…’

I like to imagine a couple of young monks standing at the door to Lindisfarne while marauding Norsemen stream up from the water’s edge like crazed sea monsters. One monk sucks his teeth and says, ‘Here, there might have been something in those whirlwinds after all.’
Excessive whirlwinds,’ says his pal.
‘Yeah. There was all that lightning too.’
‘And the dragons.’
‘God, yes! I’d forgotten about them.’

Over a thousand years later and all the countries of the Shipping Forecast have grown close to each other without having moved. Should we choose to now, we can find out what each other is up to all the time. We know each other’s weather – in fact, we make it our business to. Everything is transparent. Which made the recent BBC report Why Icelanders are wary of elves living beneath the rocks even more intriguing. With the constant prospect of invasion in island countries, it is easy to understand ancient beliefs in spirits of land and water. Forces that could protect and warn, that could provide shelter but just as easily cause harm. Belief in land-spirits is thought to have become especially strong in Iceland primarily because of its isolation. Land-spirits – ‘Landvettir’ – were powerful, responsible for the welfare of the land. Modernity doesn’t seem to have entirely done away with these beliefs: in a survey in 1998, 54.4% of Icelanders said they believed in the existence of elves. Why Icelanders are wary of elves living beneath the rocks claimed that work on a new road linking the Alftanes peninsula to a suburb of Reykjavik called Gardabaer was halted when campaigners warned it would disturb an Elf Chapel and a protected area of untouched lava. A local woman who claimed she could talk to these Huldufolk (believed to be the same size as humans, but invisible to us) mediated. The road went ahead on the basis that the roads department would carefully move the Chapel – aka a dark and craggy, 12 foot high rock – elsewhere. A pro-elf protestor commented, “To have people through hundreds of years talking about the same things… It is part of the nation.”

In Norway – a land that resembles a crackle of frost on a winter window, where the landscape itself is brought to life in stories of giants – the tomte was a benign spirit who took care of a farmer’s house, but only for farmers who worked hard. On Shetland it was once commonly believed that the hills and the sea were full of mysterious creatures, some more harmless than others. Music-loving fairies called trows lived underground in heather-covered knowes and went about their work at night. Shetland’s fishermen had a special language for use at sea. It was a form of code, just as the Shipping Forecast is. They did not refer to ordinary objects by their usual names, because they thought that would invite danger onto the boat. John Spence wrote in his 1899 book Shetland Folklore, “The movements of witches were always made against the sun, and by whirling a wooden cap in water … they were supposed to be able to raise the wind like Furies, and toss the sea in wild commotion capable of destroying anything afloat.” People travelling at night near streams and marshy ground kept an eye out for ghostly horses called nyuggles (top image). Should an exhausted traveller not realise what they were dealing with and hitch a free ride, the nyuggle would bolt for the nearest water. It never ended well, as you can imagine. The water spirits in Norway skipped the horse bit entirely and were said to take the form of a devil, eager to lure people to a sure death by drowning.

The famine that supposedly preceded the Viking attack of Lindisfarne reminded me of a story told to me by my grandmother a few years before she died. In 1921 she was eighteen and moved from Mayo to Cork to train in animal husbandry at the Munster Institute. She then got a job as a poultry instructor with the Department of Agriculture. She was the first woman in the west of Ireland to buy a car, she said. Seventy years later she still had a photo of the two of them together, with her leaning proudly against the driver door. (She would have been horrified by my timidity on Shetland with my rented Mirage.)

Her route around the farms of the west of Ireland took in the Aran islands; Inis Mór, Inis Meáin and Inis Oírr. Leaving her little car behind her on the mainland, she would stay on the islands for two or three days at a time, sometimes more if a storm got up and the boat couldn’t sail back. The islands were beautiful and she always enjoyed walking for miles around them going from farm to farm, crossing the fields at whatever place she chose. At first the farmers told her that she had to follow the roads and paths but she wouldn’t, which would have been typical of her I suspect. She must have been confident that no-one would make trouble for an Instructor ‘over from the Department’. She liked the locals so she never really minded getting stuck for an extra day, even though some of the lodgings were rough. On one of her visits she’d stayed in Inis Mór’s only hotel – such as it styled itself – and had woken up to find a rat sharing the pillow with her.

