NWR Issue 103

Snakes and Ladders

Map of Bristol Channel

It was a bird’s eye view.

I was flying home to the Vale of Glamorgan in south Wales and my thoughts were focused on the college where I worked – on the coast halfway between Barry and Bridgend – and the new term about to start. The holiday in the Canary Islands had been a fifitieth birthday treat and a reviving dose of winter sunshine – but now I needed to plan my classes for the next day.

The plane began its descent over the English Channel and then, reaching Devon, flew up the river Exe to Exeter. I had been a student at Exeter University, which was where I’d met my Welsh husband, so tried to make out familiar details, but we were still too high. Soon I could see the Mendip Hills and beyond that the edge of Bristol where I grew up; but before reaching the city the plane banked to the west, heading for Weston-super-Mare and Brean Down. Now I was really interested: nearly all my childhood holidays had been spent at Brean, just south of Weston. The familiar shapes of Brean Down and the islands of Steep Holm and Flat Holm looked up – subtly altered at that angle – from the muddy waters of the Bristol Channel as we glided above them. The plane flew west, beyond Cardiff Airport, then turned back over Atlantic College and St Donats to make its approach head to wind. We were now so low I could see my house and the campus, rotating beneath us. After skimming three miles of coastline, we landed gently in Cardiff Airport.

I had just flown over the past fifty years of my life and it had taken less than twenty minutes.

Despite the freedom to roam, offered by the twentieth century, I had stayed close to home all my life.
Brean dunes overlooking Brean Down,

From the plane, Brean Down was a little finger pointing in the direction life would eventually take me: over the Severn Estuary and back to Wales, my father’s country. From the ground, Brean Down looks like the half-submerged head of a sleeping elephant. It is a continuation of the Mendip Hills: made of limestone, it extends one and a half miles into the Bristol Channel. A Mendip giant would only need four limestone steps to reach Wales: one to Brean Down, then a hop and a skip across the islands of Steep Holm and Flat Holm, stepping down on the other side in Barry or even St Donats.

I remember scrambling out of the car after the journey down the A38 from Bristol to Brean. My two brothers, my sister and I would leave our parents to unload the luggage, and we’d race each other up the steps cut into the damp sand dunes. On one side of the slope, birch trees turned silver as their leaves tossed and hissed in the wind; on the other, the dunes bristled with impenetrable sea buckthorn. The steps were fringed with evening primroses – the wind battering their ragged yellow petals – but I knew that soon my mother would open her holiday paint box and render them perfect again; she would surprise us with their beauty, and her unsuspected talent as an artist. Climbing to the top of the steps we discovered the holiday bungalow half-hidden in the dunes, but it was the sea we wanted to see. Was the tide in or out? ‘Out’ meant invisible, so far out it was almost in Wales, but ‘in’ meant its churned up, muddy water rolling towards us, chocolate wave after wave, topped with cream, roaring then sighing.

The sea was brown from the mass of silt it carried; it was the only sea I knew so I wasn’t surprised by its colour. Our one holiday away from Brean, on the south coast of Devon, is photographed in my memory in Kodak colour: the fisherman slithering his catch of silver mackerel onto the pebbled beach while the sea turns turquoise, lit by the evening sun. That Devon holiday was the first time I had been able to see my feet when paddling. When I swam and put my head under the water I saw, with alarm, that other creatures were swimming with me and that writhing just beneath my chest were snake-green fronds of weed.

Brean was not a picturesque holiday destination: there was just a single road that ran between Burnham-on-Sea to the south and Brean Down to the north where it petered out into farmland and a caravan site. The dunes and their whistling grasses hid the beach from view but every so often a sandy path beckoned as it climbed through the marram grass; grass which whispered seductively: ‘Come and see the sea.’

Our family had rented the same bungalow for three generations. The sitting room had an open fireplace and two large windows facing south and west. Beneath each window was a padded chest full of old comics and boxes of games like Ludo and Snakes and Ladders. Over the fireplace was a painting of a boy asleep on a sun-drenched sand dune. Black and white tiles covered the floor and by the end of the holiday the sand from our bare feet would waft lazily along it in the breeze.

