Category Archives: Isles of Scilly

r e t u r n t o s c i l l y

[ 23:32 tuesday 10 july 2017 : yacht “ange saint louis”, moored off st mary’s, isles of scilly ]

anna dropped me off at penzance harbour on saturday morning to join arthur and gregoire aboard “ange saint louis”, the twenty-seven foot yacht belonging to arthur’s father in which i’ve sailed with them for the last couple of summers. we picked up provisions in town. at 4pm the huge steel gate of the tidal lock slid into the water, we slipped our mooring and set out from the harbour.

penzance harbour has a lifetime of memories for me. in july 1983 this is where i boarded the ferry to the isles of scilly for the first time with a group of musicians from truro school. dozens of trips followed. then in february 1999 this is where i loaded all my belongings into a container on my way to live in the islands for a year. however saturday was the first time i’ve departed the harbour in a yacht.

over the years i’ve travelled to the isles of scilly by ferry, helicopter, light aircract and even on the freight ship during a heavy storm. but prior to this trip i’d never made the crossing by yacht. two years ago arthur, greg and i set out from salcombe with this intention but the wind was resolutely from the west which would have condemned us to days of motoring or endless tacking. we abandoned the plan and sailed eastward through devon and dorset instead.

on saturday once again the wind was from the west but this time we were not to be thwarted and set out under motor. passing along the jagged granite coastline of south-west cornwall every cove and cliff brought back memories from my childhood. the christmas lights and a brass band in the harbour at mousehole; kynance cove in a gale with huge waves breaking over the quay; summer evenings on the cliffside at the minack open-air theatre; picnics on the beach at porthcurno. after a few hours we passed land’s end and the mainland receded from view.

the twenty-eight mile stretch of sea between land’s end and the isles of scilly is a notoriously turbulent stretch of water. this is where the irish sea, the english channel and the atlantic throw themselves at each other, piling up unstable swells and currents. for us though the water was limpid and benign. throughout our passage we were accompanied by bottlenose dolphins. sometimes there were just one or two, leaping and darting around the boat. sometimes more than a dozen surrounded the yacht and played in our wake. greg sat on the bow and dangled his feet in the water, trying to touch the dolphins as they zipped past. the sea was alive with dolphins, i’ve never seen so many of them. it seemed like a positive augur for our voyage.

we had our first glimpse of the islands around sunset, just a low grey smudge on the horizon. above them clouds were gathering ominously in the sky. half an hour later a fine drizzle began to fall around us and the islands disappeared from view. we plodded on, the engine growling its monotonous note, relying on the GPS chart plotter for our course. around 10pm the plotter told us we were passing the eastern isles but all we could see was grey murk.

by 11pm it was fully dark and i was growing uneasy that we’d seen no sign of the islands’ three lighthouses. according to the plotter we were less than a mile from the penninis head light but peering into the darkness not even a faint glow was discernable. could it be the GPS was deceiving us and we were heading out into the open atlantic? after an anxious hour we saw a light close by which i recognised as one of the hazard marks in the channel between st mary’s and st agnes, to our relief. shortly after midnight we rounded the southern tip of the gugh, pulled into the cove of st agnes and dropped anchor.

when we awoke the next morning the sky was still overcast and drizzly but the mist had lifted. my heart leaped to see the familiar outline of the gugh on one side and st agnes on the other with the ever-shifting sand bar between them. we ate a speedy breakfast then inflated the tender, lowered the motor onto it, climbed aboard and buzzed through the anchored yachts to the sand bar.

it’s been twelve years since my last visit to the scillies. walking around the perimeter of the island with arthur and greg my eyes were alert for every change. a fine new bench at the top of the bar (which i later learned was designed by joffy hicks); reinforcements to the quay at covean; an unexpectedly grand new island hall with a glass frontage overlooking the playing field; a mass of boat parts and clutter around the old lifeboat shed. but nothing dramatic had changed, the island remained fundamentally as i knew it.

as we approached wingletang down the sky was clearing so i led arthur and greg down to the little beach at praskin and proposed a swim. praskin is my favourite beach on the island with coarse white sand running down to the water, jagged granite boulders along the north side and long tendril-like seaweed waving in the current. it’s sheltered in almost all conditions but hardly anyone goes there. i stripped to my bathing trunks and waded in. the water was just as cold as i’d remembered. i plunged in and began to swim, gasping at the glacial temperature. greg and arthur followed. afterwards i jogged back and forth on the beach to warm up.

having introduced arthur and greg to the island and had our ceremonial swim, i was eager to catch up with old friends. my first stop was to westward farm to see mike and christine hicks and their family. twelve years ago there was the old farmhouse and a bungalow built for mike’s parents. now the farm had expanded to five dwellings with new houses built for their sons ross and aidan, each with their respective families, plus a wooden holiday let managed by aidan. meanwhile the economic activity of the farm had changed beyond recognition. when i lived on the island in 1999 the main crop was scented narcissi, which the family had been growing since the start of the twentieth century. twelve years ago mike was starting to experiment with aromatic plants from which he extracted essential oils to make soap. today no narcissi are grown and the farm is a diversified patchwork of different elements. several fields are filled with rows of lavender, geraniums and other aromatics. another houses two hundred chickens. yet another’s planted with different varieties of cider apple from which scrumpy is produced. the latest innovation is a range of small-batch gins using local botanicals. one variety is distilled with wild gorse picked on the island. another uses geranium. everything is thriving.

