coast

How Saints Die by Carmen Marcus

Quite simply one of the most beautiful books I’ve read, so full of love and sadness I felt like I might burst, so painful in places I had to look away.

Ten-year-old Ellie Fleck lives by the sea with her fisherman dad, who takes her to school every morning on the front of his bike. It’s not a Raleigh or a BMX, just a bike, and therein lies one of the truths at the heart of the book: Ellie Fleck’s family is not like everyone else’s, and all the kids in her class can tell. Most of them, as is the way with kids, punish her for it.

Set in the 1980s at the edge of the North Sea the story teeters between worlds: land and water, innocence and experience, all mod cons and an older way of life, boring everyday facts and the deeper truth of stories. Ellie has been filled with and shaped by stories, whether sea stories from her dad, ancestral stories from her Irish mum before her breakdown, or saints’ stories from church, so it seems natural that in this motherless world (“She’ll be better by Christmas”) Ellie surrounds herself with stories to get her through. But just because a wolf’s in a story, doesn’t mean it can’t bite.

Carmen Marcus had already acquired a reputation as a poet prior to writing this, her debut novel. This background is apparent in her use of language; I loved the repetition of words like thudtickticktick that (in context) conveyed so much and helped to describe Ellie’s world so vividly. Some of the imagery will stay with me for a long time, too – there’s a wonderful blend of fairytale and the natural world, sprinkled with small, child’s-eye details like the behaviour of a dunked biscuit, and just enough (hedgehog haircuts and ski jackets) to set it in its time and place.

Ellie’s a complicated character in a complicated situation and there’s no black and white of who should have behaved how, but the way the circumstances are explored (and the way several points of view are used within the book), the reader is fully caught up in the story of Ellie and the story she’s creating. It’s not an easy read in terms of subject matter, Ellie’s mum in particular is not in a good place, but it’s a powerful one and it delivers moments of magic to soothe the gut-punches.

Because of the central elements of fairytale and sea, I can see How Saints Die particularly appealing to fans of Kirsty Logan, but I’d recommend it to anyone who can take a bit of magic in their fiction and thinks they could find some fellow-feeling for a confused child.

Here’s a link to Carmen’s own introduction to the novel from her Read Regional appearances earlier this year: http://newwritingnorth.com/projects/read-regional/carmen-marcus-how-saints-die/

Northern Rail Odyssey part 3: East and North Yorkshire

Having a rover ticket instead of the usual brace of singles at fixed times was remarkably liberating (more so than I’d expected). There was one journey where I planned a fixed itinerary because the services are infrequent and we had particular places we needed to get to, but on the final day we weren’t even entirely sure where to go until we set off. It’s wonderful to be able to admit after half an hour that you’ve run out of things to do in this town, or it’s not to your taste, and march back up to the station just in time for a train to somewhere else. No putting a brave face on it, no tramping round getting colder and wetter as the clock ticks extra-slowly through the five hours to the train you’re booked on. Timetables permitting, you can follow a hunch, visit one landmark you’ve always been curious about, or just see where the line goes. If you find yourself chugging through a post-industrial wasteland, you can always read a book (when did every station acquire a neighbouring Tesco? Seamer has a Morrisons instead, which at least serves as a landmark. Hull and Workington, and no doubt various other places I’ve forgotten, present industrial estates to the inbound traveller for a couple of minutes prior to the station, which is hardly an enticement to disembark).

Thanks to the sunshine we plumped for a circuitous route to the East coast. OneMonkey misses the coast, and while nowhere else is quite like the North Tyneside of his youth, sometimes any stretch of sea will suffice to reinvigorate his soul. Rather than the usual Leeds to Scarborough and change, we opted for Leeds to Hull. We almost (almost) walked out of Hull station into the city itself, but the old ‘from Hell, Hull and Halifax may the Good Lord deliver us’ trumped the more recent winning of the UK city of culture bid, and we settled for changing trains and heading to Beverley (sorry Hull, maybe someday. Probably in 2017).

