A Head for Heights

How do you like your eggs cooked? Ever tried anything more adventurous than hens’ eggs? Well here’s an extract from a tale of eggy derring-do in my book “Close to the Edge”

At the northernmost tip of the Holderness coast in East Yorkshire lies the village of Flamborough and a great buttress of chalk cliffs known as Flamborough Head. In Victorian times the business of the village was fishing and farming but to supplement their income the fishermen and farmers of Flamborough went “climming” or egg–gathering – all provided they had very good heads for heights and partners in whom they could place implicit trust.

Climming was generally a family occupation with different families having “their own” bit of coast to work on. A team of between two and four men worked together with one being lowered over the cliff and steadied by the others. It was dangerous work for the man over the cliff, wearing only a cloth cap stuffed with straw and wrapping dried grass or straw around his hands to stop the rope from cutting them. This was a description in 1834 written by naturalist Charles Waterton of a 2-man climming team:

“…he who is to descend now puts his legs through a pair of hempen braces which meet around his middle and there form a waistband. A man now holds the rope firmly in his hand and gradually lowers his comrade down the precipice. While he is descending…he passes from ledge to ledge and rock to rock. It requires considerable address on the part of the descending climber to save himself from being hit by fragments of the rock which are broken off by the rope… “

When the climmer disappeared from sight a system of signals was his only form of communication – 1tug for lower me further; 2 tugs for stop lowering and 3 tugs for get me out of here.

In Waterton’s day up to 130000 eggs could be collected in the season mainly from guillemot, razorbill and kittiwake nests. They were sold for different purposes. Some were turned into souvenirs; some were used for sugar refining and some sent to the West Riding where they used the egg white in the manufacture of patent leather. Guillemot eggs were particularly sought after and most were eaten by local people who fried, scrambled and concocted egg omelettes from them.

The practice of climming continued right up into the twentieth century when the Wild Birds Protection Act 1954 made the taking of wild birds’ eggs illegal.

PS. Click here if you want to see a clip of climming in action.

Climmers - photo from Yorkshire Film Archives

Climmers – photo from Yorkshire Film Archives

Heavy Editing

Finally I have the house on the market and looking all neat and tidy for the photos. What will come of it I don’t know but it has made me put my skates on and complete the editing of “Close to the Edge” my book about the life and times of Holderness coastal communities. The idea of to-ing and fro-ing from France to complete it ain’t too appealing.

After the first round of editing I found I had committed every cardinal writing sin and probably invented some as well. One that keeps creeping in is that of slipping into the passive tense which dulls the writing and robs it of a sense of movement. On my old version of Word there used to be a gizmo that not only counted words, paras and sentences but also told how many times I used the passive tense and, even more helpfully, gave the reading age score (Flesch readability) which I found a useful guide. Now on the new version – the one with the scrolling toolbar – I can’t find it anymore which is a pity.

So now the second editing round is over what have I discovered?  Above all that it takes plain foolhardiness to savage one’s opus. It is scary to see your words flutter to the cutting room floor, as it were. After round 1 of editing, I forced myself to scrap about one third of the book entirely because it was repetitive, stuffy and made the book structurally incoherent. After that I introduced completely new material and then shuffled around great wodges of text like they were chess pieces. Shall I put it there…or maybe…no…there..no? I hate to say it but often it went right back where it started from…but it needed to be done.  Overall, I have improved the structure of the book and by grasping the thistle and abandoning a strict timeline approach (which was even  harder to do than scrapping parts of it) I think I have achieved something nearer my original idea.

The book is an eclectic mix – people, places, events and stories relating to this changing coast – chosen for no other reason than they tickled my imagination.  I have struggled with the tone from time to time – whilst aiming for quirky and occasionally irreverent, I wonder if I am a bit too flippant. Time will tell when the feedback comes in. Above all though, I hope it transmits some of the affection I have developed for a part of England where no major event of national importance ever occurred; where the one constant is a hungry sea gnawing at the cliffs; where, over the centuries people learned to adapt, build their settlements anew or go under and where a big sky suddenly shifts from grey, melancholy and brooding to  glorious sunlight casting sparklers on the sea.

DSC00191

The book is on its way to some strict beta-testers and depending on their feedback I think it will need an editing Round 3 –in the hands of a professional editor. In the meantime, I’ll tidy my desk, sharpen my pencils, and start to play around with an idea that’s been buzzing around like an angry hornet for a few weeks now.

