A Villager’s Guide To Rockcliffe In May

rockcliffe-foreshore-urr-estuaryOne of the questions I am most often asked is,

“So where are you from then?”

When I say, “Rockcliffe” – they act with incredulity and surprise. It is a place so full of holiday-makers and summer tourists, I don’t think anyone can actually imagine any real locals living there.

– “What, really? Born and bred?”

– “Really. I grew up here, at the beach. I have lived here all my life.*”

[* I don’t actually live there anymore. But my family home is still there and I visit regularly.]

Now I know Rockcliffe is not Cannes, nor is it Goa or Barbados. But it is Rockcliffe. It clearly has some appealing features. It is Scenic. It is a Tourist Destination. But more than that it is my home. It is the only thing I have ever known.

On Saturday evening at 9.30pm I went for a walk, up the Mote of Mark. I was alone. I sat in a mass of bluebells and grass. I watched two seagulls dance and intertwine like a pair of tangled ribbons in the sky and glide off overhead on the still wind. I looked down upon the mudflats and quiet river and sweeping estuary. Before me lay a panorama of hills, trees, inlets and islands, far-away mountains in the distance, all fading into shadow in the evening stillness. The sun was still up but setting over the north. Far north at this time of year. Massive light. The sky was melting away reluctantly in an orange glow. And then, suddenly, I was hit by a huge internal gut realisation:

“My God. I know everything about this place.”

It was true. As far as my eye could see, maybe four miles in every direction, both on land and sea, I had explored every corner, on foot. I had touched every part. I had clambered over every rock, scrambled every shoreline. I knew it inside out. I knew it all like the back of my hand.

Every colour. Every season. Every path. Every nocturnal animal. Every branch and every tree root. Every wild flower. Every type of shell on every beach. The stratification of colours on the shore indicating the various tide lines, seaweed, shingle, sand, lichen and moss. The way the tide creeps up the estuary, the lie of the land. The call of a shore bird that I don’t even know I hear, it “just is” the way I know I’m at the sea. The way the wind feels on my face, the telling if it bodes fair or foul. The pattern of clouds in the vast sky and how it indicates the weather. The shape of ripples on the water and what I know from it.

You can’t explain these things to strangers or visitors, townsfolk or settlers; it is just the innate instinct of someone who has witnessed this estuarine scene every day of their lives for 17 years and intermittently for the next 16. You don’t even know you know these things, or why they are; they “just are”. You see them with your eyes. You grasp them with your hands. You feel them on your face.

Tourists and seasonal visitors come and go, to walk dogs and chatter and “enjoy the pleasures of the sea”, but I have been here exploring on my hands and scraped knees since I was 0. Since before I could talk. Alone, in silence, to see what I could see. I have climbed so many trees and found a new vista. I have waded through every inch of mud, swum in every wave. I have clambered over every rock, looking for a new perspective. I am 33.

“My God,” I said to myself again, coming down the steep grassy slope in sultry dusk light, “I know everything about this place.”

I did not know that before. I had been away. Had not seen. But once the subconscious knows something, it can never unlearn it. Just like once you have loved, you cannot completely unlove. There’s always a tan mark on your behind. An impression.

The Mote of Mark Walk

The next day, I went for a walk up the Mote of Mark again. This time, to track what it was that I inherently knew.

He who knows not, and knows not that he knows not, is a fool – shun him.
He who knows not, and knows that he knows not, is a child – teach him.
He who knows, and knows not that he knows, is asleep – wake him.
He who knows, and knows that he knows, is wise – follow him.
~ Proverb

It’s annoying not knowing what you know. But also an epiphany when you realise what is in your heart.