One morning on Inis Mór – which older islanders often called by its former name, Inis Bant – she set off to walk to a farm some miles away. She was enjoying the walk because it was a lovely fresh morning and she was as good a walker as she was a driver. All of a sudden she began to get hungry. It was the weirdest thing, she said, but she got hungrier and hungrier until her head was spinning and her knees crumbled under her and couldn’t go any further. It was the most she could do to pull herself along by the ditch as the grass around her appeared to be going black in front of her eyes. She was about to die, she was sure of it. And she was sickened that she’d never see her lovely car again, and worried would her mother know where to find her other prized possession, a gold medal King George had presented to her the year before, at the 1925 Royal Agricultural Show. Just as she realised she wouldn’t be able to crawl another inch, she heard a shout and from nowhere, a man grabbed her arm and dragged her over the ditch and onto the road. He pulled a piece of bread from his pocket and as soon as the bread went into her mouth she was immediately better, not hungry or thirsty at all. ‘Are you a mad woman?’ he said and before she could answer he turned and strode off. She was to be back on the island many times after that day but she never saw him again.

She had strayed onto Hungry Grass, she believed: famine grass, where a starving person had died. Planted by fairies, according to some. Nearly seventy years later, she ended her story with the advice, ‘always keep something small to eat in your pocket,’ and with a last, decisive click of her dentures, added, ‘hungry grass can trick a person, because it looks the same as any other.’

viking longhouseStories are messages without bottles. Travel changes them, just as it does people. The Icelandic word saga is a cousin by marriage of the Old Norse segja, ‘to say’, which makes me wonder what a folklore map that covers the same territory as the Shipping Forecast would look like. Would there be any definite lines, any careful delineations? Wouldn’t those areas that don’t touch any land be entirely redundant, mere passageways from one harbour to another? I picture folklore and fairy tales moving invisibly through the air just as seeds are carried inside birds. Words hewn in Viking longhouses (the photo is of a reconstructed one on Unst), cast adrift in Norway and washing ashore in Scotland and Iceland and Ireland.

Unst, next stop NorwayStories were stowaways on Viking ships. Myths were breathed between monks patiently guiding their lonely rowboats to unknown lands. Huldufolk, trowes, tomte, the Little People… these are grafted from one tradition to another. Our lives are tales told in the cries of cormorants. Our fears cross dark seas, whispered by the waves.

The General Synopsis At Midnight is my exploration of the sea areas of the BBC R4 Shipping Forecast, thanks to the Maeve Binchy Travel Award. The earlier post ‘Counting Down To Midnight’ explains the project.

The Nyuggle was photographed from a line drawing used in a display board at The Shetland Museum and Archives in Lerwick. It’s a fantastic museum and worth exploring online if you can’t get there in person.

Want to sea more?

Why Icelanders are wary of elves living beneath the rocks:

Old Norse-Icelandic Literature, a short introduction by Heather O’Donoghue. Blackwell Publishing 2004.

A big thank-you to Eilis Ni Dhuibhne for introducing me to the mystery and beauty of the folklore tradition.

The General Synopsis At Midnight

Sea areas Cromarty, Forth and Fair Isle: “Only men’s minds could have unmapped into abstraction such a territory”

Once known as ‘Area Shetland’, this sea area was divided into two in 1932 only to be reunited as ‘Area Fair Isle’ in 1949. The journey to the Shetlands from Edinburgh passes over areas Cromarty and Forth on the south east of Scotland.

My name is Henrietta and I’m a nervous driver. There. Now you have it. I hang around Sumburg Airport for as long as I can. The keys to the smallest three-door car available are hot in my pocket but I’m ignoring them. I go to the toilet. I flick through the paperbacks on the take-one-leave-one bookstand (other airports, please take note!). I go to the toilet again. I think about following a bloke who looks like a chap off the telly to see if a better glimpse would help me figure out who he is. I visit the toy puffins in the shop, and give a baby one a little squeeze for reassurance. But there’s nothing else for it. I’m either going to bed down in the airport for the rest of the week, or I’m going to go outside the tiny terminal building and bleep-bleep the alarm on my first-ever hire car. And then drive it.

I leave the airport terminal – which looks as though it were built from bits left behind from the construction of the Ballycotton Hilton (see previous post) – and walk into an early prototype of a Dyson Airblade. But with rain. Reassuringly, the Mitsubishi Mirage seems to be approximately two Shetland Ponies horsepower. About half a mile down the road I spot flashing lights ahead and join a queue of cars stopped behind a barrier. I wait, wondering what’s going on yet grateful for a break from the mysteries of the Mirage’s windscreen wipers. I know there’s no train service here. Sheep maybe? There are plenty of them. Then the traffic moves forward and as I drive over a suddenly wide and smooth road I realise that the main road bisects the airport landing strip. I’m driving across Sumburgh airfield.