Once we arrived there were two vital expeditions to be performed: the first was the trek along the sands north and south to look for driftwood. It needed to be on the landward side of the seaweed to be any good as fuel, and was contorted into wizened and grey shapes. Nowadays it sells as tasteful table decorations for second homes by the sea – but we burnt it. On wet afternoons we lay on cushions in front of a smoky driftwood fire, playing card games and Snakes and Ladders. Sometimes we just stared into the blue flames enjoying the salty smell. When the rain stopped we embarked on the doomed quest to the west, to try and reach the waves when the tide was out. We always tried it, just as my mother and her brothers had done a generation before.

At first there was firm footing as we crossed the sands between the dunes and the high water mark but after we’d crunched through the line of bladder wrack and its biting flies, the beach became pockmarked with worm casts. Then the sand began to blend into a rich mud: the retreating tide had spawned bi- valve shells everywhere – they always reminded me of the pink translucence of a baby’s fingernails – and these were entwined with ripples of coal dust. We knew this had seeped from wrecked ships carrying Welsh coal out from Cardiff and Newport. I would stuff my pockets with the shells so that later I could wash them and stick them onto matchboxes. A lick of varnish and they became pirates’ treasure chests.

Soon the mud became thicker and we would shriek with mock disgust as it squirted through our toes. Eventually, knee – and even thigh–deep in mud, we would recognize defeat, turn around and head back, caked in a black slime that quickly dried and encased us in armour. We wore it with pride for the rest of the day like a medal for endeavour, though it itched and pulled at the skin as it dried.

In the evenings – after a bath to melt the mud away – we would sit with my parents at the top of the dunes and raise a glass of lemonade to toast the sunset. We were looking at the coast of Barry less than ten miles away and just round the corner to St Donats – though I didn’t know that then. We sat and dreamed and looked at the place where many years later I would live and work, moved by a roll of the dice.
Snakes and Ladders

You shake the dice and see what happens next.
Now move along the horizontal plane.
But after only twenty squares, you’re back
practically where you started from. Unless
a ladder or a snake should intervene:
the first will give you illumination,
perspective, visions of the time to come.
The snakes will slide you down. The past repeats.

[PAGE 2]

For the other fifty weeks of the year my forays into the natural world took place in a large garden in Fishponds, a suburb of Bristol. Here the ambient sound was not the roar of the wind and sea but of traffic, which flowed past the front gate. The rumble would start at 6am and the double decker buses would still vibrate my bedroom windows as I fell asleep at night. Brean had sharp grasses and thorns which cut my bare feet, but the back garden in Bristol was enclosed, safe and lush. Nevertheless, half of it was as wild as my imagination; the other half had been tamed, becoming a kitchen garden. Perhaps I pretended to be a snake or perhaps because I was a small child, my memories of this garden are very close to the ground; I can still smell the warmth of the soil in summer.

There was nothing – as yet – aesthetic about this wriggling through the undergrowth; nature was functional: dandelions told the time as well as the fact you might wet the bed that night, buttercups told if you liked butter. Grass was for signalling your fellow Red Indian scouts. Put a blade of grass flat along the outer edge of your left thumb and hold it in place with the outer edge of the right thumb. Put your lips to the gap left between the knuckles and the thumb joints and blow. It makes a rude, rasping call like that of a pheasant. If one of my friends could do this, she could join my gang. Nettles hurt and went on hurting for a day: the memory of the sting still tingled the day after, but we knew where the dock leaves grew. Cleavers or goose grass was the perfect weapon as it clung to the back of an unsuspecting Indian Brave, marking him as the enemy. At night I would drowsily pick the burrs from my hair before falling asleep.

Fir cones could be treasure or ammunition, but the real treasure was the perfect conker. The excitement of finding a sliver of glistening brown between the just-split conker case still thrills me as an adult. There is a satisfying squeak as my thumbs prise apart the prickly green casing. Will it be a whopper or twins? The conker has a filmy white covering but when I wipe it away, I rub the satiny brown shell across my upper lip. It has a clean, nutty smell.

