Monthly Archives: May 2011

A swim on the wild side

Paraffin lamp and fire

We lit the paraffin lamp, cooked on the fire and went back in time.

Earlier in the week we had a storm. The sea was churning with wild waves and the wind howled and battered the cottage making the windows rattle in their frames. Then the power went off. ‘Most unusual for this time of the year’, everyone said. It was fun for an evening. My mum and auntie were staying. We lit the paraffin lamp, and the coals glowed hot in the fireplace, becoming our cooker and kettle as well as our source of heat. We enjoyed the flickering warmth, the intimacy and the spirit of old-fashioned self reliance.

Come morning, however, there was still no electricity, my phone was dead, the others had left and I was grubby, smoky and ready for a hot shower. I felt like I was slipping off grid. To take my mind off such thoughts, I went for a walk around the coast. It was low tide and I tramped along the shoreline, shells crunching underfoot. Small white horses trotted on the waves, but the sky was blue and the hills clear across the water. I came to the burn that runs into the sea at the end of the bay. It was in spate and water surged over the wobbly stepping stones. Just above the stones there’s a pool. It’s deep and calm and stained the colour of tea by the peat.

A pool in the burn

A quick plunge in these icy waters soon sorted me out.

I had a sudden urge to swim in it. It’s a private spot – the trees huddle close, their branches bowing low over the water. The clouds scudded above and the sun suddenly appeared, sweeping a bright wash in its wake. It dappled the pool and warmed the top of my head. I quickly stripped and slipped in off the high, grassy bank, feeling the soft, icy water flow past and out to sea. It was just me, the burn, the trees and the last of the bluebells. I didn’t stay in long, it was too cold, but my body soon warmed and tingled as I dried myself off with my t-shirt, got back into my clothes and ran away from the gathering midgies.

I’ve just read Waterlog, Roger Deakin’s book on wild swimming. He writes beautifully about its pleasures and benefits. Launching yourself into cold water must be the best mood booster there is. It’s a leap of faith – one of those things that doesn’t make sense until you’ve done it. No matter what the world looks like before a dip in the wild, it always looks much better afterwards as you clamber up the bank, dripping and exhilarated. As I’d stood at the edge of the pool dithering about whether to go in for my swim or not – feeling, I must admit, mildly ridiculous – it was Roger’s voice in my head that tipped the balance. ‘Come on in’, he said, ‘the water’s beautiful.’ And it was.

There’s loads of information about wild swimming at www.wildswimming.co.uk.

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Seaweed and eat it

I never tire of the view out to sea through the small, square kitchen window in the cottage. It’s ever-changing with the seasons, the weather, time and the tide. Yesterday I looked out to west coast mizzle (a fine Scottish partnering of mist and drizzle). Beyond the rain-soaked field the water was slate-grey and angry. In the bay three small boats rocked and bucked as the waves, chased onshore by the wind, slapped their sides relentlessly. The sky was low, and across the loch the land was just a suggestion of a form – lost in the mist, or, indeed, the mizzle.

Today, however, it sits solid and clear on the horizon. The purple of the heather on the ridge gives way to green as the trees follow the gullies and burns down to the shore. The sea is flat, the three boats sitting safely in its arms. The headland to the left – already bright with new growth pushing through the burnt-out scrub – reaches into the loch, its fingers testing the water. And the wind has stopped. It’s a welcome relief, this calm. I sit out on the bench with my morning coffee listening to the birds.

Lobster and three crabs

And he did! Four crabs and a lobster no less.

A sailing boat motors out of the marina and cuts across the water. The fish farm squats in the distance – a strange, dark, metal island. A local, who once worked there, described how thousands of beautiful beasts jostle for space. The sailing boat gives it a wide berth. I hear a grumble, roar and steady chunter as my neighbour heads off round the coast to check his pots. I’m hoping he’ll drop off a crab for me later.

I live by the sea, but I have to pinch myself to believe it. In the city the cry of a gull was enough to transport me to a salty beach with rock pools and sun-dappled paddling. Now it’s part of my everyday life and that’s been a wonderful thing. The sea speaks of something wild and free. I like to stand on its edge and take in the expanse until my eye settles on the horizon. I imagine the riot of life in front of me below the surface. And on the shoreline, that magical place where land and sea meet, you can dip your toe into this other-worldly-world, join the sea creatures and glimpse their lives.

Crisps made from kelp and a glass on blue bench

Delicious crisps made from dried kelp.