Shetland is made up of over 100 islands, 15 of which are inhabited. The drive from Sumburg on Mainland, the largest and most populated one, to Unst, the most northerly point of the UK, takes three hours and two ferries. The sheep theme continues, now with the addition of Shetland Ponies. ‘Look,’ I tell the Mirage. ‘Your cousins.’ It is too busy cantering up yet another hill to answer. The terrain is wonderful; wild and lonely and oddly dignified in its bleakness. Random bungalows abound as freely as sheep. It reminds me of Achill Island in Mayo: a terrain scarred by what has been built on it. The grey hills in the distance ahead have other, darker grey hills behind them. This land is its own echo. Flames burst into the sky from a vast chimney: the Sullom Voe pipe, burning off the gas that is a by-product of the oil. (But I’ve just arrived, and as I drive away from Sumburgh I don’t yet know what that pipe is, or that the locals suggested this unwanted gas be piped to them for free only for the powers-that-be to decide to waste it instead. No, on this day all I can see is an unexpected orange flare, far in the distance.)

The only people I spot are those huddled in distinctive red-frame bus shelters. I want to stop and offer someone a lift only I’ve no idea where I’m going myself. Grey clouds hang low as a migraine over the hills, pierced by a gauzy yellow beam that I never seem to get any closer to. Brighter later, I think to myself, and recall a woman on the flight from Edinburgh who had turned to her companion and said, ‘I think of this as my Shetlands coat.’
‘Because of the hood, you mean?’
She nodded. ‘There’s showers forecast.’
‘Aye, all-day showers,’ he said. ‘All-year, all-day showers.’
I am chasing Brigadoon.

While I’m waiting for the ferry to take me from Yell to Unst I tune into the lunchtime Shipping Forecast. Fair Isle: north or north-east five or six. Showers. Good. Occasionally moderate. So nothing much to worry about, I’m glad to hear, wondering was this forecast one of Craig Snell’s. (Should that sentence make you scratch your head, then the earlier post Meeting The Met Office will set you straight).

Unst is on the same latitude as Bergen in Norway and Anchorage in Alaska. It is an island of hills and water the colour of slate. It was a Scandinavian society from the 800s until in 1469, Princess Margrethe of Denmark married King James III of Scotland. The Danish king was short on funds for her dowry, so he pawned Orkney and Shetland to the Scots instead. The signposts remind me of the time I got lost in the textiles section of Ikea: Nikkavard, Baliasta, Hjarkland. Robert Louis Stevenson used Unst as the basis for his map in Treasure Island. His father and uncle were well known engineers who designed and built – among others – the Muckle Flugga lighthouse on the most northerly rock of the British Isles. Muckle Flugga is the edge of the edge. My first stop is Norwick beach. This area is an ophiolite; a section of the earth’s crust from beneath the ocean that collided with an ancient continent and was pushed up onto it 420 million years ago. (I think we all know I’m quoting the information board next to the beach here.) It is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a title which manages to be formal and yet cheerfully vague all at once. The upshot is that what me and these seals are strolling about on was once at the bottom of the ocean. seals seals seals

The RAF Museum at the Saxa Vord Resort comes complete with café, bike-hire and chocolate shop. The large carpark is deserted. The resort appears to have no residents. ‘Where is everyone?’ I ask the man in the apron who runs all of these enterprises. ‘It was very busy earlier,’ he counters. ‘From 11 till 3, it was busy.’ ‘Oh,’ I say. ‘That’s good.’ But I’m thinking really? Until it closed in 2006, Unst was home to the UK’s most northerly RAF station. (Nearly everything on Unst comes billed as ‘most northerly’. Most northerly post office, hotel, bus stop… it’s the island’s USP.) The role of the base was to provide an early warning of air threats to the UK. From the 1960s until the fall of the Berlin Wall, fighters from here practiced bombing and missile runs. In an attempt to encourage staff to Unst, the RAF produced a manual, the first page of which reads: A posting for RAF Saxa Vord may seem to offer at first sight an unattractive prospect. But Shetland has much to offer the person who is willing to make slight adjustments to their way of life. The islands with their sense of history and adventure have great charm …. For example, you will see the New Year Festival of Up-Helly-A when a torchlight procession reaches its grand finale with the burning of a Viking Ship …. The islands abound in legends of trolls and giants.

Before I leave Saxa Vord I stop to read the notice board in the empty café. It’s the usual sort of stuff: Hom Bru Competition (‘no kits allowed’); Livestock Judging; Chinese Night This Friday! But going head-to-head with Chinese Night is another event billed for Friday – Rocky Mountain high! From Denver Colorado via the White House to Baltasound, Unst, An evening with Jim Salestrom. Flipping heck! I think. I saw him play in June. Not in the Baltasound Hall, Unst, but in the O2 as Dolly Parton’s guitarist. A second poster advertises Open Mic night with Jim Salestrom on Saturday and I go through my flipping-heck routine again. Possibly out loud this time, because the man in the apron pops his head through the swing door and looks at me. ‘Just going,’ I say. ‘Sorry.’

