A summer retreat

River Mill Diary


43, a green, grey-blue gate, a week writing at the Rivermill retreat near Downpatrick. Much-needed silence broken only here and there by wood pigeons, cattle and blackbirds, breaks for coffee and magnificent dinners and views from the mezzanine across the countryside. The millstone from the mill in the centre of the beautiful landscaped garden leading down to the river, bone-dry in the recent drought but still a place of cool and sanctuary from this endless heat.

The first morning, I sit on the bench carved with: ‘The garden chimes with light; prisms of it’. And that’s the kind of day it is, slants of light, a breeze and sunshine. Just the other side of the singing brook I can hear cows. They trundle down, curious at first then indifferent, looking at me through the gap in the fence on my bench in the damp morning air and decide I’m not worth the effort. Here are some more though, thirsty seeking fresh water. And then one on her own comes right up to the fence, nonchalant, watching me for a few minutes before paddling off and away she goes. I’ve seen blackbirds, sparrows; I’m waiting for a kingfisher but I know that he needs faster rivers, wider plains. I’ve seen vultures in the mountains of Spain and sea eagles on the Isle of Mull but I’ve never seen the flash of blue and orange, dip-down tail into the water, a kingfisher.

Reading Deborah Levy’s second wonderful volume of her living memoir ‘The Cost of Living’ and trying to draft and redraft the prose poem I’m working on for the new collaboration with my friend, the artist Natalie Sirett. Thinking about what Levy says that: ‘All writing is about looking and listening and paying attention to the world’. I’m writing a version of a fairy tale so where does the world fit in? The story is a version of ‘The Little Mermaid’ and when I first started it I had no idea that mermaids would be everywhere this year but no matter. At the same time I’m writing something about the traditions of story telling, fairy tales for me the obvious starting point, so the two projects are going to collide somewhere. The world feeds stories back to us and we take from them what suits us. Mermaid sightings have been common on our coasts for hundreds of years and later in the week we drive out to Ardglass, trek across the ancient golf course looking for a coastal path (which turns out not to exist) and have to settle for scrambling across rocks before we spy a seal out to sea dipping and diving, tracking our progress along the rocks, hanging around the people sea-fishing on the shore. Very like a mermaid.

The story is becoming one of invisibility and shape shifting silence, mermaids on land who have no voice, taken away from them in exchange for a chance at love. The challenge for both of us is to make it fresh, to make it ours and not the story everyone knows. It will change and shift as we work together and I’m excited to see where it goes.

After our trip to Ardglass, we head along the coast and catch sight of the Mountains of Mourne easy in the distance across the bay. Then Coney Island and music from Van Morrison in our heads and out of our mouths on the way back, stopping off at all the places in the song, missing the pickled herrings before dinner but catching a glimpse of St John’s Point Lighthouse at Killough before heading home.

A heron on a rock watches us. Tomorrow I will be miles away from here and, no doubt, he will still be here.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s