• Caro Fentiman

Sugar Sands

A bonfire is burning. Flecks of ash are floating on the breeze like pages torn from a book. When we lived in Devon, my dad used to build bonfires at the bottom of the garden next to the chicken run. My brother and I would hide in a gap between the garage and the hedge and watch as dad stood topless in his denim shorts and conjured flames into the air. Spirals of grey smoke blew across the village, annoying the neighbours. The chickens were unbothered by it all - they would squeeze through the brambles into the field next door and lay eggs in tussocks of grass: tiny treasures for small fingers to find.

The fire today at Low Steads Farm is untended, a lonely pile of smoking wood in the middle of a field. Across the lane, curlews are congregating on the grass, all curved beaks and swooping trills. We are spoilt for curlews in coastal Northumberland, but they are still a treat. In Weardale, where my parents live now, you have to walk far up into the hills towards Teesdale to find one. And then they will skip and call just ahead of you, delighted to share their wilderness. Curlews are always bigger than I expect, their bodies sturdy in flight, in contrast to their delicate beaks.

Today we have driven to Sugar Sands, a sheltered bay between Howick and Boulmer. To reach the beach you must drive down a long lane, opening and shutting gates as you go, avoiding skittish collies who bark at your tyres.

I park the car on a stretch of grass next to the dunes. Earl Grey’s Bath House is standing to the north, surveying the rock pool below, where the girls swim in warm weather. Today it is mild for November, but there is still a chill in the air. Throwing blankets on the grass I make a nest where we can be cosy. I wrap Betty in the old pink blanket from Oxfam. It’s bobbly from years of use but so soft, and it hugs her tight.

Glancing down at the beach I can see a couple of families peering into rock pools, coloured jackets breaking up the sprawl of brown seaweed. Behind me, on the coastal path, a couple walk hand in hand, enjoying the afternoon sun. The woman is on her phone, casual and relaxed. I wonder if she knows how good she has it, this woman who has a hand to hold and salty lips to kiss.

A sense of aloneness is never far away. Distinct from loneliness, but a sort of vulnerability nonetheless. I consider how deep I dig each day, facing the world alone, and the weight of my responsibilities. Scratching the nib of my pen onto the page is an act of reflection and there is the always the danger I might fall too far as I gaze into the mirror.

Eyes to the sky, and I count fifteen geese in an arrow, buffeted by the wind. Mabel once asked me how the geese knew who should be the leader. Funny to imagine the birds negotiating positions above my head as the sun catches the pale undersides of their wings.

You think the colours will be more muted once the autumn leaves have fallen, and it’s true that the rocks are swathed in seaweed, the skeleton trees stand stark against the sky. But then you notice the white at the peak of a wave, shining trails tearing through a cyan sky, reeds of grass glinting in the low winter sun. And in the distance, the russet tones of a beech hedge bordering the Howick estate as it rolls down to the sea.

Swirls of cirrus explode high above the sea as the wind blows shadows across the rippling water. Beyond the sandy beach, a flock of redshanks rise in a cloud from the rocks and swoop inland towards the farm, bonfire embers glowing in the grass.

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