I head off to find the Underhoull and Lund Viking sites (the photograph is the Lund Standing Stone). You can’t throw a puffin in Unst without hitting a Viking site. The island has over thirty Viking longhouse sites alone. The Viking Unst project reconstructed a longship, and the one pictured here is the Skidbladner, a replica of the Swedish Gokstad ship that became stranded in Shetland during an unsuccessful attempt to sail to the USA in 2000. longship Lund standing stone

The girl behind the counter in H Henderson’s grocers tells me that they had 69mm of rain in Unst the previous Saturday. ‘But that’s nothing,’ she adds, ‘they had 128mm over on Fair Isle.’ ‘Hurricane Bertha, I suppose,’ I say knowingly, thinking I’m all about the weather, me. ‘Nah,’ she says. ‘That didn’t come in till later on.’ She’s known days where they’ve had rain, sun, fog and snow one after the other. Both Andy Yeatman and Craig Snell in the Met Office referred to calm or unremarkable conditions as ‘no weather’. This place is the opposite. Shetland is all the weather, all the time.

I do the reverse journey back to Shetland’s capital, Lerwick and to a b&b run by Eileen and Sandra. It’s owned by Sandra’s brother, but he went ‘back to the oil’ as she puts it. ‘The weather here isn’t in seasons anymore,’ Sandra says. Her daughter lives on a hill near Sumburgh and her house and that of her two neighbours were struck by lightning in consecutive storms. Sandra doesn’t mind the weather here, she’d take storms any day over the flooding that other parts of the UK and Ireland had last winter. ‘I felt so sorry for those people,’ Sandra says, ‘I’d hate to be flooded.’ (Craig Snell started his job as a maritime forecaster just weeks before the devastating storms of last winter, when record-breaking rainfall led to persistent flooding. It was quite the baptism of fire.)

In the fantastic Museum of Shetland at Hay’s Dock on Bressay Sound, I read that people have lived on Shetland for about 6,000 years. At Jarlshof there are remains of buildings from stone age to medieval times, and in the 1970s a burial site with the bones of 18 people more than 5,000 years old was discovered at Sumburgh. The display devoted to the North Sea Sullom Voe oil find (‘this black harvest from beneath the sea’), claims that the construction work displaced enough earth to bury all of central London one foot deep. The display features newspaper headlines from The Shetland Times. ‘The Oil Gushes’ gushes the headline of March 1972. Next to it is a cutting from June 1974: ‘First oil spill at Sullom Voe.’ It’s still a huge local employer and two floating hotels (see photo) are moored in Lerwick harbour to accommodate Sullom Voe employees. The sun is shining as I leave the building, but by the time I get my sunglasses out of my bag it’s raining again. The few touristy shops I pop into sell the usual seaside homewares bits and pieces, just as their equivalents did on St Mary’s in the Isles of Scilly. Shells laced onto strings with blue ribbons, limed wood plaques with nautical motifs. But they just don’t make sense here the way they do in Cornwall and Devon. Such sun-drenched tweeness needs a more orderly landscape.floating hotel

When I leave Shetland the water is the colour of gulls’ wings and the sky clears its throat over and over as we cross sea areas Fair Isle, Cromarty and Forth. Back in Edinburgh the hills no longer loom darkly over the town but have retreated to the distance, the painted flats of a stage set. The clouds are high in the sky once more. Back where they frame our days, rather than trying to walk among us.
Brigadoon is gone, swallowed up by a silver mist.




The General Synopsis At Midnight is my exploration of the sea areas of the BBC R4 Shipping Forecast, thanks to the Maeve Binchy Travel Award. The earlier post ‘Counting Down To Midnight’ explains the project.

next stop norway

“Only men’s minds could have unmapped
Into abstraction such a territory”
From the poem Celtic Cross by Scottish poet Norman MacCaig.

My reading during this trip was appropriately stormy: Rumours of a Hurricane by Tim Lott.

The General Synopsis At Midnight

Sea area Fastnet: The wreck of the Sirius, or ‘hey, let’s move the lighthouse!’

IMG_3138The General Synopsis At Midnight heads for East Cork and Waterford, where sea areas Fastnet, Lundy and Irish Sea all get a look-in.