Ravenser Odd – The Town Under the Sea

Today’s tale, an extract from my book ‘Close to the Edge – Tales from the Holderness Coast’  is of the 13th/14th century lost town of Ravenser Odd, now lying under the North Sea, off the Humber estuary in East Yorkshire

Lost_Places_Graphic

By and large they were a bad lot in Ravenser Odd:
“The town of Ravenser Odd was an extremely famous borough, devoted to merchandise with many fisheries and the most abundantly provided with ships and burgesses of all the boroughs of that coast. But yet, by all its wicked deeds and especially wrong-doings on the sea, and by its evil actions and predations, it provoked the vengeance of God upon itself beyond measure.”

Such was the verdict of the Chronicler of Meaux Abbey in the mid-14th century when documenting the destruction of the town. The Abbey records reveal that the town began life as a sandbank, probably an island, thrown up by the tides and currents between the river Humber and the North Sea. Located off the tip of Spurn Point and about a mile off the Holderness coast, at some point it became accessible from the mainland.

The sandbank grew and was initially inhabited by a handful of enterprising souls selling provisions to passing ships. Around 1235 the Count and Countess of Aumale whose fiefdom embraced Holderness, recognised the strategic possibilities of the site and started to build the town. A few years later the monks of Meaux Abbey got in on the act and acquired buildings there for storing fish and other provisions.

The town prospered. Its position between the Humber and the North Sea was perfect for fishing, trading and servicing shipping. Perhaps being at the outer reaches of the Holderness coast and away from any regular attention of the law, the men of Ravenser Odd were able to develop their own approach to trade by intercepting merchant ships and “persuading” them to berth at their port rather than at Hull or Grimsby. This practice, called forestalling, became a bone of contention with the merchants of Hull and Grimsby who saw their own trade suffer. In 1290 the King instituted an Inquiry into the deeds of the Ravenser Odd men. Grimsby merchants asserted that the Ravenser Odd men would:
“go out with their boats where there are ships carrying merchandise and intending to come to Grimsby with their merchandise. Said men hinder those ships and lead them to Ravenser Odd harbour by force when they cannot persuade them amicably”.
The men of Ravenser Odd triumphed at the Inquiry with all charges not proven and even commended for their entrepreneurship.

The town flourished with more than 100 houses, warehouses, quays and other port buildings. It was granted borough status in 1298/9 for which the then huge sum of £300 was paid. It is in keeping with the spirit of the town that little of the money was actually handed over.

Yet there is still some evidence that the Ravenser Odd men found it hard to shake off old ways and become model citizens. Around 1300 two Norwegian merchants petitioned the English king claiming that when their ship was driven ashore off Ravenser Odd:

“men came from there with force and arms and stole our ship and goods.”

The petition ends with a plaintive request for remedy and compensation for their goods as they “have nothing from which to live”.

Under the King’s patronage, whatever piracy and misdemeanours were committed were ignored and the town grew in importance, wealth and prosperity. The town was represented by two MPs in the Model Parliaments of the time and supported the king in the wars against the Scots by providing ships, provisions, arms and men.

However by the middle of the century it became clear that the golden years of Ravenser Odd were drawing to a close. Merchants started to move away as the flooding by the sea became more regular and more serious. There were a number of petitions made for the lowering of taxes because buildings and land had been washed away.

In 1355 flooding damaged the chapel in the town exposing bones and corpses. These were removed for reburial elsewhere. The chapel itself was ultimately washed away but not before some of the townsfolk looted many of its artefacts.

The town was abandoned soon after and, unsurprisingly, it became something of a pirates’ lair until the coup de grace was applied in 1362. In January of that year a south-westerly gale raged across the UK. This storm known as the Great Drowning of Men combined with unusually high tides, produced a storm surge that swept the last stones of Ravenser Odd back to the sea. The town founded on a sandbank vanished without trace.

spurn across the binks1

Hell on Earth

I have seen hell on earth. It is:

the five mile tail back as minor road meets major at a T-junction.
The family pet left panting and distressed in the car with just a sliver of window open.
The cry of a toddler as his ice-cream slithers down his T-shirt to the sand and his mother gives him the rough side of her tongue.
The double parking down the beach road blocking the emergency ambulance’s access.
The group of bored teenagers throwing stones at a seagull with an injured wing.
The cliff top caravan park where the caravans are packed in so close you can shake hands with your neighbour without ever leaving the comfort of your sitting room.
Men’s white thighs and chests turning red-raw as they refuse to be anointed with Ambre Solaire.
The queues for loos denuded of toilet paper, soap or means of drying hands.
Irritation turning to anger; the sound of hard hand on soft flesh; the crescendo of a child’s wail punctuated by “I warned you.”

