To return to a beloved place after an absence of 20, 40 and especially 50 years is to risk battle between nostalgia and disappointment. Never can that place be the same again, not scene nor smell nor sound. The gap between then and now erases the gloss on an icon and spoils a holy memory.
With three other freshmen equally keen on wildlife we decided to spend a few days on the island of Skomer, a tiny island orphaned from the Pembrokeshire coast by under a mile of choppy Atlantic. The prospect of teeming numbers of seabirds and marine mammals was irresistible.
We had to take provisions for the duration because the last resident abandoned his farm in 1950 and the nature warden, David Saunders, was away.
Foul weather prevented our boatman from taking us across the channel so we mooched along the cliffs to Marloes Sand where a battle was in progress. In the opening shots of the movie The Lion in Winter we hoped to see King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) and his queen (Katherine Hepburn) but we only saw a horde of Welshmen dressed in medieval garb wielding wooden swords and a few knights trampling surf on horseback. The director’s loudspeaker blasted the extras: “Don’t be pussy-footed! Get your feet wet.” The icy Atlantic looked uninviting so we didn’t sign up as extras and were heartened by news the following day would be calm.
We hadn’t booked mainland accommodation and had threadbare pockets, so what to do? One of my pals had roamed around Africa whereas I never ventured much further than the Green Belt that girdles London. Bowing to his greater wisdom, we followed him a few miles to Haverfordwest where he heard we could doss the night for nothing.
Arriving at the police station he asked the jolly sergeant if he had beds for four. I doubt you would today but, like most things, the past operated by different rules. He offered hospitality if he had no other customers by the time the pubs closed. I haven’t forgotten the cell to myself and before flopping on the rude mattress pushing the iron bar door closed with a clink (no key). The next morning I rose early with maddening itches in private parts.
Some experiences of youth stay. One is the magnetic pull to island seabird colonies and the other is to prisons where I spent a lot of time. In case that got your eyebrows I hasten to add not as a guest of Her Majesty but as an official prison visitor and author of a prison reform report for Scotland.
We camped under the stars or more often under dense cloud and sheets of rain. The sun on a green landscape and silver ocean more than compensated for any hardship from a damp sleeping bag. We made the ruined farmhouse our base. Since then it has been given a roof again and furnished for volunteers and visitors.
My friend persuaded us to travel light, though we didn’t know then it was to help him diet. As days rolled by and our provisions ran out a storm marooned us for longer than planned. Always lean-bodied, I was first to feel my belly crying to be filled and it made me aware of how real hunger steals thoughts. My friend had an answer. We combed the beach for whelks which he said would make a dainty meal in the bell of a daffodil. After that, and learning all parts of the plant are poisonous, I began to grow up and start to build my own wisdom.
The visit was an otherwise glorious time immersed in the constant cacophony and fishy odour of seabirds. We counted guillemots and choughs on the cliffs, watched shearwaters coming to roost after dark (see post about the Island of Rum), laughed after tripped over rabbit holes that pock-marked the island with safe nesting for shearwaters and puffins from marauding black-backed gulls.
The puffins arrived on our second day, tentative after journeying from far-flung oceans. Each day more abundant, they were bobbing mats in the bays. They needed time to gain confidence before setting feet on land after an absence of almost a year. Drifted in one at a time, so tame you could touch.
The joy of sights unknown in our human habitats was enriched by the peace of wildness and vacancy of time. It made me think of monks dwelling on storm-lashed islands on the edge of the ocean. The Irish poet and mystic captures this in his works and in conversation with Krista Tippett:
(The Celtic imagination of a landscape that is) actually alive … recalls you into a mindful mode of stillness, solitude, and silence, where you can truly receive time.
The website for the Welsh naturalist trust that manages Skomer today provides information on getting there and the maximum size of day parties (250). I urge you to go. But I will never return to a place that superficially looks the same but likely to feel different, tamer and visited by tourists in haste for the sights before catching the ferry home. Better not to injure a precious memory.
Next Post: Hummingbirds