‘I’d a hen party out here last Monday,’ the tour guide says. We’re walking up the hill from the small jetty at Ballycotton Island to the lighthouse. Between the matt black – this lighthouse is one of only two in Ireland painted black – and the red glow from the lamps at the top, it looms ahead like an overgrown Tardis. I’m half expecting the Doctor Who of my childhood, all curly hair and long scarf, to appear around the bend, accompanied by a pulsating woo-hoo-woo soundtrack. We pause half way up at what she tells us is called the ‘elbow’. The lighthouse keepers would stop here for a breather while lugging their provisions from the boat to the top. (The keepers had hens, goats and a flourishing kitchen garden, presumably in an attempt to keep the hauling uphill to a minimum.) But there wouldn’t be a lighthouse at Ballycotton – black or otherwise – if it wasn’t for the ill-fated paddle-steamship Sirius. Work on a new lighthouse on nearby Capel Head was already well underway when the Sirius struck Smith’s Rock south west of Ballycotton early one foggy Saturday morning in January 1847. In April 1838 it had found fame as the first vessel to cross the Atlantic Ocean completely under steam, but the treacherous underwater rocks of East Cork and terrible weather conditions meant the end for the Sirius (not to mention 19 of those on board). The London Daily News a few days later reported, ‘…amidst the confusion and alarm that prevailed the life-boat which is usually carried over the paddle-box was attached to the davits and lowered though unfortunately on the wrong side of the ship … melancholy to relate, she was swamped and all in her met a watery grave save Captain Cameron of the Prince river steamer who was a passenger from Dublin in the vessel.’ As a result, it was decided to build the lighthouse on the nine-acre site of Ballycotton Island instead. It commenced operation in 1851 and was permanently staffed by keepers until it was converted to automatic in 1992 and placed in the care of an attendant. Gulls and goats have had their run of the place for years, but thanks to an active local campaign and the support of the Commissioners for Irish Lights, they are once more forced to share it with the newly-launched Ballycotton Island Lighthouse Tours. Two small cottages sit to one side of the lighthouse. One was once used for accommodation until in the 1970s a new building took over this function. An unfortunately ugly lump of a thing, locals call it the Ballycotton Hilton (see image below). ‘It looks like my primary school,’ a man remarks. The closer I get to the lighthouse itself, the more benign the black and red colour palette becomes, and once through the door it is nothing other than beautiful. From the 1.5m thick sandstone walls to the stairs made from granite slabs, our little tour group clusters inside the door to marvel at the labour that created this example of Victorian precision and dedication. Above us, an oak handrail curls upwards and the dark twists of the ceiling are that of a fossilized shell (see image to the right, below). It’s a hot day and outside at the foot of the lighthouse the air was still and unmoving. It hung heavy, smelling of calm seas and dry grass. Yet several floors up on the observation deck a breeze whips crossly around us. interior the hiltonOn this brightly blue afternoon it’s hard to believe any other weather can exist, yet there must have been many, many days and nights when the hearths and homes of the mainland seemed impossibly far away to the keepers. Today even the clouds are the sort painted by a 17th century Dutch Master with a spare bottle of titanium white and time on his hands. The head of an occasional seal breaks the waves and bobs around before dropping under the water once more. The wildlife regard us human visitors with disinterest. (‘That rock is moving!’ a woman exclaims. ‘It’s a goat!’ a little girl tells her.) When our time is up, we stroll back down the hill to the jetty so that our tour can swap over with the next one. The incoming guide recognises a woman in my group. ‘What are you doing on my island?’ she asks as they hug. The boat leaves the island and chugs back to the harbour. The skipper is a man whose father’s boat brought the provisions out to the keepers. His father before him was on the RNLB Mary Standford, famous for the Daunt Lightship Rescue in 1936. Its crew won well-deserved medals for gallantry, as did the boat itself (a gold one, no less). We are still talking about the hen party. There were nine of them took the tour, the guide tells us. Every one of them local, they’d all been looking at the lighthouse their whole lives. ‘Still though, a hen party?’ a woman repeats, incredulous, before deciding,‘it must have been a very sophisticated hen party, so.’ to the lighthouse

Want to sea more? The Commissioners for Irish Lights: The Ballycotton Lighthouse: A great read is the memoir ‘The Lightkeeper’ by Gerald Butler, published by Liffey Press. And a footnote involving sea areas Irish Sea and Fastnet: This wreck is to be found 40k from the Ballycotton Lighthouse, in Co. Waterford. It’s the wreck of the crane barge Samson, which came a cropper on a journey from Liverpool to Malta in December 1987 in a fierce south-easterly gale. Its tow-line broke off the Welsh coast and it ran aground at Rams Head, Ardmore. Apparently a man called Jim Rooney managed to climb onto the crane and lived there for 40 days in order to claim salvage. Samson reminds me of the skeleton of an extinct bird. A doomed, flightless creature: something I’d stare at in a museum and wonder how it ever flew at all.

Samson Thanks to Ivan Fitzpatrick for the Samson image.

