Oranges and Coastlines

A writing board for first thoughts and unpolished ideas.

The story of Alf

The little house stood at the edge of the world, reaching out into that strange no-place between universes. At times, vast winds would whoosh, whistle and wail around the little house, and it would wobble and creak and the ceiling would leak. At other times, when it was still, it felt like the wait of the silence might just crush the little house into the surrounding earth. And then there were other times, as the moons drifted lazily across a deep blue sky, when whispers, almost like siren song, echoed and rippled through the air.  From the unknown emptiness of the no-place, came voices from different worlds, spoken in corners of some distant universe, governed by some different understanding.

From where the little house reached out,  the rest of the world reached back, into a forest and beyond. The forest, like the air, rippled and bent at the edges, and was so impossibly vast it stretched out until there was no more earth on which for the roots to grow. The forest, at this point, simply fell off the edges of the earth, for the earth itself was flat, spinning through space in its own bubble-like atmosphere. Within this atmosphere, the sun rose each morning and burnt red across the southern end of the world, before making its way in an arch across the earth to set in the ‘Evening North’. The world was therefore lit by an interesting light, and so was the way of the world, and to everyone living upon it, they could scarcely imagine it existing in any other way.

                Now this story begins at this particular, forgotten edge, for it was quite unlike any other. As the little house stood, and the voices sang, a little old man would sit on the porch of his little old house, close his wrinkled, ancient eyes, and listen to the voices that echoed from the no-place. In these moments, the wizened old face, lined by years too numerous to count, lit up with a childlike wonder. It was as if the voices were meant only for him, as if drifting back from some past life.

As a boy, Alf had never had any dreams of adventure. Adventure, rather, had found him. He was born in a village on the edge of a forest. His parents were millers. They ground grain which grew from particular kinds of wild flower. With the grain they made soft, round boules of bread, and with the petals they made incense. As a child, his world was enclosed by the great wall of trees on one side, and two rivers that flowed out from the forest’s edge, running miles apart before winding together and becoming one. The forest loomed over the village, but not in the ominous way forests so often did. There was nothing dark or scary about those tall evergreens, at least not to those who lived in its shadow. From within, Owls hooted, mice hid, and nature went about its business in an entirely non-scary way.

It was said that the two rivers were lost lovers, and flowed from deep within the heart of the forest. Wandering one day, the two lovers had gotten lost and in the darkness they diverged. Alone, each river twisted and turned through the trees, their banks narrow and their flows rapid and desperate. As they broke the forest’s edge, they slowed and widened and each sensed its lover in the distance. They eased and waited, until eventually, at River’s Meet, fate brought these two lovers together once again. In joy, each river leapt into the banks of the other, and they flowed into one inseparable being. The villagers spoke of this story as if it were fact, and when two people fell in love it was tradition for each to sleep where the rivers escaped the trees, and at dawn begin walking the miles of the lost rivers’ flow. The rest of the village would gather excitedly at River’s Meet and line the last mile with torches and ribbons. Night had fallen by the time the tired and weary couple met once again. Before the onlookers, they exchanged ribbons, and like the two Rivers were taken in the arms of the other. The ceremony was short, for the meaning was in the walk and the arrival not the words or the ribbons. Yet in this way, the rivers helped forge the very character of the village they surrounded.

Between the forest and these two love-lorn rivers, the village – its houses, its fields, its farms, its mills – sat safely nestled in what the inhabitants called Nature’s Gate. Nature’s Gate was a strange place, and its inhabitants a strange, small-worldly kind of folk. Doors were seldom locked and children ran in and out of houses as if each were their natural home. When food, clothes and fuel were in abundance, families took their spares to the Townhouse as gift to neighbours who didn’t share their good fortune, knowing that one day the favour would be repaid. There was an easy flow to life and a kindness of heart that underpinned each passing day.

