Archive for November, 2013

The Castlerock Diary 4: Thunderbirds & sand-demons

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Our peaceful seaside town saw some high drama this week. I was chatting with my artist friend Patricia in her delightful tearoom and art gallery just the other day, when the sound of sirens filled the streets. It was the local coastguard rushing towards the beach.

On further investigation, I found out not only the coastguard’s vehicles – but also spotter plane, rescue helicopter and lifeboats – had been deployed. This looked very serious. Quite a number of people were looking out from the beach to try to see what was going on. I started praying for whoever was in trouble.


Later, I discovered that two teenage lads had been exploring a cave further along the shore, when they were cut off by the tide. A brave lifeboatman swam into the cave and managed to get each of the boys to safety.

They climbed onto his lifeboat and were winched up to an Irish Coastguard helicopter that had flown all the way from Sligo on the west coast. At least this story had a happy ending – and the boys have been recovering from their ordeal.

Reflecting on this later, I realised there is a whole range of emergency services out there, working away day and night, to preserve the freedom, safety and security that we generally enjoy from day to day.

We have a relatively comfortable existence, because this network of agencies keeps trouble at bay 24/7 – and comes to our rescue if and when trouble suddenly happens. They are part of the backdrop of our lives, tucked away and hidden most of the time. But when we need them, they are there. Seeing just part of this network in operation was like watching Thunderbirds. But this time it was real.


According to Judeo-Christian tradition, a myriad of angels is performing a similar task round the clock, but on a much grander scale. Ancient texts tell us they work away for our benefit, 24/7. We might not see them – but when we need them, they appear to turn up. And in our modern scientific age, there is a programme on mainstream TV that gives ordinary people the chance to share their angel stories.

Earlier in the day a breeze was blowing faint wisps of sand across the beach. They took on an ethereal quality, so they appeared to be like disembodied spirits being ‘chased’ out of the town. The stories of the saints of this island were casting sand-demons into the sea. (Photo: Clive Price)

The Castlerock Diary 3: Brian Wilson & mythical beasts

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Desperate for wireless, I have resorted to begging in public places. Castlerock does not seem to be on the map so far as mobile broadband is concerned (though I’m prepared to be corrected by anyone in the know). So I’ve been pleading with local café owners, to see if I can get online while buying their coffee and cakes (I know, it’s a tough deal).

 I went to one place, and they had internet, but only the manager knew the password, and he wasn’t in. I went to another establishment, and they had wireless. The owner handed me all the relevant documentation to get online. Full of excitement and scones, I followed the detailed instructions – which included typing in a password that seemed to contain every letter of the alphabet. But still, there was no connection.


Clearly the little people round here were blocking the broadband signal with their pots and pans. That must be the explanation. They’d left them hanging from spiders’ webs to dry, completely forgetting that the faerie metal interferes with microwaves and radio waves. Or maybe they were being impish (which is what imps do best). Whatever the blockage was, I couldn’t get the wireless experience.

I resorted to basic human communication and started chatting to people instead. That always works best in Ireland. I chatted to the lady who ran the caff, and she turned out to be an artist from California. So naturally, we talked about surfing and The Beach Boys. I told her about the time that my good friend and journalist colleague Jamie Hailstone took me to see Brian Wilson in concert.

I hadn’t really been much of a Beach Boys fan up to that point. But Jamie persuaded me to go. It was life-changing. I still remember Brian Wilson singing God Only Knows with arms lifted up, and face turned towards heaven, as if he was the High Priest of Harmony (which he probably is). We agreed there is something ethereal about his music.

I also told the artist lady about my dream to start some kind of retreat place for creative people – particularly writers – and she was very interested in that. She felt that the area was ready for it. So maybe I was not meant to go online that day. Maybe I was meant to hear that little bit of encouragement from the teashop owner that I could be on the right track.


Having told each other our stories, I said goodbye and retreated to my cottage to do some editing (which will hopefully pay for the cottage rent). Eventually the pull of the ocean got to me. So, before retiring, I had to go out for a little walk on the sand.

There is something intoxicating about this island. You need another wee drop of it before bed. Out on the beach, I saw low clouds scraping across the rooftops like the bellies of mythical airborne beasts, slowly and solemnly heading out to do battle in the skies over the Atlantic. A tiny lone figure on the twilight shore, I watched in silence, mesmerised by these Celtic creatures of the night. (Photo: Clive Price)

The Castlerock Diary 2: Faeries, ghosts & sacred space

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A friend of mine said there’s a ghost story behind every hedgerow in Ireland. Or something like that. When I arrived here in Castlerock, there was only me in this cottage. Then I heard a woman clearing her throat with a gentle cough. Was it someone next door? Was it someone walking past the house?

Well, the cottage is detached. So it couldn’t have been a lady next door clearing her throat. And it couldn’t have been a number of ladies clearing their throats, one after the other, as they passed the house – unless it was a crowd leaving the Castlerock branch of the Convention for Phlegmy Women.


So there I was, sitting in the lounge, late at night, wondering where on earth this woman’s cough was coming from. If it were a ghost, then I would do well to name her. I thought I would call her ‘Bertha’. I went upstairs to check the rooms, to see if Bertha could be found. There was no one around. No Bertha. Then I found the source of the gentle cough. It was coming from a tiny flap over the fan in the bathroom wall. The wind would catch it, and the action would produce a noise that sounded like a lady clearing her throat. How very odd. But here’s a stranger thing. Last night I went out to test the local taverns, and found a pub called Bertha’s Bar. Now I didn’t make that up.

