Wheal Coates in March

ImageWheal Coates is a tin mine that stands on a North Cornish cliff bound by heather and gorse.  Its mineshaft reaches down through the rock to Towanroath Yugga, a cave off Chapel Porth beach that can be entered into when the tide is out.  Today, however, the tide is in, and the weather is foul.  The heather lies low on the ground, as if trying to shelter from the wind and the rain.  It’s a wonder that Wheal Coates still stands and hasn’t been blown into the sea, I think, holding onto my hat as I walk towards the tin mine’s silhouette, through weather that batters me, as if trying to force me back. 

Wheal Coates dates from the 1870s, and was finally abandoned in 1913.  Nearly a hundred years on, the site looks fragmented, as if the cliff had been bombed. Three engine houses still stand, their roofs lost long ago, their tips tinged back into life with the green of moss.  All have cavities where windows should be: the tallest engine house has an uppermost window-hole that frames for me a patch of heavy sky.  Elsewhere are low strips of wall, which, to my ignorant eyes, seem randomly built and abandoned half way through.  The National Trust information board gives these fragments sinister sounding names: Calciner, Boiler Pond, Dressing Floor.  Still, hundreds of people understood this land and used to come to this very spot to work in a world far beneath my feet.  Men died down there, dying of injuries and landslides; many drowned in the dark. 

It is the wailing of the drowning miners that you are meant to hear at Wheal Coates, coming up the mineshaft.  I don’t see the shaft at first: I am too easily distracted by the colour of the stone that has been used to build the various walls.  Blood red, with the occasional streak of white.  It’s not noticeable at a distance, but up close, parts of Wheal Coates look as if they were built from slabs of red meat; gristly steak.  More of the same stone covers the ground and paths: scattered off cuts.  I slide a couple in my pocket, wiping the wet from my fingers onto my sleeves.   

The mineshaft is covered with a metal grid, splitting its disturbing darkness into small, manageable oblongs.  In one corner, part of the grid has been stretched and widened, creating a hole large enough for a dead miner’s forearm to reach out and grab a foot.  Not really knowing what I am doing, I pick a stone out of my pocket and toss it into the shaft to gauge its depth.  Poorly thrown, or swept off course by the wind, it clatters on the shaft’s sides as it falls, creating echoes and thus revealing nothing.  I reach for my other stone but as I do, the wind mimics my actions, tossing rain into my face and whipping my hair.  For the rest of my time on the cliff, it seems to pursue me, howling within the engine houses when I step into them.  It knows the stones better than I do, and uses them to create unusual sounds.  On one occasion, it creates a sound close to my feet that makes me stop still.  Like it knows of an  underground cavity, and is sweeping through it.

It doesn’t spook me at the time, because I assume there is a rational explanation for what I hear. But replaying it in my mind after I have come away makes my spine grow cold.  So, too, does the stone that I find in my pocket, days later, whilst searching for something else.  Now dry, its colour has paled to an anaemic pink.  It is almost as if it has been drained of something, and I wonder whether the colour slowly changed, unseen in my pocket, the further I took it away from its cliff.  

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Poems about the air

This past week, on two occasions. I’ve been struck by the air.  Summer has been quite a letdown in Cornwall – it’s been a letdown across the whole UK.  I’ve always associated July with being summer fully ripened – heat, humidity, vegetation everywhere, air conditioning everywhere.  A bit of heavy rain and thunder, sure.  Barbecues and outdoor furniture on discount at the supermarkets, long evenings.

A receptionist said to me on Thursday, “Apparently, it’s going to be September.  That’s when the summer’s coming.”

Some can’t wait that long, down here.  People are beginning to get a little depressed.  I’m just happy to be by the sea, It’s still a novelty for me, so the gloom hasn’t filtered through just yet.  I’ve got no holiday planned, and no leave from a job to spend wisely anymore.  I’ve been living here in Falmouth for ten months.  I’ve been a student with a fairly unstructured daily routine for ten months.

Perhaps that’s why these poems came out this week.

 

 

Whilst waiting for the branch line at St Ives

In the shallow, honeyed song of hidden high birds

In the outbreaths of Porthminster’s shore

And in how my fringe slurs its forehead lick

In lethargy, I feel

The air of a town

Remote to so many

Yet baring itself, unobject, unsubject, to me.