Beverley, which neither of us had visited before, is tiny (like a compressed York) and yet has 2 branches of Caffe Nero, which I found shocking (having said that, Leeds city centre has at least 3 in a similar sized patch). It also, rather marvellously, has a WHSmith bookshop (separate from the general WHSmith further down the street) next to its Oxfam bookshop, as though the people of Beverley are insatiable book-buyers, and the usual-sized book sections of newsagents or charity shops simply can’t cater for their needs.

vaulted ceiling, Beverley Minster

Beverley Minster

Beverley Minster was a revelation, I can’t believe we’ve never visited before (for a pair of unbelievers we spend a lot of our holidays visiting churches…) – light and airy, full of medieval carvings, and with the most welcoming bunch of guides (vicars? At least one was wearing a gown like an old-fashioned headmaster) who were happy to chat to us about the building and its history. Hexham Abbey (which was advertised here as another must-see destination on a church-lover’s tour of Saxon Northumbria) faded from my memory instantly as I stepped outside, but Beverley Minster will stay with me for a while I think, just as Wells cathedral has for over ten years.

Carving in Beverley Minster

Carving in Beverley Minster

From Beverley we headed north-east to Bridlington, a first for OneMonkey who wanted to visit simply because we were passing and it’s on the coast. I had it filed away in hazy childhood memories as a place of donkey rides and amusement arcades, in other words just another seaside town that probably looks a bit shabby on a Monday when the kids are still at school. It did look a bit shabby, and it smelt strongly of fish and seaweed, seemingly more so than any other coastal town I’ve visited. The strong breeze was blowing sand along the beach in interesting patterns, and there were clusters of gulls gathered here and there, but Bridlington was largely devoid of interest.

Bridlington beach

Bridlington

Filey was a good one to end on. Stuck firmly in some halcyon past that may not have existed outside this small North Yorkshire town, Filey should be prescribed to the stressed. It probably was, in the 1930s. It was surprisingly busy (more so than Brid), but the beach is big and flat enough for no-one to be within striking distance (and no-one’s dog to be a nuisance). There were fossils, rock pools, dangerous-looking cliffs, gentler sand-eddies than at Brid (and next to no gulls), and the constant roar and shush of the sea. Tired and happy at tea-time (though still a few hours from tea) we stood in the shed that purports to be Filey station, and started planning the next bout of rail-roving.

Northern Rail Odyssey part 1: The West Cumbrian Coast

Most of the way from Carnforth to Maryport, the train line is never far from water. At the southern end, around Arnside and Grange-over-sands it’s all flat fractured fields, land and sea tangled together with grassy spits, and muddy fingers of water encroaching in each other’s element. Further up, there are wild rocks, crashing waves, and rows of regimented black seabirds that I’m fairly sure are cormorants. There are pebbled beaches, harbours and marinas, working coast, leisure coast, deserted coast. I could spend days travelling up and down that line in rain, sun and mist to see how different it looks. I may, someday.

Coast between Carnforth and Ravenglass

Between Carnforth and Ravenglass

This time, however, we stopped off at Ravenglass, where 3 rivers drain into the sea and the MOD does artillery tests (don’t go on the beach when the red flag’s flying…). It’s famous for its narrow-gauge railway, which used to carry ore to the sea and now carries walkers, rail enthusiasts and excited children the seven miles between Ravenglass and Boot. OneMonkey was bemused by my eagerness to venture on a small steam train with proportionate carriages, but while I wouldn’t say he was converted by the time we’d been to the other end of the Ravenglass and Eskdale railway, he did concede that it was a nice way to see the countryside. You clatter through woodland, past sheep, cows and pheasants, and unfold yourself from the miniature carriage into one of the most peaceful and picturesque valleys I’ve ever seen. Being hemmed in by the towering fells, then returning to the wide, flat estuary at Ravenglass is quite a contrast. We couldn’t spend long in Eskdale, however, as the nature of a whistlestop tour is that you don’t have long anywhere, just enough to form an impression, soak up some vibes, and leg it back to a station.

