Lost at sea: areas Hebrides, Malin, Trafalgar, Biscay… and the Baileys

Lusitania posterThe ocean floor is a surprisingly busy place. Teeming, you might say, with lost life. The UN reckons three million shipwrecks are scattered around the bottom of the world’s seas. Small yachts and fishing smacks, Viking longboats and German U-boats… the sea now owns the lot, regardless of what governments or salvage operators might think. The Irish sea area claim to fame is that there are said to be more ocean liners and U-boats sunk off Malin (on the Inishownen peninsula, Malin Head is the most northerly point of Ireland) than anywhere else in the world; the majority of them casualties of the World Wars.

When I went to the Isles of Scilly Museum – a place founded in 1963 because of a need to house all the finds deposited on the beach by winter seastorms – I was surprised by the contents of a display of bits and bobs washed up from the 1997 wreck of the Cita: tyres, Luck of the Irish keyrings, Dunnes Stores ‘St. Bernard’ brand shoes. It must be years since Dunnes decided that the luck of the Irish had run out as far as St Bernie was concerned and put him out to pasture. I always thought a C12th French century monk best known for his persuasive way with words was an unusual choice for a shop’s own-brand merchandise. (There were a few obligatory miracles of course, such as ridding churches of flies, and curing a child’s withered arm, but Saint-wise he wasn’t one of the biggies as far as I can see. Maybe Dunnes were referring to the dog?) Anyway, back to shipwrecks. On that trip, my flight back to Exeter from St Mary was delayed and to kill some time I flicked through a copy of the Wreck of Colossus – The Find of a Lifetime, which I found lying around in the café in St. Mary’s tiny aerodrome (okay, technically it was for sale, alongside handcrafted doilies and flower-illustration postcards, but I handled it gently).

Todd Stevens went to Scilly as a Cita salvage diver originally and ended up staying. Diving alone one day, he found a previously unknown additional site of the HMS Colossos, the 74-gun warship that sank in 1798. The ship was famously jam packed with a collection of Etruscan pottery belonging to Sir William Hamilton and – less famously – full of wounded soldiers on their way home from the Battle of the Nile. With his wife Carmen, Todd Stevens continued to explore this new area. Lying face upwards on the sand she found the most incredible thing: a twice life-size carved wooden figure that was once was part of the Colossos’ stern decoration (that’s it on the right). What struck me most about Todd Stevens’ book – and I didn’t get to read it all because a) I was out of sterling and b) my flight was called – was how honest he was about the thrill of the chase in salvage diving, and the frustration of having to leave a possible site behind and return to land. He makes it sound so addictive, the belief that just there, over there, under that rock, behind that reef, a moment of history lies trapped. A giant-sized, barnacle-encrusted ‘what if’. tresco-oscar-colossus-figurehead-2

But when something wonderful, such as the carving from the Colossos, is found, what happens then? So often it is conditions of the sea itself that can preserve wrecks and their booty. Removing them from these crypts sends time spinning forward. Shipwreck sites are nearly always graves as well as treasure chests. Understandably, the focus on the human cost of a shipwreck gets more prominence the more recent the disaster. Whizz back in time and the people tend to get forgotten about. We will never know who were the crew of fifteen on the 3,000 year old paddle-powered boat discovered in sea area Plymouth in 2009. Its cargo of copper and tin ingots, a bronze sword and three gold torcs are seen as evidence that there was a much more sophisticated European communications and trading system in operation than was preciously believed. Engineer Jim Tyson who took part in the dives said: ‘You have something in your hands that had not seen the light of day in 3000 years. The last person to do so must have died in the shipwreck.’ A thoughtful comment to make, considering that the temptation must be to jump up and down in delight with joy at finding a haul dating back to 900BC.

Underneath the invisible lines that create the jigsaw that is the Shipping Forecast, all the sea areas have their own shipwreck secrets and stories. One of the quirkier ones is that of the SS Politician, which was fictionalised as the SS Cabinet Minister in the in the novel Whisky Galore! by Compton MacKenzie. An 8,000-tonne cargo ship, the SS Politican left Liverpool on 3rd February 1941, heading for Jamaica and New Orleans. Two days later she ran aground of the northern coast of Eriskey in the Outer Hebrides during a gale. The crew all survived and spilled the beans about the ship’s cargo to the locals. A clue as to said cargo is in the title of the book. Yip, malt whisky. And galore. 264000 bottles of the stuff in fact. Thanks to wartime rationing the island’s own supplies of whisky were long gone, so who could blame them for deciding to help themselves before the seals got the lot? It wasn’t stealing, according to the enterprising fishermen who dressed as women so as not to be caught with telltale oil stains from the ship’s hold on their clothes. Nope, all was fine and dandy, according to the rules of salvage. Problem was, the local customs and excise officer thought otherwise: Charles McColl insisted the police take action, with the result that a number of islanders were convicted. Their sentences ranged from a £3 fine to six weeks imprisonment. The Politican proved resistant to official salvage attempts and – this being wartime, you can imagine how distracted the bods in charge were – it was decided to simply leave the stricken ship where she was. McColl estimated that 24,000 bottles had been stolen already and that simply abandoning the ship to its fate would prove too much temptation, so he got permission to explode her hull. Now that must have been some sight for the recently drunk, also recently hungover but now sadly newly sober, islanders to witness. Whisky Galore was released as an Ealing comedy in 1949. I wonder if Charles McColl ever saw the movie?whisky-galore-poster-1-1024x770

In the same month the SS Politican brought such brief, unintended happiness to the Hebrides, the SS Gairsoppa took a direct hit from a German U-boat’s torpedo. It sank in less than 20 minutes at 50 degrees N, 14 west, close to where sea areas Shannon and Sole meet. Only three of the crew managed to escape in a lifeboat. They reached Cornwall two weeks later, where two of them died trying to get ashore. Last year, 2,792 silver ingots worth €27m were recovered from the site three miles (!) below the surface. Despite this massive haul, the SS Gairsoppa is relatively small beans compared with Ireland’s other shipwreck connections. Our biggest claim to shipwreck fame is generally taken to be the Belfast-born Titanic, which sank on its maiden voyage in 1912. However, fascinating as its story of hubris is, I’ll see your Titanic and raise you the Spanish Armada.