 

Whilst running through Falmouth In July

As I ran, I played scientist.

Each breath in became a sample,

Each sample a question:

Could it be this scent, or this taste,

that makes me think of Wales?

 

On I pressed,

Cornish pavement to Pembrokeshire track,

English Channel salt crashing with the Atlantic

On black Aberfalin stone.

It hung on me like old love,

Tender to taste, fresh to breathe,

And as I looped Falmouth streets,

I knew:

 

Two barometer needles, was all,

Tapped by a finger on glass, huddled close to.

It was an overlap.  Memories on two sheets of acetate,

on an overhead projector, that I watched

Cross-legged

On a chair

In an air-conditioned room

In an office on an industrial estate –

 

So now there’s Rotherham, too,

And I ran around there, once, kicked through

July growth on a rare footpath,

a stump of two miles between

wheat fields and corrugate,

The sea an imagining I threaded

And left there, like a dropped spanner,

Between the two.

Dawn Chorus

Sunday morning, early May, 4.30 am.  I walk down the lane in the pre-dawn darkness with my guitar strapped to my back.  It sits uncomfortably on the curve of my spine, and bumps against it with each step.  The zip of the guitar case ruptures the quiet around me with a tinkle like breaking glass.   

     I am late; it’s already started.  A robin was already warming up as I left the flat, and wrens and wood pigeons sing softly in the trees I now pass.  Other birds are singing too, but I cannot identify them.    

     There is just enough light from the moon to see the gate leading to Lower Marsh Nature Reserve, where I have chosen to conduct my experiment.  I cross the road, guitar bag chirruping, lean over the gate, and unlock it.  I can just about pick up a silver ribbon of path in the darkness, beckoning me in.

     The chorus seems to develop and become richer the deeper in I go.  I find a place to sit: it’s not acoustically perfect, just a patch of bare earth by a fence that I will later find borders onto a pool of water.  I unzip my case, taking out my guitar and my field recorder.    

     I feel for the recorder’s power switch in the dark.  Its red light winks: it’s ready.  I set it on the ground at a fair distance from where I am going to sit, not wanting to be too much in the foreground. 

     I sit.  I wait. 

     I’m not even sure what I’m going to do, or how I’m going to join in. The chorus feels closed to me at present.  I cannot sense any space into which a guitar could slip. 

     I close my eyes and listen to it build. I try to identify the birds as their songs bubble in and out of the chorus. I hear a blackbird wake and reel out a brief, emotive series of notes, stretching its throat as I would I stretch my arms and back as I get out of bed.  It works on its song for a minute, and then wraps up prematurely.  Then a wren starts, trilling a refrain like an alarm call, dominating the show.  Underneath its line, collared doves call softly to each other.  A cuckoo, deeper in the wood, clears its throat.      

      Sitting amidst a dawn chorus is a completely different experience to hearing it from bed. It’s so loud, for a start. And it is far more fluid than I thought it would be.  There is not so much of a climax, but more of a slipping in and out of different songs, as birds announce their presence and leave a hole, an absence as they disappear.  Not being able to see anything around me makes this musical presence/absence far more striking.    

     Just as my ears grow accustomed to the lead refrain of the wren, a cockerel, far off in the distance, crows a repeated series of notes with a rhythm that awakens the musician in me.  And I know exactly what I will play and sing, too, as I experience a timely flashback of a moment when I was twenty, leaning on a windowsill, listening to a bird break the morning in.  I’d written a song about that moment, about wanting to escape with the bird and its song.  I’d not played it for years.

     The lyrics become oddly prophetic as I roll them around in my mouth; I place my fingers in positions on the fretboard that they have not assumed for a very long time.    

     The cockerel continues to crow, counting me in.  It is as if I am standing on a platform as a train rolls slowly by, spotting the approach of an open carriage door, waiting for the right moment to leap. 

      I would burr strings, fluff notes, and overshoot the vocals with a voice rigid from the cold, but it felt right on this enchanted island thirty miles from the UK mainland, a world full of overshoots and vagrant chorus members.  And when I stopped, I would hear the space of my song’s absence for a fraction of a second, before the rest of the chorus rushed in.    

 

– taken from ‘Songs About Birds’, a recent piece of writing about reawakening song-writing through ornithology and birdsong,