Text and photographs by Florence Newman
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Many of my earliest rambles in Caithness (the county constituting the northeastern corner of Great Britain) were inspired by names on the Ordnance Survey map (OS Landranger 12: Thurso, Wick and surrounding area) or by brochures in the Visitor’s Centre in Thurso (“Three Walks in Thurso,” “Walks: Caithness”). My favorite walk to my favorite place in Caithness came from a Visitor’s Centre brochure:
Cross the pedestrian bridge over the Thurso River inlet, up the sidewalk beside Castletown Road
Carry straight on when the road bears right, passing on your left the nineteenth-century folly reminiscent of Rapunzel’s tower with its crenellated turrets (pausing to wish you lived there, like the people who have put flower pots on the window ledges and parked their VW inside the wrought iron gates)
Follow the single lane road between two fields—looking back and down toward the coast, you can just see the ruins of Thurso Castle, constructed in the 1860’s and hardly worth your trouble
Take the first left and march confidently into the working farm, wending your way between aluminum-sided barns and balloon-wheeled tractors until you face the rocky shore and the Pentland Firth churning beyond
To your right, obscured by tall grass, is the start of a narrow track along the coast that leads after a mile or so to a sea cave hidden beneath mossy headlands
During the walk, to be undertaken on the rare sunny day, whenever you are not watching your feet to avoid twisting an ankle in the rut gouged by sheep hooves (the typical meaning of “track” in this brochure), you have a spectacular view of the Firth, its choppy green waters fringed by cascading flagstone slabs and interrupted only by an occasional fishing boat bobbing off Dunnet Head or by the white wake of the Pentland ferry shuttling day-trippers to and from the Shetland Islands
Divert mid-way to the walled lookout that juts from the rocky shore, admire the blue arc of the sky as it meets the sea, and imagine the many wives and sweethearts who had waited here, often in vain, to catch first sight of the vessel bringing their sailor home; note, as you leave, the simple cross impressed on the seaward wall
Eventually the land will rise to precipitous heights and the even spread of shoreline will give way to steep tiers and stacks of stone, like some gigantic abstract sculpture garden growing from the waves
You will hear the sea cave before you see it
In fact, you would not see it at all if the brochure hadn’t told you to look for it near where some power lines sweep down to another farm. What the brochure doesn’t tell you is that when you leave the path and pick your way out a sloping promontory and sit on a dry patch of loam and pull off your shoes and socks and lie back with your eyes closed in the warm sun, you will be embraced by a symphony of sounds: the deep, slow, thunderous throb of the ocean waves hitting the base of the headland, the crescendo and decrescendo of waves rushing over the jagged slate shelves, the haunting echoes of the longer waves as they surge into the caverns hollowed out of the cliff, century by century, and the faint, melodic plink-plonk of rainwater dripping from ledge to mossy ledge before releasing into the sonorous cove below.
I had been to the sea cave perhaps a half a dozen times before I felt the slightest urge to venture any further than that loamy bed. One day, after a plowman’s lunch (a thick slab of cheddar cheese between two slices of bread slathered with butter) and a snooze on the mossy ledge, I climbed back up to the track, and instead of retracing my steps, continued on along the headland. Here and there among the wind-swept grasses were cement platforms cracked with age and sprouting weeds and wildflowers; some still held rusting iron beams, the remains of artillery installed to repel German aircraft during World War II. How many days had been spent fortifying this remote stretch of Scottish shore against enemy attack? How many nights had been spent listening for the drone of bombers and scanning the horizon for their ominous shadows? Those anxious days and nights, for all of their intensity, had ended long ago, leaving only scars of white cement on the landscape, while in the hidden cave below, the heart of the ocean continued to beat.
© Copyright 2014, Florence Newman.
Florence Newman is professor emerita at Towson University, where she taught in the English Department for 27 years. A specialist in Middle English literature, she has published and delivered conference papers on Chaucer, the Gawain-Poet, and medieval women writers. She grew up in Blacksburg, Va., reading books in her parents’ library and eating strawberries from her grandfather’s garden. She currently lives with her husband in Towson, Md., escapes occasionally to their farm on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, and travels farther afield when time, energy, and finances permit.
Doodlemeister is looking for short first-person observations up to 1,500 words, on any subject, in any style, for this series. If need be, we’ll help you to edit and/or cut your piece. If you’d like to submit a story about something interesting you saw, experienced—or simply thought about—please contact us by e-mail at email@example.com
By Jim Sizemore
On August 26, 1981, I wrote a longish letter to my niece, with whom I’d been corresponding for some time. What follows is an edited draft of the short note in that letter about one of my yearly visits to Ocean City, Maryland. The original draft also includes the doodle, below. (Click image to view a larger version.)
When we arrived at Ocean City last Saturday the weather was crummy; rain, wind, etc. It was like that all afternoon and evening and it was cold, too. By Sunday morning the rain had stopped but it was still overcast. Mid-morning showed a little sun between the clouds and by the afternoon it was beautiful; bright sun and clear, Kodachrome-blue sky and big white-capped surf. It’s been like that since.
I’m here with some friends and their kids—a boy and girl, ages 14 and 15—who happen to be the same ages as my son and his male friend, who are also here. So everyone has someone to play with. Last night the adults dined and shopped and strolled on the boardwalk at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, just 16 miles north of here. Who knows—or wants to know—what the kids did?
Each weekend the rental units quickly empty out and fill right back up. Pale families arrive and tan families depart. Car doors and trunk lids pop open and suitcases, boxes, bags, coolers, folding chairs, beach towels, are packed in or pulled out. The air is full of greetings and goodbyes. The people leaving seem more relieved than rested. For better or worse, they have survived an intense week of togetherness and are now ready to return to the normal routine of everybody going their own way, doing their own things. Leisure, they have learned, can produce its own kind of pressure and they’ve had enough of it for this year.
The folks arriving, on the other hand, can’t wait for an early morning walk on the beach. Joggers, all sizes and shapes—with few exceptions grim-faced—separate into groups; some run on more or less solid ground, others prefer the shifting sand. Gulls scavenge near the water’s edge and casually turn their backs on human walkers. Surf fishermen, who never seem to catch anything, stand like sentinels with their poles pointing to England.
In the afternoon small airplanes, one every ten or fifteen minutes it seems, fly perhaps a hundred yards beyond the beach and a couple of hundred feet above the ocean, trailing commercial messages. (There’s no escape from the big bad Ad Man!) One banner, reading “MELLOW ROCK,” advertises a local radio station. The phrase seems to me to be a contradiction in terms. An attractive young woman yells to a macho boy in a bikini brief: “The water’s too rough.” He: “Rough, yes, but wonderful, too.” With that, chest out, he struts into the sea.
Now it’s late afternoon, around dinner time. Fewer human bodies still on the beach: some ugly, most average, a few beautiful. As you stand very still at the fringe of the surf, the ebbing water pulls the sand from under your toes and soon you are ankle-deep in the wet grains. Meanwhile, back at the beach house, aggressive black flies hang out at the screen door, demanding entrance.
Your uncle Jim.
Copyright © Jim Sizemore 2014
By Jo-Ann Pilardi
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