after saying goodbye to mike and christine my second visit was to johann hicks and his family at tamarisk farm, where i lived during my time on st agnes. johann was one of the main supporters of my project nurturing digital skills in the islands. for most of his life he served as one of st agnes’ two councillors but now he’s retired. like mike and christine, the community on tamarisk farm has also expanded. johann’s two sons ben and joffy have both returned to the island with wives and children. johann took me over to visit joffy who’s converted one of the farm’s barns into a house for his family. here too the farm’s economy has evolved. ben has assembled an armoury of heavy machinery which he employs on construction projects around the island, whilst joffy applies his considerable skills as a joiner and designer.

leaving tamarisk farm i returned to the boat with arthur and greg. a fresh breeze had sprung up so we hoisted sail right away for old grimsby at the opposite end of the archipelago. it was grand to have the wind in our sails and the hull leaping beneath our feet after the long motor from penzance. however the tide was falling and the whole of the northern part of the archipelago has only a couple of feet of water at low tide. we realised were cutting it fine if we were going to reach our destination without running aground. once again relying on the GPS chart plotter we picked our way through the last half mile, trying to avoid the shallowest patches as the water ebbed. greg stood at the bows calling back with growing nervousness as the sandy seabed grew closer and closer. we made it through by the skin of our teeth and anchored for the night.

we spent this afternoon exploring tresco then sailed back to st mary’s and moored off hughtown. supper was fish and chips from a van, eaten sitting on the beach at porthellick. a clever seagull crept up on us and seeing its moment grabbed arthur’s fish from his hands and flew off with it. afterwards we took a taxi up to watermill in the north of the island to visit gaz. he’s been a friend of mine since we played together in a jazz band as teenagers in cornwall. in 1999 i spent several months living in a tent in his garden. now the wooden cabin which was his home is gone, replaced by a pristine two-storey house where he lives with his partner ashley and her children. we spent the next few hours gossiping and catching up. gaz also is representative of the islands’ changing economy, managing a new vineyard which produced its first vintage in 2014.

now we are back on the yacht preparing for the next stage of our voyage. we will wake at 5am, eat a swift breakfast, then set out for the channel islands 125 miles away. this will be a long passage. we are likely to be at sea for thirty-six hours and out of sight of land for most of it. the three of us will hold watches in rotation, each of us taking the helm for two hours then sleeping four hours whilst the other two take their turns. as if this wasn’t enough of an adventure already, a gale is forecast for the morning. winds up to force seven will arrive from the west around 10am and continue for the next fourteen hours before swinging round to the north and abating. the waves will be two to three metres high. i must confess to being a little afraid of the challenges facing us tomorrow, but that is part of why i love sailing.

: c :

t h e d e a t h o f m i c h a e l

[ 00:30 thursday 17 january – piscita, isola di stromboli ]

michael young left this life on monday night.

the words are still incredible to me. writing them brings another spasm of grief upon me. michael was never particularly healthy and for twenty years had suffered from a macabre assortment of cancers. but always his vigour and stubborness carried him through. it was too easy to assume this would be so for ever.

the news arrived in an email from my friend james smith early on tuesday afternoon. i had just started washing up in the kitchen. for a few moments i went back to this mundane labour, numb and incomprehending. but then the information started to sink in and i dropped into a wailing trembling pile on the floor.

my first contact with michael was an interview in the new statesman which i read on an aeroplane to finland in july 1997. i remember making a prediction to my friend kirmo as we left helsinki airport that this extraordinary man was going to have an important part in my life. i met him at the end of 1998 and got to know him over the next couple of years. in april 2001 he agreed to be my mentor.

i was with him just before christmas at his house in islington. he was frail, but no more so than i have seen him before. it was a lovely day, crisp and blue-skied, the grey london stone shining in the golden-white light. coming in from the hall i was immediately bid play some dances at the piano in order that gaia’s dolls could have a dance. there they all were, arrayed on the floor in a semi-circle, with little gaia sitting wide-eyed and delighted in their midst. i sat myself down and hammered through a few waltzes and tangos as she twirled her festively-arrayed friends around the floor. michael sat at the end of the room entranced by the energetic bundle of new life he summoned into being five years ago.

we talked of many things over lunch and afterwards. parliamentary process, various of my ventures, his latest ideas for reforming the health service, his health, his endlessly-gestating successor to “family and kinship in east london”. i remember him commenting rather apologetically that he might not have a very long life left to help me. i scolded him for giving voice to such nonsense and thought nothing of it. typically he offered to drive me back to bethnal green, where i was staying, but it was clear he was feeling weak and i already felt bad about drawing on his energy. bidding him farewell i was moved by some instinct to kneel at his feet and clasp his old hands firmly between my own. then i took my leave, urging him that i saw ample cause for hope in the world.

