Monday, 27 February 2017

Gold by Suzanne Hudson

For nine months all he found were mud and stones.  He was beginning to think that he had made a huge mistake.  He dreamt of his home on the Isle of Anglesey and his sweetheart's long black hair and pretty blue eyes.  He was so homesick it hurt.

Then one morning it was there, winking at him in the early sunlight. 

                                                               *                                  *                                  *         

On the steam clipper ‘Royal Charter’, voyaging from Melbourne to Liverpool, William had met a number of fellow lucky prospectors, heading home to share news of their riches with their families.  Like William, they were carrying large sums of gold, tied to their bodies or stitched into their clothing.  In the evenings they drank beer and danced, thanking God for blessing them with his bounty.  They slapped each other's backs in mutual celebration and raised the roof in song.  They were the chosen ones.

Up on deck, earlier that day, William had battled his way through the unusually strong winds to stand at the brow of the great ship.   He had watched the north-western tip of his beloved Anglesey come into view, like a mirage and he felt his heart sing.  It was almost a year since he had said his goodbyes and left the tiny cottage where he had been born and where his parents and three older brothers still lived.  Always a restless soul, he couldn’t bring himself to follow his father and siblings into the local slate mine. He saw the dead look in their eyes as they ate his mother’s stew by the fire late at night, their faces lined with exhaustion. 

That night, below deck in the third class lounge, the howling of the high wind was drowning out the singing.  Chairs and tables had begun to lurch from side to side as the storm took hold.  Knowing that he was only days from home, William held tight to his tankard and allowed himself to fantasise about his future.  He would buy a large stone cottage at the edge of the village and start a haulage business that would also employ his father and brothers.  Marianne’s father would have to let him marry her now.  He reached inside his waistcoat and felt once again for the precious nuggets sewn into the lining.  They weighed him down but he felt as light as a feather.  A grin spread wide across his handsome, sunburnt face and he couldn’t quite believe his luck had finally changed.

As he drained his glass he caught sight of Charlie, a member of the crew, coming towards him.  A fellow Welshman and of a similar age, they had struck up a friendship during the last two months on board.  He offered to buy his pal a drink but Charlie shook his head and looking agitated, pulled William to one side, to share some news with him.

Charlie told him that the ship’s captain had been advised to shelter in Holyhead harbour until the storm blew over, but that Captain Taylor was insisting on continuing on to Liverpool.  William couldn’t bear the thought of having to wait an extra day to see Marianne’s face when he told her his wonderful news.  He assured Charlie that all would be well, told him not to worry and headed to bed, to dream of his reunion with Marianne.

At some point in the night William’s dreams turned to nightmares.  Charlie was reaching out to him, white-faced, his mouth open in terror and his eyes wide with fear as a giant wave smashed his thin body against a massive rock.  William was flailing through the choppy water, trying to get to his friend, but aware that despite being a strong swimmer, he was being pulled down, the gold in his waistcoat dragging him towards the depths.

Then there was a floating sensation and a tunnel of bright light…could this be the surface above?  But at the end of the tunnel he saw Marianne waiting for him.  She was standing outside a large, stone house, two dark haired little boys on either side of her, and they were smiling and waving to him in welcome.

                                                                   *                                  *                                  *

Arthur pulled back the shabby curtains of his fisherman’s cottage, in the village of Moelfre and peered out through the gloom at the familiar view of rocks and sea.  Something was different today.  At this early hour there were not usually many people around, but a steady stream of villagers were hurrying down the lane past his window, in the direction of the beach.  It could only mean one thing; a wreck.

He quickly pulled his clothes on and began to run through the strong winds, arriving a five minutes later at the beach, where a small group of villagers were combing the sands for anything that they could lay their hands on.  Just twenty-five yards from the shore, bashing against the huge rocks, were the remains of a great ship.

Arthur knew every inch of that beach.  As a child he had collected shells and pebbles and kept the nicest ones in a tin box under his bed.  He had called them his treasures but he never thought he’d own anything of real value.

But that morning it was there winking at him in the early sunlight. 


On 26th October 1859 the steam clipper ‘Royal Charter’ was wrecked in a strong storm off the beach of Porth Alerth in Dulas Bay, near the village of Moelfre, on the north-east coast of AngleseyAbout 450 lives were lost.  Due to this loss, Vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy introduced a warning service for shipping in February 1861, using telegraph communications.  In 1911 the Met Office began issuing marine weather forecasts, which included gale and storm warnings, via radio transmissions for areas around Great Britain.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Crossing Fladen Grunn by Annabel Howarth

Moderate or poor, becoming good later,
The time when life begins, they say,
Started with bubbles and uncertain flowers,
Sat, like our pain and acceptance, at another table, but then
She, long awaited, came,
And life, for a while, was bright yellow.

Moderate or rough, becoming rough or very rough,
He came shortly after,
Unexpected, wanted, but his
Glowing, growing light, was almost
Strangled, by another's shrinking form, and the
Jagged, aching, angry, violet storm, that cut us all.