There was also buried treasure. When digging a hole for worms or looking under stones for ants’ nests I would often discover broken bits of china. They were never much bigger than half a crown or a 50p coin but they were beautifully painted with flowers or willow patterns. I loved the idea that I was playing on a patch of ground where children from long ago had done the same. Maybe they had left these bits of crockery as a gift from the past. I determined to carry on their plan and wrote my name and the date on a piece of card, put it in a jam jar, screwed the lid on tightly and buried it next to the compost heap.

On the other side of the path that ran down the middle of the garden, everything followed a strict grid pattern. There were rows of raspberry canes, redcurrants and blackcurrants and gooseberries. For a month or two in the summer, me and my gang could go scrumping, grazing on young peapods and baby carrots, spring onions and mint: the soil had a metallic taste, rather like when I chewed the end of my pencil when trying to do arithmetic.

At the age of ten I had my first pair of glasses. Trees were transformed –
no longer green lollipops but delicate traceries of individual leaves. When I stood beneath them and looked up, sharply defined branches glistened in the rain; I could even see the droplets as they hung suspended from each leaf. My hearing improved. The thrush’s song developed liquid clarity now that I could see the bird and the movement of its throat. This shining, scissor-sharp new world overcame my embarrassment and I wore my new glasses all the time.

Ten horse chestnut trees sheltered the garden and they each developed a distinct personality. Soon, I knew the way up and into each one. In leaf, they became secret caves; their leaves were hands – though sometimes they had seven fingers – and I would shred their flesh between the veins to make skeletons. The horse chestnut tree was probably the first I learned to identify: it was easy in summer because of the distinctive leaf, but in winter the clear sign was the horseshoe-shaped scar of the old leaves neatly nailed onto the stem.

The second tree I identified by name was the hawthorn – though I called it a may tree – and looking back, this marked the first change in my relation with the natural world. Hawthorn was not functional: it was far too prickly to be any good as a den and apart from April and May, when it was in flower, it was easy to ignore.

One April, I knelt on the damp earth under a bush to shelter from the drizzle, and idly poked a snail with a stick to see if I could make its tentacles retract. I became completely absorbed: the quiet tapping of the rain on the new leaves induced a trance-like state and my focus scaled down to that of the snail. A blackbird interrupted, above in the hawthorn tree. I raised my head, and with my new glasses, saw not the bird, but the beauty of the tree for the first time: it looked like a bride. The tiny white flowers grew so thickly, each twig seemed smothered in clotted cream, but there was a touch of strawberry at the tips of the stamens. In my other life, at school, the teachers were about to choose a May Queen who would have the honour of crowning the statue of the Virgin Mary with flowers on May Day. I knew it wouldn’t be me; I didn’t have the long hair that always attracted the nuns when they made their decision. I decided to have a private ceremony instead, so I reached up and picked several stems of the may blossom without getting too badly pricked. I took the flowers inside the house, planning to crown the small statue of the Virgin I kept in my bedroom.

I showed my crown of flowers to my father when he came home that evening but he made me take it downstairs and back out into the garden: it was very unlucky to have may blossom in the house, he said. He was Welsh, and superstitious enough to make sure we never passed each other on the stairs. He became angry if shoes were placed on a table to clean them, and the colour green made him nervous. I was intrigued: was this a Welsh superstition? Or perhaps it was a Protestant belief, left over from anti-Catholic feeling after the Reformation?

Later that evening, bored with flowers, I looked through the shelf of books left by my aunt; she had lived in the same house when she was my age. Reading about King Arthur, I discovered the story of Merlin and how Nimue had imprisoned him for eternity, locked in the heart of a hawthorn tree. Suddenly, this tree with its twisted trunk which was no good as a den had an aura; it came to me with a story, a history; it became beautiful.
[PAGE 3]

I began to spend more time indoors, reading and reading my aunt’s forgotten library. I discovered Tammylan the wild man, living in the pages of The Children of Cherry Tree Farm, and it was he who taught me how to tell the difference between a grass snake and an adder, and ‘how a squirrel makes its drey; that a hare leaps sideways to break its scent when being pursued by a fox.’ Not that I had ever seen any of these creatures in my garden.

