The gods that live in buckets
Work in progress relating to writing and artefacts inspired by a fictitious island in the English Channel facing immersion by the sea. My narration deals with themes of environment, isolation, jeopardy, and resilience. The work arose out of an invitation to participate in ‘Island” by SWAP Editions.
The title "The gods that live in buckets" is adapted from one of Italo Calvino’s texts in “Invisible Cities”, which talks about the interdependency between a city and the subterranean water below it (the city of Isaura, Thin cities 1).
The water is encroaching. For years, the government promised to fund a sea wall, but the money went to coastal defences in Romney Marsh instead. Every month the land recedes a bit more, swallowed by the sea. We estimate that in the next 10 years we’ll have to move to the mainland. Already our island has become two, divided by a channel that has formed over the past few years, the water surging ever more deeply through the chalk, so that it is now impossible to cross without a boat. We have more or less abandoned this southern part of Lomea: the formerly scrubby land has become marshy and brackish as the salt water has taken hold, and the quick sand, always known as the “treacherous bogs”, seems more prevalent and menacing.
The part of the island we live on has two hills at the centre: the highest, adjacent to the chapel, was perhaps an Iron Age burial mound, and this is where our goats and sheep graze, and the geese roam. Once there was enough pasture and woodland on the island to support a whole village, but this is the only meadowland left now, along with the weather-beaten trees scattered here and there. As it became increasingly hard to scrape a living on the island, and the periodic storms had more devastating effect, most of the villagers left. Their homes have slowly become ruins and are disappearing amongst brambles and ditches. Now there are just a scattering of houses left occupied.
The Lomea hoard consists of eighteen ceramic artefacts of unknown origin. They appear to be coated with a copper oxide glaze. They were found on the north-west coast of the island of Lomea when digging took place to create a seawall, a site which has since been submerged by the sea.
Their form bears a striking resemblance to leaf shaped copper alloy pendants found in a well associated with the bathhouse at the Abbey Farm villa site, Minster. This Roman villa would have been built to have a view of the Wantsum Channel and across the sea to Lomea. The Wantsum Channel has now silted up and the island of Lomea is rapidly being eroded by the sea.
Recent research suggests that these artefacts may have been votives, offered ritually at watery locations as gifts for the earth and an invocation to deities to protect and preserve a shifting landscape.
On the mainland. New Downs Farm, the last farm before Sandwich Bay. A photo of my great, great, grandfather, James Smith, on horseback, herding a flock of sheep in front of the farmhouse. If you go there today you can see that the building is almost unchanged, and even now there is a small flock of sheep in the adjacent field.
James Smith farmed here in the early part of the twentieth century, and he was a renowned horse rider. Family history holds that he used to gallop across the bay each day on the huge horse he is astride in the photo. It is said that he used to ride the beast into the sea and that it would swim: if the current was favourable they would go through the water as far as the river mouth, a considerable distance. James Smith apparently could not swim himself, but had such faith in his horse’s abilities that he would entrust himself to the sea in this way. My grandmother said that the horses at New Downs were of Lomean stock, and given the chance, would swim back there.
Thinking about storms in the Channel, light, and intrepid men.
This is the South Goodwin lightship whose anchor chains failed during a force 12 storm in the English Channel between midnight and 1 am on
the night of the 26/27th November 1954. The ship hit the Goodwin Sands on her starboard side, trapping and submerging the crew who were gathered in the galley. Seven lives were lost but there was one survivor, Ronald Murton, who escaped by climbing through a skylight. He is seen on the side of the ship, awaiting rescue by a helicopter, who miraculously managed to snatch him from the wreckage and lashing waves and spray at around 9am on a second rescue attempt- 8 hours after the wreck.
It would take you half a day at most to walk around our island. There are no roads, only ancient tracks, but we do have Lionel, an elderly army jeep, the relic of a fleeting Army presence during the war, and now a shared community resource for the rare occasions we need to move things in a vehicle. In the past, most islanders kept a horse or donkey, but there are none left now.
We all help one another make repairs to our homes when they are buffeted by the increasingly ferocious winds. Tiles are hurled off the roofs and we have all installed external shutters to protect our windows. And in all weathers, salt and sand pervade everything: they are slowly smothering the island. They disperse throughout the house, blowing into every nook and cranny, leaving a glittering dusting over every surface. If you felt down the back of our sofa you would find handfuls of sand.
Two more pieces connected with the Lomea Hoard. They are larger than the pieces shown previously, and were found washed up close to what would have been the site of the church of St Mary in Lomea. These ceramic artefacts have a more vivid green glaze than the original hoard although they too retain traces of copper oxide.