I have seen hell on earth – it’s a sun and heat starved nation enjoying Bank Holiday Monday and the first hot day of the year.
Why do we do it to ourselves and each other?

In Search of a bit of Looting and Pillaging

It’s Friday and the start of a holiday long weekend. I have a friend, June coming to stay. June is an accomplished photographer unlike me. My technique usually involves decapitating or otherwise maiming my innocent subjects. When I try to put some clever composition trick to work I usually end up with something farty rather than arty.

June and I are going to be driving up the coast where I live taking shots of various sites of historical interest – providing they stay still long enough. What is she on about I hear you ask. Erosion that’s what. This part of the UK’s coastline is disappearing fast into the sea and taking with it anyone or anything that happens to be on the spot at the time. It’s nothing new. In Roman times the coastline was about 2.5 miles further out to sea than it is now. Clever people at Universities suggest that the coastline will, eventually, get back to its original, post-ice age position. It’s got about another 13 miles or so to go yet.

The problem is the soft clay that makes up the cliffs and surrounding land. Under attack from both the sea and heavy rain which washes the clay into a soft chocolaty goo, the cliffs sigh, sag and slip quietly into the sea.

The history of this area is littered with stories of disappearing villages, church bells tolling out at sea, corpses falling out of cliffside graveyards to find new resting places on the beach below and even some good old fashioned murder, looting and pillaging.

So this weekend June and I go in search of all this history – especially the looting and pillaging bit – haven’t done any of that for a while. We aim to capture and record what we can and who knows there may even be a book in it.

Have a good weekend and don’t go driving on these roads!
Aldeborough Road End 2.jpg

Aldeborough Road End.jpg

It’s too cold for ice cream

I’m going to be typically British this morning and talk about the weather. So it you’re expecting the usual pearls of wit and wisdom look away now – you’ll be disappointed.

Being a skylark, I’m normally awake by 5am and up and about around 6.00am. This morning I let the clock get to 7.00am before I dragged myself from under the duvet. All I wanted to do was hibernate. I could hear the wind whistling and rattling the old windows; my nose was cold (no not a sign of good health – that’s for dogs)and, when gingerly putting toes to floor they shrank back in horror at the caress of the clammy cold.

Where is spring? This time last year we were basking in gentle warm spring sunshine. Today half the country is under snow and ice. Here on the east coast it’s been triple X gales for five days – cruel biting winds that have shrivelled up my newly-planted hedge; lazy winds that go through you rather than around you. When I peer out of my seaward windows it seems foggy outside but in reality each window is coated in a thin film of wind-whipped sand.

Down on the beach huge rollers break like a ragged chorus line in grubby petticoats. They throw up driftwood, crab traps, pink and yellow mooring buoys and the inevitable disgusting assortment of plastic bottles and bags.

Want a skin peel or laser treatment? No need to spend a fortune. Stand facing east for 60 seconds and have your face sand-blasted for free.

For me, one of the perks of living in the UK is the changing seasons; the clear distinction between them and the delicious anticipation of change as winter yields to spring. Over the past few years that pattern seems to have gone awry and there is less definition between them.

I’m undecided about global warming and climate change – I don’t really understand the “evidence” put forward and there are so many contradictory versions. However it is times such as these that I’m inclined to let heart rule head and believe that mankind has certainly done something to put the planet out of kilter and the Gods in a pet.

Please can we have some warmth and sunshine. I don’t want to have to move again to warmer climes.

Bonus Day

Today is a bonus day. I was supposed to be running a personal effectiveness workshop for a client but they have postponed it. So what shall I do with my bonus day… decisions, decisions? If I were to follow the advice in my book I’d ask the question: what’s the best use of my time today?

