In 2011 Nancy Charley spent six weeks in a little blue beach hut on Tankerton Slopes, near Whitstable on the Kent coast, recording the changing tides and shifting moods of the shingle beach. Little Blue Hut is a book about weather and water, bladderwrack and gutweed, swimmers, dog-walkers and sea-anglers, cormorants and blackheaded gulls, ‘resident birds’ and ‘transient people’. And always the horizon where sky merges with sea. In the first half of the book the Water-Watcher tells her tale, exploring the mysteries and the ‘bizarreries’ of the Thames Estuary and finding, like a beachcomber, myth and poetry in the rarely noticed details of everyday life. In the second half of the book a woman is summoned by the three female genii of the coast – Luna, Marina and Hertha. Helped by the birds, she discovers who she might be, whilst berthed in the safety of the Little Blue Hut.
Author photo: Andy Charley
I have assumed my watch – shifted from southern shore of sandy beach and rock pools under chalk cliff-face to this northern border where the shingle is restrained by weed-greened wooden groynes. The horizon towards the west is possessed by an ancient isle – an alien ghetto I am told where for many generations natives lived in isolation. And east, a strange sight, thirty spikes spin blades – white reapers of the wind not of the grain. The souls that fly this coast appear as pairs of crows, blackheaded gulls and cormorants which dive down, stay beneath the waves but never drown. The berths are perched along the slope in bright array but most are shuttered, barred and locked. As summer slips into autumn few seem to hear or to obey the call to sentinel and dream.
Black as the coal which mined their lives, Black as the dust which lined their lungs, Black as the night which filled their days, Black plumage, legs, feet, beaks and eyes. Scruffily clad in workaday rags but iridescent as sea glitter. Restless, they scan the estuary for barges carrying Black wealth. They tread the shingle at tide’s ebb, eyes pick, beaks peck at each Black pebble. They spread their wings in stunted flight. They hop the slope with hunkered heads. Condemned to caw when once they choired, haunted by caged and cavernous dreams: floods of faces, bared gleaming teeth, laid out props, bleak Black screams.
I wrapped my heart in a cotton shroud, I wound my heart in a silk cocoon, I gave my heart to the carrion crows who flew my heart to a lace day moon. The moon sank into a bruise-tinged haze, my heart slipped into the cold cold waves. The current twisting from flow to ebb carried my heart away away. I trapped my sorrow behind panes of glass, I hid my body in a pinewood shed, I pooled my tears for marygold drink, I stifled my sobs in spider webs. But a money-spinner comforted me, crawled my hand as I scrawled my hurt, taught my lament to the screaming gulls, scattered my anguish to pecking culvers. I will bathe my face in the morning dew, I will pinch off fear to feed crane flies, I will sprinkle self-pity along the shingle, skimming pebbles as anger dives. My skin will absorb a radiant sunset, my body will bask in crepuscular rays, I will wade in the shallows when cats’ paws thrill, I will dance with the moon’s corona display. My heart will return when autumn is dead, once winter is sifted and spring has sprung, my heart will stir in its shrouding cocoon, bloody my body, release my tongue. My heart will return as a cormorant lumbering silently over the sea, oiled and preened and cruciate, embracing others and saving me.
All day a jubilant sun chases a sliver of moon. A Turneresque haze playing with water colours hides the horizon. The advancing, chanting sea dances with the shingle’s beat. Two swimmers appear as aberrant white horses foaming the water. Retired jacketed greyhounds jog with jacketed owners. A breeze thieves the time, three aging dandelions loosen their fleeces. Single file, synchronised flap towards sunset, geese fly past.
‘Nancy Charley is in her element here, the element being water: water caught in its own riptide of language, water under the sway of the Moon, water bewitched by spells that may be aligned with white or black magic. Reading at my desk, I felt the foam between my toes, heard the words crash and retreat in my ears. There’s a lot of pleasure to be had here: wade in.’
‘These watchful poems conjure the world of the shore-line and bind you in their spell. Rich with the music of waves and the tang of salt, they dive in and out of the natural world and its ancient enchantments. They celebrate the mysteries of change.’