To celebrate the publication of Where? Simon Moreton asked a group of writers and artists to contribute new work on the theme of Grief, Place, Landscape. Today, it’s the turn of Meriel Harrison.
In 2018, two months after my father’s death and one month after his funeral, in that strange time when we thought we were righting ourselves after being knocked sideways by grief, my mother drove us to the small seaside town of Clevedon, North Somerset. It was the first time in a long time that she had driven me anywhere, as the demands of my Dad’s illness had rendered them both increasingly housebound in the preceding years. We were going to Clevedon to meet up with some of my Dad’s family, and as we arrived his elderly aunt was being helped from the back of a car. Her smiling face was as a memory from my childhood, folded and reopened so many times so that the paper becomes worn and softened.
It was one of those October days when a convincing apparition of summer returns. From the seafront the marine lake, the sea and the sky stacked themselves in shades of shimmering blue. The sun hung low, the angle of the light making it all the more dazzling. Waiting staff buzzed around the busy picnic benches outside the pub, the coats on the customers a giveaway that this was not, in fact, August. We sat inside and ordered our lunch from sticky cardboard menus.
When the meal was over and the elderly aunt had been enfolded back inside the car and driven away, my mum and I walked along the seafront towards the pier. As we passed a sprawling retirement complex and a neat little painted bandstand, the salt-and-seaweed smell filled my lungs. Living close to the coast was new to me and the seaside still felt like a treat, bringing back vivid flashes of childhood holidays spent in west Wales: the thrill of being the one to spot the sea first from the car, hours spent poking through rockpools and wrack lines for blennies and seashells, small rough barnacles under bare feet, the warm wetness of the rocks.
On the sheltered beach beneath the promenade the sweep of stone and shingle gleamed as gulls strutted and called. The day was unusually still and the sun was warm enough that a child was playing naked, scrambling over the slipway. Sloppy 99s in the hands of people we passed advertised the presence of an ice cream van further along the seafront. As we approached the pier we paused to wait while a bride and her bridesmaids, exotic birds plumed and groomed with thick make up and sequins, emerged from a limousine to have their photographs taken. We bought our pier tickets from the little gift shop counter.
Even if you’ve never been to Clevedon, there’s a good chance that you’ve seen its pier. The elegant proportions of its iron supports stepping pair by pair into the Bristol Channel and the delicate trio of pretty pagodas on its pierhead give it an undeniable screen appeal that draws the location scouts. That BBC ident with the gaggle of rubber-hatted swimmers, up to their knees in flat grey sea? That’s Clevedon Pier behind them. Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield run headlong along its boardwalk in a poster for the film adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. In 2014 One Direction filmed a video for one of their singles on the pier, turning it into an unlikely pilgrimage site – a kind of Abbey Road for die-hard ‘Directioners’.
My father never went to Clevedon Pier, to the best of my knowledge and that of my mother, who spent over fifty years by his side and so knows these things better than I do. My Dad’s aunt and her family live in Weston-Super-Mare – Clevedon’s noisier, gaudier neighbour – so that was a regular destination for family visits and donkey rides as I was growing up. But by the time I moved to Somerset in my thirties and Clevedon became my nearest seaside, the neurodegenerative disease that my Dad had lived with for many years was gaining the upper hand, slowly and silently shutting down his body’s autonomic systems. Travel, even the ninety minutes from Herefordshire down to the M5, was no longer a possibility. I sent him pictures when we took our London-born eldest child, then less than two years old, to paddle in the sea for the first time. The long verdigris horizontal of Clevedon Pier is there in the background of the photos as we hold her back from hurtling at full speed into the breakers.
Like so many artefacts of the Victorian period, piers are testament both to the ingenuity of their engineers and the urge to civilise raw nature. But coastal waters are restless, full of impulse and resistance. Every pier exists in time borrowed from wave and tide, and since the twentieth century decline of the seaside resort they are threatened by the creeping forces of neglect as well. There is always a pier falling apart somewhere: earlier this year Walton Pier in Essex made headlines when a section of it was swallowed by the hungry sea. The website of the National Piers Society displays a map of forty lost piers around the British coast with photos showing them in the black-and-white days of their prime, the boardwalks and benches thronged with hat-wearing pleasure seekers taking the tonic of the sea air.
Clevedon Pier could easily have joined this list of the lost and the drowned. Fashions changed and footfall dwindled in the 1940s, while the need for repairs began to outpace the funds set aside. In the 1950s the installation of Clevedon’s first jukebox drew crowds of teenagers to dance to rock and roll records and play the slot machines, but by the ‘60s the decay was really setting in. In 1970, just over a century after its grand gala opening, two spans of the pier collapsed during load testing leaving the pierhead and its derelict dancehall as an isolated island in the muddy tidal waters. The pier was only rescued and repaired thanks to a sustained local campaign, culminating in a public inquiry to which Sir John Betjeman, then Poet Laureate, lent some star power – and an enduring marketing strapline – when he declared Clevedon to be ‘the most beautiful pier in England.’