i seem to have a talent for making good exits and then messing them up. sure enough as i rounded the corner from gibson square i realised i had forgotten my scarf. returning to his front door and ringing the bell the door opened immediately. there was michael with the object in his hands. as i took the scarf i suggested to michael that he was telepathic. he smiled his childlike pursed-lip smile, bid me farewell once more and then the door was closing and i was hurrying on my way.

i shall not see him again in this life.

oh i cannot bear to write this. i cannot bear to be without him.

yesterday evening, desperate to share my grief, i stumbled round the coast to my friends matteus and sara. they held me while i sobbed, comforting me with wise words about life and death. carlos, their ten-month-old son, clung to me also, a vigorous intelligence of these cycles through which all pass.

matteus gave me a black and brown scarf for my mourning, which i am wearing tied around my head for seven days. sara gave me a candle she made with red bougainvilla leaves scattered throughout it. this burns behind me now, on the table, beside a big M assembled from pieces of white pummice stone washed up in the storms.

on sunday night i hosted a dinner party. mid-way through the evening my friend giuseppe picked up a copy of one of my most recent photographs of michael and asked if he could have a copy. to me this seemed like an extraordinary request. around the room there are more almost forty of my pictures, all of which i would presume to be of more interest than this particular image of michael. but that was the one he wanted and of course i was over-joyed to print off a copy and write beneath it the name of its subject. this in turn aroused my friends’ curiosity about michael so i at their beckoning i talked of him at length. after dinner, when everyone had gone, i picked up the photograph which had caught giuseppe’s interest in the first place and fixed it to the wall in my bedroom, beside my bed.

thus, mysteriously and portentously, was the final night of michael’s life celebrated here amongst my friends on stromboli. michael hoped he might be able to visit me here in the spring. his name at least will be honoured in this place.

writing all of this is perhaps a part of the grieving process. i find myself focusing on the words for a few sentences, then recalling what it is i am describing and breaking foolishly into tears again. the muscles of my face ache from crying. but i sense the emphasis moving slowly from misery at what is lost to celebration of what has existed.

i always knew i would not have enough time with michael. i could have spent a century with him and would still have felt cheated to have him snatched away.

early on in my time with him i sent him a note saying that i would never meet another human from whom i had so much to learn. i knew this from the moment i read that interview with him.

throughout my life i have been blessed with wonderful teachers but michael was something beyond this. he is the closest thing i have had to a role model. his whole way of living and working, his sensibility, his gentle selfless guile, his humanity and warmth. he was a fine painter and writer, a lousy politician, an imperfect father, a brilliant thinker, analyst, problem-solver, pursuader, opportunist. i shall not trivialise him by eulogising. that is for the obituaries.

last autumn he wanted me to take charge of a project in hull piloting an “open health service” using digital interactive television to provide citizens with access to information, organise self-help groups for particular conditions, and generally to empower users in their interactions with the health bureaucracy. i worked on the proposals with him and accompanied him to a project meeting in hull, but in the end i knew my path lay here in the south of italy and i would not be pursuaded otherwise. thus passed my one and only opportunity to collaborate with him directly. i made the right decision.

today the english newspapers are full of michael. even mr blair has issued a few encomious paragraphs, despite michael’s mischievous sniping in the guardian of the last year. now i brace myself for the hateful and inevitable process whereby michael’s shade will be claimed by cause upon cause, from most of which he would have run a mile. already he regretted writing “the rise of the meritocracy” as a satire, since politicians are wont to miss the point of the book altogether and come away with the errant conclusion that michael supported the system he describes in it.

oh i could write endlessly about michael. perhaps i feel if i keep writing this he will stay with me a while longer. but he would not approve of the dilation and i feel the close must soon be upon me.

so he is gone. he is really gone. how alone i feel, having had the privilege of this gorgeous giant for a moment as my guide. my journey seems darker and more perilous without him.

during my final months in london i taught michael to use a computer. it was not easy for him. but he persevered, got to grips with the web and email and, finally, gained an insight into the current era he could not have reached any other way. he has been reading these wanderer despatches since i have been in italy. this message will find its way still to his inbox. i would like to think that somehow his spirit may yet receive these words.

so michael, i hope the journey was interesting and if you’d consider a job as a guardian angel i know someone who needs one. i love you always.