I’ve been taking my ‘Edible Seashore’ handbook with me on my beach foraging trips. It covers anything that can be gathered from the top of a seaside cliff to sea as far out as waist deep on a low spring tide – perfect for me as I’m yet to get the boat in the water. I’m an old hand at gathering mussels (they’re everywhere, you pick the big ones off a rock at low tide) and cockles (there’s a cockle bed on the beach, you rake the sand at low tide and they’ll pop up), but I’ve never found a razor clam, oyster or scallop. I’m hoping this book will help me. Alas, it won’t be until September, as the shellfish rule is only collect when there’s an ‘r’ in the month – something to do with breeding and water temperature. It’s a shame as my neighbour says there’s a load of oysters on the low-tide rocks near White Bay. But shrimps, lobsters and crabs are fair game all year round.

Kelp drying on a washing line

Kelp gathered at low tide hanging out to dry on the washing line.

As, of course, is seaweed. Yesterday I dragged some kelp in from the rocks at low tide. I rinsed it and hung it out to dry on the washing line where, in a matter of hours, it shrank and darkened until it resembled a row of bedraggled stockings. After an evening in front of the fire, the kelp was crispy and dry and ready to cut up and store. Kelp (‘Kombu’) is used a lot in Japanese cooking. It makes dashi, the stock for miso soup. You can also add a few bits of it to stews and soups for flavour, though some say it just makes everything taste faintly of iodine. I made a batch of kelp crisps by chopping dried kelp into squares and deep frying them for about five seconds. They were delicious – salty, with the bubbled texture of poppadom. We offered some to a passing man out walking his dog. ‘That’s a strange thing to be making on a Sunday’, he remarked and went on his way.

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Make do and mend

Wooden fish hanging from the rafters

Eight fish hang from the ceiling, whittled from driftwood to pass the time one rainy west coast day.

Nothing was ever bought new for the cottage. It’s full of hand-me-downs; things that became too worn for best would do just fine here, with a bit of tweaking. Old duvet sets would be reworked into curtains into cushion covers into napkins until, faded, thin and softened with age, they would see their days out as rags and dusters.

I love this thrifty make do and mending because it’s so carefree and creative. The crockery doesn’t match? So what? A bookshelf made out of driftwood and blue rope? Why not? With no style or fashion to follow, the cottage has been shaped by its surroundings and by the people who stay here. Beachcombing finds are woven into its very fabric – the fireplace is made from stones from the shore, a twist of bleached driftwood decorates the window sill and fishing rods hang from every rafter.

Books on a shelf

A shelf made from driftwood and blue rope. And my reading list...

The cottage happily absorbs cast offs, finding space for multiples: two rusty sieves, three sets of aging barbeque tools, four teapots. My uncle Davy was a joiner and would bring treasures thrown out by his clients, including a shower, cubicle and all, that’s still going strong today. He once offered a conservatory in mint condition, but dad drew a line. In his eyes this was too much of a luxury for the cottage – along with a washing machine, electric blankets and, quite probably, the shower.

So I’ve finally moved in and it’s not a holiday cottage for me anymore, it’s my home for a year. As I potter and settle, I’m temped to clear out the mismatching odds and ends and move in my more modern stuff. But that’s not the point and it doesn’t feel right to do it. The cottage is more than four walls and a roof. Everything in it has a history and each item holds a story, reminders of people and moments in time. I want to add to this and keep the thrifty holiday spirit alive. Although, having said that, the spanking new Ikea curtains do look great in the sitting room. And maybe in 20-years’ time I’ll be fashioning them into a tea cosy.

Fishing rod and a map

Old fishing rods hang from the rafters. Now I have to work out how to use them.

I did some proper foraging today and made gorse flower cordial. Gorse is rampant in these parts, splashing the landscape like bright yellow daubs of paint. On a still evening its heady, honey and coconut perfume fills the air. My recipe book says it’s best to pick the flowers when the sun’s out. No such luck – it’s been raining steadily since I arrived, so I just went for it. I boiled 600 ml of water with half a pound of sugar for about ten minutes. Then I took it off the heat, added the juice of one lemon and four big handfuls of gorse flowers, stirred and left it to stand for five minutes before draining it through a jelly bag. I now have two jars of summery smelling syrup, although one has a suspicious undertone of spicy tomato chutney – the jar’s original contents. Well, it’s all learning. I’m going to try the same thing with clover when it’s in bloom. I also enjoyed fat scallops, langoustine tails and the sweetest clams today courtesy of the very nice fisherman on the pier at Tarbert. Now I’m off to the marina to beg use of its wifi. It seems that getting broadband installed here could take longer than I thought – I need to get planning permission for a new telephone pole first. Who’d have thought?

And thanks to my friend Cath for the photos.

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