Often during the lockdown I’ve come into our back room where we share a table for writing and talking together, and found Sarah gazing longingly at the photographs in her beloved “Welsh Sea Kayaking” book. Clearly aching for the day when it might be safe and possible for her to go back there and once again be pushing off into the open sea. Well it was a long time waiting but now she has. And here are her notes, about the wait and the joy, and “staring at the sea like I’d not seen it before.”

*

I wanted to write something about the joy of being back on the water, about sea kayaking, and my recent trips these last two weeks. But when I looked at my notebooks, I found a different story, the story of the last four months. This year began, in sea kayaking terms, with a lot of optimism, including the beginning of my Llŷn adventure to follow up on my just completed circumnavigation of Anglesey. And so there was a lot to look forward to, I thought.

But here are my notes of what came next, which at least starts well.

*

11 March 2020 – Just back from Anglesey for three days kayaking – enjoyed some moving water in the Menai Straits, a biblical hail storm on the north coast (and the joy of being on the water in a kayak during that), and a day with Geth learning how to perform a self-rescue using a paddle float.

Expert demonstration of using a paddle float for self-rescue by my kayaking friend and coach, Geth Roberts. It’s my turn next.

So I have experienced a range of emotions from being at the edge of my comfort zone (moving water), to exciting and ‘I am alive!’ (the hail storm), plus the frisson of achievement at learning a new skill (the self-rescue). 

9 March 2020, Menai Bridge

I return to Liverpool and I am full of drive and motivation for my kayaking goals for this year – a new drysuit, a helmet, a course learning to roll a kayak in the sea while staying in it, difficult but essential, some trips to the Llŷn for my next circumnavigation, and I am excited. 

23 March 2020

26 March 2020 – Lockdown and the shock of going to the supermarket where there is an organised queue. I feel my personal freedom has – almost instantly – been removed. I am shocked, and then distressed at the large gaps on the shelves. I am afraid. 

27 March 2020 – An author in Rome, Francesca Melandri, describes what to expect based on her experiences of lockdown.

You will be told that society is united in a communal effort, that you are all in the same boat. It will be true. This experience will change for good how you perceive yourself as an individual part of a larger whole. That boat in which you’ll be sailing in order to defeat the epidemic will not look the same to everyone nor is it actually the same for everyone: it never was. You will ask yourselves if this is how societies collapse. You will be afraid.

Guardian, 27 March 2020

28 March 2020 – I’m working with funeral director David Barrington, President of the National Association of Funeral Directors, he took this photograph at West Lancashire crematorium today.

“In my area we have been limited to ten people at a ceremony. This is to protect everyone. It’s difficult but necessary to keep everyone safe.”

His Easter message:

“Follow the advice, commit to your role and be there for the public. Because they need us and because it’s the right thing to do. It may be difficult, but that’s what we’re here for.”

12 April 2020, Ronnie at the allotment, a space of solace for us.

19 April 2020 – It is so quiet, still. So little traffic. Driving up to the crematorium on deserted motorways, a scene from a dystopian film of the future. The spring continues – oblivious – and it is a lovely spring, divine in fact, good for gardening and perfect kayaking weather. 

14 May 2020

Me and Ronnie hunt for buttercups in the cold spring for my Identiplant horticulture course, finding enthusiasm in the task. The statistics on the news are horrifying, but they are real.

I continue working because that feels like the right thing to do. At Thornton Crematorium I discover parts of the grounds I’d never found before. I look for wildflowers there. My world is expanding, in a limited sort of way. 

11 June 2020

2 June 2020 – It’s 23 degrees centigrade, a perfect summer’s day, except really it’s far from perfect. I have been working in this changed world for 11 weeks now. I am about to take a funeral, a socially distanced funeral service, where the ten mourners allowed into the space will look aghast as they wonder what is happening to the world, their world, and is this how they have to say goodbye? I want to say ‘I’m sorry’, even though none of this is my fault. I acknowledge the pandemic and the restrictions, and then I say, ‘It’s hard.’ Pause. ‘It’s hard for us too.’ 

By ‘us’ I mean me, the funeral directors and arrangers, chapel attendants and drivers… all of us doing this. It’s hard. 

2 June 2020

3 June 2020 – At my Zoom yoga class we are asked to think of being in a favourite place. Mine is Ynys Las (Blue Island) in the Cymyran Estuary. A reminder to take some time to start the day like this, it makes the day feel better. 