: charles

– – – – –

links to obituaries,,60-2002025143,00.html,7838,634348,00.html,7838,634353,00.html,7838,634350,00.html;$sessionid$OCMMSWIAAAEKXQFIQMFSFFOAVCBQ0IV0?view=DETAILS&grid=&targetRule=10&xml=%2Fnews%2F2002%2F01%2F16%2Fdb1601.xml

s o u t h w a r d

[ 22:00 sunday 7 january – rosevear , st agnes , isles of scilly ]

since completing the previous chunk i’ve had supper (the remnant of seb’s excellent sugo from last week) , started making two loaves of pumpkin-seed bread and walked down to periglis to phone grandpa since today’s his ninety-fifth birthday (periglis is one of three places on the island where i can get a signal) .

as i write , david owen is on radio four talking about britain’s short-lived social democratic party , of which he was a founder . he comes across well . direct , statesmanlike and entertainingly prickly . the time i spent working with him on balkan odyssey seems distant now . i suppose that was my first proper break .

but on with the show .

my final visit to tamale was a brief one . i arrived in the afternoon and left early the following morning . time for some last goodbyes at the mandela development centre , particularly to the digital workshop team . one of the design trainees , mohammed sumaila , had painted a large canvas for me . i packed up my computer , my saxophone , the digital camera and my tailoring into a large bag and left it with the centre staff to send down to accra . then i said my final goodbyes to iddrisu , isaiah and hadi , who had travelled back from a drumming job to see me off .

i needed to be at the tro-tro station at six in the morning . the previous evening i’d bumped into a young taxi driver i knew so i’d engaged him to pick me up . he promised not to be late but ten minutes after the appointed time there was still no sign of him and i was getting nervous . afu amidu came to my rescue and offered to take me in on his motorbike . i felt a little top-heavy perched there with my huge rucksack on my back and the smaller one clasped between my knees but we got there .

and so i left tamale , just as the sky was lightening , squeezed into a decrepit minibus with perhaps fifty per cent more people than it was design to convey . a fitting departure . we proceeded south for a hundred miles along the worst road i’ve ever travelled . passengers gripped whatever solid fixtures they could find as the vehicle lurched and bounced from one chasm to the next .

eventually we arrived at makongo , a tiny settlement on the east bank of lake volta where fish were laid out in squares on the ground to dry . it was thrilling to be by water for the first time since leaving giglio in the summer . to north and south the vast lake stretched as far as the eye could see . after a while the ferry for which i and most of my fellow passengers were waiting arrived and lowered its ramp . i boarded and soon we set off to cross the seven miles to yeji on the west bank .

yeji was a larger place but notably unprepossessing . i wandered around with a young fellow i’d met on the boat , a son of the atebubu chief . several people invited us to share their lunch (my friend was recognised) but i was feeling tired so i excused myself and found a room where i refreshed myself with a bucket shower and slept for a few hours . i awoke to the sound of a whistle , which i guessed heralded the arrival of the weekly ship from akasombo at the opposite end of lake volta a couple of hundred miles south , my reason for being in yeji .

knowing that the voyage back to akasombo would take twenty-five hours and that the ship had only two cabins with beds (the alternative being a board in an open dormitory or the deck) i proceeded fairly swiftly to don my clothes and remove myself to the waters’ edge . there indeed was the yapei queen , an ugly vessel with a large open foredeck and three decks of superstructure rising behind . i went aboard , across the foredeck and up the companionways to the bridge deck . there i found a man who had the unmistakable air of an official . with my heart in my throat i asked about the cabins . to my great relief one was still available so i handed over the fare and promised i’d be aboard in time to sail at two the following morning .

the rest of the afternoon i spent talking to various people around the town , including the largest group of whiteys i’d encountered since arriving in ghana (seven of them , all tourists , who’d arrived on the ship) . as night fell a sound system started playing in a side street and investigation revealed … a street-dance ! by this stage of my wanderings in ghana i was completely uncontrollable when faced with a function of this kind and in no time i was grooving away . i even managed to persuade a couple of the whiteys to join in (one fellow from bavaria and another from norway , who danced in the manner known only to scandinavians) . oh , it was wonderful . but all too soon the pumpkin hour was upon me and i had to tear myself away , gather my bags and board the ship .

the voyage south was one of the most magical journeys i’ve been on . we stopped at four villages on the way down , mainly to load yams destined for the markets in accra and kumasi . the loading process was entirely unmechanised . farmers from surrounding area had piled their yams into great heaps near the water , each specimen marked with a splash of coloured paint to indicate its provenance . women transfered one bowlful at a time on their heads onto the ship , where they were expertly thrown up to boys who laid them layer upon layer in wooden crates , interspersed with layers of grass . it was not a fast or efficient process but there was no real need for it to be . wherever we stopped i took the opportunity to explore and meet people . different tribes , different aspirations , different problems .

by the time we left keti krachi , the last port of call , we must have been carrying more than a hundred thousand yams . there were also a couple of cows , half a dozen goats , a dozen chickens , a minivan , a sofa , a baboon and a couple of hundred passengers . what you might call a mixed cargo .

at night i stood wide-eyed at the front of the bridge deck for hours as we wove between densely-forested islands , the dark horizon sillhouetted by the menacing glow of huge bushfires .

all too soon the surrounding country grew more mountainous and we were approaching akasombo , with its vast dam and hydro-electric plant . the presidential motor yacht was there , moored somewhat incongruously beside decrepit oilers . we docked . i disembarked and started looking for a tro-tro heading towards accra .