263px-Routes_of_the_Spanish_ArmadaThe route followed by the Spanish Armada – both intentionally and not – by this fleet begins in Sea Areas Trafalgar and Biscay. In fact, it covers most of our Shipping Forecast map, not that even the word ‘forecast’ would have made any sense at the time, this being centuries before Sir Robert Fitzroy.

In September 1588 Philip II decided he’d take a pop at invading England, and sent a fleet of 130 ships carrying almost 30,000 men with that express purpose. It didn’t go well, this tale of old against new: the heavy galleons of the Spanish were more like floating castles than ships, versus the newer Elizabethan ‘race ships’ that were low and fast, with much lighter armoury. The beautifully named Battle of Gravelines sent his fleet, well, fleeing. As the remaining ships tried to scarper, a combination of bad weather and poor navigation drove them towards the west coast of Ireland. Queen Elizabeth was concerned about a possible Irish/Spanish alliance against her and so her man on the ground Sir Richard Bingham (a tough cookie, as pirate queen Granuaile was soon to discover, and you can read about here) and the Lord Deputy William Fitzwilliam issued orders: “to make inquiry by all good means, both by oath and otherwise, to take all the hulls of ships, stores, treasures, etc. into your hands and to apprehend and execute all Spaniards found there of what quality so ever. Torture may be used in prosecuting this inquiry.” Ouch. 24 Spanish ships were wrecked off the Irish coastline, and it is estimated that 5,000 men died. In the centuries since, 10,000 pieces of treasure, from forks to cannonballs and rubies to coins, that once journeyed through what we know as Trafalgar and Biscay, have washed up on Irish shores.

And finally: to Bailey. Not the sea area this time, but a person. Two in fact. Maurice and Maralyn Bailey decided to move to New Zealand and so in June 1972 they set sail from Southampton on their 31-foot yacht, the Auralyn. Everything was going fine and dandy until, off the coast of Guatemala, a whale got up close and personal, with the result that – well, you can imagine the result. They roped their dingy and life-raft together and grabbed what supplies they could. From the dingy they watched their yacht disappear. In a diary entry dated March 4 1973 (but written after the event), non-swimmer Maralyn Bailey wrote of “a violent impact. The ship shuddered and there was tearing, splintering wood. We looked at each other. I dashed outside. As I went into the cockpit, I saw, off the stern, a huge whale. Around him the deep blue water was stained red“. If they had been told on that morning that they would still be on that small raft 117 days later, I wonder would they have stayed put or jumped in after the Auralyn? When their supplies ran out they survived on rainwater and by catching turtles, birds and even small sharks with their bare hands and a safety pin. Seven times other boats were nearby and failed to spot them as they drifted in the Pacific becoming increasingly malnourished and weak. 1,500 miles later the Baileys were spotted by a Korean fishing boat, the Weolmi 306. They had each lost 40 pounds in weight and could barely stand. The water had rotted their clothes and their bodies were covered in sores. In their 1974 book 117 Days Adrift (published as Staying Alive! in the US; please note the jaunty exclamation mark.) they wrote that to keep their spirits up they played dominoes and cards made out of pages ripped from a notebook; and drew up elaborate plans for celebratory feasts.

A year later the Baileys were back at sea in the Auralyn II.SS Hop - Unst

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I came across this plaque dedicated to the crew of the SS Hop in a graveyard on Unst in the Shetlands in sea area Fair Isle. You can read about that trip here.

Oh, and if you think the Titanic was spectacularly ill-fated, then spare a thought for the Vasa, a Swedish warship that too sank on its maiden voyage. To be fair to the Titanic, she did get a fair bit into the journey before that iceberg got in the way. In 1628, the Vasa managed only to get 1,300 metres away from dock before foundering. In the 1950s the Swedes dug the ship out of what had become a busy shipping lane on the outskirts of Stockholm’s harbour. The custom-built Vasa Museum is a hugely popular tourist attraction, and the ship has become a symbol of what is known as Sweden’s ‘great power period’. (Not, you note, of a great shipbuilding period.)

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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. A piece based on the project called ‘The Shipping Forecast’ broadcast on Sunday Miscellany, RTE Radio 1, November 2nd

Want to sea more?

Warships, U-Boats and Liners: A guide to shipwrecks mapped in Irish waters by Charise McKeon, Karl Brady, James Lyttleton and Ian Lawler. Published by The Stationery Office, Dublin (2012).

117 Days Adrift by Maurice and Maralyn Bailey published by A&C Black.

There are plenty of Irish resources about the Spanish Armada, such as http://www.sligoheritage.com/ArchSpanishArmada.htm and http://www.clarelibrary.ie/eolas/coclare/history/spanish_armada.htm

And thank’ee Wikipedia for the Spanish Armada map.

 

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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: cil.ie The Ballycotton Lighthouse: http://www.ballycottonislandlighthousetours.com/ 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.

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.

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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