Down the garden steps…

Azaleas in tropical colours with the hint of sea beyond:


Rhododendrons in May:


The Yucca seaside look:


But enough of gardens. I wanted a wilder garden. I ran through the swing gate…


…and into the meadow. I could smell this meadow a mile off. It is tall, but not fully grown yet:


Over the bridge, across the stream:


And raced up the upper field, which has enough long grass to give anyone hayfever (almost Monet-esque here):

Bluebells and pink campion (and early bracken) at the edge of the field:


This is the old NTS signpost at the foot of the Mote of Mark:


Half-way up the footpath, a hint of a view just peeks out – Castle Point on the left, and Hestan island on the right:


An apple tree is about to blossom half-way up the Mote of Mark, I would have liked it to have been out by now, but the spring has been late:


Getting steeper, I bounded up the final steps of the footpath which led me up to the grassy plateau:


And pyeew! The first view of Rough Island and golden sand and blue channels and Hestan Island in the distance begin to come into shape:


The mud is a heathery mauve; the long golden causeway like some dead amphibious vertebrate’s spine washed up upon the shore:


There is a tonne of sweet vernal grass everywhere blowing about on the grassy sides of the hill:


I looked at the wave of bluebells on Rough Island:


I looked down at the old jetty and the colours on the mudflats are always striking and interesting, indicative of wind and weather, but particularly today:


“It is like a painting, but one in which I have visited all its brushstrokes. Argh!”

I stood high above a seagull’s flight path and looked west towards Screel:

I like looking at the mud when the tide is out. It makes me think the sea is less scary. I am not afraid of the sea. Lochs are far scarier. You cannot ever see the bottom.

…From a panorama to an insect that caught my eye, a ladybird. Imagine being this small. Does it know it has spots?


Looking west towards Screel hill again:


Vertiginous views over the edge of the Mote, looking south towards Rough Island and Hestan Island:


I have run over all this land. When the tide comes in and the sea turns azure and iridescent in the midday sun who cares whether you’re here or St. Tropez?


I looked south into the light towards Castle Point:


Back down!

A pleasingly formed Sorbus tree caught my eye:


Gorse reeking to high heaven of coconut on a warm May day:


It is funny that a plant so sensorily repellant to human fingers can smell so sweet.

Two things in white, snuggled together:


I saw a field of bluebells, in a sea of lime green:

Apple blossom:


Some new oak leaves:

Under shade now, a birch tree giving us an exercise in light and shade…


But the second time around (still a photograph) it looks like a painting:


I passed a rocky outcrop / rock face I used to try and climb when I was a kid:


I followed the track down back towards the jetty and foreshore:

An ash tree on the foreshore looking out towards Rough Island:

I spied two people walking across the mud:

There was a peculiarly ash-branch-framed view of Rough Island which bordered on twee. All the colours I know are in this picture:

A grass seedhead:

Wild garlic – a spring trademark of damp and shady places:

Who can resist the glossy new beech leaves of spring:

Down towards the Rockcliffe jetty, looking upriver at the Urr estuary towards Rough Firth beach dazzling with cockle shells:

“When I think of the memories of that end beach at Rough Firth”

Moving on…

A buoy dangles from the pier – so much insidious nauticalia litters the foreshore, but I don’t ever really notice it, I don’t even think about it:

Old buoys. Polystyrene. The odd blue fishing crate. Gut. Wire. Hawser. Frayed nets. There’s always some turquoise twine.

I wandered along the jetty and thought of how I once drew it for charity.
My drawing helped to mend it.


Rough Firth beach again, highlighted in the sun, scene of many a crime – good times, but crimes!:

And of course that dark brown bladderwrack that is everywhere along the edges of the estuary, black and yellow:

Yellow and white lichen are a massive part of the colouring of the shore:

Mudflats and channels leading out to Rough Island and the far side of the estuary. Every part has some memory, either afloat or otherwise:

And of course, no coastal scene would be complete without the shapely silhouette of a hardy pine tree on the foreshore, adding a hint of the exotic – Sud de France, peut-etre?

Sea pinks (Armeria) add that candy pink touch to the May coastline:


Looking back at the Mote of Mark from the Rockcliffe jetty. Granite, granite, granite:

And back over the stream, through the field, along the lane, I made my way home:

I realise:

“All the best things I have ever seen, all the best things I have ever thought, all the best things I have ever done, have taken place within the boundaries of this photo.”