: cH

n o r t h w a r d

[ 17:35 sunday 7 january – rosevear , st agnes , isles of scilly ]

it’s three and a half weeks since i returned to soggy old britain , despatched the briefest of notes and promised to write more in “a day or two” . with every day that passes i find myself with more to write and less idea where to begin .

there’s still so much to say about ghana . probably i need to get some of it out of my system before i can move on . rather than a single giant mail i’ll break it into more digestible chunks . so if you’re sitting comfortably …

after a week of blissed decompression in mole game reserve i returned to tamale and took a tro-tro north to bolgatanga , capital of the upper east region , hard against the border with burkina faso . a remote place where the harmattan was more pronounced than in tamale . the nights were crisp and chilly , the days dusty and hot . i liked it a lot .

from there i ventured to tongo , a remarkable landscape of granite carns (to use the cornish term) and rocky hills . this was the least-changed part of ghana i visited . even christianity and islam had made only marginal inroads and each cluster of huts had a pillar on which the soothsayer would make sacrifice when a god’s favour was sought . before i could walk in the area i had to secure permission from the paramount chief . he was dozing in the sun when i arrived at his compound but arrangements were hastily made and soon he was ready to receive me in his palace , the interior of which was hung with goat skulls and drum-heads from the annual festivities .

i introduced myself , made some general purpose flattering comments about the chief and explained my request , with one of the chief’s sons translating for me . then i presented the tribute of kola nuts i’d brought along . this was received without comment . after a slightly awkward silence the son explained to me that it was customary also to offer some cash for the chief and his elders . so i pulled out my wallet and handed over a decent wad . this was inspected and tucked away , then everyone looked at me again . the son said “that was for the chief – now you need to give some for the elders” . with a little less grace than before i pulled out my wallet and handed over a few more notes . after this i was invited to take a photo and told i was welcome to explore the area . the audience was then at an end and the chief left to resume the important business of snoozing after another profitable day’s business .

after a respectful interval i too left the palace with the chief’s son and several others , all of whom were clearly going to accompany me whether i liked it or not . as we were passing through the compound an elderly lady clambered out of a little doorway . this was the senior wife , it was explained , and i was welcome to have a look in her room if i wanted . not wanting to offend i crawled through the doorway and cast my eyes around the gloomy interior , furnished with a few blankets . the old lady and translator-son came in too . there wasn’t much to see . i made a few token appreciative noises and turned to leave . “you should make a tribute to the senior wife” it was helpfully suggested . so i handed over some more notes .

with some relief i exited the chief’s compound and set out for the hills with my entourage of four , all too aware that i would be expected to dash every single one of them (dash being the standard african term for a “reward”) .

we proceeded across the irregular-shaped fields , skirting several of the little mud compounds which dot the landscape . arriving at the foot of the hills we began to ascend . it was tough going , with tangled thorns and big boulders , but as we got higher a wild exhilaration began to rise in me . after weeks in the flat plains of tamale it was exciting to be climbing and my guides moved through the terrain at a challengingly rapid pace . i was determined to keep up with them . the view over the surrounding countryside was incredible . the whole structure of social and economic organisation was revealed in the pattern of field boundaries and arrangement of hut clusters .

from the top we could see for hundreds of miles . once again my compact binoculars came into their own . indeed they made such an impression upon my guides that it was suggested i should make a present of them . but i think even they realised this was pushing it and there was no argument when i firmly declined . i tarried there for perhaps half an hour , reluctant to descend . but the shadow of the hill on the land below was lengthening and i didn’t fancy going down in darkness .

once we were back on the flat the expected requests for dash started . i gave what i assessed as the minimum acceptable and emphatically resisted further requests . i felt increasingly dispirited as the demands continued and really just wanted to get away . therefore my heart dropped when it started to emerge that returning to bolga was not going to be easy . it was the evening and there would be no more vehicles . the spectre of being dependent on these people for overnight accommodation and prey to further fleecing was not attractive . mercifully , after an hour or so , the manager of the local quarry hove into view in his pickup . i have rarely been so relieved to see a car . of course , there were many others wanting a lift into bolga and i had to hand out copious dash to secure a place but i hardly cared . the quarry manager was an intelligent and kindly man from the south . a catholic . he spoke scathingly of the locals and their “primitive” beliefs . what’s more he was familiar with the camborne school of mines , a splendid institution situated about five miles from where i grew up in cornwall , which delighted me no end .

after another day in bolga i returned to tamale for the last time .