6 July 2020, Menai Bridge

6 July 2020 – Day trips to Wales are now permitted so I’m having one. Leaving home at 8am, the reassuring and oddly familiar sound of my paddles clinking together in the back of the car as I turn out of our road in Liverpool, about to drive the furthest I’ve been for months. The A55, familiar too, but a strangely odd absence. The seasons have passed, changed and as we passed midsummer I thought ‘a quarter turn’, the earth has made a quarter turn since our lives became changed. Lockdown was hard. And now things are easing, but it doesn’t feel ‘easy’. 

At Menai Bridge, Geth is waiting and we get ready. We slip away and off into the lagoons and up the Cadnant estuary, at a leisurely pace along the Straits. It is good to be back on the water. Looking at seaweed with new eyes. Collecting shells.

I have now stepped out into our changed world, a cautious step into the future.

20 July 2020 – Overnight stays in Wales are now permitted, so I’m going. I arrive in Aberdaron, at the end of the Llŷn. I’d had a week here booked in May, which was cancelled of course. I eat my lunch on the beach, staring at the sea, like I’d not seen it before, dazzled by the brightness of the sunshine. 

Seeking shade I flop on the grass in the churchyard of St Hywyn’s, (the church is locked), and observe at least a dozen wildflowers, including Mayweed, Kidney Vetch, Meadow Buttercup, White Clover, Restharrow, Bird’s-foot-trefoil, Sea Beet, Thrift, Harebell and Sea Lavender. 

Sea Thrift, Armeria maritima

Looking across at the Gwylan islands where me and Geth would have kayaked in May to see the puffins, and realising that they’ll be leaving now, having hatched their chicks, and be on their way back to the open sea. And I feel a loss, a real sense of having missed something. 

I stop at the shingle beach at Trefor, the hedgerow is bursting with Meadowsweet and Wild Carrot, and there are Yellow Horned-poppies on the beach, and Sea Sandwort. I always think of Derek Jarman’s garden when I’m on a shingle beach. 

Yellow Horned-poppies, their seed cases are up to 30cm long.
Sea Sandwort, Honckenya peploides

It’s my first overnight stay away from home since early March…. and so it takes a lot more thinking about and planning, including my self-catering needs. But it is done, and I am ready for kayaking in the morning.

21 July 2020 – At Four Mile Bridge, slipping into the Cymyran Estuary with Geth, my suggestion to come here, to visit the island like I’d wanted. It’s a good high tide and we put on just at the peak, so we can explore the edges of this watery place, getting to parts that aren’t accessible very often. The water is so shallow we can see the sand and plants beneath our boats. There’s Eelgrass and Samphire, so close we can pick it and nibble the salty stems.

In the shallow water we only have to get out of our kayaks to walk once… and we both laugh about this.

Me and Geth pick up our conversation with a four month gap, but I find it hard to talk about future plans, and try to simply concentrate on our time here today. Being in the salt marsh is special. Is enough. 

Lesser Sea-spurrey, Spergularia marina, from the salt marsh.

We make our way to ‘the island’, Ynys Las. 

I first came here in September 2018 with Geth, and immediately loved it, the profuse lichens, the rose hips…. everything about it is lovely. I’ve since returned in 2019, in May, July, September and November; different weather, tide, seasons – each time I write about the nature here and always say, ‘I love it here.’ And today is no different.

Not seen this before, I think it is Seaside Centaury, Centaurium littorale, in the Gentian family.
Distinctive rose hips of Rosa spinosissima. Their creamy yellow flowers have all finished for this year.

There is reassurance that things are the same, continuing easily without me, or anyone, visiting or observing them. Nature continuing regardless.

Map of the estuary, and Sea Lavender from the salt marsh.

Time to leave the island, and we make our way out of the estuary, easily gliding with the ebb, and return to Borthwen along the rocky shore. Geth is keen to explore some creeks, and we find live cowries there, a first for us both – it’s unusual to see them grazing above water.

European Cowrie, Trivia monacha, usually a sublittoral species found below the low tide level.

There is plenty to see here, and we both enjoy exploring these rocky shore communities as we approach low water. I should be feeling more enthusiastic, but I’m not feeling well. 

And actually my planned out three day kayaking trip ends at this point after just one day on the water, as I have come down with a stomach bug. I return home to Liverpool early. After I wash my kit I notice some of the sand has returned with me too, looking like an estuary after the tide has left, in our bath. 

*

In the deepest depths of lockdown, though, I’d dreamt of a day on the salt marsh and a sit on Ynys Las. And now I have returned. Taking my cautious steps into a new world, that is the same, but now completely different.

Read more of Sarah’s sea kayaking adventures and reflections here at “Letters From Sarah”

Published by Ronnie Hughes

Writing about life, Liverpool and anything else that interests me. As well as working with others to make the world a fairer and kinder place: http://asenseofplace.com.

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