One of the good things about local tv news is that it sometimes turns its bloodshot eye to a local place of interest that you might very well have not known existed before. This happened for us with the Purton Hulks.
There being little news about bin collection and rabid newts that particular while ago, the intrepid reporter was sent out to drum up something and to be fair he found a stonker. He was pictured on the windswept shores of the Severn Estuary standing amongst the ribs and keels of a series of historic ships.
They aren’t historic in the way that The Golden Hind or the Victory are, nothing nationally momentous or involving Nelson happened aboard these vessels, rather they are historic because they have come from history. They were each wrecked or beached on purpose at the shoreline at Purton after it was realised that the erosion from the Severn estuary was starting to compromise the safety of the Gloucester Sharpness canal. Over time they’ve become an odd collection of maritime history, different vessels from different decades making up a perfect whole.
I say nothing nationally momentous happened aboard these vessels but I can’t say that for certain. Each old girl lying in the sand, draped with grass or hidden amongst the reeds has her own history. Every vessel had her crew and sailed the waters of the world for a minimum of twenty years. Some of the ships are older than others, the oldest, if memory of the information board serves, began her time in 1879. A lot of tides have risen and fallen beneath these old girls’ keels.
For a site that is, to all intents, post industrial, it is a wonderful and tranquil place. The estuary is very beautiful and on the day we wandered over there, not at all busy. There were no ice-cream vans and hoards of people or even very many dogwalkers. We parked up at the swingbridge and then headed onto the canal path. I think I’ve blogged before about my love for canals and the Gloucester Sharpness is impressive, a new favourite. It’s very wide, rather like the Caledonian canal on account of the fact it was built for bigger ships coming in and out of Gloucester, not just the narrowboats with their cargoes. It serves up a double whammy of canal and coastline too. On our return journey we were treated to the sight of a three masted tall ship just skimming by.
Over the swingbridge and we turned off at the sign saying ‘Purton Hulks’. Already the hair on the back of my neck was rising at the word ‘hulks’. There is a creak to the word, a heaviness. The place does not disappoint. The path leads you to the shoreline and there are instantly two or three heavy ship corpses draped in the sand of time and tide, swirled with long grass. Bows poke out of the ground, concrete and iron rust and crumble and yet they are still strong, powerful shapes. A rudder lifted into the wind that whips off the water.
The further you go the more there are, some just a last timber or two, skeletal and hard to make out in the sea of grass. Others appear to have vanished utterly until an angle in the grass catches your eye and you see the stern, the timbers stretching, a rusted porthole. Others are like ribcages, bony with rivets. At each there is a small plaque giving the name and some information about their timeline. It is a collection, a reverse archaeology, of trows and barges, docklighters and schooners.
It is one of the most wonderful places I’ve ever been to. There is a deep magical feel, increasing in intensity until you reach the far reed beds, the vessels there lying hidden in the wind whispered stalks.
These were all working vessels, hardworking, lugging and tugging and tonnage. As I stood on the edge of the estuary I had a thought that they are a ghost fleet, anchored and resting. If you needed to, you could call on these ships. Someone somewhere might suggest you’d need a particular kind of sorcery or necromancy to reanimate the ship spirits and bring them to your aid.
You might consider what is required of you and your summoning spell to dredge them from the bank; your desperate need, your panicked beating heart, the prickling at the back of your neck, a high wind and the right words. Ahoy might be brought into play somewhere in the manner of Abracadabra.
You’d be wrong. All you’d need is a bosun’s whistle and they’d come to you my lad.
For more info just click here folks: http://www.friendsofpurton.org.uk/purtonthevessels.html
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Of late we have taken to attempting to find walks that start literally at our doorstep. Turn left to the woods. Turn right to the canal. This makes it sound easy as if I just fall out of my door into a bucolic paradise requiring no more equipment than my Bo Peep outfit. They are all the rage here in Wiltshire. Pinnies. Bonnets. Croziers. Our usual kit and caboodle involves, at its most basic, a banana and a bag of crisps. It becomes more sophisticated if we have printed off a map from Bing, one with public footpaths outlined and the blue veins of waterways. On those sort of days we pack a flask of tea. If I was going to conquer Everest I would do it with a Thermos of tea.
Of course, the tea is what leads to my new hobby of ‘wild peeing’. This, for the uninitiated is the need, when you have to pee, to ‘return to the wild’ or ‘go native’ and in lieu of the brick and mortar and crinkly papered Public Convenience you have to make do with Mother Nature’s porcelain or, to give it its botanic term; ‘a bush’. Trees are also useful if they are wide enough in girth to screen you from the gaze of other canal walkers. Fortunately we have a canal and a wood alongside each other and a river alongside that too so that you have all your bases covered. Your walk. Your nature haven. Your kayak M25.