Good, occasionally poor,
We could hear the lullaby for a time,
Gently rocking our babies to sleep,
Playful waters, dancing, toddling, babbling,
Under a bright sunny sky, with
Occasional, manageable, showers.

Rough, becoming very rough, gales imminent,
We thought we'd suffered storms before,
These deepened and blackened and hardened,
Dragging us separately, wild eyed and helpless to the edge,
Sirens calling us into those cold, dark, forty fathoms,
But thankfully, just as suddenly, and with less warning...

Moderate or rough, a chance of gales later,
The planets creaked back into line, and
We blindly found our life rings again,
To continue traversing the Forties,
With its monsterous storms, empty stills, and joyful dawns,

This piece was inspired by "The Forties", the Shipping Forecast area, found in the central North Sea area off the north east coast of Scotland and south west coast of Norway, so called because of its fairly consistent depth of forty fathoms or more.  The same area is known to the Norwegians as Fladen Grunn (Fladen Ground - "Fladen" meaning round flat dough cake or pat).

Monday, 13 February 2017

Malin Head by Virginia Hainsworth

I dreamed I went to Malin Head.  To the northernmost point of the beautiful island of Ireland.

I stared out over the remarkably blue ocean, which seemed to stare back at me.  It told me tales of its hidden treasures – ocean liners and German U-boats, sunk off this stretch of coast.  I could almost hear the cries of drowning men.

I looked towards Fanad Head lighthouse and was comforted by its pulsating light, shining out once more.

I watched the waves fighting each other before racing to the shore to prostrate themselves on the sand.  I walked along the clifftops and was drawn to the very edge of oblivion, the rocks daring me to jump.  Just once.

I dreamed of Banba, mythical queen of Ireland, using her magic to protect her land and her people.  I listened to her soft chanting, the drumbeat of the BodhrĂ n in time with her heartbeat, her voice like the Celtic harp, charming, soothing, beckoning.  Her image dwindled.  She left me bewitched.

I wondered if the arrival of the night sky would bring the Northern Lights with it, the Aurora Borealis sometime seen here.

I bathed in the solitude and let the wind cleanse my mind.

My dream faded, as all dreams do. But I will retrieve it.  I will go to Malin Head to bring it back.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Biscay by Andrew Shephard

Monday 2nd October 1944

I still have to pinch myself. A year ago I’d only left Yorkshire once, and that was on a bicycle. Now I’m on my way to Africa in a tin can. The ship, a Dutch trooper, is terribly crowded. I spend most of the day in queues as long as the boat either for meals, chocolate from the shop, or items of kit which are issued as we need them. I haven’t been volunteered for any jobs yet so there’s plenty of time to kill.

I can’t send you a letter yet because troop movements are hush-hush. But I feel like I’m talking to you even though you’re far away. Perhaps you will read this one day when I get back home. You don’t need to worry about me. I reckon you are in more danger than me, going to work there in the middle of London. Our bucket is in a convoy of fourteen ships, protected by three destroyers.

The food’s better than expected. Yesterday we had bully beef and piccalilli, with real white bread. They showed us a film on Sunday. I saw Random Harvest starring Ronald Colman and Greer Garson. I tried to imagine you sitting there beside me in the dark but it wasn’t much like the Odeon.

I felt all right at first, but three days out from Greenock the sea turned rough. I couldn’t see any land, nothing but grey seas and grey skies. I thought I’d got my sea-legs but breakfast told me otherwise. I made it up to the open deck, the boat rising and plunging like a bucking bronco. The front of the boat was disappearing under the waves, then rearing back up. And the noise! You couldn’t hear yourself think.

Our quarters are at the aft of the ship. We eat, sleep, and play in the same mess. Me and some of the other privates have a regular game of solo whist.  We played all this morning and I won three shillings. That will buy a few Woodbines. There’s not much to buy, but the prices are cheap.

We know we’re heading somewhere warm because our section was issued with khaki shorts this afternoon. The crew are strange, Eastern-looking people. They laugh with each other but they ignore us as if we were from a different planet. They weren’t bothered by the storm; otherwise I’d have been saying my prayers. The purser is a Dutchman and the fattest man I’ve ever seen. I don’t know how he fits through the hatches and doorways.

The nights are the worst. Blackout is from seven, and woe betide anyone who goes out on deck after then for a cigarette. Last night they had to slow the convoy almost to a stop because the waves were so big. Nobody said it, but we were sitting ducks. Suddenly there was an almighty bang. Cups and everything that was not fixed down jumped up in the air. Everyone fell out of their hammocks and headed for the muster stations, just as we’d drilled, but more of a shambles in the dark.

But we hadn’t been hit, thank God. One of the destroyers must have let off a depth charge because a sub had been spotted. So no damage done, except we were right cold and wet by the time we got back to our mess. A rumour went round it was an Italian sub, so one of ours now that they’ve surrendered. Let’s pray the other lot surrender soon too, though between you and me I wouldn’t mind a look at Africa now that I've come this far.

Reconstructed from a record written by my father, then Private Jack Shephard of the Royal Engineers. He was posted to West Africa aged 19.  He continued his notes in pencil when his pen stopped working due to the equatorial heat.