The General Synopsis At Midnight is my exploration of the sea areas of the BBC R4 Shipping Forecast, thanks to the Maeve Binchy Travel Award. The earlier post ‘Counting Down To Midnight’ explains what I’m up to and where I’m going.

The General Synopsis At Midnight

Sea areas Sole, Lundy and Fastnet: a trip to the Isles of Scilly

My trip to the Isles of Scilly for The General Synopsis At Midnight project kicks off in rural Devon…

The taxi driver collects me in the village of Tipton St John. On our way to Exeter airport he careers down the narrow country lanes, calling out a giddy ‘whoopsie’ every time we round a bend and encounter another car. Where am I going, he wants to know. ‘That’ll do,’ he says, when I tell him about the Isles of Scilly. ‘That’ll do nicely.’ Yes, I nod enthusiastically. Yes, it will. Once collectively called Area Severn, these three Sea Areas of Sole, Lundy and Fastnet meet in a point just northeast of the Isles of Scilly. Sole doesn’t touch land, the other two have land boundaries. The flight from Exeter to Hugh Town on a 17-seater Twin Otter plane takes less than an hour and I spend a lot of that time looking out the window and mulling over John Gore Grimes’ comment about the invisible boundaries between one sea area and another.

The girl sitting next to me on the plane looks to be about 12 and worried to be travelling alone. Her magazine – which I sneak glances at – is full of teen dilemmas and ads for make-up and boy bands I’ve never heard of. Our pilot and first officer sit cosy-close in the small cockpit at the front of the plane. They leave the door to the cockpit open and the smell from the bag of bananas the first officer has hanging from his seat keeps me company for the journey. I’ve never been this close to the controls of a plane and the similarity between them and those of a car surprise me. Sure, this plane has a lot more knobs and dials and countery-whirly things, but it also has pedals and a tiny rear view mirror. (What could be behind us worth looking at? It must be for checking on the passengers rather than the rush-hour air traffic). At one point mid-flight the first officer twists in his seat and looks behind. He appears to be counting the passengers and I’m glad the girl is reading, her attention distracted by an article entitled How to Stage a Comeback.

The safety demo was a dvd shown at the boarding gate in Exeter. In it, a large man in glasses and a high-vis jacket demonstrated how to pop open a small window in case of emergency. Unwittingly, I realise I have chosen the seat next to emergency exit. ‘Did you watch the demo?’ the first officer asks me. I nod. ‘So you’re happy you know how to operate the window exit?’ I nod again, too nervous to mention that I was so busy wondering how the large man could possibly have fitted out the tiny window and whether he would have to take his specs off first, that I didn’t actually notice how he removed the glass. The girl looks over and I smile reassuringly. No bother, I hope my smile tells her; breaking windows is my specialty. I surreptitiously cross my fingers and look at the window instead, my attempts to silently figure out the push-pull of the frame forgotten when we leave Cornwall behind and fly over the sea. I watch the flickering, clock-hands reflection our propeller makes as it turns. The water below is the gemstone green of Murano glass. Ponderous container ships appear to be barely moving. There are occasional dense shadows that I decide are long-lost wrecks shifting deep in the water. A lonely lighthouse is the single structure on an impossibly tiny outcrop of rock.

The first glimpse of St Mary’s, the largest of the inhabited Isles of Scilly, is beautiful. It is all sweeps and arcs, with intricate cut outs that make it look as though it has been delicately laser cut. On either side of its squeezed waist are the yellow curves of beaches. The Isles of Scilly are 28 miles southwest of Land’s End. Five of 140 in this archipelago are inhabited – some barely so – and even the big ones are little. At three miles wide and about 10 miles all around, St Mary’s is strollable in a day. More than once, in fact: I clock up four town-wide strolls in the first afternoon. Old Town, Old Town House, Old Town Road: by the end of stroll one, I’m beginning to see a pattern in the nomenclature system. The charity shop on the main street of Hugh Town is called Charity Shop. Hugh Town is where the action is on St. Mary’s. It’s a pretty, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sort of a place with an independent atmosphere that reminds me of Sidmouth, a town on the East Devon coast. Everyone I meet is talking about the weather. But isn’t it always like this in summer, I want to know. Hugh Town seems set up for heat. Designed for ice creams and salt-sticky faces. ‘Double your sun cream factor’, the bus driver had warned me. ‘You’ll fry otherwise.’ The island’s roads are being resurfaced and an Irish lad working there laughs when I ask him why everyone is going on about what a sunny day it is. ‘I’ve been here since February,’ he says, ‘and I’ve seen four seasons pass in four hours.’