From time to time, the adults would have cause to leave Nature’s Gate to sell their bread and their incense in neighbouring market towns. They went in whirling flying machines called Whirligigs, which they dusted down and polished, and turning the propeller they sputtered and spun into life. It was quite a sight, seeing hundreds of these little machines rise into the air, and like bees slowly buzz out of sight. Alf and the other children excitedly chased after them to the River’s Meet, and when they could be seen no more, they ran around the river’s edge, playing games and making dens. In warm summer evenings, they would light fires and sit singing songs and telling spooky stories until grandparents and neighbours either called them in, or joined them to tell stories of their own. When his parents returned – sometimes days, sometimes weeks later – they brought sweet treats and strange new instruments, and flung their arms around him in a big crushing hug.

And so his childhood years passed like this, in gentle happiness. Each night the moons drifted across the sky, and when it was clear the little family would sit at the top of the mill tower and read to each other by moonlight. There was a haziness to these memories as they came back to him more in feeling that reflection.

The voices gradually faded and the sky went still. He wondered how long he had sat in his reverie; sometimes he found himself lost for hours at a time. He stood up and wandered back into the house, a great sadness falling over him.

The interior was sparse. There were no photos or objects to hint at any other life than this. No tokens of sentimentality. An old carriage clock on the mantelpiece was coated in a thick layer of dust and had long stopped ticking. The old man moved slowly around the place, drifting by memory rather than sight. The kettle boiled on the stove and he made himself a cup of sweet fruit tea. Darkness was falling outside and he could see one of the moons rising through the window. Through another window he could see only forest: tall, dark and uninviting. Sat at the table, the only noise was the rhythmic tapping of his fingers against the cup. Everything about the old man was detached somehow, content to exist his own little world: alone, forgotten, at this strange juttering edge of the real one.

Impossibly Old

Nanny appeared impossibly old. She belonged to the house, and drifted from corridor to corridor, room to room, as if she were part of its very life blood. She was a small woman, no taller than 5 foot, and she seemed to thin more and more with each passing year, as if one day she might simply vanish unnoticed into the wallpaper. Her features were sharp, accentuated in old age by wafer-thin skin which hung from high cheekbones, giving her a gaunt, almost emaciated appearance. In her youth she had possessed an astonishing and intimidating beauty, but the years had not been kind, and those cheekbones, coupled with a razor-sharp jaw line and narrow, puckered lips, created a look reminiscent of a desperate crow. She would have been terrifying, Ada often thought, were it not for a softness that had found home in those ancient green eyes. Even when her tone held nothing but reproach, as was often the case, those eyes radiated nothing but an honest, and unwavering love. If Ada had known more of life, of its potency and pain, she might have read that softness as sadness. There was a slowness and whispery flow to her movements that so often suggested she was somewhere else entirely, reliving a past moment in a past life. Ada’s voice would draw her back to the present, and she’d smile and stroke her hair, and look at the young girl as if seeing her for the first time. How wonderful, the old woman thought, to know so little of life, that she could not perceive the scars, etched, unhealed, on the windows of the soul.


From the Clouds

Sensible, perhaps, but Abel was not a popular man. He was too serious, too practical, too eager to get things done. In parliament sessions, he made long speeches about the state of the nation, and proposed courses of action which sounded all too much like hard work. Yet he nevertheless commanded a certain gravitas, and with that respect. He was taller than most, and neither as wide nor as self-aggrandising. He swept into rooms which seemed to shrink other men and turned leaders into docile sheep. He had a shrewd, calculating edge, and a sharpness of wit that cut through arguments like a knife through butter on a hot summer’s day. And on a moment’s notice, he could turn, with a gleam in his eye, and charm a camel out of its humps. Accompanied by a natural grace and tantalising smile, his charm came with such ease it left people both mesmerised and unnerved. As such, people both craved and dreaded his company, and he never left a room without leaving at least a few weak in the knees. He unsettled people, and this trait did not spark popularity. However, those who felt the world spin turned to him, and with a calm ferocity he led them across the Rubicon.

This is how the war started.

The clouds were how it ended.

