I don’t know if it’s because I was born and raised on an island (albeit not near a coast) but I like staring out to sea. It also terrifies me (I try not to actually go in it if at all possible) but it fascinates me. Joseph Conrad wrote “As if it were too great, too mighty for common virtues, the ocean has no compassion, no faith, no law, no memory” and staring out to sea seems to erase every thought in my head and nothing else really matters -it’s a calming influence, and those ideas of faithlessness and memory loss seem very real by the sea. Everything else fades away and everything will be okay as long as the tide continues to go in and out. I live in London but I gravitate to the sea when I can. Like the moon is pulling me there.
Recently I took a road trip to a seaside town in south west Wales called Tenby. My parents took me and my brother there virtually every summer during our childhood. I first went there in 1989, in the back of my dad’s red 1984 Fiat Uno, and we stayed in a self catering apartment and played on the beach every day. Many summers followed. Before me, my Dad and his sister got taken there by their parents when they were children. We seem to have some sort of family connection to the place. I last went with my Mum and brother in 1998, aged 14. I remember staying in a blue house right on the beach in the harbour, and one night the klaxon sounded for the lifeboat station, and all the lifeboat men came rushing down to the harbour. The lifeboat was launched within minutes. We all rushed up to Castle Hill to watch it speed off into the night. But I was 14 and being a teenager was taking over from childhood innocence, and the desire to spend every summer on the beach in Wales.
Aside from a brief 20 minutes spent there in 2008 with friends, before a rainstorm sent us running back to our cars (we were staying up the coast, in a holiday cottage in the middle of nowhere and had driven to Tenby looking for sun and sea and ice cream, but in Wales, it always rains, even in August) I hadn’t been back, and as I had grown up, and my life had been taken over by…life, I had forgotten all about the medieval town walls and the vast beaches and the island 2 miles off the coast inhabited and run by monks. The brightly coloured fishing boats and pastel fronted town houses of my youth. Buckets and spades and fishing nets and the smell of the saltwater and the sound of seagulls. Last month I decided to go back, on my own. I didn’t know why until I got there, and saw it all again, and realised nothing had changed in all that time, and everything was still the same.
I had left a part of myself there, and it was waiting for me.
The sky was overcast and the sea was calm, like a millpond. I parked my car in a cliff side car park (the man in the booth at the entrance raised his eyebrows when I asked for a 48 hour ticket. ‘It’ll be £12’ he said with a warning in his voice. I decided not to mention that I’m from London and therefore £12 for 2 nights is almost like giving me my own parking space and a key to the city) and abandoned it there, walking straight to the edge of the cliff and staring out at the sea with Caldey Island stretching out in front of me. Later on, I explored the entire town, trying to find everything I remembered from my childhood. The tide was out so I could walk all the way along the South Beach, onto the Castle Beach to gaze up at St Catherine’s Island (known locally as St Catherine’s Rock) and the old, frightening looking fort that sits atop it and has done for over a century, and then down into the harbour, right on between the boats and onto the North Beach, where the Goscar Rock (a Viking name) sits, tall and imposing, just the same as it did when I was 5 years old. I walked up into the walled old town and realised that lots of the shops and restaurants I frequented when I was a kid were still there. I wandered around until the rain got heavier and drove me indoors, and then I took advantage of being an adult now, and ate amazing Welsh fillet steak and drank wine.
Over the next couple of days I forgot all about my life as it is now. I forgot about being an adult and everything that was waiting for me back on the other side of the Severn Bridge. I took a boat out to Caldey Island to find the lighthouse that sits on the far side of it. I sat in the little fishing boat and stared over the side, mesmerised by the rise and fall of the water in the sound. I could have sailed back and forth all day. I walked up and down the beach, thinking of nothing in particular, not even bothered that I didn’t even have a dog or a metal detector or a pair of running shoes with me to make me look like I was doing something productive. I considered the possibility of running away to sea and becoming a pirate, or at the very least a merchant sailor. I could even buy my own fishing boat and run tours every day to see the seals out on the Pembrokeshire rocks. I stayed in a hotel that was right on the sea front, and every morning I woke up to the gentle rushing sound of waves breaking on the sand.
And I wondered about the possibility of a childhood holiday destination as a sort of cemetery. I know it sounds a little tenuous, as if I’m desperately trying to find a way to tie this entry to the Cemetery Club theme, and maybe I am, but I think there’s something in it. The places we went as a child and the memories we made in those places become like a graveyard – it’s possible to go back and look at everything we once remembered and were part of with different eyes, to wander about the place and remember and mourn and celebrate the years lost, and each sight we see that triggers those childhood memories becomes like a gravestone, a monument to what we had before we grew up and became jaded and preoccupied with things that didn’t involve rock pools and exploring caves and eating lunch in the beach side cafe that did the really GOOD chips. It would be amazing to regress back and experience it all like children again, but as an adult, I’m happy to settle for the memories and seeing everything through new, adult eyes. And of course, seeing my old favourite holiday destination was even better because I got to spend time beside the sea. Which as we know, has no memory. And whilst I got to relive the past when wandering through the town, when I was facing the sea, my mind was wiped blank and that was equally as good.
The little town of Tenby has a rich history, which you can read about here, here and here.
I’m not great with the historian stuff (although I’m learning a lot from Sheldon!) but here’s a a few mini-facts about Tenby:-
(you can also click on the links throughout the post to find out more about the places mentioned)
Tenby’s Welsh name is Dinbygh-y-Pysgod, which means ‘little fortress of the fishes’.
Henry VII (then Henry Tudor) spent time hiding out in Tenby during The War of the Roses.
Tenby is packed full of historical ruins and other falling down things of interest, including the remains of a fort on Castle Hill, the old town walls and Five Arches left over from the Normans, and the old lifeboat house, which still stands, right next to the new one (it’s now a house and was featured on Grand Designs not too long ago).
There’s currently a project underway to look into making St Catherine’s Rock accessible by land and turning it into a tourist attraction. It’s controversial. There will be more on this in a future Cemetery Club post.
All photographs in this post by Christina Owen.