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Shore Notes 2: Boiler

21 March 2024 | Boiler beach, Whitsand Bay

The sky is still grey, as it seems to have been all year, but the wind has calmed. My sadness is heavy and without focus - it wants neither company nor comfort. It arrived three days ago alongside an old fatigue, and has dug deeper with each day, numbing mindful transmitters as it buries itself in me. I carry it down the steep pitted cliff path, which has in places been bored down to a trough of a single foot’s width by this torrential season. Below, a thin line of white froth separates honey sand from a pale turquoise-grey sea. There are only one set of human footprints, a dog’s, and various gulls’.

It is not until I land on the beach that I am reminded of my tiny place in it - the rocks that tower, and the sea that stretches on to the end of everything. Its noise churns endlessly and beautifully but drowns no thoughts. The air is warmish, close, and I catch myself wishing I had brought a towel so I could sink into the peaceful pool that gathers around the rusty ship’s boiler that gives this beach its name. I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t have, anyway.

I am here to visit the gallery, which is what I call the lump of ship that lives further up the beach. For years I’ve been coming here and decorating it with exhibitions of tideline debris - feathers, stones, driftwood, shells, nuts, egg casings, claws, charcoal, seaweed, string, bones and more. A ritual, and a habit. It is among the places I crave if I am ever cooped up inside for long. But when I get to it, I find that the neat shelves I curate have been spun around, tipped and half buried in heavy stones by the winter’s storms, and are lost to me. I walk on.

Along the beach some cliffside has subsided, leaving stains of red earth in rockpools and debris at the top of the beach. Beside an interesting-looking sea-worn stump I find a dolphin carcass, its rows of brilliant white teeth shining from a long lump of black and maroon flesh. It has been picked at recently, judging by fresh blood spattered on a nearby rock1. A little further on, the stream that flows down from the land makes me think about Alan Grierson, “Scottish Alan” or “Mad Scottish Alan”, who lived on the cliffs and drank from their springs, and who you’d often find playing football with himself on the sand. He died last year, an old man.

I start to gather treasures, mostly cuttlefish bones, of which there is a bumper crop on the lower tideline. The odd bit of driftwood, especially those in unusual colours - green from elfcup fungus or red from - I don’t know where from. Tannins? The fallen earth, perhaps? I take them back to what was the gallery and start to see the potential in its newly exposed side. It has holes that could house some of the huge driftwood at the top of the beach, and a flat area to sit on, and its rust and patina are as beautiful as ever.

I work, and with work comes relief. Not happiness, perhaps, but purpose. I select and reject. I find two brilliant pinecones, but I don’t want pinecones today. Red lumps of wood go here, a mottled stick bridges a gap there. When sunshine starts to peek through dissolving cloud for the first time in what feels like weeks, I give it a withering look. I came here to talk to the sea, to bring it my sadness, not to be cheered up. But it wins me over, this brief glimpse of summer blue, and I have to admit to pleasure in wordless connection with the coast.

Occasional people and dogs walk past on the shoreline. It feels more acceptable for a solo dogless woman to be walking here than it sometimes does on land land, especially if she’s going back and forth with huge bits of wood, strings of flora and a bag of rubbish. I know when I’m done, and leave. A gull eyes me from its rock face nest as I tie a huge plastic tank I’ve found but can’t carry home to the railings by the steps. I mount the cliff path with more ease than I expected, and return to another world.

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