Then the Clouds Came…

A Prologue

Fields of green had given way to a wasteland of mud and broken things. Where the wasteland ended, a city of worn red brick began. Vast factories and their chimneys stretched high into the sky, and on the ground people scurried like ants among black, soot covered buildings. They had a tired, ghost-like quality to them. Atop a hurriedly built wall, men paced nervously, carrying telescopes and battered tilley lamps.

They are waiting for news. News that a war has ended. A brass band plays a slow march outside a grand town hall, and posters litter the street, carrying repeated words of “Victory is ours”, “Freedom costs lives”, and “We speak for the many”. The occasional motor car whistles down the road, always taking someone important somewhere in a hurry, or otherwise carrying an urgent telegram to the war office. 

Everywhere, people stop in the street to greet each other. They shake hands with grim smiles and ask, “any news?”, and the reply comes – “not yet, but it won’t be long now.” And with that they hurry on, coats wrapped tightly around them to keep out the cold. News will come soon, but the cold bites, and they all have work to do until it does.

Among them, a couple hurry along the road, past the town hall and the marching band, their long coats flapping behind them. They turn corner after corner, not slowing down or stopping for breath. In his arms, huddled inside his coat, the man clutches a baby to his chest. It does not cry or stir. When at last they come to a halt, they are on the edge of the city, and they draw back behind the last standing wall of a bombed out house. Round the corner is a large iron gate that stands open onto the wasteland beyond.

Checking they are unseen, they lean back and catch their breath. The woman is tall, with long hair brown tied in a loose bun. She has an elegance and finery to her that he does not. The man is slightly shorter, with short, scruffy hair and an honest, unshaven face. He kisses the baby and places it in the mother’s arms. They have hurried, worried looks about them.

Everything around them seems to be moving in a blur. They draw close, holding on to everything they have in the world. The baby, snuggled warmly between them, is fast asleep. It hasn’t known any other world but this one, but in its parents arms it sleeps peacefully unaware.

They look at each other with love and fear – in these times there is little difference -, clinging to each other, knowing time is short.

“I have to go”, says the woman, “I have to warn them.” She pauses for a moment and adds, “Father will agree to the terms. He has no choice now. And anyway, he would sign anything if it would mean my return.” 

The man nods. He doesn’t like it but knows there is no arguing. Her mind is set and he trusts her implicitly. Resigned, he smiles. “When the peace is settled we will live in a whole new world. It won’t be long now. One final push.” His voice is accented and rough, contrasting her smooth, dulcet tones. “Then I’ll come to you. To you both”. He strokes the baby’s head with hardened fingers. “She’s spent too long in this place already.”

She grips his hand, wanting to say something profound, something meaningful, but nothing needed to be said.  

A motor car suddenly turns a corner and hurtles towards them, wobbling down an uprooted road. It is time to go.

As it screeches to a halt, she clambers into the carriage and he shuts the door behind her.

“Stay safe.”

With a glint in her eye that reminds him of happier times, she smiles and says “don’t worry. We’ve made it this far. It’s just the beginning”. 


There’s no place like home: An homage to Dorset

There’s no place like home. The swallows do it best, sweeping across the globe, then returning to this wet and windy British isle, just as the tulips show their heads, and in Dorset, the bright yellow of the rapeseed field begins to dominate the rolling landscape of this oft passed county of Thomas Hardy.2014-09-02-17-57-25

Dorset often feels like the neglected cousin of the West Country (the south west), driven through to holiday in the softer sandier landscape of south Devon, or to surf and explore the rugged, wild coast of Cornwall. Somerset to the north similarly seems to represent the west country heartland, evoking images of westcountry yokels, drinking flat scrumpy cider and singing rousing renditions of Wurzel songs. These are images often equally attached to Dorset. Yet it is a place often known in relation to its neighbours, as ‘that place next to Devon’. This is therefore something of a homage to those summers in Dorset, from the budding of spring, and the first dipping of the toes in the cold sea, to the cool evenings of that September, Indian summer.
In April, warmth returns, and you step outside to the singing of the birds, and take that first tentative swim in the sea. It is freezing, but clear and blue for the first time. Where the curve of Weymouth bay turns from sand to stone, from Greenhill to Bowleaze, a few brave people test the waters. It’s the coldest time of year. Every part of your body tells you it’s a horrible idea, and as you dunk your head you feel short of breath, take a few quick strokes and look over to the beautiful, rolling coastline, stretching along to the Purbecks. Leaving the sea, you feel the excitement of summer, on its way at last, with the sea only warming up from here on out.