I could demolish the ironing pile; put up some shelves that have been waiting for weeks; prepare for the next round of the builders? Nah, it feels like a kick over the traces day.

There’s just the merest whisper of a waft of spring in the air. Last night two lovesick owls sat in the trees outside my bedroom window twitting and twooing to each other. Just a few minutes ago one of them flew past the office window on it’s way to bed…dirty little stop-out. So I think nature and a walk on the beach beckon; then a catch-up with e-mails; possibly a cholesterol-busting fry-up for breakfast and then, just for fun, back to a short story I started last evening. It’s a new departure for me – not quite horror more spooky. I have the beginning and the end but how the heck I get from one to t’other I’ve not the faintest idea. That’s where the beach walk helps – it blows away the rubbish in my head and allows new ideas to germinate. That’ll probably take care of things ’til mid afternoon when my brain starts hurting at which point…well I don’t know, that’s the luxury of a bonus day, I get to choose to do what I want rather than what I must.

We do seem to be leading more and more complicated lives these days, taking on multiple roles and becoming increasingly stressed. That’s why stepping off the merry-go-round of our lives is important, no essential. So today, my bonus day, I’ll be out and about taking time to smell the roses. Actually it won’t be roses I’m smelling because the pig farmer in the village has clearly decided it’s time to clean out his sheds.

Clothes peg anyone?

Moonlight Sonata

Last night was a full moon – hanging fat and white between a V in the cliffs and spreading an icy white sheen over the sea. Across the beach pinpricks of light from the head torches of the fishermen bobbed and dipped as the wearers settled down for a night catch.

Living so close to the beach and the sea creates an almost irresistable distraction for me and, as last night, just when I have a deadline to meet. Getting distracted is one of the sneakiest time thieves there is, setting up as it often does, a chain reaction. For example, last night went like this.

Gawp at the moon from office window; thinks I’ll take a photo; walks down to cliff top; takes photos; stargazes; meets one of the fishermen who gives me half a dozen good-sized dabs; walks home; makes coffee; cleans fish; freezes fish; makes more coffee; goes back to office; oops it’s now 1 o’clock and I’ve an early start tomorrow or do I mean today?

The net result, still more pressure to meet the deadline which has a knock on effect to all my other pieces of work.

Distractions and their oppo, interruptions are my bugbears. I know full well that when I need to concentrate I should avoid them like the plague – our brains don’t like it. For example, if you’re writing a story and then stop to answer the telephone or get distracted by a tweet, the brain “rules” for creative story writing, telephone answering and tweeting are all different. Every time you shift attention to deal with the interruption/distraction your brain shifts into a different mode to enable you to handle it. It takes nano seconds to do it but can lose you hours. It is the reason why we lose track, lose the character’s “voice” or have to start over each time we switch activity. Studies have shown that someone who is interrupted in a task takes 50% longer to complete it and makes up to 50% more mistakes on the way. Check out “Brain Rules” by John Medina for more info.

Still it was beautiful moonlight and come the apocalypse, I’ve a good stash of fish in the freezer to see me through. Now, where was I…?

Pitch Perfect?

Perhaps I should move my office – it’s far too tempting to stare out to sea and watch the early morning dog walkers on their way to the beach. I used to be one of them but sadly, my little hairy mutt Holly died in the New Year so my walks now are solitary ones. It feels odd and I still look back to see where she’s got to.

The sea today looks calm and placid in contrast to its hissy fit of the past few days with the waves smashing onto the beach and pebbles clacking noisily in the undertow. Now the gales have passed and the beach is strewn with debris – ideal for a bit of beach combing.

However, first I have a couple of pitch letters to write to magazine editors and whilst the features almost write themselves I find the pitch letters incredibly difficult, bringing on a bout of verbal constipation. I could cold-call I suppose but that gives me the willies even more than the pitch letter.

I’ve read a lot of advice about how to write the perfect pitch letter but it still doesn’t come naturally. I confess most of my published short work has been “speculative” – that is I’ve studied carefully the magazine I want to write for; checked length, structure etc; scrutinised the ads and read the blurb for advertisers (which gives a very good sense of the market the magazine is aiming at). Once I’ve done my homework and written the article or feature, I’ve sent it off on spec. However, these days, it is more and more the case that editors want pitch letters so I’d be interested to know if any of you writers out there have developed a perfect pitch?