I am sitting cross- legged on a generous bench in the lookout point, writing by hand with my favourite 5B pencil – the pad resting on my knee. Walkers pass on the coastal path and seldom notice me. The floor is mosaiced with white cobbles from the beach below; the approach path surfaced with small cream cockle shells collected at low tide out in the bay in bucketsful by our eldest granddaughter Rosa. They crackled as I trod my way towards the bench. The sky is clear and pale blue today, except for low cumulus clouds drifting imperceptively left to right, north to south. Down here the breeze is blowing the other way, yet I am completely sheltered here in the lookout, tucked into the bank behind. I listen to the reedbeds inhaling, exhaling until a single engine plane dawdling across the empty Bay blots out the sound.
Walking to the lookout today I inadvertently alarmed a flock of young greenfinch chittering inside a bramble patch. Out they burst, an endless stream swirling upwards into the morning, more and still more, in a reverse gravity – like sprinkling currants into a cosmic baking bowl.
On my short journeys down here from the Beach House above, I pass The Elk, which lives outside the studio. A small winsome creature, a slight tilt of its head giving a certain meekness of expression. About the size of a large spaniel. It is made from marine litter – mainly old plastic bottles washed up and artfully assembled by Dave Young, a sculptor and a friend. The Elk is now 12 years old and has become a fixture.
This homemade Elk is a symbol, carrying a lot of meaning. It is the keeper of ancient wisdom. The Elk painting is by John Fox. Legends tell of the creatures origin in this Bay. I glance at it daily as I come in from shopping or go out to check the post. Visitors comment on it variously. Some recoil as it is made of disgusting materials, others see beyond, see the transformation the artist has wrought.
In the summer of 1970 on the opposite side of the Bay Mr John Devine demolished an old bungalow in Poulton –le-Fylde. He had begun work on a new family home. A Mr Scholey lived next door to the site and looked in the hole dug by a JCB. What happened next, reports the local Historical and Civic Society August 2018, went down in history and is of international significance.
Mr Scholey found some bones, went home and told his wife. News soon spread and professional archaeologists began an excavation. As the bones were revealed they were laid out in the Scholeys’ garden. They date from 13,500 years ago. According to Lancashire Archeological Society, some leg bones appear to have marks possibly caused by hunters’ spears, and embedded barbs. The remarkable conclusion is that this is evidence of people living this far north, from a time soon after the Ice Age, around 10,000 BC.
Closer investigation suggested that, as the Bay was marshy – with stretches of open water – it was possible for prehistoric hunters to make their way out on foot. They spotted a fine elk. Spears in hand the hunt began. Day after day it ran, day after day they followed, until a hunter landed his spear. Wounded it ran on, and on. Another spear met its mark, wounding the animal but not yet killing it. Some say this chase went on for 3 weeks. Exhausted, it fell into a lake and drowned. Too difficult to retrieve, the hunters gave up and returned empty handed. For centuries it lay in the bog, preserved and undisturbed until the mid 20 century when it was discovered under the old bungalow. Fully restored, the Poulton Elk is now up high on its pedestal, pride of place in the Harris Museum’s ‘Discover Preston’ gallery.
The Bay is a place to fear – oncoming tides faster than a horse can gallop, also some quick sands. It is frequently described as a desert, a vast sterile emptiness at low tide, as many are unaware of the teeming micro marine creatures below the surface. From my lookout, I witness daily and monthly the pattern of the tides, the huge rise and fall, the weather, the intertidal feeding birds.
Today a couple of thousand Oystercatchers wait for lunch as white horses race in on a diagonal from the south west. A singular few gulls are in the throng – usually they dominate. The length and shapes of the wading birds’ beaks allows them to feed in different ways in the mud, thus reducing competition for the available food. On the menu are Cockles, Sand Hopper and Baltic Tellin [another shelled creature]. These live nearest to the surface and can be reached by Oystercatcher, Redshank, Knot, Plover and Turnstone, whereas Ragworm and Lugworm dwell much much deeper and need the exquisite curved 12 cm beak of Curlew to reach their burrows.
Outside the door of the Beach House, bronze fennel grows, alongside lavender, chives, mint, parsley and a small bay tree, Farther down the path an elderly sage bush hangs on resolutely, then marjoram, winter savory, wild garlic in season and thyme all year round. At the bottom of the lane a cluster of giant cardoons flourish and increase year on year in the salt air with their vast silver leaves and luxurious purple thistles overhead. Below the lookout point a Royal Fern is growing. It is said they can reach three metres in height. Why is it Royal? Legend has it that when Bonnie Prince Charlie was on the run from the English in the marshy Scottish Borderlands where they grew in profusion, he hid in these ferns and escaped capture.
On hot dry days, instead of hunters, out in the Bay we get thrill seekers on motor bikes, race horses, mountain bikes and kite buggies. It is mostly walkers, often solo, sometimes barefoot as their footprints reveal, and regular dog walkers, twice a day. I can set my clock by them. From here, my eye is drawn 30 km across to the summit of Ingleborough at 2372 feet, one of the 3 Yorkshire Peaks, with its Iron Age hill fort on top.
Above me in the Beach House is an extensive library. Around 1250 books in the house –300 upstairs and the rest downstairs. I counted them. It was quicker than I thought. In the studio are hundreds of art books and the number grows regularly. Discarding books appears to be an impossibility. I read very few of them. The Bay is my book, my library, my teacher. I learn to observe closely, to take notice daily, hourly. The questions it raises and the answers I struggle to find are the ones that are important to me. If only, if ever I could truly understand what is happening out there, I would consider my education more fulfilled.
Our eldest grandson Reuben came to spend the day at the Beach House when he was seven. It was high tide, so we came indoors. He sat at the table in the living room with paper and coloured pens, as I got tea ready. This room has very large windows offering a 180 degree view. He had made a drawing of the expanse of the Bay. Admiring his work before I served the meal, I asked what was that head in the middle?
‘Oh, that’s just an elk. I saw it swimming across’.
POSTSCRIPT In 2013, JD Weatherspoon took over the old Wheatsheaf pub in Poulton, gave it a make-over and renamed the pub The Poulton Elk.