: cH

e x e u n t

07:58 saturday 12 february – steamship company office , hugh town quay , st mary’s

i sit here keeping out of the way of the frenetic ballet of forklifts on the quay outside . the gry came in yesterday afternoon with a full load . as i walked round to keith’s yard at porthmellon one of the steamship company directors commented to me that he’d never seen her so low in the water .

there are still stacks of flower boxes waiting on the quay to be loaded . i reckon she might be an hour later than the scheduled eight o’clock sailing time . no matter . i am content to sit and observe .

ian is phoning round the islands letting them know the lyonesse lady’s revised movements . there’s so much freight to despatch that she’ll have to take it in two runs .

the sky is grey and troubled but for the present the wind is not too severe . ian says it’ll rise over the next two hours .

everybody looks at me as if i’m mad when i tell them i’m going over on the gry . it has a reputation for being less than the most comfortable way to travel between here and penzance , particularly in rough weather . it has been known to take seven or eight hours in a heavy sea . but today there should be a following wind and swell , even if they are a little on the large side . people seem to regard it as some kind of ultimate sea-sickness endurance challenge . because she has a shallow drought and the wheelhouse is up forward the motion can be quite unpleasant . i’ve never succumbed in the past and rather hope to avoid it today .

ian’s just handed me the latest weather fax from the met office . southwest force 7 or gale force 8 with the strongest winds around the isles of scilly . sea state rough to very rough . hehe !

10:09 – gry maritha , a couple of miles out from scilly

i was eventually called at twenty past nine and hurried down the quay. i threw my bags onto the deck then grabbed the rail and heaved myself up . we slipped berth five minutes later . the sky has cleared . we are rolling about quite a bit .

10:19 in the last couple of minutes the ship’s motion has changed noticeably . we rise up and down each wave more steeply . the hull judders as we pitch into each one and there is a constant swish of spray breaking across the deck . my rucksack falls over in the cabin as i write .

10:26 i went out on deck and was confused to find the islands already out of sight to stern . then i poked my head over the rail , looked forward , and there they were . i blinked and checked again . but we were definitely heading * towards * the islands . no wonder i sensed a change of motion . i went down to the mess where the crew was variously sitting and lying with cups of tea . i enquired why we were going back . to drop me off , they teased , to answer some tricky questions for the police . but it turned out a fuel line had burst , spraying diesel all over the engine room .

this creates a slight problem for me . at two o’clock a van will be delivered to the quay at penzance for me to drive all my stuff up to my parents in gloucestershire . i need to be there to brandish my licence and sign some papers . i’ll phone and try to delay it .

12:05 we have just cast off from st mary’s quay for the second time today , having arrived three quarters of an hour ago . it felt earie to be returned like this having bade the islands farewell . the fuel line couldn’t be repaired and the decision has been made to proceed to penzance anyway . could be a slow journey .

13:58 no land in sight from the main deck , though there probably would be if i climbed up to the wheelhouse . we have passed out of signal range for my mobile phone . following a flurry of calls to the penzance harbour office , the steamship company office and the van rental company i am left with very little idea whether there will be a vehicle waiting for me , and whether its keys will be locked in an office somewhere .

there is nothing more i can do . the crew gave me some tea and a pack of biscuits . i shall settle down to some reading .

21:32 bodriggy street , hayle , cornwall

we docked at penzance at half past five , eight hours after the initial departure from st mary’s . by this time the uncertainty regarding the van had been augmented by the possibility that my belongings were not even aboard the gry . the crew could find no trace of my two palates and bicycle in the hold . my feeling of exasperation increased a couple more notches .

but some anxious communications with st mary’s drew assurance that they had been loaded into a big steel container on deck , though this would not be confirmed until we arrived in port .

the quay was crammed with articulated lorries waiting to collect shipments of flowers from the islands to deliver across the country . we drew in , lines were thrown , i leapt across with my rucksack , my powerbook , my camera , my saxophone . as the holds were being opened i scuttled up to the steamship company office , where i found a waiting van . but no keys in evidence . and nobody around . i returned to the quay to find the first of my palettes and my bicycle unloaded . encouraged by this i went back for another search of the parked van . the keys were tucked in the sun visor . i suddenly felt a lot lighter .

i drove down to the quay , tore the plastic wrap off my palettes and transferred everything into the van . three children emerged and started firing a stream of questions at me : where had i come from where was i going could they come with me what was in the boxes why were all the lorries on the quay what was it like to ride in a ship ?

i shouted my thanks to the master of the gry and made the twenty minute drive here , the home of my sister anna and her husband adam . i’ll continue up to my parents tomorrow afternoon . so what was the voyage like ? well the sea was big and ship rolled around a lot , but to be honest there was nothing very exciting about it and at no point did i feel even the tiniest bit queasy . almost a sense of anti-climax . but this was the right way for me to leave the islands .

: cH

w i n d o w

13:53 friday 11 february – rosevear , st agnes

my belongings went aboard the launch at one o’clock . the sea and wind have subsided but are expected to rise again this evening . the day is stolen from spring , doors and windows standing open in the sunlight , the birdsong , the gentle breeze .

i travel to st mary’s at half past three , spending the night at keith buchanan’s house . tomorrow i plan to make my way to penzance on the freighter .

my studio and bedroom are cleared and hoovered . most of my goodbyes are said . there is time to stuff what remains in my rucksack , return a couple of borrowed items , venture one last time to wingletang .

nick lishman sent me a battery for my camera on the launch . i don’t yet know whether my computer bits were in the mail .

these will probably be my last words from st agnes .