Then something strange happened. Going out to play on the first dry day after a long winter, I found that I couldn’t do it any more: I had lost the knack of pretending. It was as if my imagination had died.

I wandered through the garden, desolate. Where had all the wild places gone? Why did my secret dens seem no more than damp hollows in the ground under ornamental shrubs? Why, if I put a ladder flat on the grass did it no longer become a Royal Barge, sailing down the Nile? The members of my gang seemed similarly nonplussed. They peeled away one by one: some joined the guides, one joined a youth club, others ‘didn’t want to come out and play today.’

I passed the eleven-plus exam and went to a school on the other side of Bristol. I had far too much homework to do after my long bus journey home to think much about the garden any more. But then my reading – and my hormones – began to refocus my view of nature: it had an allure that was invisible to a child.

A low branch snaked away
from the bole of the tree,
parallel to the ground
chest high.
Pulling it down,
its elasticity
its perfect balance
vibrated my arm.
Thicker than my thigh,
I could flex it with one hand.

A kaleidoscope of colours
circled the branch:
bright beads of wood anemones,
flickering leaves, acid green.
A place where only yesterday,
eyes on the ground,
I would have played,
Now I wanted the maistrie,
to master this tree.

Astride, the thrust of the living tree
bucks me free from the ground
muscles and bough one living tissue.
Propelled by my toes,
I pogo higher,
higher still, till
a raucous cry from a single pheasant,
the white smell of garlic,
lures me down
back to the ground.

Then, only the sound of moisture,
oozing through fissures in the bruised air.

I outgrew the garden and my gang but then I found a replacement. As a member of the 33rd St. Mary’s Girl Guide troop I was free to explore a more rural and diverse ecology. Our camping expeditions took place in the well-managed grounds of the Badminton Estate, but it seemed wild enough to me. It was vast. It had deciduous woodland as well as shady plantations of fir trees with sudden sunlit clearings glowing with foxgloves and willow herb. Spotted lords-and-ladies and celandines lined the paths through the woods and then there were scratchy fields of stubble to explore in the autumn. The klaxon calls of the pheasants and the metallic whirr of partridges resonated through the trees during daylight, and at night, in our tents, we listened to unidentifiable rustles and squeaks as well as the melancholy bark of a lone fox.

I was in love, of course – with my new best friend, with the world, and with my own cleverness. Like a snail my tentacles quivered with awareness. Nature was a mirror in which I saw my own reflection. It was positively benign and intent on impressing my mind with beauty; it gave me a mental landscape into which I could place new ideas. When I first read Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ it was the woods in Badminton where I found ‘fast fading violets covered up in leaves’; when I read ‘To Autumn’ it was my hair that was ‘soft lifted by the winnowing wind’ as I rode the branch of a beech tree skywards. At night when I walked past sheep half-hidden in the mist, when their eyes flashed at me like water, reflecting the moon – then I knew I had discovered Arcadia. It was a heady time.

Many years later, I read an interview with the children’s author Alan Garner, where he said he believed that adolescence was the high point of our mental and emotional development and that what came after was an anti-climax. Now I understand what he meant, as nothing since that ‘heady time’ can match the passionate intensity I felt and unalloyed belief I had in the rightness of the natural world and my connection to it. I had constructed a belief system where a creator had been replaced by his creation and I was its altar-girl.

I had been cradled in a domesticated, suburban environment. At Brean, my brothers, sister and I knew that we were repeating the past, perpetuating the family’s love of place and ritual, such as walking out to catch the retreating tide, or playing games of snakes and ladders in front of a driftwood fire. In Bristol, stone walls and carefully planted trees protected the garden; it was only the traffic that roared outside the front gate. At Badminton, aristocrats with long pedigrees had landscaped and managed the estate for hundreds of years. It was all very safe, it was all very nurtured, and nature reciprocated by nurturing me.
[PAGE 4]

Just once as a child, when I had opened my eyes under water in the clear Devon sea, just once on the only holiday we spent away from Brean, did I receive a hint of the ‘otherness’, the indifference of nature: the green weed which streamed in the current, the tiny fish that flitted past, were oblivious to my past, my family, to my very existence.