The church of St Mary was the original Lomean church. It was described by an early chronicler of the island as having Saxon origins, with carvings that included “creatures that are fearful and ungodly, and were it not for the otherwise purity and sanctity of this site, might be considered an affront to our Lady “. The church fell stone by stone into the sea during the Georgian era, the process of coastal erosion having commenced in the medieval period, and its replacement, the chapel of St Margaret of Hungary, built on its current site- a mile inland - by the early sixteenth century.
From my studio, I look out onto big skies, which change from hour to hour, as does the colour of the sea, which I can just glimpse beyond the sand dunes. The moving cloudscapes and feeling of space are one of the reasons I love being on an island: I always feel inspired. And there is an odd exhilaration in feeling that you are so surrounded by water, even though paradoxically it will eventually submerge the land and force us to leave.
Sometimes we find strange objects washed up on the shore, when the nearby sand banks shift and the shipwrecks get churned up. Last year, glass onion bottles, still corked and containing dark winey liquid, and marked with barnacles, washed up, miraculously intact despite three centuries in the sea. We made good money selling these on the main land. There are pockets of clay on one of the beaches where we find balls of marcasite, and when these are cracked open they reveal glittering bands of gold. For a while we were selling these to a crystal and rock shop in Broadstairs. And two years ago, we found a concretion of pebbles, shells, leather and iron, which we carefully prised apart, to find fragments of cannon balls and a cache of silver coins, that turned out to be Mexican silver dollars from the 1700s. You could say that these finds have become our currency…
Not many people come to our island. Boats tend to avoid sailing in the waters around Lomea because of the shifting sandbanks. But fishermen from Deal visit regularly, bringing us the staples that we need, in exchange for the samphire and shell fish that we collect from the Lomean salt marshes. And we sometimes get unexpected visitors to our island. Recently we had a French cross Channel swimmer and her crew; their navigation system had broken and they thought we were the English coast by Dover. Last year a team of Dutch divers, who had been exploring an East India Shipwreck out in the Channel, came to visit, and did a survey on the wreck that gets exposed at low tide every day. We still have the advocaat they left us as a present.
Thinking again about ancestors, the Channel, and intrepid men. On 24 August 1875, Captain Matthew Webb made his second attempt to swim the English Channel, following an aborted first attempt two weeks previously. Smeared in porpoise oil, he dived from Admiralty pier into the ebb tide with three boats escorting him. Samuel Pearce, my grandmother’s grandfather, a Dover fisherman, was in one of these boats, holding a lamp to help guide the swimmer’s way. The route went north from Dover towards the south Goodwins before veering across to France. The total time for this first ever successful cross-channel swim was 21 hours and 40 minutes, and the circuitous route totalled 40 miles.
Storms have been buffeting the island, and sand has been thrown everywhere, scattered across the landscape like a delicate icing of golden brown sugar. On one of the beaches seaweed has banked up into a towering fibrous wave, and, having seemingly gathered up every piece of flotsam and jetsam from the beach, threatens to surge inland with its spoil, leaving the sand cleansed and sparkling behind it.
In the middle of the island there is an old well of unknown origins, perhaps Roman, and still, thankfully, a source of fresh water from an ancient aquifer in the clay and chalk strata below us. We collect water in rain butts and barrels too. For power we have a generator, although we try to ration using it. We rely on our stove for heat, supplementing firewood with sea coal, which washes up plentifully on the beach throughout the year. Our days are full. A lot of time gets taken up doing chores- tending our animals, fishing, working our fruit and vegetable patch, keeping the house as storm and sand-proof as possible. It’s not an easy life but I wouldn’t live anywhere else.
The island is an amphibian creature, crouching in water, biding time before it sinks down, fully immersed.
Sometimes we spend time with our neighbours, inevitably reminiscing about long dead family members and past village characters, buried in the graveyard that surrounds the chapel. My family have lived here for centuries, and the sand and soil feels saturated with their presence. These ancestors have cast invisible threads over Lomea, binding me to the island: if I were to leave, I would be lost.
Thinking about storms again.
The Great Storm of 1703 was perhaps the worst ever storm to hit Britain. It was an extratropical cyclone that struck on 26 November with devastating loss of life- it is thought between 8,000 and 15,000 people in total were killed. Daniel Defoe made a detailed account in “The Storm: or, a collection of the most remarkable casualties and disasters which happen’d in the late dreadful tempest both by sea and land”. He advertised for first-hand accounts in the week following the storm and collated about 60 reports of all the damage, which included: chimney stacks being lifted and dropped by the wind and killing people in their beds; fish being blown out of water; birds being beaten to the ground; and animals swept to their deaths. One cow was blown into the highest branches of a tree. 4,000 oaks perished in the New Forest and an attempt to count the toll of trees in Kent gave up at 17,000.