: cH

c o n t i n u a t i o n

11:51 thursday 10 february – rosevear , st agnes

still here !

the steamship company phoned at two yesterday afternoon to say that the launch would be coming at quarter past three . so i leapt on my bike and cycled off in search of johann . not in tamarisk , not at work rebuilding the old gig shed at conger , not engaged in boat maintenance down at periglis . by the time i’d completed my circuit of the island johann had heard about the launch and brought the trailer round to the lane beside the studio with two palette bins . he and piers already had most of my boxes loaded on .

we bumped down to the quay and waited . the swell coming into conger was quite alarming . from time to time a set of extra big waves would sweep over the end of the quay . johann commented that the conditions were almost identical to those in which the launch had almost been lost a couple of years previously whilst trying to unload here .

as we stood there the gry maritha left st mary’s , battled out into the roads and set off towards penzance . she’s a big sturdy vessel , built i believe for the ferocious norwegian coastal waters . but she was bucking and rolling all over the place . it was a little disheartening to see her heading off since all my boxes should have been in her hold . she won’t be back until saturday , and even that is uncertain .

then the launch , the lyonesse lady , hove into view round the garrison . twenty minutes later she rounded the cow and stood off the quay , waiting for the right moment to come alongside . by this time a smattering of islanders had gathered . a huge set came through , tossing her about dramatically . then her engines gunned and she darted to the quay . a line was thrown , caught and hooked to one of the iron rings , and the vessel was brought against the quay .

then everything moved very quickly . tristan hick and john bird jumped off , returning from a building job on st mary’s , a human chain formed and supplies were swiftly brought off , a sack of mail , then rhondda wraith and rosemary bird jumped on , both en route to engagements on the mainland , taking the mail with them . the skipper struggled to keep the boat’s position as it bounced around .

then the line was released and she was off . in these conditions there was absolutely no possibility of bringing the trailer down and winching my palettes aboard . so johann drove the trailer back up to rosevear and we unloaded everything back into the studio .

in the evening i went for a walk round half of the island , pausing here and there amongst the erupting plumes of spray , then went down to the turk’s head for ( presumably ) my final quiz night .

this morning i looked out of the window to an undiminished sea . the steamship company was uncertain whether the launch would be coming or not . johann and i loaded everything onto the trailer anyway . word came round that launch would be delayed so we left the trailer until we heard more . i settled down to breakfast . a little later mollie peacock stuck her head round the door to say that it was just coming in . damn ! i found johann and we set off . i biked ahead , but as i rounded the corner above the bar i saw the launch already departing . it had been another hit and run affair .

this time we have left the boxes on the trailer and it is parked in one of johann’s sheds . maybe tomorrow …

meanwhile it’s another beautiful bright day . yesterday it was mild enough to wander round outside in a t-shirt . i’m feeling a bit deprived , with no battery for my film camera and no way of transfering images from the digital one to my powerbook . the relevant adapters should have arrived on tuesday but there is still no sign of them .

yesterday marked the anniversary of my arrival .

: cH

d e l a y

10:30 wednesday 9 february – rosevear , st agnes

at this point i should be standing on the quay watching the lyonesse lady arrive , ready to winch my belongings aboard . instead i’m sitting in the house with everything piled around me .

i awoke to a beautiful sunny morning , the thrushes singing their hearts out … and the growl of a seriously big sea . at nine the launch was still expected to run . half an hour later it had been cancelled . the gry maritha , which runs freight between the islands and penzance , has just arrived at st mary’s but it will return to penzance as soon as it has unloaded . there is a possibility the sea will get worse tomorrow .

it seems the islands are not ready to release me quite yet . the weather has even denied me the use of my camera . i have plenty of film but the battery expired yesterday . one of a number of articles i intended to buy on st mary’s .

the next sailing of the gry isn’t until saturday , and the steamship company is sceptical if even that will be running .

i sit by the phone and wait .

: cH

e n d i n g

10:55 tuesday 8 february – rosevear , st agnes

i sit in my studio amidst half-packed boxes and scattered papers . sunlight cuts low through the windows and i can feel its heat on the back of my hands as i type . my belongings are booked on the launch to st mary’s at half past nine tomorrow morning , ready for thursday morning’s sailing to penzance .

so it is almost over , this enchanted year . but i find my heart is not heavy . i have drunk deep of this place .

these final weeks have been as busy as any . the first full meeting of the scillonia digital workshop’s membership , a session on the internet with the st agnes schoolchildren , the first steps towards a community website built by the people of st agnes , a flurry of correspondence . also i have a new computer , a macintosh powerbook . the big system which has been the mainstay of successive projects since 1995 , when it was acquired to develop the balkan odyssey cd-rom , has found its final home in the school here on st agnes . i found myself unexpectedly sentimental about parting with it . we have been through a lot together , shared many memories . but i’m glad to put it out to pasture here where it may continue to be of use a little longer .

