Christopher Stocks

Island Life

Island Life

I moved to the Isle of Portland in 2003, into an old stone house on a steep street just fifty feet above Chesil Beach. From my writing desk I look out across the vast sweep of Lyme Bay towards Lyme Regis and Devon – sometimes, on really clear evenings, I can see the tors of Dartmoor as the sun sets behind them, fifty or sixty miles away.

Connected to the mainland only by the causeway that runs along the back of Chesil Beach, Portland is an unearthly place, unlike anywhere else in Dorset – or for that matter anywhere else in Britain. In summer the beach is a two-minute walk and I love to swim; in winter the south-westerlies rattle the windows and boom in the chimney, and I’m glad of my fire and the thick stone walls.

Lighthouse moon, Portland Bill

This septic isle

The island has been losing its hold on me. After eight years here, the rubbish, the dog shit, the plastic windows, the shoddy building, the wheelie bins, the general greyness and bleakness have started getting me down. I still love our house, which as a friend said last night must be one of the cutest on the island, maybe one of the sweetest in Dorset, even if you can just about touch the walls on either side. But if we could pick it up and move it somewhere else – near Bulbarrow, say, or Littlebredy – then I’d move tomorrow.

Yet the walk along the cliffs from here to the Bill, which we do most weekends, reminds me of all that’s astonishing about what another friend used to call This Septic Isle. The cliffs themselves are extraordinary, with the fifty-mile views out over Lyme Bay to the west and the rest of Dorset to the east; on a really clear day we can see Dartmoor in one direction and the Isle of Wight in the other.

Seeing St George’s church rising above the chaos of the Portland-stone quarries always startles me, and there are other, smaller things to treasure too: the fulmars nesting on the ledges beneath Blacknor Point, gurgling to each other all summer and taking short, circular flights out from their nests; the beautifully finished base of a Second World War searchlight position, whose perfectly arced curve throws back an uncanny echo in the open air. Even more magical, for me, are the miraculously preserved ripples in an area of fossilised beach, now two hundred feet above the waves whose ripples they echo, only from millions of years ago. Talk about echoes from the past…

Back into the swim

My first swim of the year this weekend, though admittedly it was in a friend’s pool rather than the sea, which friends who have been in all agree is (and I quote) “fucking freezing”. But then returned to London yesterday and back to my regular running this morning, which I’ve started to enjoy at least as much as swimming now – and oddly, it strikes me, for pretty much the same reasons.

They’re both cheap, for one thing: with money so tight there’s no way I can afford a gym membership at the moment, but running costs hardly anything – just a decent pair of shoes and some old shorts; same with swimming – a pair of trunks and you’re away.

Yet there’s more to the similarities than that. Running give me an exhilharating sense of freedom – the feeling that somehow you can go anywhere, in a way that you’d feel awkward if you walked: down dead-end streets, round courtyards and parking lots, through twisting passages and  alleyways, into areas you don’t know and have never been before. It’s a wonderful way of exploring the city around you, and I’ve surprised myself in going so far – round St Paul’s Cathedral, Tate Modern, Bermondsey, Trafalgar Square, through the City, even as far as the Gherkin one day.

Harder to define is how physically similar the experience of swimming and running can be: once you get into your stride there’s even a similar sense of bouyancy somehow. Even more than that, as I shouldered my way as nimbly as I could the other day through crowds of commuters emerging from Farringdon tube, I could have been shouldering my way through the waves as they fell on Chesil Beach. Strange meeting indeed.

Diggity dig…

Getting chucked off our old allotment by the horrible little builder who’d bought the land was a bit of a blow, but our new plot has several advantages, apart from getting away from him: it’s flat, for starters, the soil is more than two inches deep, and it’s not full of paving-slab-sized stones. It’s also on a really well organised, large and friendly site with around 160 plot-holders, not to mention automatic gates and (imagine our excitement) a composting toilet.

The only drawbacks are that it’s on the mainland (boo!), so we have to drive or cycle there – not very easy with a spade on your back. And though the soil is lovely and rich and deep, as soon as we started digging we discovered that it was infested with bindweed, brambles and couch grass.

So the last week, which we’d planned as a week off, has turned into an epic session of back-breaking digging; after four days of this I actually started dreaming about digging, which can’t be a good sign, but we finally finished last night – 60 square metres of digging done. Which means we can start planting tomorrow morning before heading back to London for a rest. Phew.

No island man no more?

Weird, busy, whirlwind, confusing, exhilharating few weeks. My birthday, off to Paris, couldn’t afford it but what the hell and a friend let us stay in his smart-but-tiny apartment on the swish Avenue Foch: freezing cold and icy pavements and lethal heaps of dog shit everywhere (just like Portland!) but wonderful too.

A couple of weeks before, chatting to our friend Ben Pentreath at his beautiful house in Littlebredy, I’d mentioned that I was thinking about moving back to London in search of work, when Ben’s friend Will said, ‘How about Alexa’s flat above you? She’s just moved out.’ Our ears pricked up, as both Ben and Will live in fantastic flats in Bloomsbury owned, bizarrely, by Rugby School. The following day we were emailing their agent, the following week we saw it, and the day after we got back from Paris the keys were ours – talk about serendipity.

It’s a tiny attic flat, six flights up, on Great Ormond Street, directly opposite the children’s hospital and just a five-minute walk from the British Museum or the Renoir Cinema. Around the corner is Lamb’s Conduit Street, with its quirky little shops (and Starbuck’s); Charles Dickens lived for a while two streets away, and Dombey Street is round the corner too; all in all it’s one of the nicest areas of central London you could hope to live. We still can’t quite believe it’s ours, but I’m expecting that feeling will wear off fairly quickly once the bills start coming in.

A few days on a gently deflating blow-up bed later and it was time to battle back down to Dorset through the ice and snow again for Christmas: my mum’s first Christmas without my dad, so we headed over and stayed with her and had a great time – as she said the only depressing moments were reading the Christmas cards that said ‘our thoughts will be with you at this sad time’. We raised a glass of wine to my dad, and had a beautiful (if slippery) walk across the fields through the dazzling soft snow, long gone by the sea but still lying thick and deep and uneven in Blackmore Vale.

So the New Year arrives with an exciting new start, as I exchange the island for the city again: I can’t wait to be back.

Chesil close up

Graeme Walker, artist, country, morris man and mummer and curator of the Brighton Pebble Museum, arrived on Monday to see Chesil Beach for himself: after a slap-up cream tea at the Lobster Pot on Portland Bill we headed down to the beach and spent a chilly hour sifting through pebbles and collecting kindling for the fire.

Graeme found a stone that sadly turned out to be less suited to a bottle-opener than it appeared, but there were plenty of others worth looking at, subtly different yet quite distinct in their material: dark-red jasper from Devon, dark grey limestone as finely grained as a polished piece of hardwood, pale grey pebbles with vibrant orange inclusions, pebbles decorated with mysterious markings like charcoal hieroglyphics, all blended together by their soft salt glaze. If we give too much value to objects that cost a lot of money to buy, perhaps we give too little to those that are free – though, like pebbles, they are at least as satisfying and beautiful in themselves.