Walking towards Boot from Dalegarth station

Walking towards Boot from Dalegarth station

Steam train in woodland

Ravenglass and Eskdale railway

One thing I hadn’t come across in a while, which featured on both the steam railway and the main line, was request stops. Because our tickets didn’t specify a destination, every time we boarded a train on the coast line and showed our tickets, the conductor asked where we were heading, and as it happened we only used the scheduled stations. It made me wonder how request stops work the other way (when you’re on the platform and want the train to pick you up). Do you stick your hand out as though it was a bus (how long does it take a train to brake to a halt)? Or is there some more sophisticated system involving the signalman’s phone? I never asked, in case of mundanity – I prefer to picture walkers on remote platforms hopping up and down waving scarves like demented football fans, desperate not to be left for the night.

On any jaunt that doesn’t qualify as a city-break there is the perennial problem of where does a vegetarian eat in this small town/even smaller village. There are three home-made varieties of Cumberland sausage, lamb this, beef that. All very traditional and fitting to the surroundings, but the death of a pet lamb thirty years ago (marauding badger) turned me off the idea of eating sheep, and gradually I relinquished as food all the remaining animals I ate but was fond of(by which I mean pigs and cows, in that order. Chickens, vile, vicious pecking creatures, I still ate occasionally for a further ten years). I would always prefer to eat in a country pub or independent cafe (I was genuinely disappointed to notice Wetherspoons, Costa, Subway in Whitehaven) but they don’t always want to encourage me. It was a delightful surprise to find the Ratty Arms at Ravenglass (right on the railway platform, though no trains went past while we were eating) had an actual selection of vegetarian meals. Cue crippling indecision, naturally, but when I did make up my mind I had a most enjoyable dinner (shame about the beer – where’s a Jennings pub when you want one?).

Boats at Ravenglass

On the beach at Ravenglass

Old building on Whitehaven harbour

Whitehaven harbour

As a complete contrast to the tiny laid-back estuary-nestling village of Ravenglass, the following morning we chugged up the coast to Whitehaven. OneMonkey was looking through the opposite window, and missed the blot on the landscape that is Sellafield – if you do that, simply turn your back on it, you can remain immersed in coastal beauty and you need never know it’s there. There’s a definite inkling as you push north on the coastal line that this is Cumbria, not the Lake District – a little less loved, a little less visited (though clearly we were visiting, and I have loved these places since childhood). Whitehaven, from one angle, is a colourful Georgian port with a busy harbour and bustling shops. From another, it’s one more northern town that got left behind, faded grandeur fronted with bingo halls, and a boarded-up art deco bus station. I hadn’t been to Whitehaven for at least eighteen years and I was disappointed not to recognise anything much, whereas every time I go to Carlisle (not very often, and it’s a place I’ve visited much less than Whitehaven) there’s a certain corner I turn and get hit with overlayed locational memories of a whole stack of years at once. Then we walked near the multi-storey car park just as a gull screeched nearby, and I could feel the smooth bricks on the car park stairwell and my dad’s huge hand around mine, and I was peppered with childhood memories. Thinking about it, I do associate the sound of the seabirds with Whitehaven, more than anywhere else – having visited a few other coastal towns and villages on this trip, they do all sound (and smell) different.

Finally, a quick stop in Maryport, where the rain that was a nuisance in Whitehaven became a stinging impenetrable curtain, and we abandoned all plans. If Whitehaven got left behind, what can you say about Maryport? It has the longest row of independent shops I’ve seen in years, and has barely changed since my last visit (again, at least eighteen years ago) but I’m not sure everyone would see that as a good thing. It mostly felt empty, though that could just have been the rain, the only signs of life a huddled figure leaping from the chip shop to a waiting car.