See me swim
watch me dive
I’m confident, I’m free
no gravity
no up no down
but round and round
in dimness
my limbs unfurl
I curl
with slippery

Starfish beneath me
zombie hands
finger the ocean floor.

I claw
my way back
home to the sky….

It was a warm day in Devon, and while I was wondering what to do with it, a man called Rupert already had plans. Rupert was sixty-four years old and liked to keep himself fit by swimming in the sea off Exmouth. That particular day, he left his clothes neatly folded on the beach, removed his false teeth and put them in his trouser pocket before jogging to the water’s edge. He let his ankles and knees become accustomed to the temperature – it was early June and the water was still cold – and then he threw himself forward in a vigorous crawl away from the shore.

However carefully you may have trained in the local swimming pool to gain your lifeguard badge, it’s not quite the same as frantically treading water a long way from the shore as you try to hold the head of an already unconscious old man above the surface of the sea. If you have only practised mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on a plastic doll you will not appreciate how unpleasant it is if the mouth of the casualty is toothless and filled with pale yellow foam that bubbles up from the lungs and you have to suck it out.

Rupert’s unremarkable death in the clear waters of Exmouth in front of a beach crowded with students from Exeter University disorientated me at the time.

I had just finished my end of term exams, it was summer and that morning the word spread quickly through our hall of residence that there were lifts available to the beach. My friends introduced me to a third year student called Gareth and then we all climbed into the back of his battered old Land Rover. After we had picked up a dinghy and trailer from the sailing club we joined a larger group of students on Exmouth beach.

As we helped to push the dinghy into the water and bickered over who would go out first, Rupert must have realised how far away he was from the shore. Maybe he had cramp; maybe he just became very tired or very cold. All I remember is that it was not good sailing weather: there was hardly any wind, the sun shone and the sea was blue and flat.

Gareth and I sailed slowly away from the shore but this gave us time to talk and get to know each other a little better. Suddenly we heard shouts of ‘Help, Help, I’m drowning!’ I thought someone on the beach was fooling around but then saw my friends jumping up and down and pointing further out to sea. I turned around and saw a waving arm silhouetted against the water’s dazzle, no more than a hundred yards away. Despite our efforts to tighten the sail and change its angle, the boat drifted towards the arm so slowly that Gareth jumped in and started to swim. After a few strokes we both realised that the boat was going to overtake him so I pulled him back in. When we reached Rupert, he could have been mistaken for a piece of driftwood: he looked grey and waterlogged; only the top of his head was above the surface. Once again, Gareth jumped in, but now I felt fear for the first time as the boat kept on going. I couldn’t control it and thought I would sail further out to sea, alone. We changed places. I jumped into the sea and Gareth climbed back into the dinghy.

It was as I struggled to hold Rupert’s head above water – my hand was gripping his throat – as I stared into his open eyes and frothing mouth, it was then that I realised I was no longer afraid. Because the sea was blue and calm, because the sun was shining in a clear blue sky, I thought I was in control: all would be well. The elements deceived me.

Soon several students who had swum out from the beach reached us: the body was taken from me and levered into the boat. Then they hauled me in to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation as the others swam-pushed us back to the shore. A crowd had gathered and a young mother in a bikini said she was a doctor. She quickly examined Rupert and told us he was dead.