I have also been to see some friends around Derry – in particular a couple called Donal and Teresa, who run what must be one of the most wonderful B & Bs in the world. If you stay there in the winter, as I have done, Donal will light a log fire and bring you a glass of Bushmills. Or at least he did for me!

Anyway, I was chatting with these delightful people, and with some of the guests currently staying in their house. We got talking about fairies. I learned that belief in the little people still lingers in the shadows of the Irish psyche. For example, some farmers will leave hawthorn bushes well alone. To this day, you will find a freshly cut field, with a hawthorn in the middle, totally untouched – because the farmer won’t disturb the ‘faerie tree’.


Now some people would call that superstitious nonsense. I would not be among those people. How often we search for evidence to refute the secularists’ rant that people need science – not the supernatural. And here we have an example where totally practical people – labourers of the land – still choose to believe in the ‘faerie tree’, to the extent where they will work round it. Doesn’t that indicate a yearning within us all to create some kind of sacred space? Science doesn’t tell us everything. It tells us ‘how’, but it doesn’t tell us ‘why’. And like eternal children, we still want answers to both questions. So next time you see a hawthorn bush, thank God for the ‘faerie tree’. It reminds us the universe isn’t a machine. There is more going on than planets turning like cogs and wheels in some mighty Meccano set. Much more.

This morning the weather girl on local TV proudly announced with a bounce in her step and a smile on her face, ‘It’s going to be bright, blustery and showery all week!’ Back home in southern England, that would be a seriously bad development, spoken with a note of deep regret. But here it’s a bubbly footnote to the news. I decided to go out in the wet weather, and it was very bracing. I walked along the beach, zipped up to my ample chin in a showerproof fleece. I came back to the cottage and had a warm shower. Nice.

An ancient letter written for the earliest Christians in southern Europe tells us to ‘walk in love’. That could mean love towards God, love towards other people and love towards creation. I walked in love today, appreciating the mist-veiled grandeur of an Irish morning. (Photo: Clive Price)

The Castlerock Diary 1: C S Lewis, signposts & seeds

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castlerock 1-1

I am in the seaside town where C S Lewis spent his childhood holidays. There’s even an old fashioned streetlamp across the road from my cottage. And a few minutes’ walk away is the sparkling drama of the Atlantic Ocean. This is Narnia. We know it as Castlerock. But in Lewis’ imagination, it was a fairy-tale land of mountains and waterfalls, and of monster-sized sheep and cattle fattened on the rich green grass of Ireland.

This will be my home for a month, as I try to come to terms with some deep-rooted challenges, my sense of restlessness with how things are now, and my sense of adventure with how things could be. Perhaps they were part of Lewis’ mindset, too. I arrived last night, having driven from Dublin Port. The ferry crossing was one of the smoothest I’ve had, the Irish Sea majestic yet calm, with Dublin and the Wicklow mountains rising out of the mist on the horizon.


I spent most of the sailing in deep conversation with a Dutch couple on their very first visit to the island. Their business is flowers. Did you know the wholesale price of a perfect rose is just 50 cents? So go ahead if you feel like haggling with your florist over the cost of a bouquet. The ferry company treated me to a huge three-course meal. The Irish meatballs were particularly good, though I couldn’t get the secret from the chef. He read out a list of ingredients that sounded like most people’s shopping lists – lemon juice, mixed herbs – it must be the way he makes it.

I had been in fear and trepidation of driving out of the port. I have memories of getting lost in Ireland’s capital city, of Dubliners going about like rally drivers, and then of potentially finding myself in the middle of some forbidden estate – or the middle of an expensive car park. But none of this happened. All you have to do is drive off the ferry, go through the tunnel, and you’re on the motorway. Simple. The journey up north took me past a number of Ireland’s hot-spots of history. I must check them out later. So there’s no lack of interesting signposts. What Ireland’s motorways do lack are services. You can spend a while looking for fuel and a place to have a civilised wee.


So anyway, I’m here now. And I’ve just driven through the Bogside to get to church – Cornerstone City Fellowship – in the heart of Derry. I went past the gable end that still declares, ‘You are now entering Free Derry’. Cornerstone are a great bunch of people, and definitely one of my ‘home churches’. They carry the mantle of Columba. My friend Paddy gave a talk on the ‘parable of the sower’. How many times have we seasoned churchgoers heard that sermon? Could something new come of it? I found myself fighting extreme tiredness, as the past few days caught up on me – the gargantuan task of packing enough stuff for four weeks, the computer crashing on me, the fleeting visit to see my dad.

Then suddenly, Paddy’s message hit home. If I am to expect the sower to sow his seed, then I must prepare the ground. I must be ‘good soil’, so the Almighty can grow a good crop. I must become holy ground.

Perhaps there’s no better place to do that than here, in Ireland. (Photo of Castlerock beach and the text are taken from the original ‘Castlerock Diary’, which were sent to a close circle of friends in summer 2009. Republished here in remembrance of C S Lewis on the 50th anniversary of his departure from these ‘shadowlands’.)