At sea, the Eddystone Lighthouse with its 120ft tower was swept away and the six people in it were killed. Ships were flung from their moorings, including, in Whitstable, a boat blown 250 m inland from the water’s edge. Thousands of sailors died, perhaps about 6,000. Around 1500 lives were lost on the Goodwin Sands. Thomas Powell of Deal organised the rescue of some 200 sailors in the Channel, but it was said that many citizens of Deal were too busy looting the wrecked ships to help him.
The sea is an energetic sculptor, shaping the island daily. Carving the cliffs, or smoothing them, or pulling them down to be re-worked on the beach. Smashing rocks to pebbles, crushing pebbles to shingle, pounding shingle into sand. Sifting dunes and forming new sandbanks. Moulding gullies, pouring water into creeks, flooding fields. Never resting, always active.
Even on the stillest, hottest, summer’s day, the waves are still propelling themselves gently to and fro, caressing the sand and slapping the rock pools.
A tidal wake: storm-spliced skin, claws to comb, seal to siren.
The chapel of St Margaret on Lomea has a curious history. The original Lomean church was St Mary’s, and dated from Saxon times. It reputedly had a huge dragon carving in the centre of the tympanum which some chroniclers believe represented the Norse sea serpent Jörmungandr (Midgard). St Mary’s was built close to the cliffs, and a succession of storm surges in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries destroyed much of this eastern side of the island, so that by the fifteenth century St Mary’s had been abandoned, and St Margaret’s chapel built further inland. The last traces of St Mary’s had disappeared by the time Edward Hasted wrote The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent (1778-99), although the massive baptismal font and a curious holy water stoup, shaped like a scaled torso, were taken from St Mary’s and installed in the chapel.
St Margaret’s chapel was originally named in honour of St Margaret of Antioch, who was said to have confronted and vanquished a dragon. An ancient Lomean myth refers to a sea serpent curled around the island and periodically consuming it: presumably this legend has its origin in the Jörmungandr, and perhaps explains the chapel’s choice of dedication. However, in the early eighteenth century a Hungarian nobleman was amongst the crew of a Dutch East India vessel shipwrecked on Lomea. He told the islanders of the 74 miracles associated with the thirteenth century Margaret of Hungary, a nun on an island in Buda, who was successfully called upon to prevent flooding. The Lomeans decided that invoking this Margaret could be more effective than venerating Margaret of Antioch, although, despite her beatification, Margaret of Hungary wasn’t officially canonised until 1943.
Although our life is not easy, we love this watery landscape, the banks and furrows of briny grass land, and the sandflats of samphire where egrets and oyster catchers scour the mud for food. Grey seals have colonised one of the beaches and we can walk amongst them basking at the shore, until they awkwardly lumber into the sea. The increasing rivulets of water threading over the land from the shore gurgle and trickle, and the reeds that spring up alongside them have become a new nesting ground for broody hens. In summer the meadow grass on the island knolls is a cacophony of colours, full of orchids, chicory and poppies: and the sand dunes erupt with asparagus, fennel, and viper’s bugloss.
Thinking about things that have been offered as gifts to the water, or as prayers to the earth, to stop inundation.
At Reculver, the bodies of ten babies dating from Roman times were excavated, thought to be a ritual killing- perhaps to beg the sea to recede, or implore the land to stand firm. There is no record of such sacrifices in Lomea, but who knows what has been buried by sand and time? The crumbling cliffs and shifting coastline are a strange time capsule that hurtle backwards and forwards through millenia, churning matter, from fragile fossils trapped in the cliff chalk to garish plastics entwined in seaweed. Artefacts and bones are suddenly revealed, scattered across the shore, glistening in the surf, before being snatched away by the swell.
Surveying the aftermath of the latest storm. A torrential drenching and battering has led to the re-configuration of many sand dunes: they are squashed and pummelled, beaten down. Ominously, on the eastern beach, a new gully has appeared, a sly snaking rivulet heading towards the island centre. And the channel separating the southern part of the island has widened further, so that the bank of marshy scrub which used to line it has vanished, submerged.