What is it about piers that gives them such appeal? The long sun-bleached planks, beneath which the sea swells and falls, stretch their length out ahead and invite you to walk further on out, to an endpoint that you will discover but also already know. They are in-between places, not one thing or another, neither land nor sea nor air but a space borrowed and made from all of these elements. This is the significance of the Clevedon Pier scene in Never Let Me Go: in the film, the young characters have reached a point of revelation about their grim future, and the pier that initially seems to represent a dead end also becomes a space of temporary reprieve from the inevitability of what lies ahead. On this October day with my mother the pier was both a welcome distraction and a safe passage, a platform above unthinkably dark water, the boards coming up to meet our feet like the small kindnesses that carried me hand-to-hand through the surreal days of the funeral and beyond.
As we walked between the anglers and their kit-boxes stationed at intervals along the long benches, I told my Mum about the dream I had the night before. I hadn’t planned to tell her, but it rose in my chest until the words spilled out of my mouth. In the dream there was a party being held for my Dad and all of his family and friends were there. It was like his wake, but livelier, happier, because he had come back to join in. In the dream he wasn’t fully well – he sat in a chair watching the action – but he was not so ill as he had been in the last year either. The main impression that I recall of the dream, even now, is of a profound happiness suffusing him. My Mum was there by his side, and he stood up from the chair and put his arm around her, and they drew tight to one another in that deeply familiar way of long-bonded couples. It was at that point that I woke up, a tawny owl calling close by outside.
I cried a little as I told the dream, and she cried too, and by then we were approaching the end of the pier. It was then that we noticed the swimmers, probably because everyone else on the pier was watching them. There must have been eight or so, and they had set out from the concrete slipway in a group to swim a long loop around the pier. The day was so still and the sea so calm that the rhythmic smacks of their arms slicing the water carried as clear as a bell, creating an auditory hallucination whereby they seemed much closer than my eyes told me they were. One shouted a warning as another strayed towards the anglers’ lines. They were strong swimmers, and their broad bare backs stayed alongside us as we rounded the pierhead. By the time we had covered the return to the gift shop and were heading back to the car, they were towelling themselves on the beach.
One of the distinctive features of the pier at Clevedon is the collection of small brass plaques studded along its length, inscribed with dates and messages marking births, weddings, deaths and everything that happens in between. The plaques range over the walls, benches and deck so that it would scarcely be possible to walk slowly enough to read all the names, the freshly arrived rubbing shoulders with the long dead in a jumbled riot of commemoration. For those tasked with looking after the pier selling these plaques provides a vital channel of funding, so in a sense all these screws and inscriptions are quite literally holding the pier together.
In October 2020, as the second Covid lockdown skulked in the shadow of the near future, my Mum and I returned to Clevedon Pier with my youngest child, H. My pregnancy with her was one of the last things I was able to share with my Dad, the twelve week ultrasound scan falling on the same date that he was transferred to a hospice where a chest infection would turn a prognosis of weeks into days. That grainy, shadowy creature on the screen was now a confident, curious toddler, thrilled to be on an outing and shouting “seaside!” over and over into the blustering wind. We put our face masks on and stepped out onto the pier. This time it was divided by cheery pots of wind-bedraggled flowers placed in a long line up the middle, guiding us along a socially distanced one-way circuit.
What I hadn’t anticipated was that H would be afraid. From her small vantage point she could see through the cracks between the boards to the silty water moving beneath, and she decided this was not a structure to be trusted. She flatly refused to put her feet down and walk, so I had to hoist her onto my hip and carry her the full length of the pier as she clung to me and fussed. We tried – in vain – to bribe her back into good humour with a biscuit in the shelter of the pierhead café, while we warmed ourselves with tea in paper cups.
It was almost a year since I had ordered the plaque: by the time an email arrived to tell me it was fixed into place, seaside visits were definitely not essential travel. This trip was our first chance to see it, and it took a fair amount of searching and precise counting of planks to find the little scrap of brass, a few inches long and already weathered enough to blend with its neighbours. It is the smallest act of memorialisation, making someone who is no longer here part of a place where he never was. It says simply ‘Alison & Peter’, because I also wanted it to be a celebration of their connection, their enduring love, which lives with her now and so travels to every place she goes. It is an expression of how we miss him, a summoning that brings him to this place with those of us who are still living and makes him part of the memories we are still building, plank by plank, year by year. I wonder how long it will last.
Meriel Harrison is from Herefordshire and now lives in the North Somerset Moors, between the Mendip Hills and the coastal Levels. She works in environmental policy and writes as an antidote, with an interest in the meeting points between people, place and language.
Follow her on twitter.
Photograph by the author.
Where? by Simon Moreton is out now. A memoir that combines prose, illustration, photos, archival texts, and more, Where? weaves a story that slips and slides in time and geography, creating connections across geographies, histories, families, times, and circumstance.
Where? is available from the Little Toller website, and from bookshops everywhere, including Little Toller’s own, in Beaminster, Dorset.