I used to be a terrible townie in that I found it almost impossible to pee in the woods. There was always that dreadful moment when the dancing began, the crossing and uncrossing of legs, the odd noises of exasperation due to micturation when I could not find a door with a primitive picture of a lady on it and some twentieth century plumbing anywhere. If it didn’t have a bowl and a lid I was lost. Only in moments of utter desperation would I be persuaded to take my chances with the wildlife. Invariably there were stinging nettles. Sometimes a surprised fox, although never more surprised than me. Once there was a close encounter with some tourists on a Pembrokeshire coastal path. I had not understood that my husband’s frantic calls of ‘Helen. Helen. Helen.’ were code for ‘There’s someone coming.’ I had replied to the most frantic ‘Helenhelenhelen’ with ‘will you be quiet!’ just as the group of ramblers hove into view. There is a reason I love elastic waistbands. Speed. I pretended to be squatting in the flora to identify an orange fungus which , I announced in my best Botany voice “…is in fact called ‘orange peel fungus’.” No one was convinced, least of all the bit of orange peel some previous pee-er had abandoned complete with its ‘jaffa’ sticker.
My husband is Welsh and a bit of a man of the mountains. I don’t mean that he plays a banjo or whittles sticks or anything but he is never more at home than in his hiking boots and pees, frankly, anywhere. He has no qualms about wild peeing although I used to point out that it is much easier for those of us of the masculine persuasion since it involves the undoing of a zip and not much more. The feminine pipework requires the full dressing down of course. Haunches come into play as you squat or hover. That aside he persuaded me, eventually, that peeing in the wild was, after all, the natural thing. Peeing in a porcelain loo is not. Over the years and the hikes I have got more and more used to peeing in the wild.
I have become so accustomed to a wild wee that, if I am being honest, and that’s what a blog can allow you to do, OK, are you ready for this?…If I am being honest… I actually PREFER peeing in the wild. It isn’t just the sensation of the wind on your cheeks or indeed the nettles, it is the fact that you are being ecological and biodegradable. A recent Radio 4 programme offered the opinion, put forward by some sort of plumbing ecologist, that the flush toilet was the worst thing we ever invented. It’s wasteful. No pun intended.
Originally I was anxious of course. I am an urbanite and as such I was worried about attack by wildlife, the bears and the wolves that are in our primal imagination and the actual ants and bees that still cling to existence. I was slightly less anxious about being seen, bottom out. My husband made a joke of it every time I needed to pee on a walk or hike or other forced march fun and frolics. There was one period of time where he actually took photos of me peeing, unawares. He would jump out at me with his camera and a yell of ‘Say Pees’. Hm. Perhaps that’s too much honesty for a blog. He has, thankfully, grown out of that phase and as he has grown out of that so I’ve grown out of my urban hang ups.
Pee in the woods. Seriously. Try it. Obviously don’t go too mad and desecrate a floral clock or the stand of trees in the park perhaps, but next time you’re out there just reach back for your wilder self. It is very freeing. I am not anxious at all on a walk now. I am friend to the stinging nettles and the hogweed.
One of my recent thoughts on the subject was if I pee in the woods often enough will the foxes recognise my scent? This thought occurred this weekend when we were out on a walk, one of our doorstep delight walks and we came across a couple of earths and some fox scat. Scat is poo of course, except for the urban foxes where ‘fox scat’ is something that is popular in jazz clubs. Anyway, stupid jokes aside I do wonder. There are bits of the paths where I can smell fox and I don’t even have that great an olfactory sense. I’m only human, not vulpine or canine. When we are strolling along the canal path and someone is walking their dog and the dog is all over the place, bombarded with and wild about the scents it is picking up I wonder about the landscape it is sniffing. The Smellscape.
I want to be part of that smellscape, to be part of the land. Let the wind whistle where it may, I am content to connect to my primeval past. Next time you’re out, why not try it? Reclaim your land, mark your territory. And watch out for the stingies.
Fighting was on the curriculum at my secondary school. Punches flew, teeth rolled down the corridors like dice. There was blood enough for pudding on most days. Our young and enthusiastic drama teacher, Ms Hepplewhite already thought outside the box by incorporating ‘stage combat’ into our drama lessons, so that, when things did kick off, she could still retain some small element of control. If we fought in the drama block we did it with rapiers and morningstars made of wood and rubber and we adhered to the loosest interpretation of the Marquess of Queensberry rules. Unlike the science labs, where we torched each other with bunsen burners.
If you arrived home without a tear in your jumper and a black eye then, frankly, you hadn’t been doing your scholastic job.
I was not a good fighter due to a high level of basic fear and cowardice. During one altercation Beverley Fitzgibbon had attempted to rearrange my teeth with a single right hook but, unfortunately, my braces had already been trying to do the same task for about a year and so the gnarled skin of her knuckles locked into the fretwork grille of my face. There were several horror film moments filled with smearing blood and bits of finger before we were taken to the physics lab and lasered apart. This was occurring at much the same time that Richard Kiel was portraying everyone’s favourite Bond villain ‘Jaws’ and the film infected real life. A rumour began to circulate that I was the girl who had ‘eaten Beverley Fitzgibbon’s finger’.