But elsewhere the island is in defence mode. Huge banks of shingle have been re-organised and stand protectively behind the beaches. A large gaggle of brent geese have appeared, swimming in perfect circles by the foreshore, restless, waiting for duty. Nearby, over forty mute swans have gathered on a flooded field, as though an avian general has started mustering troops. The goats and sheep are camped conspiratorially in a corner of their field, like a medieval tournament. Even the seals seem to be linking together in the sea, as though creating a charm-ed ring around the Lomean shores. And the trees and reeds are blowing defiantly towards the sea, as if all the earth-bound island forces are daring the waves to strike, and standing ready to fight the force of the water.
There is a strange sense of anticipation on Lomea. The beach is like an empty stage, awaiting the actors to take up their positions, and garlands of seaweed are draped on the sands, festoons for a performance.
Meanwhile, the sun is a revolving spotlight, illuminating different sections of the sea in turn and colouring them a golden ochre in its gaze, before focussing its attention elsewhere, leaving the water to darken again, grey-green. By the shore, the waves have formed white horses, galloping wildly towards the island as if rushing to witness a spectacle. Clouds are passing rapidly overhead, as though racing the water below: they too light up at intervals, revealing glimpses of pure white and powdery blue, a baroque ceiling arching over the impending drama.
Inland the island still has its sheen of water from the recent downfall: the fields are mirrored and glittering. They are reflecting so much sky that it seems a magician has made the land vanish and disappear into a thin line that stitches water and air together, and an invisible audience are held in suspense, waiting for the earth to reappear.
The sea is sending out an advance raid: small globules of foam are stealthily crossing the tidal sheen on the sand towards the dunes, carrying the salt that will contaminate the earth and make the terrain briny.
But some of the marine forces have not survived this incursion. There are several dogfish casualties, stranded and dying in the shingle trenches. Surveying the scene, I find one fish still gasping, and so I scoop it up and sprint across the beach to the shallows, where I drop it down and watch it swim sinuously back towards the deep.
The island feels glorious today. The sky is an exuberant blue, and the birds seem exhilarated by this azure radiance, chattering excitedly: the skylarks, above the dunes, are flying, Icarus-like, higher and higher towards the sun, so infinitesimal that I can’t see them, only hear their delighted songs.
The trees and fields are swarming with activity: insects, newly emergent butterflies and bees, are all frenzied, possessed, under the spell of blue. On a day like this it is hard to imagine that the island is gradually being eroded away; it appears so fecund and alive, and the thought of it submerging and vanishing is like the niggling memory of an anxious dream.
I am holding a photo of ancestors, the Pain brothers, taken at their boatyard in Ramsgate in 1906. They used to make the Lomean fishing boats, and their descendants still sail across to the island bringing us supplies.
The photo is silvered and ethereal; it looks as though the brothers are about to slip mercurially out of the image leaving the bleached boat timbers as wish bones for the future. Win, and keep the island safe: lose, and Lomea submerges.
A day of extravagant clouds. Watching their formation, I imagine fabulous puffed up creatures, prancing forwards like carousel rides, majestically surveying the land and sea during their tumbling progress.
A tiny speck, a bird, is hovering below them, held momentarily, then hurtling to earth.
All day, the island has been glowing, clasped tightly in the sun’s embrace. We have been basking, languid and somnolent; moving in a dream-like haze, all thoughts melted in the warmth of the sun’s rays, our faces tilted skyward to receive its caress. Even the sea has been in thrall to the sun; the tide stroking the sand gently, alluringly, before retreating drowsily, glittering in the luminous light.
Sunset burns fiery and huge. Then the cloak of gold that has enveloped us is abruptly pulled away, leaving the chill, creeping darkness.
A restless night. I am like a vessel at sea, pitching, caught in waves of tangled sheets, submerged by half dreams. I wake feeling stranded, anxious.
I get up, and even though it is very early, leave the house and walk towards the sea. It is a still, shimmering morning, so perfect it seems the rising sun is fervently determined to dispel my nocturnal uneasiness. When I reach the dunes, the tide is far out, and the beach has been transformed into a vast expanse of mud, which tugs at my tentative steps, and sucks greedily at my boots, encasing them in sticky sludge. The mudflats have been cast with perfect ripples: the mark of the sea, proprietorial and possessive, laying claim to Lomea.
The Ellis family of Yarmouth have a mermaid on their coat of arms (seen here illustrated in the 1718 Grammar of Heraldry by Samuel Kent), which in legend has a Lomean connection.
