Granite is the hardest word by Jennifer Hunt


Granite is coloured red on geological maps, spilling across the bland contours of land.  The Isles of Scilly appear as drops of blood splattering the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Cornwall. Whoever chose red for granite chose well. This rock seems alive. Often veins of red and pink run through it. Quartz and mica gloss its surface so it always appears wet. Crystallised skeins of feldspar, formed from magma, pulse faintly beneath its skin as though blood once flowed. White light filters through clouds against a dark sky, speckling the surface of the stone.


Granite stacks surround these islands, shape-shifting with the tide. At high water they are hidden beneath fathoms of indigo Atlantic swell – a danger for passing ships.  This archipelago has, over the centuries, exacted a huge toll of life from ships wrecked on its granite-fringed shores. Salt-water, salt-tears, salt-blood – salt-sorrow. As the tide falls, rocks emerge sleekly from the water, like the seals that lie on their surface, water running off their skins just as it spills off the surface of the granite. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if the silhouetted dark wedges are seals or stone – both shimmer fluidly against the sun. These rocks are not dead, but flecked eggs of stone, glinting with the life within. They may seem inert, but they have moon-skins and hearts that beat to the rhythm of the sea. I have heard the seals singing – a far-off mournful sound – sometimes said to be the cries of drowned sailors.


On shore, walls, or henges, made of loosely fitting granite boulders, divide the land into small field-strips. The spaces between the rocks allow the wind to dissipate, sheltering the fragile early daffodils, Arum lilies or, later in the season, purple-stemmed Belladonna. On St Martin’s you can sense the contrast between the solidity of stone and the shifting of light as you sit with your back to one of these granite walls. The spaces between the stones are for sea and sky, for air and breath as you lean until the shapes fit you, feeling the warmth of the stored sun seeping into your bones. My shoulders know the press of this granite wall, even bone yields to these shapes till I am no more than lichen moulded between air and stone, breathing in the honey-scent of gorse.


On the quartz-white sand of the beaches, nuggets of granite lie amongst the shells, crusted with salt. Some are a perfect fit for your palm – knobbly white with threads of black or grey and granular with sparks of mica, shell-pink streaked with saffron, faceted umber with smudges of sienna the colour of dried blood – the surfaces are rough, the sea cannot smooth them. Looking carefully, each stone seems composed of seeds or beads of white, black and pink, fused by flakes of silver, forming pebbles, chunks, boulders, great rocks – whole islands. People, instinctively, build towers of granite boulders on the edge of the sea, balancing them on top of each other, watching as the tide comes in, to see how long it takes for the waves to dismantle them.  They are like monuments or cairns – something human beings have been compelled to create, ever since the beginning of time.


Houses are built of granite slabs hewn from the land; the buildings grow from the ground, listing in the direction where the form of the rock has shaped the design. The sun warms the outside, but inside its chill is like a cave, the only heat coming from the granite hearth whose chimney supports the house. Only chimneys and hearths remain in the ancient ruins on Chapel Down, St Martin’s, and the abandoned island of Samson. These solitary chimney stacks stand like monoliths in the heather, grounded in the remains of charred hearths, stones in disarray lying among those naturally grown. On the trodden paths, where the sparse grass is worn away by passing feet, stone shows through – a reminder of our own impermanence.


I wonder if the farmhouse where I sleep registers who lives within its granite walls. Do spirits ebb and flow like specks of mica, their presence dependent on tide, sun and moon? The house waits, absorbing the life within, till the stone walls seem to have a memory and even an influence on the inhabitants. One day I was in the house alone. At first, silence. Then I heard the house settling – creaks, the high-pitched tune of wind against glass, random footsteps, then a regular thump and flow like someone ironing, soft sighing, an occasional snore as the house breathed and flexed, despite its solidity. The walls are hung with memories, the dark kitchen cobwebbed with life, past and present. Outside a ragged red towel hangs from an open window, stirring in the wind – the only colour against a monochrome of granite, slate and stone-grey sky.


The roads are made from granite pebbles, sand and shells, crushed to form a single track winding from one end of the island to the other. When the moon is full, flecks of mica glitter, showing you the way. Old quays are repaired with cement made from beach sand, cracks between the rocks seamed with a decorative mix of broken shells and sparkling quartz. Paths are hummocky lumps of granite set in cement, the gaps filled with pink scallop shells and colourful beach-glass. Tonight the moon is huge and pink, hovering over Signal Rock like a giant pebble, splintered with silver and marked with shadowy features – open-mouthed, as she gazes down at her light flooding the island. We gaze back in awe like primitive beings, perched on our rocky outcrop surrounded by a silver sea.


At the edges of the water, the sea laps over the shoreline creating a percussion from the knocking of granite pebbles and the rhythmic pulse of the waves. Popplestone beach on Bryher is named after the music created by the sea over the pebbles. The ocean here is clear green/blue with a patina of turquoise like old glass. The shoreline is bordered with waves of deep blue Agapanthus, mirroring the colour of the sea as it washes over white sandbanks. A salt-breeze comes off the Atlantic, cooling the hottest of days. In rough weather the rollers break over the granite rocks, throwing spray high in the air, mingling with the seagulls overhead. The storm-force winds drive people indoors. Oystercatchers flit between the boulders on the beach, red legs and beaks a startling contrast to their black and white feathers. Their plaintive cries underpin each dawn and dusk. Turnstones, well-camouflaged against the seaweed, flicker like an old film, sometimes clear, but mostly blurred. And here are people too, shaped by granite; those  born on Bryher are said to walk with a lop-sided gait from living on an island that slopes to the sea – generations invisibly tethered to the island’s core.




After graduating with an MA in Creative Writing  from Bath Spa University, Jennifer has been successful in many poetry and nature-writing competitions. She has had work published in various anthologies, including 100 Poems to Save the Earth (Seren). Follow her on instagram : @jennifer_hunt_artist.

The sketch at the head of this essay is by the author.




Share your thoughts

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.