Swimming at Overcombe

Swimming at Overcombe

May often claims the sun back, and leads into June. Summer. It means cycling, swimming, barbeques on the beach, and evenings sat around fires, looking up at a star filled skies. Walking is the best way to explore Hardy’s Wessex. Driving out to Durdle Door, windows down and music playing, there is nowhere I’d rather be. A UNESCO heritage site, Durdle door emerges over the edge of the cliff as you scramble down the path, which at this time of year once again starts to busy with tourists. Despite knowing it as I do, I can’t help but be awed every time. On the other side of Durdle, the crystal clear waters of Man of War bay glisten in the sun. Walking to the Door from Ringstead Bay to the east, the full beauty of the coast stretches before you, and as you continue along, the coast path dips down into Lulworth, a perfect natural cove, where a man sits painting shells, and boats anchor for the night. On the other side of that, through the firing range, is Mupe bay, most likely deserted, with that sense of being untouched, and unchanged, as if someone 250 years ago might have stood on that same patch of sand, flashing a light to guide in smugglers.

Mupe Bay, a lesser known beauty, just east of Lulworth cove.

Further in land and to the west of Lulworth, is my favourite place. Corfe Castle stands, in its ruined, eerie beauty, atop a hill that guards a gap on the Purbeck hills between Wareham and Swanage. It is a shadow of a far gone world. Once gleaming white stone, some 900 years ago it would have dominated the landscape, a beacon of power in a feudal world. In 1645, near the end of the English Civil War it remained one of the few royalist strongholds, it’s now ruined state the unhealed scars of the parliamentarian cannon. Fallen, it is only a ghost of what it once was, yet its presence atop the hill appears perhaps even more striking when seen against the violent history which eventually tore this mighty structure down

The view of Corfe

Coming home from days out walking, tired and windswept, and possibly a little sunburnt, to home cooked pizzas and barbeques, is beaten, perhaps, only by warm sunny evenings spent out on the water, sailing out in Weymouth bay, coming into moor as the sun sets and the sea turns to glass. And from the sailing club, cycling home in shorts and t-shirts, along a cycle path that still has the platforms and sign posts to point to its past life as a railway line, and over which the trees now curve into a tunnel, broken only by the last beams of the day’s light.14285724_10207369889821813_616108071_o
September brings steady change. The sun gets lower, and the carrots are all pulled from the vegetable patch, and the sunflowers droop their heads one by one. The chillies are all picked from the greenhouse, in bold reds, oranges and greens, and stored in batches for the winter. We collect apples where they fall in the lane, and gather blackberries from the meadows to make crumbles, and travel over to orchards near Burton Bradstock to pick more apples and pears for cider making. Every bike ride down to the the beach, every swim in the sea, begins to feel like it might be the last, and suddenly I notice even more the cool feel of the salt water as I dive beneath the surface, and the sound of the pebbles gently rolling over each other on the sea bed. There’s that saddening sense of the county shutting down until next spring, as the boats are lifted out of the water to shelter on dry land for another winter.

The inevitable lift out

The inevitable lift out

Now, in October, we look towards that wet month of November, where a day without rain seems weirdly out of character, the swallows are long gone, and the Canadian geese have set off over Weymouth bay, over Ringstead, and away to warmer climes. Dorset is no longer the rolling hills of sunburnt brown, and the familiar smell of rapeseed. The fields are stripped, and it becomes a mix of green and greys, across sky, sea and land. It is the end of another year, and another summer that seems to reawaken, for me, the Dorset of Hardy’s novels. But still, as I stand by the shore, watching the winter roll in and the sun roll out, there’s still no place like home.



The sun sets on another summer in Dorset