the new one is a joy . i spent half an hour last week with keith in the sail loft designing a padded case for it in yellow and tan canvas . another step towards being able to work from anywhere . i leave for australia on the twenty-fourth , where i shall be for five weeks or so .

today is clear , bright and very windy . i had a packed morning planned on st mary’s . meetings with the duchy of cornwall and the education authority , a handful of other liaisons and ( most important ) a haircut . but it is too rough and the boats were cancelled . there will now be no chance to reschedule these engagements . the weather has had the final word . i wonder if it will calm down tomorrow ?

this inconvenience did have a silver lining . i got some terrific photos of the island’s farmers loading boxes of flowers onto the launch . the light is amazing .

: cH

l u n a c y

05:37 friday 21 january 2000 – rosevear , st agnes

i’ve just cycled back from wingletang where i’ve been watching the lunar eclipse . i feel like sleeping now so i’ll write later .

02:10 saturday

later , as usual , turns out to be quite a lot later !

i’ve just put together a little module :

you might have noticed a more stable style of presentation and interface emerging over the last few weeks . for the time being i’ve moved away from the photo-journal approach i tried in october to focus on self-contained modules . people’s comments and feedback have been instrumental in shaping the current format . i know some people still find themselves opening scores of image windows , but at least this can be avoided with the next and previous image buttons . it’s always good to hear people’s thoughts .

last night i ( that is , thursday night ) i returned from a magnificent dinner at westward and settled into several hours’ work . i’d intended to spend the afternoon recording interviews but ended up in highly-charged conversation with two island women who nonetheless refused to record a peep . i stuck my head out the door at about half three to confirm that the eclipse had begun . the sky was still cloudy but the moon’s white disc could be seen and a quadrant was indeed absent .

over supper we’d speculated about whether the sky would clear . inevitably there were memories of august’s eclipse , the solar one ( ) , when a perfectly-situated hole opened in the clouds precisely for the period of totality then closing again as mysteriously .

i woke nik as arranged at four and we went into the lane outside my studio . the sky was featureless black . i decided to bike down to wingletang to see whether it might be visible away from the house lights . i tried to chivy nik into joining me but fresh from bed he was not enthusiastic . so off i sped , down the pitted concrete track , past the ghostly bulk of the old lighthouse , turning right onto the rutted mud of barnaby lane , down the narrowing track flanked by pitasporum and tamarisk , finally out into the open space of the downs . i pedaled through the bracken up to the great rock known as the giant’s punchbowl . there i stopped and looked about .

from the way the cloud caught the beams of lighthouses it was evidently low in the sky . in these conditions one can clearly make out the play of seven different lights . bishop rock , penninnis head , round island – the islands’ trinity . then wolf rock , longships , sennen and lizard , hidden below the far eastern horizon .

still there was no sign of the moon . but several patches of star-crammed sky had opened in the cloud . and they were slowly stretching . it would be worth waiting and watching . the weather here often rewards patience .

so i bounced down the curving track to praskin , my best-loved beach , a short band of white sand punctuated by great boulders and embraced by jagged arms of black rock . i left my bike at the sand’s margin and trod down to the quietly lapping water . then i lay back on the sand , my face to the sky , and waited .

i have not spent nearly enough time this year lying on sand watching the stars . but in a way last night made up for it all . at twenty-nine minutes past four ( i checked my camera’s clock ) i caught my first glimpse of the eclipsed moon . for a fleeting moment a dark orange crescent appeared through the seathing cloud before being consumed once again . nothing more was visible for quarter of an hour . by this time the sky was six-tenths clear with great swathes of stars . but the quarter in which the moon hid remained stubbornly veiled . constantly i judged that she would be revealed by the drifting clouds , but time after time they seemed to mutate before my eyes or reverse their motion or in some other way refuse to disgorge her .

then there was another glimpse , swiftly engulfed . and another , a few seconds . this teasing continued . i smiled to myself and the sky .

around five o’clock my patience was rewarded . twice or three times , for a few moments only , the full disk was revealed . like sombre cochineel , the colour reminded me of the air’s hue during the solar totality . my eyes widened and my heart pounded in the same way . residues from a primaeval ancestry tinging me with the deep terror of perverted nature .

i tried to take a photograph but it was hopeless . this event was to be seen unrecorded .

a little later , knowing that totality would be ending , i raised myself , returned to my bike and began the ride home . at several points i stopped to stare a little longer towards the patch in the sky where i knew a crescent of brilliant blue-white would be beginning to spread . back up at the old coastguard cottages i was granted a view of this , the rebirth of normality looking perhaps even stranger than the fearful orange disk had done .

then i returned my bike to johann’s barn , braced the door with the old broken oar , wrote the few words with which this despatch began and went satisfied to bed .

: cH