This brought me, unexpectedly, to the attention of the proper school bully, one red-haired, flame-tempered Gemma O’Garr.
Gemma was the undisputed champion of our particular halls of Academe. She had flattened her last opponent without even removing her parka, her hand shooting out of the khaki green sleeve in something perilously like the mythic One Inch Punch. Of course that hand had not hefted the blow, the finisher had come from her other hand, cannoning upwards into the distracted face. Her footwork was worthy of the Bolshoi. Her battered trainer, the footwear itself a snub to the School Dress Code, could fly up at any angle to clip ear or nose, to crush the air out of an assailant’s chest. Her reputation carried a long dark shadow, sticky with blood. She was basically Boudicca.
Gemma had taken down the male bully, Martin Fieldhalgh by snapping his flick knife in two after slicing off his ear, and so I could see that I had no chance given that my only weapon was fear.
There was a build up to the fight which included the usual baiting and verbal abuse, much of which I appeared oblivious to because my face was frozen, the muscles spasmed into a blank as I channelled every small mammal’s go-to survival option; a desperate attempt to attain invisibility. Gemma had her cohort of cronies, those kids wise enough to realise that being on Gemma’s side meant you didn’t end up on the receiving end of her blows. I had nothing. I was a lone warrior.
The day of the fight was looming, imagine a big calendar with red crosses on it leading to one day with a skull and crossbones. There was no escape. Throwing a sicky wasn’t a option, it would just put off the terrible conflict. I began to read up about famous battles and long for advice from the Duke of Wellington. In the end it was Jasper Maskelyne, the war magician, who snapped his fingers and came to my aid.
The fight began with the circling of the Mob at the gates. Front row seats were to be had in the staff room where binoculars had been set up and a sweepstake was being run. Nothing was riding on me. The outcomes were a list of my possible broken bones and missing teeth. How many bones? How many teeth? It was a hundred to one that I might lose an eye.
I maintained my harvest mouse demeanour, having to push my way through the crowd to the tarmac arena where Gemma and her second were prowling to the chant of the Mob. GEM-AH GEM-AH GEM-AH and that was just the staff. I maintained my blank stare, my silence. Taunts were thrown and I stayed, shall we say, tight-lipped.
There was no whistle as such, just a primal war cry from GEM-AH as she launched herself at me like a panther on a sheep. She was surprised at the fact that far from push her away or attempt to rip off my own arm to escape, I dug into the fight. I was head down, being pummelled but pushing against her so that we reeled around the arena. It was like dancing, me pushing forwards, now pulling back as she rained blows on me. As the chant became higher-pitched and more hysterical I leapt away, threw a wild punch that missed completely and almost rolled back round to hit me. GEM-AH grabbed my arm and made a punch at my stomach. As she did so I folded in half, blood spurtled scarlet from my mouth, spattering the floor. Only some of the Mob noticed and, repulsed, visibly backed off as GEM-AH kneed me in the face. There was a brief and bloody burst, the red squirting up into GEM-AH’s own face so that she was, at last, halted. She darted back, the red gloop slimy and dark and now the Mob saw the blood and bayed. I gave a scream that curdled the UHT milk in the school kitchens and lifted my face.
My left eyeball was a bloodied crimson pulp, ooze and goo dripped and sprayed as I wheeled around, screeching, banshee fashion and clutching at the hole where once my eye had been. The Mob saw the disaster at once and their scream was a single unifying sound that scythed its way over the Mob, some vomiting, some crying, others running for home, from the air it must have looked like an earthquake of teenagers rolling from an epicentre of gore.
The sound of my scream rang out, until the cassette tape it was playing out from started to chew into the workings of the small pocket recorder and I clicked it off. I leaned against the school gate for some minutes, until the caretaker came to sluice away the mess.
The pulped beef tomato which had stood in for my eyeball, I lobbed over the first fence on my way home where a robin descended to peck at its remains. The red food colouring/Ketchup combo did not wash out of my school shirt but I had anticipated this and already saved some pocket money in order to buy a replacement. At home I cleaned my teeth, letting the vivid vermillion froth linger a little while in the sink as I breathed in, calm and deep.
For the next few months I wore an eyepatch to school and was given a wide berth by GEM-AH and pretty much everyone else. The eyepatch was ditched later and a rumour of a glass eye held sway. This glass bauble was referred to as The Evil Eye. Pupils crossed themselves in the corridors or carried garlic. I retreated into the waiting embrace of the Bronte sisters and shrugged my shoulders into a heavy cloak of invisibility.
Ms Hepplewhite gave me a gold star for Drama, stuck into my workbook with a knowing wink.