Most people I chat to tell me that Harold Wilson is buried here on St Mary’s. In fact, so he gets so much airtime that I decide I’d better go and check out his grave on the far side of Hugh Town, in the 12th century Old Church. I bump into the Chaplain, who guides me through the graveyard. There is no crime here, he tells me. None. He never locks his house or his car. Children have to leave the islands to attend secondary school and before they go, they are taught what security means. (I pass a house later on – called, yes you’ve guessed it, Chaplain’s House – and notice the front door is wide open and I realise he wasn’t exaggerating). Harold Wilson’s grave is simpler than I had expected. A small bunch of fresh flowers rests against the headstone. A tiny red-hatted gnome stands on the granite edge. The Wilsons’ holiday home is nearby, I pass it as I walk back to the harbour. The curtains are closed. A small, plain stone bungalow, it puts me in mind of a breezeblock bunker outside a rural GAA hall. Perhaps the gnome strolled up from its garden.

It’s a hot, sunny afternoon and I am the only visitor in the Isles of Scilly Museum. The volunteer behind the cash desk thanks me profusely for coming in when I thank him for selling me an entry ticket. It is shipwreck heaven in here. In fact, the museum was founded in 1963 because they needed to house the Romano-British finds thrown up by that winter’s storms. One of my reasons for choosing the Isles of Scilly was the shipwrecks. You can’t swing a flip-flop in St Mary’s without hitting a shipwreck story. The Museum is home to many artifacts from the 1798 wreck the Colossos, which had on board the gems of noted collector Sir William Hamilton’s collection of Greek and Roman antiquities. It was found in 1975, and a second wreck near the site of the first yielded up its own long-hidden haul in 1999. Just as I’m about the leave the Museum I spot a display devoted to the Cita, which was en route to Ireland when she sank in 1997. She was on automatic pilot while all the crew slept when she ran aground. The Cita’s cargo spilled for miles around. The display features bits of tyres, St Bernard branded shoes, keyrings with ‘the luck of the Irish’ emblazoned on them.

A shipwreck I have never heard of before is the Thomas W Lawson. The world’s only seven-masted ship and largest pure sailing vessel without an auxiliary engine ever built, this schooner was destroyed nearby in a storm in December 1907. Its cargo of 58,000 barrels of paraffin caused what is believed to be the world’s first recorded oil spill. But the biggest shipwreck story is that of the wonderfully-named Sir Cloudesley Shovell. An Admiral of the Fleet, in 1707 he was sailing home in the HMS Association from a skirmish with the French when thick fog closed around his fleet. The story – given as true by Dava Sobel in Longitude, but disputed by some maritime historians – goes that one of the crew was a Scillonian and recognized the waters they were heading into. He disputed Sir Cloudesley’s reckoning that they were heading for Plymouth, and was so bold as to tell him so. Before the sailor had a chance to say ‘no, guv honest, I think that’s the Bristol Channel ahoy,’ Sir Cloudesley had him hanged for inciting mutiny. Not much consolation for the poor chap that he was proved right: within hours the Association, along with the Romney, the Firebrand and the Eagle, went smash-bang-wallop into the rocks. Only one man among the crew of close to 2,000 is said to have survived. Sir Cloudesley, his two stepsons and his dog apparently escaped on a small boat as far as the waters of nearby Porthellick Cove but most likely drowned trying to get onto the shore. A story persisted for many years that Sir Cloudesley did make it to land alive, but was murdered by a local woman for his priceless emerald ring and, in some versions, his shirt. It was decided that this disaster occured because the sailors could not correctly estimate their longitude, and as a result the Board of Longitude was set up at Greenwich in London.

I take a boat to St Agnes, the most southerly island. St Agnes makes St Mary’s look like New York. The winter population here is tiny. The summer tourist population swells the island, but most are day-trippers and so it falls quiet again in the evenings. From the harbour Porth Conger I walk past the decommissioned lighthouse to the inlets at Periglis Cove and St Warna’s Cove, named for the patron saint of shipwrecks. The further into the island, the quieter it becomes. I paddle around in the water, oddly aware of how far I am now from Cornwall and the mainland. Far out to sea is the lonely tower of Bishop Rock lighthouse and white-edged rocks break the water like old toothpaste smears on a sink.

I stop to read the community notice board. ‘If you have clothes for the fete please leave them in the snooker room’ it says, and it’s hard not to imagine the inhabitants as a casual sort of bunch, straight out of central casting for The Good Life, all happily buying each others’ cast-offs and stopping for a game of pool while they’re at it. St Agnes is connected at low tide by a sandbar to a tiny island called Gugh (pronounced Goo or Gue, depending on who’s talking). There are only two buildings on Gugh, each with a gently-curved aerofoil roof. I get chatting to a chap who turns out to be their owner. Gugh was uninhabited from the Neolithic period up until the 1920s, when an eccentric Irish surveyor decided to build himself a barn and a house. He is buried on the prow of the island, standing up. The current owner reckons he was quite a short chap, so that probably wasn’t as tricky a digging job as it sounds.