John Ellis was an important merchant in fourteenth century Yarmouth, and was returning to the town on board one of his ships, laden with saffron and other commodities, from a trading trip with Spain c 1390. Severe storms in the English Channel drove his boat into the shallows of Lomea, where it hit a sandbank. A group of Lomean women, who were dying wool with woad on the shore, saw the sinking ship and began swimming to the assistance of the sailors, whilst Lomean boats were organised to come to the aid of the stricken vessel.
John Ellis and his crew thought that the group of blue (woad-stained) women swimming towards their floundering boat must be mermaids. After being taken ashore, Ellis evidently became enamoured with one of his rescuers: although it is not known if this sentiment was reciprocated, or if the relationship was consummated, he asked the king, Richard II, for permission for his family crest to be a mermaid, in honour of the Lomean lady and the debt of gratitude he owed to her fellow islanders.
One of the fishermen who comes to the island to deliver supplies has brought me a newspaper article about a forthcoming auction house sale of Lomean artefacts. I examine the paper carefully. The sale is on behalf of an anonymous collector, and the collection has never been on the open market before. The article goes on to describe a mix of strange objects and colourful painted manuscript pages. There is a photo accompanying the piece, which shows some of the artefacts, including a necklace made of porosphaera globularis (fossilised sponge) beads, chain links, a comb, a bangle perhaps, and shallow spoon-like vessels. One of the artefacts in particular stands out: it resembles one of the leaf pendants found in the Lomean Hoard, and there are some smaller shards of other leaf pieces next to it.
The fisherman promises to try and find out more about the contents of the sale on my behalf- I am keen to know as much as possible, and especially want to see pictures of the manuscript pages as they don’t appear in the newspaper photo. I am tantalised by the description of them as odd and brightly coloured, with symbols seemingly to be linked to the objects, and the inscription “Preservative against the perils of the sea” on each reverse side.
All day I brood on the article, periodically scrutinising it, willing more information to miraculously appear by the act of my staring at the paper. In the photo, the objects are coloured the green hues of the sea, and I wonder if they are marine offerings, amulets to stop the invading water and if their absence from the island is somehow calamitous. I yearn to handle them and to examine them, to imagine the ancestors who fabricated them, and then to return them to the island, to embed them in the Lomean earth, and to use them again as charms to protect my land from the force of the sea.
On one of the beaches a huge section of tree trunk has suddenly appeared, washed up overnight on the high tide. It is curiously half-chopped: it looks as though it was felled, and then lost to the water before the woodcutter finished cutting it into smaller segments.
I spend a lot of time contemplating the tree section. Its weighty, firm presence, anchored unexpectedly on the shingle, seems inexplicable and puzzling. I am bewildered by it, and half expect it to conceal a hostile secret, like the wooden horse in the siege of Troy. It must have come from the mainland; on Lomea we keep all fallen timber for firewood, and would have zealously guarded such substantial wood for future use. I try to imagine the tree being carried by the sea, washed and caressed by the brine, the salt re-carving the tree rings so that they now look like waves and swirling currents, an eddying vortex around the former core of an ancient tree. And I wonder about other coastal spaces where the sea is snatching at the land, making raids, and grabbing bounty like this. But I am also reassured by the appearance of the tree trunk: it feels as though the sea is offering some kind of pledge or truce, and the solidity of the wood after its saline submersion a testament to the strength of the land.
From a distance the porpoise looks so shiny, so smooth and taut, I think it is must be a plastic prop. A fisherman’s decoy, a floating buoy perhaps, untethered by the tide, now stranded on the shore. But up close I see the body is pock marked with shingle battering, the skin ripped back and raw, and the head mutilated, though still with tooth-perfect grin.
The sharp green of spring has cut through the island, vital and vigorous. Each plant is challenging its neighbour for the freshest, most verdant colour. Varnished with rain from the recent storm, lush foliage is erupting everywhere, the energetic assault of this green broken only by the fading haze of bluebells.
Walking around the island fields I feel I have arrived late to an extravagant wedding. Trees are lavishly swathed in blossom and the slight breeze scatters their petals, to adorn banks already luxuriant with cow parsley.
At the dunes, there is restraint. Wispy asparagus stems stand aloof, whilst wind-bleached tussocks are gathered protectively, tenderly enclosing the orchids nestling in their sandy, grassy folds.
The cliffs are humming from within: a deep, contented rumbling. A tiny chamber, high up, conceals pigeons, their cooing magnified and reverberating through the chalk, then echoing along the shore.
The birds appear at the cave entrance, proud custodians of this unlikely eyrie, surveying the sea, unperturbed by the precariousness of the cliff face, and the pile of rock that has already fallen onto the beach below.