I had been deceived: nature was dangerous as well as beautiful and I had been wrong to think I could read her mood. My study of literature had reinforced my mistaken belief. Lear’s madness in the storm and Heathcliff’s passion on the wind-swept moors had a symbiotic truth that I could relate to – had always related to – but it was possible to feel terror, then die, in a calm sea on a sunny day while children on the beach were making sand castles.
[PAGE 5]

A year after Rupert drowned, one of my younger brothers, Peter, was diagnosed with epilepsy. Obviously there is no link between these two events but my mental landscape altered again and as he grew into a strong-willed teenager, I became ludicrously over-protective. I even feared he would drown in the bath and tried to persuade him never to lock the bathroom door. Luckily for him, I married Gareth and moved away from home. A year later, my parents invited us to go on holiday with them and my two younger brothers. They were going to return to Brean after an absence of several years, to the same bungalow.

The first few days of the holiday, I wallowed in all the joys of gratifying nostalgia: the sound of the dry sand as it hissed through the grasses, the roar of the incoming tide; even the boxes of Ludo and Snakes and Ladders were still in the chests under the big windows. I borrowed my mother’s paint box and tried to paint the evening primroses. We toasted the sunset with a glass of wine instead of lemonade. But when the tide retreated, it uncovered quicksand: surely that had not been there before? People could become sucked into the mud and drown when the tide came in – it happened nearly every year – or so I had read. Peter was a strong swimmer but I would stand in the shallows as he swam… just in case. Twice I waded in, waist deep and fully clothed, as he fooled me by diving under the muddy waves and staying under as long as possible. Understandably he started to sneak down for a swim without telling anyone. I’d watch him creep past the windows to the beach, but now I forced myself not to follow. Safely out of the water, he was still in danger as far as I was concerned: when had Brean Down developed such precipitous cliffs? As we walked along its familiar tracks I did not hear the skylarks. I did not try to see them spiralling above. Instead I was straining my eyes to see if Peter was walking too close to the edge. I was the one who had lost my sense of balance.

Peter died four years later, in a road accident, on his twentieth birthday. The day before the accident he had phoned me to tell of a birthday treat. David, our younger brother, had taken him to Brean and they had played at being kids again – flying a kite, climbing Brean Down – and then they had tried one more time to catch the receding tide.

Brean Down and Steep Holm,

[PAGE 6]

Where does the tide go when it goes out at Brean? When I was a child the answer was obvious: over to Wales. The waves came in, parallel to the shore so when they retreated as the tide went out, I assumed they were rolling in parallel with the Welsh coast opposite. When I was older, I learned about the pull of the moon’s gravity, and for many years I assumed that instead, the water was pulled upwards in the middle of the channel at low tide, and then released in a flood at high tide.

Twenty-nine years ago, Gareth and I followed the tide, over the Severn, to Wales. For much of this time we lived and worked in St Donats, at Atlantic College overlooking the Bristol Channel. I have looked at the sea and across to the hills of Exmoor every day since then; both my sons have trained as crew with the College’s lifeboat station, yet only recently have I discovered the truth about this restless, relentless heave of muddy water. The flow of the tide is from west to east: it rushes into the funnel-shaped estuary from the Atlantic and when the tide is high, here at St Donats, it is also nearly high tide in Brean.

How many other assumptions about the natural world are coloured by mistaken beliefs? If I were a scientist this would be a prime concern, but my fascination with the natural world has not been analytical, it has been subjective. My childish assumption that everything in the Bristol garden was for my use and delight is prelapsarian, a myth, but it was true at the time. Brean was a holiday haven and it also harboured quicksand. The woods and fields in the Badminton Estate proved there was a spiritual connection between humans and nature and gave me intense happiness, even though later on I was disillusioned when Rupert drowned.

Nature at this particular place and time, on the coast of the Vale of Glamorgan has been tamed and farmed for millennia: perhaps this is why I have lately discovered a desire to imagine something mystical or at the very least something meaningful about the landscape, as I walk through the fields and old drovers’ roads. There are few dangerous animals left. The only threat is from the shy adder and maybe one or two people are crushed each year by curious cows. I recall no earthquakes, no plagues of locusts, and just one hurricane. Nevertheless the landscape and the changing seasons still stimulate what Wordsworth described as ‘a spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling’ – deliriously so – but my ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ produces something else: a reshaping, a manipulation of the natural world so that it assumes a significance. It was reading an article by Thomas de Wesselow in the Weekend Telegraph on 24 March 2012 that helped me to understand what I was doing. ‘However odd such ways of thinking might seem to those of us brought up to think rationally and scientifically, both animism and anthropomorphism are deep seated impulses, found the world over.’ He goes on to suggest that ‘Images… naturally come alive in human minds. But they are obviously not alive like us. Animated images belong therefore, to the domain of the magical, the uncanny, the supernatural and the divine.’
[PAGE 7]

In July of 2002, I was haunted by such an image. A spectre left behind the delicate tracery of its presence on the window of an empty house. It was like a fingerprint from another dimension.