There is a home-made weather vane by the beach on St Agnes. A rough wooden cross, with a rope hanging down the middle and ‘Troy Town Weather Station’ written by hand across the top. (That’s it in the photo above). The dryness or otherwise of the rope determines the weather:

Rope : Forecast
Dry = Sunny
Wet = Rain
Still = Calm
Moves = Windy
White = Snow
Invisible = Fog
Gone = Force 10

The rope is dry and hangs perfectly still. I think of Craig Snell in the Met Office and the way the shipping forecast has its perfect codes, designed to convey so much with a single word. I stand on the beach on St. Agnes staring out to sea. Somewhere out there Sole, Lundy and Fastnet greet each other invisibly in the water. The only noise I can hear is the unsettling sound of gulls, their screeches the cries of unseen children.


The General Synopsis At Midnight is my exploration of the sea areas of the BBC R4 Shipping Forecast, thanks to the Maeve Binchy Travel Award. The earlier post ‘Counting Down To Midnight’ explains it all. Honest, it does… 

in the sea on st agnes

The General Synopsis At Midnight

Meeting The Met Office

Thursday July 24th and where better to begin The General Synopsis At Midnight than the Met Office? And where better in the Met Office than the desk where the Shipping Forecast is created?

Andy Yeatman is a thirty-year veteran of the Met Office. He has forecasted the weather, presented the weather and now, in his role as Deputy Head of Communications, has the unenviable task of explaining the weather to me. It’s all about dealing with uncertainty, he tells me. (That and understanding the Met Offices’ different audiences and their very different needs.) The Met Office HQ on the outskirts of Exeter – it moved to this purpose-built location from Bracknell some years ago – has the feel of a well-run and friendly small town. People are working in shared meeting spaces. Busy open plan offices spread out from a vast atrium. There’s a shop, a café, a gym. The Met Office employs 1,800 people at 60 locations throughout the world and on the Thursday lunchtime of my visit, it’s a busy spot. So despite what we in Ireland think, we’re not the only ones talking about the weather all the time.

Andy sits me down with Craig Snell, one of the team of Maritime Forecasters. The Chief Forecaster produces an overall forecast every six hours and it is Craig’s job to turn that forecast into the shipping briefing, using a computer model and a number of real-time information and observation sources such as ships and oil platforms. When the forecast is ready, he emails it to Radio 4 and the UK coastguard stations. He sits facing a triptych of screens. Today’s lunchtime broadcast on the desk in front of him and I am oddly thrilled at my one-hour-early preview of the Shipping Forecast. Craig’s job is to write a Forecast in as close to 350 words as he can (it goes up to 370 for the late night broadcast), giving as much information as is feasible, as clearly as possible. That information has to include sea-state, wind, weather and visibility but there’s only a limited palette of words he can use. No veering off into ‘a bit rough’ or ‘watch out there’ allowed. And yet he and the other Maritime Forecasters each have their own style and approach the information slightly differently. The priority in writing a forecast is to find what will have the most impact. As he puts it, ‘to concentrate on the things that would affect life.’ He suspects one of the reasons it’s popular with a generation older than his own is because they grew up with the Beaufort scale.

How many words are in his palette I wonder. Fifty-odd maybe? It reminds me of Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland, the way Craig can make a word work so hard. It is this repetition, he thinks, it what creates the poetry of the forecasts. ‘South’ appears in a single sentence several times, yet has a different meaning each time. For example, ‘fog’ can have only three adjectives: Patches, Banks and Extensive. More Extensive is allowed, if the fog is covering over half the area. There are no pea soupers at sea. Imminent means the first six hours of a given twelve-hour period, Soon means the second six hours. Visibility can be nothing other than Good, Moderate, Poor and Very Poor. Imagine if life was that simple, I think as I sit next to him and he explains these codes. Imagine day-to-day experience being that easy to grade and anticipate – and even to understand. Life would be simpler, that’s for sure. Would it be more interesting?

He tells me I can keep the copy of today’s lunchtime forecast. But before I stash it away, I ask him to sign it. Now that’s a souvenir.IMG_3445


Want to sea more? (Sorry)

The General Synopsis At Midnight is my exploration of the sea areas of the BBC R4 Shipping Forecast, thanks to the Maeve Binchy Travel Award. The earlier post ‘Counting Down To Midnight’ explains it all. Honest, it does.