That Which We Do Not Understand

I spent my childhood in an old 17th century Welsh farmhouse. The house name translated as 'the little gap of the woods' and it was thick walled with big fat beamed ceilings, spindly sash windows and river-cool, night-sky-coloured slate floors.

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It was in the country and in the eighties. Weekends, after schools and holidays were spent with my friends fearlessly clambering over barbed wire fences and the country-code ends of gates roaming the rumpled patchwork quilt of fields that surrounded our home. We were free-range, mud splattered and feral. Our only boundaries being 'to be back for supper' and to avoid straying into bulls, vicious dogs or red-faced, shouting farmers. Since most of the farmers were friendly sheep farmers we were pretty boundless.

Our roaming territory expanded as we got older and we would come across long-abandoned houses. Wandering into their musty hallways we'd scare ourselves and any sheep that had wondered in to take shelter. Owls would clatter out of the roof-eaves in a big white heart-stopping flurry of fright.

I became fascinated by the flotsam that was left in these places. We'd find yellowing, oft-thumbed pictures of fifties lingerie models blocking the draughts in the ty bach (outhouse) of old bachelor farmer's houses and false teeth left on dressing tables. The undisturbed blanket of dust, ceiling rubble and mouse-bone filled owl scat breaking the momentary illusion that someone might still be living there. Garments on the backs of bedroom doors and lumpen unmade beds would hold the shape of the person who had worn them and had lain there.

Nature would be creeping in through the smashed windows and storm rampaged roofs but no matter how ransacked, long un-lived-in and unloved these places were, they never felt completely empty. Our high pitched, self conscious teenage voices would hush to a low, respectful murmur as we trod through the peeling apart rooms and climbed the stairs, careful to stand on the joists so as not to put a foot through a rotten stair tread.

Our parents had come to Wales in the seventies to live a Thoreau inspired idyllic life. They'd rent dank near-ruins that the local farmers had happily left for the practical, sensible comfort of ugly but warm modern housing. With dripping noses and rosy cheeks the hippy families would sweep chimneys and dig out the back of these crumbling old houses and little objects would be found - too cleverly hidden to be domestic detritus. These objects would be carefully left in place by the newcomers, somehow aware of their power and the stories and spirits of this place they were only just discovering. The enduring power of talismanic objects that protect the home.

The Lonely Sea and Sky

I wrote this two summers ago upon returning from a sailing voyage to Cuba and Mexico

Keeping watch, I'm hand-helming because our auto helm doesn't like this swell. Skipper Rupert is down below making the ever bolstering tea, or snoozing on deck, off-watch... a blanket over his head to block out the scalding hot-bath heat of the Caribbean sun. Dew settles on us at dusk and our nearly-naked boat clothing gets hastily swapped for warm neck hugging boat jackets and dungarees. Things are out of proportion at sea, or is it that they are in perspective? I'm never quite sure, certainly the effect of no longer having land in sight does something to the psyche. The expanse, and the quiet is a better, more relevant version of a frankincense shadowed church, it makes me muse over and pray for the people in my life, obscure domestic memories suddenly rolling in like a set of waves.

A grey shadow puppet of a great freighter on the port beam horizon shatters this meditation as we try to work out if we are going to hit or miss them. They come from any direction on the horizon, their massive churning engines propelling them and their boxy cargo through the fast lanes of the sea, I look around every ten minutes for them. If they come close, and it's daylight then they're beautiful in a fat aunty kind of way, flagged out of some weird foreign port to avoid insurance, or is it taxes? The containers they carry look as innocent as lego in the distance, and then they're gone, as quickly as they came, soon only transparent shadows against the horizon again. At night it is harder because they are only pinpricks of light, international maritime codes signalling their size, course and position, once you've squinted long enough to establish what light is where and what colour it is with your watch-tired eyes.


It's not these metal monsters of commerce but rather the power of rare sightings of nature on this indigo two mile deep sea that stop it from being lonely. Passage making between two countries our path is crossed in the late afternoon by a pair of the purest white birds, they fly between the mizzen and the main mast as though they are dodging traffic and carry on their migration northwards, they dazzle me with their determined course and I feel like cheering. The next morning, startling splashes, like hot fat in a frying pan, surprise the oily swell as with triumphant punches muscular, long fish avoid their pursuers by bending into the light for a moment. Flying fish confuse me at first, I think they are birds, they are more delicate and shimmering than the sea splashers, they skim over the waves more out of the water than in, such beautiful fish. Each sighting is like a gift from this big sea that I am so very, a-little-bit scared of. I feel like offering a lift to the labouring tiny paper-cut out of a swallow that flies with us for a little but our course is slightly different so soon it is gone. The bluebottle jellyfish purses that skim past us are hideously clever masterpieces of natural, almost extra-terrestrial design.

Closer to land we have to look out for man-made obstacles and the tell tale boat-breaking, breaking waves on reefs. On the North coast of Cuba, nets and pots are marked by the fishermen by tiny little plastic drinking bottles and could easily get caught in a prop as we tend to motor-sail in and out of the reef passes. As we were leaving Bahia Honda, the oddest and loveliest bird of prey came to scope us out. He alighted on one of the starboard main shrouds for a little. He was tawny brown with indescribable detail, and a London boxer's flat face, flat beaked and big eyed, almost like an owl, but definitely a day time hunter. Yes, passage making is a special and unique experience, I already choose to forget the harder bits.