Summer’s Parting Sighs

This time last week I didn’t even know where Clevedon was, never mind think that in a matter of days I would be wandering along its promenade enjoying the late summer sun.  But life takes unexpected turns and catapults you to unforeseen places, which for me, yesterday, was the southern shore of the Severn Estuary between Portishead and Weston-super-Mare, across the channel from South Wales.  Nautical flags fluttered from poles along Clevedon’s seafront in an assortment of designs that I’ve now learned are international maritime signal flags – the ones ships use to communicate detailed and important messages. I looked some of them up.  A red and white chequer board means: ‘You are running into danger’.  Yellow and red divided into two triangles means: ‘Man overboard’.  Another is a signal to say: ‘I require medical assistance’, and another simply says: ‘I require a tug’.  Alas, there isn’t one (that I could find anyway) for ‘I require a hug’.

From where we initially parked a high wall hid the sea from view.  It was only when I got close and peered over it that I could see the muddy brown flow of the estuary beyond the sand bar.  Immediately below the wall was a marine lake, a huge outdoor swimming pool, which fills from the estuary when the tide is high, and as the tide recedes (as it was when I was there) it becomes a magical infinity pool.  There were stand up paddle boarders, power swimmers crawling up and down in clean strokes, and small children jumping in with inflatable water wings clamped to their arms and blow-up hoops cinched onto their waists, the ones I remember from childhood.  Then I spied the pier, and do I ever love a pier!  So foreign to my Irish eye; to me, they are quintessentially English, captivating.  Clevedon’s pier was builtin the 1860’s and John Betjeman claimed it was ‘the most beautiful pier in England’.  Stretching 1,000 feet into the sea, it consists of eight spans supported by steel rails, a walkway covered by wooden decking, with a pavilion at its head. The tide range there is the second highest in the world – on spring tides there is a rise of over 47 feet from low water – so at low tide yesterday the boardwalk and pavilion seemed to teeter on extra-high legs.  I was charmed.

Approaching the pier I passed a woman with an adapted pushchair, she had replaced the seat with an outsized supermarket basket to transport her ageing British Bulldog (bulldogs: why do they always wear that resigned, disappointed look?).  There were children with nets on bamboo poles, picking their way over a shingle beach to the low water mark to catch crabs.  Older couples rested on summer seats, eyes trained towards Cardiff, or gazing onto Flat Holm Island while they enjoyed Mr. Whippy cones from Angelo & Son’s ice cream van, catching the drips onto their hands.  It felt timeless, like I was walking through a scene in an Enid Blyton book: restored Victorian drinking fountains; seagulls with manners, swooping high and holding back; tanned women in straw hats and nautical tops draped on striped deck chairs reading Joanna Trollope and Elizabeth Taylor (the other one).  There were new babies proudly carried on front slings, a courtin’ couple curled into each other onthe grass, next to a board meeting of young mums, a gurgle of toddlers plonked down to play with each other on a big blanket while the mums caught up on each others’ news.  Teenage boys gathered round a wasp-magnet of acandyfloss stand swatting their ears as they drank bottles of lemonade.  A girl with red leggings travelled by cartwheel until she got dizzy and staggered to a halt, just missing the A-frame wooden board advertising a local pottery, and a lady with a Tilly hat, walked in the other direction, pole in each hand, slow, even on the flat, looking like she was in recovery.  People of every age and ability, wheeling and running and doddering along,  all of them drawn to the seaside: to see, to be seen, to watch the comings and goings, to become restful with the dropping sun.

Now and then, from above, came the soft drum of an aeroplane flying out of Bristol Airport.  On the ground, as in the sky, everything felt like it was moving in slow motion, nothing was hasty, nothing urgent.  I leaned on a low wall to watch serene, sedate ladies, dressed in all white, play lawn bowls in near silence, bar the occasional clunk of the balls.  I remembered how B. and I agreed we would take up golf when we turned 40 (we never did) and I made a mental note to ask if she might instead consider taking up bowls when we turn 60?  A couple maintained a long rally on Salthouse Fields tennis courts (free to play, the notice said), opposite them, kids cutting tricks on their scooters on skateboard ramps.  A miniature railway looped the green and pulled into its terminus by a small brightly painted merry-go-round.  My two borrowed children played crazy golf and the kind young man on duty let them stay on long after closing time.

High cloud, a pale blue sky, and nature slightly on the turn: this is summer’s end.  Warm still, but the colours are fading now, shrubs and plants beginning to flop a little, their outgrown exuberance is shrinking.  Hedges are overrun with the fluffy, white seed heads of what G. called ‘Traveller’s-joy’ – I remembered another name, ‘Old Man’s Beard’.  Even the Long Tailed Tits seemed unwound, less perky.

It was home time when I spotted Poet’s Walk, no time left to follow it.  The name is said to come from the inspiration Tennyson and Coleridge found from time they spent on this coast.  Housman wasn’t mentioned, but I think this poem reads like one he might have written in late summer, passing through Clevedon, North Somerset.

 

XXXIX (from Last Poems), AE Housman

When summer’s end is nighing

And skies at evening cloud,

I muse on change and fortune

And all the feats I vowed

When I was young and proud.

 

The weathercock at sunset

Would lose the slanted ray,

And I would climb the beacon

That looked to Wales away

And saw the last of day.

 

From hill and cloud and heaven

The hues of evening died;

Night welled through lane and hollow

And hushed the countryside,

But I had youth and pride.

 

And I with earth and nightfall

In converse high would stand,

Late, till the west was ashen

And darkness hard at hand,

And the eye lost the land.

 

The year might age, and cloudy

The lessening day might close,

But air of other summers

Breathed from beyond the snows,

And I had hope of those.

 

They came and were and are not

And come no more anew;

And all the years and seasons

That ever can ensue

Must now be worse and few.

 

So here’s an end of roaming

On eves when autumn nighs:

The ear too fondly listens

For summer’s parting sighs,

And then the heart replies.

2 thoughts on “Summer’s Parting Sighs

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