Extract From The Last Broomsquire
I went to talk to some bright kids recently who were on a course run by the poet and publisher James Crowden (pictured below). We met at Kilve Beach, which must be one of the most remarkable bits of littoral anywhere – and James was kind enough to read out to the students the following extract from my novel The Last Broomsquire.
Because people have been kind enough to tweet about my earlier blog, I thought I’d put up the extract here with a few photos of the extraordinary beach in question…
The sea. Blue and grey and vast. Beyond it you could see the black hills of Wales. My father pointed to the villages far below and said we’d be passing through them on our way to the shore. I could see why we’d come to the ridge which cut down through the maze of coombes and by following it we could make good ground. So began my education in the little known art of travelling fast in hill country. No-one can cross moors and heaths, valleys and coombes quicker than a broomsquire. We know the secret ways – how to use each dip and tuck to advance us on our way. On foot, I have beaten a horseman crossing the length of the Quantocks. Only a broomsquire could cover such ground in such time, and I did it without breaking into a sweat.
At Kilve we saw buildings and I was taken aback to learn that people dwelt in such places. To me they looked like upright caves. Windows, glass, chimneys, thatch, the smells of cooking, the chatter of men together, men on horseback, oxen ploughing, donkeys braying, the screech of the pump, the ring of the blacksmith’s hammer – all were new to the little boy from the hills. Father spoke to various people, who all seemed to know him and there was banter and laughter. It wasn’t long before we entered one of the buildings. Inside I recognised the beery, cidery smells because they had often come home on father’s breath. The people in the room made a great fuss of me and I was given an apple and a hunk of cheese.
Then we were on the beach. The great, grey, endless, rocky beach that reveals itself at Kilve Pill when the tide goes out.
There was the smell of salt and mud, seaweed and ooze. My father was talking to an old man dressed in rags – to this day I have never seen anyone adorned more filthily than Montague Chidgey – the word unkempt does not do justice to his wild appearance. Nor have I ever seen the face of a man more creased and pitted with lines and grooves. This visage was black-brown in colour and it had the texture of a rock that has been scraped by barnacles for a thousand years. Montague was a mud-horse fisherman and it seemed father had some sort of understanding with him over the fishing. My presence though, seemed to be causing Monty some concern.
“Leave ‘un up ‘ere on the grass,” the old fisherman was saying. “There’ll be a good haul of pilchard and herring if I know ort about it and us’ll ‘ave our ‘and’s full enuff as tis.”
But my father was having none of it. And I was placed on the top of Montague’s ‘horse’. This was a wooden sledge with a trestle that carried the big basket ihn which the fish would be thrown. It was all a mystery to me that first day, but the basis of the business was that the old man was a fisherman who employed the services of the tide to help him catch his haul, rather than set to sea in a boat.
“You’ll never catch I in one o’ they boats,” he once told me. “They’m dangerous things. What do ee wan’ ’em fur when the sea will bring the fish to thee?”
He two ways of trapping fish. The first we came across that day was an enormous ‘V’ shaped wall made from loose stones. The point of the ‘V’ was nearest the sea so, as the tide went out, fish would be caught in the narrowest end where a wattle gate let out the water, but not the catch.
Then, even further down the beach, there were the long, sock-like nets hung between poles. The mud-horse gave Monty an easy way out to these and I soon saw the beauty of the thing as he pushed it effortlessly across the sea of ooze. The two men busied themselves at the nets while great flocks of birds wheeled about hoping for a morsel. Indeed, a use was soon found for me and I spent a happy hour chasing the crows and gulls.
Later, in Monty’s dark, aromatic home I had my second memorable meal that day. He boiled shrimps in a cauldron and put still flapping flat fish into a huge spitting skillet.
The old man’s bright eyes seemed to gleam from the darkness and I had the feeling some distant thought had stirred a wave far out on the salty horizon of his life.
“Mind the bones boy,” he sighed, and the three of us sat there in darkness of the hut and ate in a silence that was broken only by cracks from the fire and the sound of the two men swigging from their flasks.