The day before we moved into this house, I had sat on the floor of an empty room, gazing at the sea through the large French windows and planning where to put my furniture. College life demanded that all teachers live on campus and, depending on extra-curricular roles such as being in charge of a student residence, a teacher’s family might move house two or three times. This was to be our last move on campus, and the best. Pool House was a large L-shaped bungalow on top of the cliffs looking down on St Donat’s Bay and out across the Bristol Channel to Minehead. Before each move, the college craftsmen would give the empty house a facelift: at the very least the windows would be cleaned and everything would get a coat of paint. Sometimes the wooden floors would be freshly sanded and the kitchen fitted with new cupboards. It was always a time of new beginnings, though the distance ‘moved’ could be measured in yards rather than miles.

I knew who all of Pool House’s previous inhabitants had been back to the 60s when it had been built for Admiral Hoare, the first principal of Atlantic College. Each of them had left their mark on the garden and this was part of the excitement of moving, waiting to see what gifts from the past would thrust through the soil as the first year went by. The cliffs had receded a little since the house was built and the brambles had encroached, so that first spring we uncovered hidden drifts of snowdrops, followed by tidal movements of daffodils, then bluebells. But it was the ghostly image of a glancing impact that left the lasting impression.

An owl had flown into the window: there was no body on the ground, but no doubt about its identity. It must have hit the glass at speed, its wings fully extended, its tail a fraction of a second later. Did it break its neck? Every feather was perfectly etched on the glass but where the head should have been was just a smudge. The wings looked almost surprised, as if they had been taken unawares and snapped by the paparazzi. The shaft of each feather with its filaments could be clearly seen. The top primary on each wing was separated from the rest, like index fingers pointing upwards. The breast feathers were soft and downy and formed a tactile contrast with the sharply drawn tail. On that moving-day, the low morning sun had lit the image like a sacred icon and proffered it as a house-warming gift. It was a work of art painted in dust but so beautiful I felt blessed. Superstitiously I refused to clean it away and left it to the rain and wind. It lasted for a week.

At Goldcliff near Newport
a promontory projects
into the Severn Estuary.
Around the edge – the intertidal zone –
stratified in estuarine silts and peats
are a human family’s footprints.

That walk, six thousand years ago
must have seemed as ephemeral
as the owl’s last flight
towards my window.

Nowadays, if I walk the dogs along the cliff path past Pool House, I notice that the current occupiers have removed the wheelchair ramps we had built when my younger son was paralysed in an accident, a year after we moved in. They have also taken down the swing that we hung from a high branch in the Scots Pine. The swing was on the top of a bank so that one push would launch the swinger soaring over a chasm of green.

The rational side of me knows there is no connection between the owl and my son; at most their broken necks are a grisly coincidence. But writing it this way, reshaping the incident and clothing the owl in a mantle of significance, I am strangely comforted.

In a game of snakes and ladders, the progression along and up the board is numbered from 1 to 100 and eventually the winner will arrive at this destination. Each throw of the dice offers the chance of landing at the foot of a ladder or the head of a snake so vertical movement is always a possibility. I do not remember a single game where the players failed to slide down a few snakes or climb deliriously up a few ladders.

Ellie Rees recently completed an MA in Creative Writing at Swansea University. Before that she was Head of Languages at Atlantic College in the Vale of Glamorgan and lived and worked there for twenty-seven years. Her memoir of her son's accident and subsequent years caring for him, will be published in the autumn edition of New Welsh Review.


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